America is betraying its public education | The Triangle

America is betraying its public education

Photograph courtesy of Marc Nozell at Wikimedia Commons

America’s retreat from its century and a half commitment to public education has now become a flight. There has not been a greater betrayal of our country in my lifetime. There is no more disastrous portent for our future.

Before the Reformation of the 16th century, no one dreamed of universal education. Literacy was essentially the privilege of the elite, and a prime means of maintaining the social power of the privileged few. Two events challenged this monopoly: the invention of the printing press, and Martin Luther’s challenge to Europe’s dominant institution, the Catholic Church. Luther spread his message by pamphleteering, and he sought to make its basis popularly available by translating the Bible into the vernacular. Much came out of this, including the birth of modern democracy itself.

Literacy rates gradually rose in succeeding centuries, partly as a result of economic expansion and urbanism. The notion of universal literacy came with the growth of popular democracy, and it became a reality under the drive of the Industrial Revolution, which required an educated workforce. Public education was the only practical means to achieve this, and it was astonishingly successful. By 1900, literacy was approaching 100 percent in economically-advanced nations.

Public education was also democratic; it answered to the will of the people. It both prepared the young for citizenship and exemplified it in itself. It rested on a foundation of trust based on experience. The state provided education, but the community controlled it.

The system was never perfect, of course. Richer communities had better schools. Segregation separated black education from white education. Biases of various sorts were built into the curriculum. Nonetheless, public education was by and large the most successful initiative undertaken in modern times. It transformed Western society, both as the basis of its civic consciousness and material prosperity. It was, and is, the key basis of modern democracy.

Today it is under near-universal assault.

Our long retreat from public education began as the backlash to the student activism of the 1960s. Students demanded social justice and the end of a genocidal conflict being fought half a world away. They showed the proud success of public education: young citizens ready to stand up for their country’s values. Instead, they provoked the attack on it by Richard Nixon, which resulted in the student massacre by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University and the beginning of what would become a systemic onslaught on public education at every level.

The story’s a long one, but simply summarized. School desegregation mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 was tacitly walked back. Steadily rising income inequality starved locally-funded school districts in poorer areas. As schools began to fail, privatization began in the form of for-profit charter schools, subsidized by the state. It created a vicious cycle that undermined the essential principle of public education. Less and less money for such education meant deteriorating facilities, declining teacher salaries and an assault on tenure protections from grade school to university levels in both the private and public sectors. The result was a general humiliation of the academic profession. Students did not learn; teachers did not earn.

The crisis of public education has been slow to engage the corporate media, but the horrific wave of school shootings that climaxed with Parkland, and the “red” marches of teachers from West Virginia to Arizona demanding money for education, have at least momentarily made it newsworthy. That teachers must pay out of pocket for basic supplies and that students must march on the government to protect their own lives, is evidence of a society in freefall. That they do so without significant response or effect shows how very near, if not at the bottom we are. A society that cannot or will not protect its young has surrendered already. A society that will not educate them has abandoned its own future.

As the schools have failed, the vultures have swooped in. Bill Gates thinks his billions give him the right to dictate the curriculum of schools that are the recipients of his charity. Stephen Schwarzman thinks his hedge fund money entitles him to rename a public school in his name, complete with a huge portrait and plaques for his siblings. Public education’s last chapter will be as a vanity showcase for obscene wealth.

Meanwhile, education is being outsourced at its core. Native-born teachers are increasingly replaced by hires from places such as the Philippines, who will work on temporary visas for pittance wages and pay for the privilege to use placement agencies. The last vestiges of teaching as a profession are broken, as educators become as disposable as seasonal crop workers. When the Bill of Rights is taught to students by recruits from a country whose president has egged on the slaughter of thousands of his fellow citizens in the streets, how long will our own public institutions endure?

Without robust public education, America cannot survive nominally as a democracy, or much of anything else. Without safe schools, we can’t have learning of any sort.

We can join the marching students and teachers, or kiss our country goodbye.