We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it.
I recently taught George Orwell’s 1984 to my Honors English 11 classes. In order to provide the historical underpinnings of the novel, I taught the basics of Marxism along with some of the economic facts of our times. It was a learning experience for all of us.
It takes a lot of work to get kids to think deeply. They can churn out half-thoughts and opinions like nobody’s business but leading them to consider unfamiliar ideas takes some effort and planning. Without presenting the appropriate learning situations in the right order, their minds tend to slam shut as soon as they can find comfortable refuge from ideas that shake their accepted truths.
Opening their minds started with John Rawls’ Original Situation and Veil of Ignorance. In this thought experiment, society is being created de novo. There are no social or economic classes and no way for the founders (my students) to choose their place in society ahead of time. The could be rich. They could be poor. Homeless. Disabled. They have no way of knowing where they would end up. Their task was to apportion society’s resources.
This perspective frustrated them. Although there was no reasonable justification to begin society with resources unequally apportioned, it was much easier for many students to insist that their new society be just like their existing society. They wanted the same rules, the same statuses. Work had to be at the center of their society as a way to determine their social class and income. Inequality would the natural consequence of work. Earned inequality was so important to many of them that they found solace in the idea that inequality would eventually emerge from their educations and employment. (Their socio-economic status would thus be preserved).
My students, if it’s not already clear, are profoundly middle-class. Socio-economically and ideologically. They are strongly committed to the rules of success, even if they don’t question them. They also expect that everyone, rich or poor, plays by the same rules. Lack of success in life results from a failure to understand the rules or a failure to play by them.
Unlike my students fifteen years ago, today’s students didn’t balk at the idea of the poor people receiving financial help from the government. They objected, however, to the idea that others, even the very rich, be taxed to pay for that financial help. When asked why it was unfair to tax the very rich, they responded, “It’s their money. They earned it.” Aside from preparing my students to understand, Chapter 9, Book II of 1984, my goal was to problematize my students’ thinking about their lives. It’s not my job to teach them to share my beliefs, so I push questions, not answers.
Our discussion barely addressed education. One student suggested that students in living in the city north of our suburb received the same education he did. Through education, a few students believed, poverty and parentage could be transcended.
It was my classroom experience that resonated when longtime BMG pal and fellow teacher James Conway recently linked to Better Schools Won’t Fix America on his Facebook page. The article is noteworthy for its rejection of the last 40 years of education policy. It’s also important for what it says about our failure of class perspectives:
Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.
This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.
This is classic Nation at Risk thinking. For those who might not remember, A Nation at Risk was a Reagan-era report detailing the trumped-up idea that our schools were failing our students. It was the beginning of the education policy referred to as ed reform, an education model that strongly relied on neo-liberal ideology goals and managerial methods. To improve, public education needed to be more like business. Charter schools would provide healthy competition for public schools. In lieu of profit and production figures, schools would use test scores. Administrators would have more power on whom to hire. Workers–teachers and unions–would be obstacles to the school improvement that policymakers and their administrators (essentially management) could bring.
Hanauer deserves a lot of credit for understanding just how wrong he was. As my experience with my students demonstrated, it’s not easy for people to realize that the limits of their perspectives limit. And though Hanauer mentions the unconscious motivations (not having to pay taxes) that led him to embrace “educationism,” he misses what more commonly makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of: cognitive dissonance. Losing perspective upsets reality as we know it. On some unconscious level, selfishness and greed may have motivated Hanauer, but the more powerful factor, the factor that militated against his insight was his perspective, shared and reinforced by society, of educationism.
In a better world, we would consider most social issues from behind the veil of ignorance and imagine society from the Rawls’ original situation. The original situation would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in an existing society. But it has the power to strip away the perspectives and assumptions that prevent change.