By Jeff Keeling
An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. – Benjamin Franklin
Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom. – George Washington Carver
I generally enjoy talking with farmers. They tend to be a practical, sensible, tolerant lot, perhaps owing to their having to accept things beyond their control more than most of us do. In other words, generally speaking, farmers tend to exhibit several qualities that far too often are sorely lacking in our political process.
A couple of weeks ago, Bowmantown farmer Jeff Aiken and I talked about issues important to the Tennessee Farm Bureau. The conversation followed Aiken’s election as president of the organization, which came three years after he had first been elected as its vice president.
One issue on which the Farm Bureau has staked out a position particularly piqued my interest. Aiken said the group supports a proposition making undocumented Tennessee students eligible for in-state college tuition. Last year, the Tennessee Senate passed a measure that would have made the state the 19th nationwide to allow in-state tuition for undocumented students who meet specific requirements. When it reached the House, the measure fell one vote short of passage.
The Farm Bureau supports such a bill, Aiken said, “ primarily because we believe that a good education cures a lot of social ills.” Anybody who wants an education, he added, should be able to get one as far as the Farm Bureau is concerned.
That makes sense. Yet if you think about it from a short-term, narrowly self-interested perspective, Tennessee farmers could be among those least interested in such a change. They have come to rely, more and more, on migrant labor to keep their farms operating. A youngster whose tuition rate has just become more affordable – and by the way, these students still wouldn’t qualify for any state or federal financial aid – is less likely to work on a farm.
That type of attitude was pervasive when slavery was legal in this country. The prospect of literate, educated African-Americans struck fear in the hearts of many, who were concerned that literate slaves would convince others to revolt. Laws were passed in the mid-1700s, in South Carolina, for instance, prohibiting anyone from teaching a slave to read or write. (Counterpoints to this did exist, with some groups in the South exhibiting some tolerance for slave education.)
A few weeks ago, my 94-year-old grandfather told me that he was friends with an African-American neighbor, Gordon McHenry, when they were growing up in Spokane in the 1930s. McHenry, grandpa said, graduated with him from North Central High School and went on to Gonzaga University before embarking on a highly successful career with Boeing.
I looked up the late McHenry on Google last week. His 2001 obituary reported that his parents moved to Spokane from Tyler, Texas in 1927, “seeking better employment opportunities for themselves and educational opportunities for their children.”
McHenry earned an electrical engineering degree, with honors, at Gonzaga. He was the first of his family to graduate from college, and was one of just a handful of black college graduates in the Northwest during World War II. In addition to being a member of several engineering management teams at Boeing – where in 1943 he was the first African-American engineer hired, Boeing unions having previously hindered the hiring of black engineers – McHenry was a pillar of the Seattle community for more than 50 years.
Tennessee surely is home to some modern-day Gordon McHenrys in the form of children of migrants. For those who aren’t citizens, passage of a bill like the one that failed last year could allow them to afford a college education when they couldn’t before.
Last legislative session, Nashville Republican Senator Steve Dickerson said, according to The Tennessean, “A lot of times I sit around and think why am I in the state Senate? The reason I am here is to expand the American dream … the number one road to the American dream is education.”
A colleague of Dickerson’s who led the effort, Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire, reportedly said the bill would have a positive economic impact, helping both students and the economy.
Both senators are right. Not only would college graduates helped by such a law contribute more effectively to Tennessee’s economy and tax base than they otherwise might have – they’d also very likely develop a strong sense of loyalty and gratitude to the state and country that provided them opportunity.
Understandable but largely irrational fears surrounding immigration and security have increased within the past year. I hope they don’t spill over into any debate surrounding a bill that is economically sound and represents the best of what America is about. I hope the politicians listen to the farmers on this one.