Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Patently Un-democratic Idea

Yesterday I wrote about Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who has stood up to the Taliban in Pakistan for her right, as a girl, to an education. In it, I used the expression "American Taliban." When most people use this descriptive slur, they're usually talking about Christian extremists, but I was using it to refer to those who would limit our children's access to education, not with guns, but with their deep pockets.

I don't often shop at Safeway, but around here they're the cheapest place to get preschool science stuff like corn starch, vinegar, and flour, so I find myself in their aisles once a month or so. When I get to the register with, say, 30 lbs. of baking soda, it's a conversation starter. I tell the cashier I'm a teacher, then they tell me about their kids (if they don't have their own kid, they tell me about a relative who's a teacher). It happens every time. Yesterday, the cashier told me her daughter was a senior.

"Alright," I said, "What are her plans?"

"Well, she's going to finish high school."

"No, I mean after high school."

"Oh . . . You mean college?"

"Or whatever."

"She wants to go to college, but how do people afford it?"

There was a time, in my lifetime, when just about everyone could afford in-state tuition. For instance, $850 per term covered my tuition, books, dorm, and food at the University of Oregon. Community college tuition alone is now more than that, even if you account for inflation. The only option for most people is to take out a loan, which will carry a 6.8 percent interest rate and many kids work for 10 years to finally pay it off. Over the past three decades or so, college tuitions have gone up more than three times faster than the cost of living and twice as much as even medical costs. I will repeat that, college tuitions have gone up twice as much as medical costs. This is not an accident. Somewhere around 1980, we adopted the stupid idea that universities needed to act more like businesses and pay for themselves, as if the only value of education in our society is a selfish economic one.

The cashier and I exchanged a few more words about how expensive college was going to be, then she said, "It's easier to get into the University of Washington if you're from out of state, because they want the higher tuition." This is a Safeway located just a few blocks from the UW campus. The guy behind me in line said, "It's true. I work there."

This is the problem with "for profit" schools: they exist first and foremost to earn a profit, not to educate people. Why do you think athletic departments are so big and powerful on college campuses? That's right, because they generate income. We are rapidly reaching a day, if we're not already there, that higher education is only an option for the upper economic classes.

Now I think that this sort of education ought to be a birthright for all Americans, much the way it is in most of the rest of the civilized world. But you see, the American Taliban, guys like billionaire activists like Charles and David Koch, don't really see the need for an educated population, because, you see, they don't seem to really care for the whole idea of democracy. They are instead libertarian meritocrats, who believe that an individual's worth in our society can and should be measured in dollars and cents. Period. If you can't afford to buy your education, then you don't deserve it. Democracy, as our founder knew, in order to work the best for us all, requires an educated population. In an Ayn Randian "paradise" in which our highest motivation is a greasy buck, education is just another commodity to be monetized. Limiting access to education hobbles your competition, and as far as I can tell, that's why they do it.

I don't doubt their sincerity, but make no mistake, these guys are ideologues whose faith cannot be shaken by any amount of real world evidence to the contrary, any more than the ideologues who make up the real Taliban.

So having now placed higher education out of reach for an ever-growing population, they've in recent years turned their attention on public schools, which in part has manifested itself in what I deride here as "corporate education reform." This includes, first demonizing our current public school system, using their deep pockets to create the myth that our schools are failing. The facts do not support this. Yes, the public schools that serve largely poor populations are not thriving, but when you take poverty out of the equation (a problem, not coincidentally, that has been on the rise in America during these past 30+ years of neoliberal economic policies) our schools perform at least on par with the best in the world. Then they propose unproven solutions designed to undermine traditional public eduction by privatizing it via such means as vouchers and charters. I know there are many of you who see nothing wrong with charters, who send you kids to an "excellent one," but believe me, you are an exception. Most charters are being run by for-profit corporations and in the spirit of "free market competition," they will ultimately use their deep pockets to wipe out the competition, leaving us with no choice but drill-and-kill sweat shops.

Lest you believe I've exaggerated, the Koch brothers make no secret of their desire to dismantle public education and turn it over to the so-called (and deeply misunderstood) "magic hand" of the market place.

I see a lot of brave teachers, parents, and children in this video. No, they weren't worried about getting a bullet put into their head and neck as Malala did in her fight to make sure a quality education was available to all. The American Taliban has stopped that one moral atrocity short of their Pakistani counterparts, although in the later's defense, they are at least in favor of a quality education for half the population, boys, while our ideologues are striving to make it available only to those who can afford it. That is a patently un-democratic idea.

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Melinda said...

