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Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Markets and Politics

Herewith a kinder, gentler response to our fellow contributor Tom than I was able to muster without the editorial supervision of our CO. My thanks to the latter for reminding me that civility is crucial this experiment. Following this response, I try to address the issues raised by other contributors.

Tom first. He seems to share with Derek the idea that “the” government controls education, and should be removed from this office. “We need to get the government out of the business of educating our children,” says Tom. Derek is more oblique: “The phrase ‘government school’ has ominous overtones. . .” I agree with Derek, notwithstanding the fact that I teach at a state university. But is there such a thing as a government school? Is “the” government in the business of educating our children?

In a word, no. Local governments fund and supervise elementary/ secondary school districts, in cooperation and consultation with private institutions such as teacher’s unions, PTAs, etc. State governments fund and supervise higher education in and through state university systems, in cooperation with private institutions such as faculty councils, teachers’ unions, and alumni organizations. Since 1862, with the creation of the land-grant colleges and the public universities (such as those in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois), the federal government has sponsored the expansion of higher education, and, through grants and other devices in the 20th century, it has created demand for education at lower levels. What else is new?

Yes, No Child Left Behind is a new phase in the relation of states and school districts. But let’s stop acting, and declaiming, as if “the” government runs this show. It doesn’t. Like most institutions in the USA, education is a weird hybrid of public and private enterprise--it's a collaboration of public and private, not one or the other. That's its signature advantage over other systems elsewhere. The neither/nor makes local control of school districts more than an ideal, but it also allows for federal funding of education.

Tom concludes by saying, “What it all comes down to is individualism and capitalism.” Let me quote what precedes this pronouncement because I'm not sure I get it. For now I think he's saying that if we get government out of education, it is "simply easier to identify the problem," but that problem, by his own specification, is that government is in the business of educating our children. And his solution, as far as I can tell, is to abolish (public) education. But read with me.

Here we go. "[T]he argument in favor of government-run schools is that everybody gets an education. But let me ask you which is worse, geting absolutely no education and knowing that you got absolutely no education or getting essentially no education . . . while being convinced that you got an education? I think the former is far better for a simple reason. It is simply easier to identify the problem."

Some excruciatingly obvious questions. It's bad that everybody gets an education under public auspices? It's even worse that this education is labelled as such? Is there neither "competition" nor "individual accountablity" in American education? Is there no market--no capitalism--at work in the ecumenical educational system Americans inhabit?

Tom, the market is working just fine in education. There are THOUSANDS of PRIVATE SCHOOLS in the good old USA--prep schools, parochial schools, yeshivas. They compete with public schools for the tuitions and attentions of parents everywhere, although more so in the Northeast because the tradition of private education was established early there, by the early 18th century, and was not challenged by the public universities of the Midwest until very late in the 19th century. What are you complaining about?

You, Tom, are “free to choose,” as the earnest knucklehead Milton Friedman said. You are free to send your kid to a very expensive private school. Why don’t you just do it and stop blaming “the” government for screwing up education in the USA?

Here's my guess. Like most reactionary critics of public education--there are lots of them in Kansas and Texas--you can’t afford the private school freight, so you want the federal government to subsidize your abstention from the public schools by means of vouchers and other bizarre devices.

If "what it all comes down to is individualism and capitalism," then you should accept the choices a “free market” makes available to you. Instead of telling us that "the" government is the problem with education, you should go get yourself a job that pays you enough to send your kids to a private school. You should work hard, acquire some character (as well as the requisite income), lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.

I imagine you’ve heard or delivered this sermon before. Probably directed at somebody else, though.

Let me now turn to TCL, Derek, Sidial, J'myle. Derek first, because the relation between the government and the teachers' unions is not anywhere near as cozy as you're supposing. I have some experience with this here at Rutgers, and my relatives back in the land of Shedd Aquarium do, too. Believe me, it ain't cozy--it's as combative and consequential as the labor struggles of the 1930s and 40s (suggesting that the public sector is the current scene of class struggle, labor unrest, union organizing, etc.) The "political class" of which you speak is not a species I know, but if I did I would surmise that it is not an ally of the NEA.

Sidial and J'myle agree that class size is the key to good teaching and a good education, and boy, do I concur. They also agree, if implicitly, that some public agency has to manipulate or administer markets if we want to reduce class size and increase the supply of teachers. Structural changes are essential--changes that the market can't make on its own, David Brooks notwithstanding.

The CO and Sidial agree on the need for what we used to call tracking. "Separate out the kids according to ability, intelligence, and zeal for learning," as the latter puts it. I wonder. My most boring moments in high shool came in my "honors" classes, and my most electrifying moments came after I was kicked out of them, after my junior year. Teaching to a diverse audience trains you to reach, to look for metaphors, methods, ideas, images, that cross any one category or constituency. That's what good thinking and great writing does, too. Why should we want to talk to ourselves? But then here we are doing just that.

Ah, the Linguist. You begin by saying "American education is riddled with problems," and end by saying "Public education is in need of a major overhaul." Can we turn these statements into questions? I agree that we don't spend enough on education. But I do wonder whether those math scores, or the lack of names and dates in the heads of sophomores, mean as much as we think. "A man knowes no more of righteousness than he hath power to act," said Gerrard Winstanley in 1650, and I tend to agree with him. You want people to know where Costa Rica is, or know when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued? Explain to them why it matters right now. I don't mean "relevance," as that word got corrupted back then, in the cruel 1960s and 70s.

Here's another way of turning the declarative into the interrogative. I take it for granted that you're right about the ratio between spending for the V-22 Osprey and the NEH, etc. But what if we treat the post-Vietnam military as a huge educational enterprise, through which mostly working class and black kids are given skills and monies that make them citizens in the most visible and powerful sense?

Questions for now.

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