Our View: Rethinking the value of education
Listeners at the United Nations sat transfixed as they listened to the words of Malala Yousafzai Friday. She is the Pakistani teenager who survived an assassination attempt in her home country last year, targeted for death because of her belief that girls have the right to an education.

As a seventh grader she began contributing writings for a BBC blog — under a pseudonym, for her protection — about life under the Taliban in the country’s Swat Valley. Her identity was revealed, eventually leading to the attack in October when she was shot in the head.

She is not alone. The Taliban put a bomb on a bus carrying 40 girls to school, which killed 14 of them. Teachers and policemen are also frequent targets of their violence, and Yousafzai once blogged about a school near her home that was destroyed even though it was already closed.

Just over a week ago, a group called Boko Haram was accused of murdering 40 children and teachers in northern Nigeria. They set fire to buildings at the school and shot people as they tried to escape. This is just the latest incident of senseless violence carried out or inspired by that group in that part of the world. Incidentally, Boko Haram roughly translated, means, “Western education is a sin.”

UNESCO released a report on the day of Yousafzai’s speech naming 40 conflict-affected countries where children’s education is threatened. The agency plans a push later this year to provide an education for the estimated 56 million children who are being deprived or threatened now.

Her fearless determination as she spoke Friday was inspirational.

Yousafzai became a symbol of that movement as she spoke of the battle for the right to an education on her 16th birthday.

“I am here to speak up for the right of education of every child,” she said. “Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution.”

It almost seems we are living in different worlds. A militant voice fighting for the right to go to school is so far removed from our culture, it hardly seems real.

Yet, Yousafzai’s words are inspiring, and it’s a message we hope can cut through cultural differences to improve the perception of the value of education for Americans. Her words can help more of us realize that education is something to be desired, something worth working for, even something worth risking one’s life to attain, if necessary.

Perhaps it’s human nature to desire what is being held back from you, and to devalue what is available at no cost.

No one is challenging our right to an education; therefore, we don’t perceive its value.

In the United States, according to figures in the recently released Kids Count report, 22 percent of high school students did not graduate on time. Two thirds of the nation’s eighth graders were not proficient in math. Two thirds of the nation’s fourth graders were not proficient in reading. In Alabama, the numbers were even worse, especially in math proficiency, where 80 percent of the state’s eighth graders fell short of the mark.

According to 2010 Census figures, almost one in five Alabamians 25 or older lack even a high school education.

We wish the United Nations well with efforts to bring education to the millions of children who don’t have that opportunity now. But we hope we’ll be hearing more from this 16-year-old survivor in our country, too.

We take too much for granted here. Too many of us lack the passion and the urgency to grasp the opportunities to improve ourselves and move forward in life.

We’re not battling the Taliban or Boko Haram in efforts to help America’s children get an education. Our fight seems to be against self-perpetuating ignorance and complacency.

Yousafzai’s courage and determination won’t be enough to conquer all of those obstacles, but they can certainly give us something to think about.

© 2013