"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Value of John Stossel . . .

. . . lies entirely in the thoughtful responses that he evokes like this one from Thomas Mertz:


Many of you probably read John Stossel’s polemic in the Sunday Wisconsin State Journal (9/3/06). I’d reprint here, but I don’t want to give it a wider readership than it already has. Instead I want to say few words about a central fallacy in the thinking of Stossel (and many others who wish to destroy public education). Contrary to their rhetoric, PUBLIC EDUCATION IS NOT A MONOPOLY.

I’m not talking about the fact that many fine non-public schools thrive (although that’s true), what I want to do is remind people of the important distinctions between the public and private spheres, between government and enterprise (these distinctions aren’t quite the same, but they are close enough for the purposes here). Education is a public matter, a government function because we have for 150 years (more-or-less, depending on the state and locality) we have wanted it that way.

There were and are many good reasons why this is the case. At base, education is – like garbage disposal, safe food and drugs, efficient roads, airline safety, clean water and much else – too important to be left to the vagaries of the market. At one point Stossel quotes an economist praising the “unpredictability” of the market as a source of innovation. That’s fine for producing a better mousetrap, but in schools (as in all the other examples listed) the stakes are too high to let greed be the motive force. I hear “unpredictability” and think of the children in scam voucher schools who lost out so someone could profit. The successes and innovations of capitalism are the successes of greed. The failures of capitalism are the failures of greed. Tainted milk, like bad charter schools in Milwaukee, was profitable; the market did its work by inducing more people to sell tainted milk. It isn’t the all powerful and all wise market that makes sure our children have safe milk -- profit is profit, the market doesn’t care -- it is the government. Schools were once all private or semi-private, but this – like tainted milk – was not satisfactory and in a democracy things that aren’t satisfactory can be changed.

Democracy is one key to why education is a public matter. If you read the words of those 19th and early 20th century men and women who created and expanded public education, you can sense both their fears and faith. Democratic self-government was a new thing and many scoffed at the idea that “the masses” were capable of the tasks. There was a very real fear of rule by the ignorant mob. But there was also a faith that given the tools their fellow-countrymen (and later women) would be up to the job. The most basic tool was literacy and more broadly education. The state of our political culture may induce many to think that these optimists were wrong about the potential for self-government or perhaps that public education has failed in this mission. I feel that way sometimes, but the republic has survived and the experiment isn’t over. I don’t think we should abandon the basic idea, I think we should work to improve our execution. And since public education is democratically governed (another reason that terming it monopoly is a misnomer), we have the means to make our calls for improvement heard.

Democracy also requires a sense of belonging to the community and the nation. There has long been a tension between the Pluribus and the Unum. America has always been diverse and group identities have threatened to overwhelm a sense of common purpose. When German children went to German schools and Presbyterian children went to Presbyterian schools and rich children went to elite schools and many children went to no school at all (or to charity schools), there was very little to bind them together and much to pull them apart. By making schools public and “common,” the school promoters sought to bolster the Unum. We also struggle with these issues and have arrived in a slightly different place where most of us desire schools to respect group identities, teach respect for group identities (multiculturalism) as well cultivate our commonalities. Finding the balance is not easy and never finished. That cultivating the common is necessary and that the best place to do this is in democratically controlled public schools seems beyond question to me.

Interestingly, capitalism is another reason why public education was considered essential to the health of the nation. There has always been a desire for trained workers and for people to be trained for work, but that isn’t the most interesting or important way that public schools support capitalism. Capitalism is a system of winners and losers. Democracy depends on a rough sense of egalitarianism – “All men are created equal.” So there is another tension here and public education helps resolve it. With free public education, equality becomes “equality of opportunity” and eventually “equality of educational opportunity” (as in the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974). The promise (unfulfilled to a great degree) of equality of opportunity through education further binds the nation together, diffuses the resentments of existing inequalities and provides hope for mobility. Without this, capitalism would be constantly threatened by the “losers.”

Disciples of the market like Stossel rarely address a basic premise of their philosophy and that is that greed and only greed can produce progress and improvement. They see schools that aren’t as good as they should or must be and see “introducing market forces” as the only solution. I don’t hold this dark view of human nature or society. I think that we can be genuinely altruistic; I think that we can work together (cooperation) instead against each other (competition) to produce better schools and a better world. The people who founded public education were far from perfect and filled with self-interested motives, but at the core most shared this belief and I would point to their creation (as imperfect as it is) as evidence that they were right.

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