Everything We Say, Do is a Lesson

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," July 20, 1999, p. 13A

We all have stories of teachers who influenced our lives.

My U-High social studies teacher, Dr. John Haefner, probably had as much influence as anyone did in sending me into a life of government, law, and public service.

But it was Iowa City’s police chief, Ollie White, who gave me old “wanted” posters and started me writing my first “book” on how to classify fingerprints.

It was UI photographer Fred Kent who showed me how to make a pinhole camera.

And although I’ve forgotten the owner’s name, I’ll never forget walking into his record store on Dubuque Street in the 1940s.  I wanted to buy a 78-rpm phonograph record of a currently popular song.

The owner talked me out of it.

“You’re just wasting your money,” he said.  “Six weeks from now you will have forgotten all about it.”

I saved my money, remembered that lesson and, not incidentally, later provided him many times the profit he lost on that transaction.

My point is not that we should turn the schools over to the Chamber of Commerce.  Although Iowa City businesses generously help our schools in a variety of ways.

My point is that we all have dozens of daily opportunities to be educators. And we all remain students.

We’re living together in a “learning community.”

It is a way of looking at Iowa City (a “new paradigm”) that can substantially enhance Iowa City’s competitive advantage in this global information age.

The concept of a learning community is most often applied to smaller units than a city, or county:  “the learning organization” (or corporation), the faculty and students of an individual college.

You may be aware of “store-front schools,” “schools without walls,” and “service learning.”

I’m talking about a different concept.

But even those are only a small part of the idea.

Nor is this just about what we adults can teach our children.

It’s often what they can teach us – everything from how to surf the Internet to cultural trends.

Years ago, when I was working with the Aspen Design Conference, a young architect, Richard Saul Wurman, suggested a theme we adopted: “making the city visible.”

He proposed such obvious things as historical plaques and putting bus schedule information at bus stops.  But he had more innovative ideas in mind, too.

For example, when a bagel machine is behind a glass wall everyone who walks by and looks in learns something about how bagels are made.
My proposal is similar: that we begin looking at our city, and our lives, in terms of the information and education component of everything we do.

At the FCC I used to say, “All television is educational television.

"The only question is, what is it teaching?”

The average Iowa City child, by the time he or she enters kindergarten, has already spent more hours being educated by television than that child will later spend sitting in a classroom at the University of Iowa earning a B.A. degree.

How can we try to improve our schools without considering the mediated environments in which we increasingly spend our time?

Could fish improve their “schools” without giving any attention to the water in which they spend their time?

But we can’t get off the hook that easily.  We can’t just blame television.

When the mechanic lifts our car on a hoist and shows us what’s wrong, when a police officer has a truly friendly chat with a teenager, when a co-worker shows us a computer solution, it’s “education.”

Everything we say and do is an educational lesson.  Every time we interact with a child we are a teacher – or they are.

The only question is, what are we teaching each other?

Nicholas Johnson is a member of the Iowa City School Board.