On Learning, and Loss

Illustration: Ben Steele

Is there anything more heartbreaking than the wasted potential of a young person? 

In a country as rich as the United States, isn’t it kind of nuts that there are still such vast inequities in education?

Those two questions are about all one needs to understand why Sean Reardon’s research has caused such a stir. Reardon, a researcher from the Graduate School of Education, has become the nation’s leading figure in crunching data to extract insights about educational achievement. 

One of his most startling findings is that the achievement gap between the richest and poorest school districts in the United States now stands at four grade levels. Moreover, these disparities are almost universally predicated on the level of funding in a school district. He plotted test scores from more than 11,000 districts, and the results were despairingly consistent: Well-resourced districts performed highest, poorest districts performed the poorest. The reality could not be more stark—money matters, much more than previous studies indicated.

You can read Sam Scott’s story about Reardon’s work here, and the motivation that led to it.

Also in this issue, you will find Scott’s extraordinary tale about a World War II prisoner of war whose secret journal about his experience became the source, several decades later, of an unlikely reconnection with the daughters who barely knew him.

Lt. James Robb graduated from Stanford in 1931 and went directly across campus to attend graduate school, earning his law degree in 1934. Fast-forward to 1942, and he is in the midst of a hellish ordeal, a forced 66-mile trudge in the oppressive heat of the Philippines, with no water or food, surrounded by diseased men and tormented daily by his captors. We know it now as the Bataan Death March. And that was only the beginning of his nightmare. For the next two years, he suffered the horrific conditions of a Japanese prisoner of war camp, denied food, medicine and even the most basic human dignities. By the time he emerged from the camp, he had done more than survive—he left a record of what he had seen, hundreds of pages of a would-be book that was buried in a canister in the ground. 

More than 50 years later, his daughters learned, quite by accident, about their father’s journal and chased it down. You can imagine the impact of such a find. Reaching out from his watery grave somewhere in the Pacific, where he succumbed on a Japanese transport just days before his camp was to be liberated, there was their father, alive on the page. 

In this month when we commemorate Veterans Day, it might be worth reminding ourselves of the real stories behind the remembrances; to make specific and particular what might otherwise seem generic and faceless. The death of a soldier is a profoundly painful and profoundly personal reality for those who knew him or her. And the passage of time never really changes that.

For James Robb, and for his long-grieving daughters, war was a very particular kind of hell. And in the end, a very particular kind of peace.

Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford.

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