Suppose that you are one of five owners of a professional football team, which has just come off a losing season. You and the other disgruntled owners have gathered at a conference table to discuss plans for the next year. The five of you toss around ideas for improvement—a bigger stadium, new uniforms, more strategic game plans, better coaches, more coaches, different pre-game specials, more enthusiastic cheerleaders. Inexplicably, neither you nor the other owners ever blame the players for the losing season. No one holds them accountable, criticizes their devotion to the game, or makes them individually responsible for their level of play. The players never enter the picture.

Would you count on a winning team coming out of such a discussion?

This ludicrous situation is analogous to the intense debate that is repeated every fall across our country, arriving with the “back to school” specials in the newspapers. The topic of this debate is the condition of our public schools; the conference table is the news media; the participants are politicians, administrators, teachers, parents, and news reporters. Year after year, the litany of lamentations around this table is the same. If only we had new school buildings. If only we had more computers. If only we had better books. If only we had better teachers or more teachers. If only we paid our teachers more. If only we had some or all of these things, the argument goes, then our crisis in education would end.

What is not publicly addressed, what those at the conference table ignore, is the notion that upper-level students—the actual players in the game —should be held accountable for their education.

For the past year, I have taught Latin at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, North Carolina. My previous experience in teaching included a year as a college instructor, several years as an instructor in adult basic education at a nearby prison, and ten years homeschooling my own children as well as tutoring other homeschooling students. Teaching high school offered a new challenge, the chance to discover if I was up to the mark in that regard. Having heard, like all Americans, about disrespect and violence in the schools, I was also somewhat apprehensive about teaching, but I was certain that my enthusiasm for Roman history and Latin would prove infectious.

As the year progressed, I quickly discovered that my apprehensions were misplaced. My students were bright and likable; my biggest discipline problem was talking in class. But what did distress me was an attitude common to nearly all my students, an attitude that, for lack of a better term, I can only describe as “deep apathy,” an apathy that went to the bone. Throughout the year, I rarely saw real enthusiasm for Latin or for any other academic subject. “Boring” was a word I heard a hundred times a day. “This sucks”—applied to everything having to do with school, Latin, lunch, gym class was the favorite expression of even my best students.

In my war against this apathy, I did win some skirmishes. My students memorized Latin dicta designed to inspire the spirit, maxims such as Excelsior! (“Higher!”—which I made sure my students understood was New York’s state motto, rather than a reference to drugs or alcohol) or Ad astra per aspera (“To the stars through difficulties,” referring, of course, to heavenly, rather than Hollywood, bodies). Frequently, when informed by my students that they were bored or that school sucked, I reminded them that they were sitting in a pleasant classroom, reading books and taking notes, whereas many of their contemporaries around the world spent their daylight hours working in a rice paddy up to their knees in water buffalo waste. One student—a vivacious and outspoken young lady—who told me that Latin was boring seemed taken aback when I replied that her boredom was her problem, that given the limitations of time and the demands of the school system, I was doing my best to get some Latin into her head. Judging by the expression on her face, I’m not sure that the thought had ever before occurred to this student that the world did not exist solely for her entertainment.

In November, I gave my first-year classes a ten-minute lecture titled “This sucks,” explaining initially that these words once had a definite sexual meaning. When they protested—”Oh, no, Mr. Minick, we don’t use it like that”— my students gave me the opening I wanted. I told them that the original meaning was at least preferable to their own usage, which seemed so filled with contempt and secondhand cynicism. Using “this sucks” as their guiding light, I explained, they were going through high school as if wearing a ball and chain on one foot.

This attitude of deep indifference clearly affected performance. For many of these students, a 50-minute class devoted to real drill, study, and learning seemed beyond their capability. Most of my students wanted an A or B, so long as they didn’t have do any work to earn it; some seemed to feel that their teachers could somehow tip them over and pour knowledge into their ears. Each day—literally—there were students who asked if we could watch a video instead of studying, who asked if we could build models of the Coliseum, who asked if the class could go outside or to the library, who asked if they could “work with” their neighbor on the lesson. Reflecting this disinterest in school was an inability to complete homework assignments, to spend a few minutes in the evening with the lesson. Waynesville is a small town in the Smoky Mountains, and often students whom I had seen working in the grocery stores, playing soccer, or riding skateboards were the very ones who would tell me the following day in class that they didn’t have time to do their homework.

This past year, Harold Stevenson, a psychologist from the University of Michigan, completed a study of American and East Asian students, including Chinese and Japanese. When asked, “What is the most important thing you can do to improve your academic achievement?” the Asians overwhelmingly thought that hard work was the key to success. On the other hand, students and parents from the United States rated the quality of teaching as the most important factor in learning. Stevenson also found that Westerners, especially Americans, were satisfied with their children’s progress, whereas Orientals reported high levels of dissatisfaction. Speaking before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Stevenson stated that “the East Asian students assumed responsibility for their own progress while the rest let others take responsibility for their performance.”

Doubtless there are numerous factors which have helped foster this lack of personal initiative in some of our teenagers. Television, used like a drug in so many households, encourages a lazy, non-engaged learning style. Our obsession with leisure and sport rather than with learning and hard work sets a poor example for our young people. Our need to blame our mistakes on others—the abundance of lawsuits in the United States is the most glaring example of this tendency—likewise gives our young people the idea that they can blame others when they fail. Our nation’s 20-year love affair with a false concept of self-esteem—trophies all around, “I Am Special” church programs, the ridiculous doting of parents—has lowered standards. Finally, our school systems, by creating the idea that “we will educate your children,” must also bear some fault for the educational passivity of our teenagers.

But these relatively new variables in the education equation, creations of the last 30 years, are obstacles to be overcome, not to be used as excuses. Among the old people who live in my town, there is an expression — “get yourself an education.” Those few students today who take responsibility for their schooling, who work hard, who are aggressive in their learning, deserve our applause. To the great bulk of students who are coasting through school or still waiting for a miracle from the system, I would say: It’s time to wake up. It’s time to “get real.” It’s time to stop working until ten every evening to pay for a car and use your evenings instead for your studies. It’s time to give to learning the same effort you give to basketball or television. It’s time to apply yourself, preferably to the nearest chair, crack open a book, and begin that great adventure which is not your right but your privilege.

It’s time, in short, to get yourself an education.