Archive for September, 2016

The Importance of Public Education

“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” So said Aristotle and likewise a number of others such as  St. Francis Xavier to whom the quotation is sometimes attributed. Even Adolf Hitler took credit for this quotation and recently an American billionaire speaking about the importance of early childhood education. Aristotle lives as his thoughts are being cribbed more than 2000 years later. To paraphrase another famous quote – a great phrase has a thousand authors and that’s because Aristotle’s statement rings true to this day, the proof of this pudding is the eagerness to destroy and privatize public education especially as seen in billionaires from Rupert Murdoch to Bill Gates, and right-wing politicians.

  It is inarguable that to be fully functioning responsible members of any society children must be properly educated, a process that is thousands of years old because it is indisputably vital to the community interest. Consequently, in our times, we must beware of the politicization of the public discourse aimed at disparaging public schools and public school educators.  How can authentic education happen when it is reduced to ingestion, regurgitation, and controlled performance not unlike the training of seals? We must ask how can an educative process take place when children’s noses are pressed against computer screens informing only themselves in a controlled, circumscribed, and contrived personal world and not always in a classroom with other children? We must also ask: What is the purpose of this recent interest in public education by people and groups that have no training and no expertise in the field? Can it be simply that Rupert Murdoch sees K through 12 education as a “$500 billion sector in the US alone” that is his for the taking with the help of ambitious politicians? Yes, it could be about money but profit is neither a humane nor a socially constructive motive. I believe childhood education must be more than that; a civil society depends on it.

If you wanted to control any society where would you start? With the health and welfare of the general public perhaps? Or maybe civil courts where well-paid insurance company lawyers beat back attempts to hold culpable parties responsible? How about ubiquitous universal surveillance of your activities, phone calls, and internet browsing? Controlling the public narrative is especially effective and important because so many people don’t look beyond what they see and hear in the media or the circumstances of their own lives; they often don’t look beyond information that confirms their beliefs or feeds their fears.

If you are in it for the long game wouldn’t public education be the best place to start your agenda? And what would the “long game” be about? I believe the long game is about social control.  Historically, while propaganda has been one of the central tactics used to create and maintain social control so too has childhood education. An often used tactic today is funding charter schools and taking money from traditional public schools. Couple this with a continual disparagement of public school educators who work long hours with pay that falls far short of their education and dedication who are replaced in many of the new schools with cheaper to hire staff who in many cases are not trained as teachers. In some states educational management organizations (EMOs) are running 30% of all charter schools and of those 16% are for-profit operations. There are also “virtual” charter schools where instruction is provided at home over the internet further distancing children from the socializing aspects of public schools.

The foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism or socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, and it has never been, before now, about profit. Public education has always been about the development of each child as an individual to the fullest extent of their abilities for the ultimate benefit of society. Public schools are about Community, about Democracy, about civility. The antithesis of self-centeredness is Community and Community means all of us working together, learning and teaching, not grasping whatever can be at whatever cost to others, oblivious to an inclusive  social contract. Public education is where children learn and practice these values.

The proper focus of authentic education is not ingestion and disgorgement of information like trained seals clapping their flippers on command but a process of development that leads to critical thinking and life-long learning skills. Information can readily be absorbed when that information is relevant to human purpose and life as it is lived. I have been writing about this question for a long time, I taught about it for several years at one of the world’s great universities and it worries me to see politicians and non-educators controlling children’s lives as a form of self-promotion, as profit centers. It is well worth repeating now: it is what Aristotle was telling us so many centuries ago.


It’s About Groceries

It seems at times that the world is what it must be like for a fly climbing a window pane. You can see it all out there but you can’t get to it. The window is transparent but, is what you are seeing the truth? How could you know? How could you be sure? Reality is itself a construct which you accept or not at your own peril. We suffer an opaque political system working overtime, as it does, to corrupt itself at every turn while trying to convince us it isn’t. The sensational hour by hour revelations about or for each candidate become a yawn for some people or raw meat thrown to a madding crowd for others. The final political question eventually devolves to how many times we must hold our collective noses and vote for a lesser evil before the political system crumbles into the darkness of chaos?

Required reading for one of the classes I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Radical School Reform, was Saul Alinsky’s “Rules For Radicals”. It was published the same year I started teaching, 1972. I still keep the book on my desk and pick it up from time-to-time scanning through for a random jewel, perhaps a random memory. My favorite passage has always been the concluding paragraph. “The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. … When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world we will see when we believe it.”

It is indeed about believing. We live in a complex world believing in, among other things, truth, equality, other people to fear, and something called “fairness”, and a world in which people are asked to believe in an economic system that favors a few at the disadvantage of many. As with religious dogma our economic belief system, Capitalism, may not be challenged in spite of clear evidence that it is destroying social contracts and the environment globally. If you doubt this you haven’t been paying attention to the exodus of American business to other countries, places where there are little or no health and safety regulations and pay scales that are a fraction of those in the US.. In many of those offshore countries workers earn less in a day than what Americans doing the same work earned in an hour. The irony, of course, is that those goods now being made abroad are brought to the US for Americans to “consume”. At the same time that the general public is being impoverished, infrastructure is crumbling across the country to pay for the perpetual and profitable war machine. It is reasonable, I believe, to ask what our values are as a nation when people are without medical care, and children without sufficient daily meals or a proper education? Are our voices not heard at the seats of power or are our voices simply inconsequential?

Capitalism, a zero sum enterprise that ultimately has only one winner has become both a belief system and an economic system. In the words of S.D. King in, When The Money Runs Out, “In reality, the financial system prices beliefs – and beliefs – not ultimate truth.” The economic pie is just one size and as someone else’s slice gets bigger someone else’s inevitably becomes smaller. In the end, regardless of Calvin Coolidge’s belief that “The business of the American people is business”, what really makes for a healthy equitable society is truth and the truth is about groceries not overseas bank accounts. It’s supermarket shoppers trying to put a meal on the table every day who are the real economy and who make the economy function; that’s what keeps a civil society alive and healthy.

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