Pretty powerful stuff. I live in an area with very small (relatively speaking) school districts, so in a sense, it's almost as if there are "neighborhood schools" here already, even though I'm sure my most people in my state with vehemently disagree. Still, people with money move into the town with the "good school district" and people with less money move into the "lesser" school districts. In the districts with a very split population, many of the monied residents send their children to private school. As a result, districts with a diverse population (such as the one I live in, as well as the one i work in) are not ranked as high because they are dealing with issues such as homelessness, students who don't speak English, and a higher percentage of at risk students. I believe districts in my area should be combined into much large districts, thereby spreading the wealth and resources around more equally. Maybe busing to further integrate the students would help as well. Everyone who wants a good education should be able to get one.

Chris said...

Hi Tom,

I liked your blog, but this is one too many from an ideological viewpoint that I won't support.

Your country is supposed to be a constitutional republic, not a democracy. And the reason for that is so that a majority can't overrun the rights of a minority, as they can in a democracy.

The Taliban forcing girls out of schools and the US federal government forcing it's citizens to subsidize the education of other peoples children are two sides of the same coin.

Both are using force to impose a moral viewpoint on the population at large. That the ends are subjectively evil or good is largely irrelevant to the wider moral point that the means, relying on coercion at the point of a gun or threat of imprisonment is wrong.

Some of us believe that all relationships, financial and otherwise, should be based on individual choices and individual rights.

And some believe that using government power to enforce their point of view is ok, so long as the majority of voting citizens agree.

You have shown again where your ideological loyalties lie and I won't support them by remaining a subscriber.


Teacher Tom said...

@rosti . . . Thank you for the novel! =)

It seems that you and I differ principally in how we view the purpose for public education. It's my view, one shared by the founders, that the primary reason we have public education is to prepare citizens for their role in our model of self-governance. If our democracy is going to function properly we need a citizenry capable of thinking critically, taking part in the give-and-take process of compromise, and questioning authority, among other things. Your comment leads me to think that you consider the role of education to be primarily vocational. While our economic role is an important one, it is only a small piece of what is required for becoming a fully functioning citizen.

I can't imagine the US ever switching to a system in which children are forced to choose their careers/socio-economic class at such a young age. Many great minds have blossomed later in life. Einstein comes to mind, a kid who was a poor student. It would have been a pity to have had him pushed into a vocational track at 14. I don't share your view that extended years of education is necessarily bad for everyone. Some perhaps use it as a way to extend adolescence, but it's certainly not true for everyone, or even most.

As for Steinbeck's quote, it is perhaps truer today than when he wrote it. It explains why so many poor people can be counted on to vote against their own self-interest. Sadly, social mobility in the US is at an all time low and getting worse. The last time I looked it up, nations like Egypt had greater social mobility.

Teacher Tom said...

@Chris . . . The ancient Athenians attempted to govern themselves through direct democracy, a form in which there is a danger that the will of the majority will trample the RIGHTS of a minority. Our founders were, of course, aware of this potential for "tyranny of the majority" and so when choosing what form of government to embody in our Constitution, they went with a republic in which representatives are elected democratically. In other words, instead of government directly controlled by the people, it is indirectly controlled: what dictionaries at the time defined as a "representative democracy." Encyclopedias have been written, and will continue to be written, discussing the nuances of the republic vs. democracy debate, one that I'd rather not engage in here, except to say that however you define our form of government, we are, together, attempting to self-govern with democracy as the centerpiece, and that, as it has been from the onset, is a grand experiment.

That said, I don't share your view that the actions of the Taliban (a self-appointed gang of radicals) is in any way comparable to a democratically elected government: that, for me, is an ideological bridge too far. To say that "we the people," through our duly elected government is illegitimate in subsidizing education, is to call into question everything our government does, from building roads, establishing a military, or creating laws to help ensure an ongoing supply of clean air and water. Our founders were very clear in their belief that our government could ONLY function with a well-educated populace. It is in everyone's interest to support that goal.

It's a pity, I think, you don't feel you ought to be a part of that. I would prefer to not have my tax dollars being spent to support such a gigantic military, but I appear to be in the minority about that. The phrase "tyranny of the majority" does not refer to policy matters, but rather fundamental issues of Constitutional equality and civil rights. For instance, it is tyranny of the majority when the rights of a minority (gays for instance) are put to a vote of a majority -- that's why Prop 8 in California was struck down, because it did exactly that: robbed a minority of a basic civil right, making them lesser citizens.

There are many things we can do alone, but there are also many that we can only do together. Government is the name we give to the institution we've set up for that purpose. I'm sorry this idea upsets you.