Nan Austin

Modesto schools retiree Enochs skewered society’s ills in stab at promoting libraries, literacy

While focusing on all the mind-boggling innovation happening in school technology for the Eye on Education section coming out in September, a decidedly old-school view of being well-educated caught my attention. Consider this an ode to ink and dead trees.

A piece on teacher training brought comments from retiree Jim Enochs, the 21-year superintendent of Modesto City Schools whose name graces that northeast Modesto high school. Enochs, at 80, spends much of his time enjoying his 15,000-volume library. Abe Lincoln and Winston Churchill are favorites in his collection, which leans heavily toward works of history and philosophy.

School libraries are much on his mind, of late, as schools shift their focus to digital troves of literature and knowledge. Here is some straight talk that will resonate with a lot of folks from a speech he gave to a Rotary gathering in 1996.

“If we are serious about the quality of our schools and the nation’s future,” Enochs told the crowd, “then we must answer this question: What are we to make of a society that expects rigorous standards of culture and learning in its schools which are nowhere to be found in the practices and behavior of the society itself?”

As adults fail to follow the ideals they hold for children, he writes, kids will naturally ignore their advice and follow their practice.

“They know what we have taught them: There is nothing in Homer, in the Bible, in Shakespeare that will benefit their climb to the top of our competitive society. In fact, why read at all? Forty-four percent of U.S. adults do not read a single book in the course of a year,” he said.

Tax dollars that once went to libraries now build new stadiums, he said, upbraiding parents who make malls and sporting events a regular outing but have yet to help their kids check out a book.

We urge children to read serious literature, he says, “not like those (books) on the N.Y. Times nonfiction national best-seller list. You know: books on cats, near-death experiences, astrology, dieting, and pop-psychology self-help, like the Eight Habits of Effective People – one of which apparently is not reading serious books.”

The younger Enochs eviscerates television programming, which in 1996 consumed about 5,000 hours of a child’s life by the time he entered kindergarten.

“(Young watchers) are drenched in mindless violence, casual vulgarity replete with references to all the biological functions, smart-mouthed back-talk and an in-your-face lack of civility, an indifference to or outright defiance of authority, dopey soap operas, talk-show freaks, and the greatest accumulation of show-boating, greedy, poor-sport athletes the society has ever known.

“So after 15,000 hours of this stuff, most of it watched in a prone position while the dishes remain unwashed, the lawn uncut and their room unfit for human habitation, their parents come up to me and ask why the schools aren’t teaching the work ethic,” he opines.

Professional sports gets a taking down – “The tone of our games is increasingly set by rich brats” – as well as parents who assume their child is on track for a contract, if only the right coach would give their young star their due.

We in the news industry get a comeuppance as well: “For me, one of the most unnerving aspects of the media is not their inability to separate the chaff from the wheat, but to act as if they believe we need more chaff,” he writes.

He lists testimony by executives of tobacco companies and banks alongside televangelist preachers as examples of commonplace hypocrisy. “Too many Americans neither mean what they say nor say what they mean, and it is all reflected back at us by our children with embarrassing force.”

He ties it all together with a 70-year study, published by a Stanford University professor, laying out what characterized the lives of successful children. Key points were strong father figures, educated parents and, Enochs repeats for good measure, a home with at least 500 books.