Mathews knows what Alabama needs

Published 3:06 am Saturday, September 3, 2016


The old car headed south out of Montgomery on a familiar route down I-65. Thirty minutes to Ft. Deposit, 45 minutes to Greenville, 60 minutes to Georgiana, 75 minutes to Evergreen. Then right on U.S. 84, which begins on the Georgia coast and ends in west Texas.

Through Belleville and Repton. By the turn for Excel, through Ollie, Perdue Hill and Whatley and to the parking lot of a small restaurant in Grove Hill to have lunch with David Mathews and his wife Mary.

The same David Mathews who became president of the University of Alabama in 1969 at the age of 33. The same one President Ford picked to head the department of Health, Education and Welfare. The same one who has been president of the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, OH for more than 30 years. The same one who, though gone from his boyhood home of Grove Hill for decades, still calls it home.

And the same man I have long thought as the personification of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Tall, thoughtful, statesman like, courteous, gentlemanly. Always wearing a smile and possessing a manner that today seems too uncommon. I really don’t recall when I first met David, or how long ago it was. But I do know that when you meet him, you instantly like him and realize you are in the presence of an uncommon man.

This August day we talked about a number of things and definitely public education because this has been one of his passions his entire life. He’s written books about it, researched it and given it long and hard thought. Considering that both his father and grandfather were superintendents of education for Clarke County, this interest is understandable.

David’s book, Is There a Public for Public Schools? should be required reading for anyone who is part of the education process. Based on a decade of Kettering research, it explores the very critical idea of the interaction between a community and its schools.

The book makes the very salient point (and one I believe wholeheartedly) that good schools are as much about community development as they are about education. That over time the relationships between our communities and our schools have become fractured leaving a void that too many fail to see or understand.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

School reform may need to be recast as community building.

It is also unlikely that schools will change unless communities change.

Reforms have to start in and with the community if they are ever to move into the classroom. One experienced principal made the same point when he testified, “I learned that you can’t do school reform inside the school.”

America was founded to write a new chapter in human history–to create a “new secular order,” an aspiration so fundamental that we stamped it on our most common currency, the one-dollar bill. Public schools were to be the agents of that aspiration, completing “the great work of the American Revolution.”

People built the schools, controlled them through local trustees–not county school boards–and selected and housed their teachers. The community and the school were, in many ways, one.

We need to talk about education and our community together, so that we can see what we really want out of education.

Too often, educators talk primarily to educators.

The only way communities can become stronger is by harnessing the sum of everyone’s capacities.

The only way for the community to be a better place to live is for the people of the community to understand and accept their personal responsibility for what happens.

As I headed home I thought about all the gnashing and flailing about the decision of our state school board to hire some mythical savant from a far and distant land to come magically sprinkle pixie dust and solve our problems for us. Problems only the people of this state can solve.

It is one of our native sons who has a better grasp of what we need than probably anyone else. His name is David Mathews and you can find him in Dayton, OH.


Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a longtime advocate for public education.