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.
I graduated from high school in 1970. I remember the Reagan lies all too well.
Although the 1950s and 1960s are often cited as a “golden age” of middle-class prosperity, that glowing picture is distorted by its narrow focus on suburban white families and especially white men. Urban households, especially urban families of color, fared much worse in the era, as did rural households. Black women with children, in particular, suffered grievously. The sitcoms of that era, like “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”, were lies that depicted a non-existent patriarchal la-la-land of white male supremacy. Too many of us look back on those with warm nostalgia and forget how well they indoctrinated their audience with their racist and sexist presumptions. “Ring around the collar”was not the dominant issue facing American women in 1965.
It’s not as if America of the 1960s was unaware of its economic inequality, and of the impact of that inequality on public schools and schoolchildren.
Project Head Start was a radical innovation in 1965 when it began as an experimental summer program. Among the most radical concepts addressed by Project Head Start was that children, especially K-6, do better in school after they eat a nutritious breakfast. Duh.
Children need at least the following to do well in school:
1. A safe and secure home
2. Sufficient sleep
3. Nutritious meals
4. Support and encouragement in reading and writing
5. Support and encouragement for thinking, questioning, and intellectual curiosity
No school, private or public, can overcome the impact of missing any of these (and I’m sure there are more, I just cited these off the top of my head). The economic disparity of our communities heavily impacts these independently from school funding.
We MUST increase funding for public education. We must ALSO find ways to address these other factors that impede or destroy the ability of children to do well in even the most perfectly-operated school.
Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate proposing anything substantive to address the obscene wealth disparity that so drastically exacerbates these barriers to thriving children.
Whether she wins the nomination or not, anybody who cares about children and public education must aggressively embrace and promote her economic agenda.
Mark L. Bail says
The City of Springfield has initiated an interesting program. All students, not just those who qualify, can receive school meals in their classrooms. They also grow vegetables at other schools. I’ll link to it when it hits the nepr.net website.
Free lunch for everybody is a no brainer. One of the morning shows highlighted this kid who saved money all year to pay for his fellow students lunch debt. It was portrayed as a heart warming tale of a Good Samaritan child m helping his community instead of an indictment of the adults who continue to allow such disparities to happen, which it so clearly is.
I regularly see students sneak into the back of the cafe to get extras. It’s time school breakfast and lunch is free everywhere.
The quality of public education varies from town to town because funding is based on property tax. As a result, poorer communities suffer the most.
Indeed. In a cruel multiple-whammy, the same forces that make poorer communities poorer also savage their public school systems. Misguided (or worse) public policy amplifies that effect by introducing charter schools that further sap public education funding, while skimming off the students that require the least expense and leaving behind those who are the most expensive.
This is why we need to fund education statewide from income taxes, This is why we need to dramatically increase taxes on the wealthy. This is why we need to aggressively strive to reduce the wealth disparity between towns.
It should be criminal for the town of Carlisle (among the wealthiest towns in the state), that doesn’t even allow lottery sales in town, to fund the arts program of its public schools with Lottery funds plundered from the desperately poor.
The wealthy residents of Carlisle should be funding arts education in public schools of cities like Springfield, Holyoke, Lawrence, New Bedford, and Haverhill.
I do subscribe to educationism a bit, but know it won’t be worth a hill of beans if the opportunity isn’t there. Here are my two favorite arguments regarding public education, one from my favorite all time TV show and the other from the MA Constitution:
Its not the silver bullet though. As a teacher I can’t solve housing, food, and immigration status insecurity.. Those three issues make a huge difference in my students engagement and performance level in school. This is why charters and philanthropists have failed to make a big dent in closing the achievement gap on a long term basis.
Not to mention Trump happened and the student debt crisis happened. A lot of my students are no longer automatically convinced they have to go to college like I did. A lot of them are in the trades or want to be in the trades which are back in the zeitgeist thanks to this President. The idea of teaching for democracy is also being threatened by a society that insists our primary objective is to produce the next generation of trained employees-not citizens.
By all means I support real funding equity and increasing overall funding. Everyone Please support Fund our Future. Yet we should also be realistic that education won’t solve all of societies problems. It’s an investment in individual students who will collectively contribute to our economy and also carry on our tradition of self government. Arguing that it’s an investment that will cure poverty is missing the forest for the trees. The education gap like housing and food insecurity is a real effect of income inequality-not its cause.