Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Education – Silver Linings?”
March 6, 2017
“Only the educated are free.”
There is no greater legacy we can leave our children than a good education. But for many this has become difficult. For too long, teachers’ unions have turned public schools into self-serving monopolies. The losers have been children and their parents. Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977), American education philosopher and Dean of the Yale Law School, once wrote” The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.” That is not what we have done.
Like a free press and the right to speak freely, a good education in our democracy has become a fundamental right. After his Presidency James Madison wrote in 1822, “…a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” Early Twentieth Century civil rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs repeated the same message: “Education is democracy’s life insurance.”
At a time when too many public schools, especially those in inner cities, perform poorly and when our universities disallow conservative views, why would I postulate the possibility of improvement? Because we may be witnessing a political metamorphosis. The election of Donald Trump, and his selection of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, represent a sea change. Mr. Trump’s speech before a joint session of Congress last Tuesday provided a window through which could be glimpsed the man (Trump), the Party he represents and his opposition, the Democrats. Mr. Trump abandoned the bombast that has characterized his style. He urged both Parties to work together, to “put aside trivial fights.” He spoke of the fact that in negotiations – his forte – both sides must give up something. He spoke eloquently, positively, even graciously. He extended an olive branch to Democrats in terms of infrastructure spending, a jobs program, women’s health, child care and education. Mirroring President Obama, Mr. Trump said, “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Education is the civil rights issue of our time. According to The Nation’s Report Card (published by National assessment of Education Progress) in 2015, only 37% of high school seniors were proficient in reading, and just 25% proficient in math. The numbers for black students – most of whom are in inner city schools – were far worse: 17% and 7% respectively. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) provides the most highly regarded study in comparing students around the world. The tests are conducted in 71 countries every three years – the most recent being 2015 – and measure comprehension in reading, math and science among 15-year-olds. The results were disheartening. Of the countries measured, American ranked 24th in science, 39th in math and 24th in reading. (Canada, in comparison, ranked 7th in science, 9th in math and 3rd in reading.) And, again, the worst schools are those in inner cities and poverty-stricken rural areas, places where choice is not usually an option.
In having allowed teachers’ unions to monopolize public school education, we have abandoned our children in favor of union rules that place seniority above competence, and union loyalty ahead of responsibility to students and parents. Good teachers deserve to get paid well – better than they are now – but poor teachers should be fired. Monopolies, by definition, inhibit innovation. Would the iPhone have been invented had American Telephone not been broken apart in the 1980s? Parents of children understand the desperate need for choice as alternatives to failing schools. Demand, in many cities, is so high that charter schools have had to resort to lotteries. A major responsibility of cities, towns and states is to provide good educational opportunities for all children, not just the rich who can send their children to private schools and not just those who can afford to live in sought-after zip codes, but for those who must accept what their communities and neighborhoods offer. In his speech, Mr. Trump said: “I am calling on members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children.” He went on, “…families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.” Was that a message that deserved the silence from Democrats that Mr. Trump received? Isn’t that how parties should work together in the interests of our children? Choice is critical, and that is what Betsy DeVos has promised.
Despite students at Middlebury College last week violently forcing American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray off the stage (sending a professor to the ER!), there are glimmers of hope at intolerant universities. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, demonstrators favored free speech. By the mid 1960s, the University of California at Berkley (the vanguard of the movement) retracted their on-campus ban on free political speech. It was the Left that fought to lift that ban in the 1960s. Now, fifty years later, the Left, like “Snowball” and “Major” in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, have become the intransigents of the status quo. They are unaccommodating obstructionists who deny speakers with whom they disagree. However, like a pendulum, a counter-culture of conservativism has begun to rise. A Gallup poll last year suggested that 78% of students want a more open campus, one that allows different viewpoints, even at the risk of offending certain groups. Membership has grown in conservative clubs in our universities, such as the Young Americans for Liberty, which now has 804 chapters with just under 309,000 members, up from 100 chapters in 2012. And, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “2016 Kids Count Data Book,” Generation “Z” kids – those born after 1995 – are showing distinctly different patterns of behavior: 40% drop in teen birth rates; 38% drop in teens abusing drugs and alcohol, and a 28% drop in teens not graduating from high school on time. It is too early to declare victory, but it is possible the tide has begun to turn.
There is a chicken and egg problem with education. A good education allows students to delve into the unknown. Knowledge provides the greater likelihood of making the right choice, whether one is seeking a course of study, a school, a job, a life partner, or a President. A lack of education increases dependency and means one must stay within ruts. In a condescending op-ed last Friday, David Brooks postulated that school choice introduces instability into the lives of those who already feel “adrift.” They have “enough risk in their lives,” he wrote. Choice does involve risk, but would we better off ignorant, but safe? There is never an assuredness we can find the perfect balance, but absent a good education dependency will be the answer. Is that what our youth want? Is that what we want? Would Brooks have us as Eloi?
A democracy requires people think independently, that they make choices, reaping the rewards or suffering the consequences. For years, money has been thrown at schools without demanding accountability. Much of the money has stuck with union leaders and used to fund Democrat candidates. Some has stayed with bad teachers and administrators, because seniority overrides merit. We all want a society, as Mr. Brooks writes, “…in which people grow up within healthy families, nurturing schools, thick communities and a secure safety net…” But that ideal is not always possible; so the answer must lie in schools that are competitive, where students are taught to assume personal responsibility. And at colleges we want forums where myriad ideas can be debated without fear of retribution. Sense, knowledge and accountability are integral to the democratic process. It cannot be otherwise. I am optimistic that Betsy DeVos will use the bully pulpit she has been offered. Our children, and therefore our nation, will be the beneficiaries.