The last week of September 1938 was deemed “American Education Week” and for the occasion President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) released a message to the citizenry.
He noted that there were competitive systems of government that were fast coming into conflict and, when it came to the practice and preservation of the political system in the US, public education played a vital role.
What is education for?
“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Thus did Roosevelt tie education to “national security.”
Nonetheless, this was a problematic assertion. It assumed that citizens actually do choose their leaders rather than just affirming a leader chosen by elites. And, significantly, it assumed that what is taught in the schools results in the ability to make “wise” political choices.
The mission that FDR assigned to education continues to be part of a popular democratic trope that idealizes education’s mission. Yet, underneath the quixotry there are more pragmatic, and certainly less democratic concerns. In truth, education has always had two main functions:
1. To train people for the market place. Before literacy was required for the market place, schools were strictly for those few who went into specialized careers such as religious vocations, scribes and record keepers and the like. Almost everyone else learned what they needed to know through apprenticeships. For this, there were no instruction manuals to read. As early modern times saw literacy become more economically important, public schools were established to provide it. Today, literacy is so important to the economy that illiteracy is looked upon as some kind of moral failing.
2. To socialize people so that they identify with the prevailing ideology. The aim here is to produce the “good citizen”. In the age of the nation-state, that means to believe in the worth of your nation, its institutions, traditions and laws. In this regard, education has no inherent tie to democracy. The job of the schools is to teach the “rightness”, the legitimacy of whatever system prevails.
Is national survival at risk?
In the United States, there is a longstanding debate over the effectiveness of public education in fulfilling the requirements of the core missions noted above, particularly #1. For instance, business people allegedly complain that they can’t find enough qualified people. This seems to be a common, if only anecdotal, perception even though high school graduation rates, as well as reading and mathematics scores on nationwide tests are the highest they have ever been. Yet, in our NAFTA (North American Free Trade Area) age, a lot of work is outsourced abroad or skilled labour is imported into the country. This is often done, not because of any lack of domestically available labour, but because it is cheaper to do it that way.
Recently the debate over public education has taken on an added dimension somewhat tangential to FDR’s 1938 message. According to a recent report, “US Education Reform and National Security”, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, US public schools are doing such an awful job of training for national needs that they have “put the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position and physical safety at risk”. Why did the commission responsible for the report come to this hyperbolic conclusion? Well, here are some of their accusations:
1. As noted above, US employers allegedly have a hard time finding enough well trained scientists, engineers, administrators, analysts and linguists. However, this time around we are not talking about the average employer. Rather, the report speaks of the need “to staff the military, intelligence agencies and other government-run national security offices, as well as the aerospace and defence industries”.
2. The entire national education effort is lacking in strong direction. There needs to be “a national security readiness audit” to reshape the curriculum to emphasize those subjects that will “safeguard America’s future security and prosperity”. And, just so everyone knows where the buck stops in this regard, the report insists that “schools and policymakers” be held “accountable for the results”.
It should be noted that Roosevelt’s issue of educating citizens to make “wise” political choices is not among the report’s concerns. As we will see, that issue has apparently been overwhelmed by another ideological concern: the conservative holy grail of privatization.
What are the real motives?
The report has recently been critiqued by Diane Ravitch in the June 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books. Ravitch points out that much of the report’s complaints are not backed up with sufficient evidence to warrant the apocalyptic consequences the authors assign to them. What evidence that is offered tends to be selective – the kind of evidence one gets when “confirmation bias” is at work. Many of the report’s recommendations are also lacking in evidence that they are necessary or even doable. In addition, she points out that there have been a number of previous reports on public education, all of which have been aimed at helping to improve the public education process. This report, however, has an eye for gutting the public system in favour of privatizing education via charter schools and voucher systems.
This last point is a tip-off that the report is, in truth, an ideological, rather than investigatory, exercise. It isbest understood within the context of an ongoing conservative attack on the non-military, non-police and non-judicial roles of government. As Ravitch notes, a good number of the participants that created the report have conflicts of interest because they were already committed to privatizing education. For instance, “Richard Barth, the chief executive officer of the KIPP charter school chain” and Joel Klein who, as chancellor of New York City public schools, pushed charter schools as the answer to a variety of educational problems were both members of the commission that wrote the report.
Actually, except for the specific exception noted below, American public schools are doing pretty well. Among each years’ high school graduates, you will find a bell curve range of competency in whatever subject area you chose to measure. Most graduates will not yet have the skill level to be a scientist or writer of books. But most will have the skill level to do their taxes, balance their accounts, write email memos, keep records and sell the myriad numbers of gizmos and gadgets that now increasingly dominate our lives. Those who go to college will have the opportunity to acquire further skills in the areas of science, mathematics, research and writing but may not develop the interest to pursue these opportunities. In the modern era, it has really never been much different.
If the authors of the report are really interested in poor education as a national security threat they are looking in the wrong direction. In fact, it is Ravitch, in her critique of the report, that spots the real area where these two come together. There are parts of the country where poverty and “racial isolation” result in such poor educational (and vocational) opportunities that the majority of the population has no hope of sharing in the general prosperity and promise of the country. These people will not acquire the necessary skill set, nor will they be indoctrinated with the patriotism that education is meant to deliver. And, as far as FDR’s ideal for education, the ability to make wise political choices, it is irrelevant for those who live in ghettos that the political system has all but abandoned.
The enclaves of deep and lasting poverty are in fact areas of potential violent rebellion. This was shown to be so in the 1960s and it can happen again. That is a good reason to take Ravitch’s suggestion: “If education [is] truly the key to our national security, perhaps we should allocate sufficient funding to equalize resources in poor neighborhoods….” seriously. To do so would be a wiser investment, in terms of “national security,” than the trillion and half dollars we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan.