Editorial: Truancy: What would Edison do?

We wonder if the young Thomas Alva Edison, called “addled” by his first despairing teacher, would have been arrested under San Francisco’s newest crackdown on truancy. It’s not an entirely fanciful question.

America’s most iconic inventor, Edison, beheld a continent, said “Let there be light,” and so there was — electrical light, that is, and phonograph recordings and a host of other inventions that led to technology without which today’s public school teachers would be helpless. He was an uncommon man back when uncommon men were celebrated, not leveled into adaptive, manipulable citizens.

Edison experienced only three months of formal schooling. His first teacher, a clergyman, turned him back to his mother, who provided some home schooling. But the lad found it more edifying to board the regular run of an Ohio passenger train, selling newspapers and sweets. Later he apprenticed to a telegrapher and, still later, started inventing stuff.

An extraordinary man, this Edison, not to be confused with any one of the 2,604 youths said to be absent from The City’s schools on any given weekday. Right? Those youths, according to Mayor Gavin Newsom, District Attorney Kamala Harris and acting school Superintendent Gwen Chan, constitute serious criminal risks. Worse than that: Over the past four years 94 percent of murder victims were under 25 — and high school dropouts.

So, our nostalgia for the simpler Edison era aside, we’re faced with a deadly problem. The three officials cannot be faulted for targeting it, especially when crime has begun to return to the top of The City’s political issues. Still, it’s imperative that truancy be understood as more than a crime issue. When kids flee their classrooms in such numbers there may be something wrong with the compulsory system as we know it.

If you look at the numbers as, say, an Edison might, you see an overwhelming percentage of youngsters who are not even close to the netherworld of homicide. We’re not sure what they’re doing. Some may be engaged in gang mischief, others developing hand-eye coordination by playing video games. Surely they seek stimulation, both mental and physical, not always found in dull classrooms.

An Edisonian analysis, too, would note how truants, according to a state formula, jeopardize the public schools’ funding. More attendance, never mind the quality of learning, means more taxpayers’ dollars keeping the system afloat. It’s disingenuous, then, to say truancy is all about crime.

It’s about life lived freely. A constructive revisiting of child labor and minimum wage laws, so that some restless youths can take leave and learn by working in business, could contribute to the life of The City.

Is there an Edison or two among those 2,604 daily truants? We owe it to ourselves to find out.

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