Class Warfare Blog

August 27, 2013

The Role of Public Education in the Success or Failure of the U.S.

You are probably aware that the idea of a modern democratic state began with the foundation of the U.S.A. Prior to that, countries were ruled by monarchies or occasionally by oligarchies. A pillar of our experiment (and if you do not think it is an experiment, an experiment that can fail, you have not had your eyes open for the last forty years) was an equally novel idea—compulsory public education.

If, in the mid-18th Century when the U.S. was founded, there was a single country that thought it a good idea to educate all of its citizens, I am not aware of it. And this was not something that sprang out of the minds of the Founding Fathers and was implemented by fiat. Progress toward “compulsory” education was slow. Yes, there was and is a compulsion. (I can’t wait until the Tea Party gets wind of this. If they think compulsory health insurance is the work of the Devil, when they figure out that public education, including Evolution instruction, is compulsory, hoo boy!) You and your children were and are required to attend school until you reach a certain level of accomplishment or a certain age.

Our entire economy is dependent on having an “educated” workforce. Janitors, who were often illiterate in the not too distant past, are now required to read MSDS’s (Material Safety Data Sheets) that describe the hazards of the chemicals with which they clean their work sites. These are not written at a fourth grade level, folks. We think nothing of this ability of our janitors to read . . . now.

Setting aside the utility of this process (education has been proven over and over to be a boon for the economy) consider that we are currently reversing this trend without any kind of national debate or plan of action developed by and through the people.

In the mid-1800’s a large number of “land grant” colleges sprung up (particularly in the West) focused on training engineers, scientists, teachers, and other practical “middling” sorts. The elite universities of the East found this appalling that “Universities” would be teaching practical arts, to the extent that a Bachelor of Arts diploma was consider superior to a Bachelor of Science diploma (as some still do today). In the West, it is not surprising that the Bachelor of Science degree was considered superior (hey, it had higher requirements).

But the egalitarian nature of education was not at all complete until even a college education was available to most criticizes. When I entered college in 1964, my home state of California was opening a new community (two-year) college once a week for almost six months. Currently there are over 100 community colleges (often called junior colleges) in California, and virtually every citizen is within a reasonable commute distance to one of these colleges. They are not only in geographical reach but they used to be within financial reach, also. That has been the historical trend in our little experiment. More and more education to the point where most young people today assume they will be going to college as a good and necessary thing.

So, is our historic experiment in democracy and educating our citizenry at risk? I think so.

Setting aside the utility of this process (education has been proven over and over to be a boon for the economy) consider that we are currently reversing this trend without any kind of national debate or plan of action developed by and through the people. We are reversing this trend by increasing the cost of higher education at a pace that outstrips most anything else (even health care now). Simultaneously we have passed a law that disallows student debt from being discharged through bankruptcy. (Now who would sponsor such a bill against the will of politically weak students? I’ll ask the Church Lady. Church Lady? “Could it be . . . the Republicans?!” Got it in one, C.L.) The net effect is that total student debt exceeds total credit card debt in this country. (Think about that for a moment.)

Simultaneously, in the “Red States,” that is states in which Republicans control the state governments, and even in others there is a systematic starving of the public schools. The public school budgets get cut, schools get closed, while the states forgive business taxes unnecessarily and also fork over monies to private charters to run schools, which their own testing schemes show are no better than the public schools they replace. The apparent reason for these efforts is simply to extract profits from the public coffers. There seems to be no educational agenda behind these efforts (smokescreens and hidden agendas, but no real educational agendas).

So, is our historic experiment in democracy and educating our citizenry at risk? I think so. If you look at countries which are doing it right, for example Finland, when a college education became as necessary as a high school education used to be, they made a college education essentially free (as it was here when I took my degrees). They also gave perks to the best and brightest students to encourage them to go into teaching. We are going the other direction and there will be a price to pay. The monied interests are making sure that they do not pay that price, that “others” will. And do you know who that will be?

Church Lady?
“Aw shit, it’s us!”
Nailed it again, C.L.

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5 Comments »

  1. Too many educated people doesn’t leave enough for the manuel labor pool needed to do the shit jobs for shit wages.

    Comment by lbwoodgate — August 27, 2013 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

    • We are dying for skilled trade workers. The plutocratic assholes are claiming there are 3+ million tech jobs going wanting because of a labor shortage. The real problem is that want to hire a CNC machinist for $8.75 and hour when they used to work for $25 per hour plus benefits. And trades people need an education, too. We have stellar trades program in our community colleges. Manual labor jobs are kind of shit jobs but it is honest labor and our streets wouldn’t be cleaned or repaired or our open spaces landscaped without quite a bit. They should get a living wage, too. The only people who don’t “deserve” a living wage are “make work” jobs because those are jobs that don’t really need doing.

      Comment by stephenpruis — August 27, 2013 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  2. There is no sense to be made of this situation in the US at all.

    Comment by john zande — August 27, 2013 @ 1:40 pm | Reply

    • Sure there is: the fucking anti-American plutocrats are raping us for profit. One of the things i didn’t say was that all through the American public education effort is the plutocratic themes of “assimilating immigrants” and “educating the masses” which are dog whistle terms for taming the foreigners with all of their strange notions (our Socialist Party was quite ethnic early on) and making sure that all “red blooded Americans” thought the right way. So our history books are slanted toward viewing plutocrats, Wall Street, etc. as “good things.”

      I wonder if Brazil needs archery coaches? I’d have to learn Portuguese, I guess. Hmmm.

      Comment by stephenpruis — August 27, 2013 @ 1:46 pm | Reply

  3. This is a great post that raises several very important problems for our society. Certainly the idea that an informed citizenry is vital for the health of the Republic is one with deep roots in American history. The battleground here seems to be less a matter of compulsion and more a matter of content. Homeschooling is becoming more and more common and is not restricted to any one political persuasion. Some homeschool to evade a secular education, others because they buy into the idea that the public schools are incubators for thought-control in the service of corporate capitalism.

    Access to higher-education raises the specter of economic fairness in our society and the double-edged sword of credit. It is extremely difficult to get a college education without going into debt, just as debt is (in most cases) necessary for anyone seeking to own a home and an automobile. This is, perhaps, unavoidable. However at some point access to credit will no longer be sufficient to stem the increasing pressure for people to be paid a living wage. We’ve also seen a foreshadowing of how serious a problem dependence on credit can create for our society. The more people are expected to rely on credit to gain access to higher education the more dangerous any economic disruptions to the flow of credit become.

    Thanks for raising this issue.

    Comment by Peter Walsh — August 30, 2013 @ 8:38 am | Reply


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