Friday, June 20, 2014

Don't Worry About the Rich

There will always be great schools in this country. On that point, you need not worry. There will always be great schools, just as there will always be excellent health care and great libraries. These things will always exist.

Well, at least, they will always exist for the rich.

The rich will always have access to the finest version of these things, these items that we all believe are an important part of society. In fact, even when it comes to controversial services (like abortion) or even items that are almost universally frowned upon (like recreational drugs), the rich have always had full access to the best, and they always will.

So when we talk about now to get the best value per dollar for schools (or healthcare), the question we're really asking is, "How much should we pay, how should we pay it, and how much education should we buy for people who aren't rich?"

Throughout all of the current battles over public education in this country, we have never debated how to reform educational programs for the rich, how to cut costs in schools that serve the rich, or what sort of testing we should be using to measure the education of the rich. Our whole long wrangle has been about what to do in the schools that are for everybody else.

I'm not saying it's the only lens that works, but the whole reformster movement makes sense if we view it through the lens of rich folks saying, "Look, what's the bare minimum I have to spend educating Those People's Kids, and what's the most basic education I can get with my money. Oh-- and is there a way we could set it up so I get some of my money back, with interest?"

I am not actually a hard-core progressive (nor do I play one on tv). I don't think having the government take a boatload of money from rich people and spend it on everyone else is a great thing. First, confiscatory policies can be brutally unjust. Second, when the government gets its hands on big piles of money, it tends to do stupid things with it (including, but not limited to, handing it over to some private corporation in the hopes that it might provide some tiny modicum of service). I do not think there's any hope of making America a better place by building a federally financed Phillips Academy in every town.

However, there's a whole discussion we're steadily not having when it comes to education (and a few other things, but let's focus for now)-- a discussion about our obligation to educate all members of our society, which is itself an obligation to our whole society. We have let-- even encouraged-- reformsters to talk about education as if it's a service provided to parents, like waxing their car or cleaning their teeth. CCSS and its boosters, all the way up to President Obama, have reframed education as a sort of job training service, as if making everyone a manager at 7-11 is the best way to transform America into a stronger, healthier society. We have moved far away from the idea that education is a basic building block of culture, of society, of informed politics, of better relationships, of better, clearer, stronger connections to our world and the other human beings in it.

We all have, to greater and lesser degrees, the power to help make that happen. And in this world, like it or not, some people have more power than others. And as the great philosopher Stan Lee wrote about a half century ago, "With great power comes great responsibility."

There's a mini-lecture that my hapless students trigger from time to time with a seemingly harmless question, and it goes like this:

What I hear you asking, hapless student, is a roundabout way of asking "What's the absolute minimum I have to do on this assignment to get by?" That is a bad question to ask. Do you sit want your parents to do the least possible for you? Do you dream of the day you find a romantic partner who will do the absolute least they have to in your relationship? If you go to the hospital some day, will you say to the doctors, "Please give me the least healing help you think you can get away with." 

No. You want people to do their best, to give all they can, to show what they can accomplish when they put their heart and back into it. Impress me. Amaze me. Dare to be awesome.

I don't know the secret of getting people to give their all and pull their weight in society. I only know a couple of tricks.

1) Be an example. Stop talking about the power you don't have and start exercising the power you do have.

2) Raise the bar for "good enough." "Good enough to get by" in society often means "good enough that people won't start raising a fuss." Don't accept half a loaf. Raise a fuss until you get a whole one.

And finally, insist that we talk about what we're really talking about. One of the reformster tricks is to use smoke-and-mirror language, to pretend that we're talking about "protecting excellent teachers" instead of "breaking the union and getting rid of lifers in the classroom." If we want to talk as a society about how much of a burden for educating everybody should be borne by taxpayers in general and wealthy taxpayers in particular, that's a legitimate conversation to have-- but let's actually have it. It's a waste of everybody's time to pretend we're talking about making education better when we're really talking about how to make it less dependent on tax dollars, less expensive in general, and more profitable for the corporations.

Don't worry about the rich. They'll be fine. The real question is, who should pay to educate Those Peoples' children, and how much should they pay to do it?


  1. I like your mini-lesson on what is the least I can do. I don't hear that so much, but I teach middle school. The question I hear the most is "is this for a grade?"

  2. Great thoughts. Why more people don't make the connection between the astounding growth of the income gap, the growing concentration of wealth at the top, and the claw back since the 80's of all that led to the golden age of capitalism - is beyond me. A strong middle class means a strong economy, a bigger tax base and a strong social safety net.

    Thank you for your post!