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Education Will Break Your Heart

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The best and most important commencement speech of the year was given by author Jonathan Franzen, not Conan O'Brian or Stephen Colbert. Franzen's remarks at Kenyon College in Ohio were witty and smart like those of Conan and Colbert, but they were also much more intensely personal and human -- and more powerful as a result. Even more importantly, they contained a message of great importance for educators and school reformers about how to tolerate such a daunting, heartbreaking endeavor.

In his speech, which the New York Times thought good enough to publish as an op-ed, Franzen delves into a key but usually unexamined issue around us: the psychological challenges of caring deeply about an issue that may or may not seem interesting or relevant or fixable to the rest of the world, and that may (probably) break our hearts. In Franzen's case, the issue is the environment -- trees and grass and clouds and all that. For many of us, the issue is education.

As Franzen tells the story, he was drawn to environmental issues from the start, but he quickly found that being an environmentalist was frustrating and uncool and seemed hopeless. So he spent many years trying to avoid thinking too much about it. He went off and did a lot of other things ("The Corrections," "Freedom") and generally tried to avoid getting overly involved in environmental issues. It was too much, and generally going so badly. But Franzen could only not care for so long, especially as he became more and more fascinated with the lives of wild birds. The birds became a point of entry for his return to environmentalism, an opportunity for him to move beyond his need to be cool (the world of "like") and his fear that saving nature was a hopeless task.

People often ask me how they can stand working on education issues. "It's so depressing," they tell me. "Nothing ever seems to work." Reading through Franzen's remarks helped me understand a bit more about my own on-again, off-again fascination with public education, the cynical and silly ways I sometimes write about school reform, and -- even more importantly -- the struggle so many of my friends and loved ones (and the general public) have talking about education. The topic is so conflictual, so overwhelming, so depressing and (still) not particularly cool. Most of the time it devolves into a simplistic discussion of news headlines or individual experiences. As a result I generally don't bring education up outside work hours. Or maybe I just need a break.

But it occurs to me -- just a few moments left before my cynicism and self-preserving defensiveness prevent me from continuing along these lines -- that admitting to the difficulties of loving education might be part of the solution, might make working on improving education more bearable in the long run. And maybe if we can find small but powerful points of access for ourselves and others -- the local school, school lunches, a mentoring program -- then we'll have a lot more allies and a lot less shrugged shoulders.

The importance of small, focused programs that are accessible to a much broader range of people and whose progress can be measured with some chance of success isn't a new thought for many of you, I'm sure, but sort of a new one for me and others of my ilk, who constantly wag our fingers at programs (TFA, DonorsChoose, Harlem Children's Zone, Big Brothers & Sisters) whose scope is obviously too small and narrow to make a difference on the aggregate level.

Most of all, Franzen captures the challenges of caring deeply about something, about loving something outside yourself. Doing so will likely break your heart but is still somehow worth it.

Russo is the author of "Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors," the story of a small group of educators' unlikely effort to rescue a broken South Central Los Angeles high school.