Fighting for Our Classrooms, and for the Human Beings Inside Them
It seems as if the same battle is being fought in every aspect of American society. On one side are the forces of egalitarianism, economic opportunity and self-determination. On the other is a well-funded and entrenched elite bent on hijacking our media, our political process and our institutions for their selfish ends.
Sadly, the classrooms of this country haven’t been spared.
Means and Ends
The Wall Street crowd wants us to think of education in terms of means – which usually means finding ways to spend less – rather than ends. But when it comes to education, the “ends” are our children. And the means we choose for them, either consciously or through indifference, reveal who we really are as a people.
Perhaps that’s why a new ‘education declaration’ has attracted signatories as diverse as author Dave Eggers; Prof. Robert Reich; education reformer Diane Ravitch; Larry Groce, host of NPR’s Mountain Stage; economist Lawrence Mishel; Prof. Theda Skocpol; and a number of other prominent political, academic, cultural, religious, and educational leaders. (You can sign it too.)
A quick disclaimer: I’m affiliated with the Institute for America’s Future, one of the sponsors of this initiative. I wasn’t involved with its preparation, but I’ve wanted to write about primary and secondary education for a long time. I’ve held off, partly because the moral truths have been restated so many times that they’ve become clichés.
You know the clichés I mean: Nothing’s more important than our children. Kids come first. It takes a village. “I believe the children are our future/teach them well and let them lead the way …”
The real deficit.
When ideas become clichés, we stop listening. As soon as the song’s over we go back to watching politicians boast about who’ll do a better job reducing the deficit – by which they mean the deficit in federal spending, not the deficit in educational resources for our children.
That’s the real deficit, the one that matters, the one that will shape our future. Kids need those resources – not just to learn their ABCs and their 123s, but to help them become fully realized human beings and full participants in society.
Did you know that, according to the most recent Census Bureau report, the amount we spend per child on education just dropped for the first time in nearly forty years? “Teach them well and let them lead the way,” indeed.
A conscience is a tricky thing. It’s tough to live with yourself when you’re shortchanging our kids and our future, no matter how many times you play that old song. What you need is an infusion of “free market” voodoo to convince you – and others – that depriving children of educational resources is for their own good.
- Pretend that “budgets” are the real crisis – but never mention that corporations and the wealthy are paying less in taxes than ever before in modern history.
- Make scapegoats of innocent people to draw attention away from yourselves. For Social Security they’ve attacked “greedy geezers,” but it’s hard to come up with a catchy equivalent for kids. (“Insatiable imps”? “Avaricious anklebiters”?) So they vilify teachers instead.
- Sell a fantasy which says that the private sector can do more, with less money, than government can. (Never, never mention that private insurance provides far less healthcare than public insurance, at much higher cost. And don’t bring up the mess privatization’s made of prisons and other government services.)
- Find a name that doesn’t use words like “money-making.” How about “charter schools”?
- Describe yourselves as “reformers” – rather than, say, “demolishers.” That’s why “entitlement reform” is used as a euphemism for cutting Social Security and Medicare. (Michelle Rhee even called her autobiography “Radical.” Apparently “Shameless” was taken.)
- Employ the political and media elite’s fascination with (and poor understanding of) numbers. Suggest that “standardized” and “data-driven” programs will solve everything – without ever mentioning that the truly ideological decisions are made when you decide what it is you’re measuring.
- Co-opt the elite media into supporting your artificial description of the problem, as well as your entirely self-serving solution.
- Use your money to co-opt politicians from both parties so you can present your agenda as “bipartisan” – a word which means you can “buy” a few “partisans” from both sides.
It shouldn’t be surprising that all these attacks share a common playbook. The money’s coming from the same pockets, and for the same reasons: so they can keep their own taxes low – and make money from the privatization schemes.
A lot of well-intentioned people get taken in by cynical agendas like this, especially when the other side isn’t being heard. That’s where the “Declaration” comes in. It says that “Education is a public good.” A public good is something that is, or should be, available to all without exception, like clean air, drinkable water, and the national defense.
The Declaration also says education funding should be “equitable and sufficient.” No child should be deprived of educational opportunity because of race or income. The map shown below reveals how badly we’re breaking that promise and targeting budget cuts toward minority schools. The Declaration points a finger at this shameful outcome and says that minority children, like all other children, deserve an opportunity to learn.
The Declaration also says that “National responsibilities should complement local control,” which I would interpret as follows: Every state or county manages its schools. But as the nation learned in Birmingham and Little Rock, our civil rights are universal.
And the opportunity to learn is a civil right.
Standards, not standardized.
The Declaration doesn’t reject the idea of standards per se. But it does say, rightly, that they should be “diagnostic assessments that go beyond test-driven mandates and help teachers strengthen the classroom experience for each student.”
Instead, for 30 years we’ve been moving our educational system toward a goal of absolute standardization, a production-line process in which graduating students are uniform and interchangeable “outputs” to be produced at the lowest possible cost – each equipped with the optimum utility value for the corporations that will employ increasingly few of them.
But that’s not what education is for. Not in a free and democratic society.
The Declaration also observes that “an education agenda that imposes top-down standards and punitive high-stakes testing while ignoring the supports students need to thrive and achieve … (is) turning public schools into uncreative, joyless institutions.”
Joyless lives are for kids in Dickens novels or systematized Orwellian dystopias. They shouldn’t be the fate of today’s American children.
Beating the System
The corporate System – and it is a system - doesn’t want to produce any more student “outputs” than it needs, or any who won’t be useful corporate tools. And it’s perfectly fine for the System if poor and minority kids don’t get a decent education. The System didn’t need their parents and it doesn’t need them either.
Music programs? The System doesn’t need violin-playing ghetto kids or schoolgirls who’d rather play the drums than twirl a baton. Arts programs? Our corporate walls are already lined with Kandinskys and Klees, thank you very much.
But our nation’s children aren’t “outputs.” They’re human beings. “Education is not the filling of a pail,” said William Butler Yeats, “but the lighting of a fire.”
We’re told that our children are citizens of a great, powerful, and democratic nation. Their education must be equal to those claims. They should be prepared to assume the full rights and duties of citizenship, prepared to determine their society’s fate. The System may not want that kind of education for our children. But we do. That’s why we have a democracy.
In the face of a heartless system, it’s time to reaffirm a basic human value: Education is every child’s birthright, and it should honor the humanity which every child possesses.
That includes arts programs. “Imagination is not a state,” said William Blake, “it is the human existence itself.”
The purpose of education is to help us fully realize and express our identities, and to enable us to exercise our freedoms wisely. Anything less means we are a society that is neither fully human nor fully free.
It’s time to declare our unequivocal support for education that draws on the best of us, in a humane and just way. It’s time to reject the cynical values that choose profits over people – especially the youngest people among us.
It’s time to declare that each and every one of our nation’s children possesses a rare and precious quality, whether their schools are in the Hamptons or Harlem, Northampton or the Navajo Nation, Arcadia or Appalachia.
It’s time to declare that each is, fully and profoundly and beautifully, human.
(You can sign the Declaration here.)