Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Week 49: Education

“The foundation of every state is the education of its youth,” said Diogenes. Building on this belief, people of influence across the ages have expressed the desire to achieve more than just laying a societal foundation. Some have opined on the notion that ideologies may be ingrained in societies if those in power can control the education of the youth. Some form of “give me a child to teach in his early years, and I will sow a seed that will never be uprooted,” has been attributed to Aristotle, Jesuit leaders, Stalin, Skinner and others. Some with noble intentions, some nefarious.

Regardless of the intention, I believe there is a great deal of truth in this notion. For this reason, there should be little surprise that education in America is such a big business. Nor should there be any surprise that it has been so politicized since the 1970s, when the federal government got into the business of education with the establishment of the U.S. Department of Education.

According to the its FY2018 Agency Financial Report, the department’s total budgetary resources (i.e., what it has to spend) amounted to $358.5 billion, with nearly half of that being borrowed money (i.e., debt incurred to fund the department).

As with any enterprise of this magnitude, resources are neither taken nor given freely, nor should they be. Think, though, of multitude of strings attached to the monies flowing in and out of the Department of Education. You can read about those strings in the varied and sundry acts and programs enacted by Congress. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Every Student Succeeds are but a few recent examples of plans put forth to improved our bedeviled system of public education in the United States. As with any use of someone else’s money (i.e., yours and mine through the taxes we pay), there should indeed be strings attached. Those strings should relate to beneficial outcomes, which is to say a favorable return on investment.

Since the 1970s, funding for the Department of Education through tax revenues and deficit spending, while having periods of financial ebbs and flows, has increased significantly. Since that time, our system of public education continues to fail so many American students, particularly those who most need the benefits derived from the educational process. For the moment, let us ascribe to the law and policy makers good intentions in terms of the legislation and regulations they enact.

Unfortunately, the intentions of the do-gooders in Washington seem to give way to the failure of unintended consequences over and over again. With the No Child Left Behind Act, for example, an overemphasis was placed on teaching to standardized exams. Of the 11 states that received grants in the Race to the Top program, only four produced improved graduation rates. As for the Every Student Succeeds Act, critics point out that there are relatively few changes from previous legislation that would improve the lot of students in vulnerable populations. Yet, as Reagan stated in his “A Time for Choosing” speech to the 1964 Republican convention, “The more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.” This seems apropos the discussion of federal involvement in public education.

And what is the answer to the repeated failure of plan after plan? Let us spend more money. We’ll get it right next time. I ask: are the minds and futures of generation upon generation of youth a fair price to pay politicians for their experiments in education?

To that point, Harry Truman said that politicians are the “C” students of the world. In general, I think he was correct. If we accept that general premise, do we really want the members of Congress and the administration appointees designing our educational system, developing curricula and defining student success?

As politicians this election year put forth their plans for education, I think it’s important to ask a couple questions.

1.       Who best has the interest of individual students in mind and heart? Is it a politician, seeking to maintain their power in Washington, or is the parents of individual students? Do the educational planks of candidate platforms place control in the District of Columbia or in the homes and local communities of students and parents?

2.       How do candidates’ proposals ensure that good money isn’t thrown after bad?

3.       How do the strings attached to funding for public education benefit students and parents, as opposed to the apparatchiks in Congress and in the Department of Education?

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the importance of education and learning in the United States, recognizing that they are essential to Liberty and a free people. More than 130 years prior to the federal government established the Department of Education, de Tocqueville observed, “There is hardly a pioneer's hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” He also noted that the homes he visited were always appointed with an axe, a bible and newspapers.

The love of learning and the recognition that it is a necessary condition for Freedom has historically been a key facet of the American identity. It is so important in lifting people up and in ensuring that each person fully benefits from citizenship. I am by no means saying that we should do away with education generally or public education specifically. I’m simply suggesting that we should be cautious in regard to whom we would turn over the tutelage of our fellow citizens, be they five or fifty-five.

In the Enchiridion of Epictetus, Arrian recalls some advice from Epictetus, which goes, “If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?” This precept should have great value for our society today, as free and open thinking in the classrooms and on the campuses of academe faces the forces of oppression. Even those who suggest that the intentions of those in Congress might be misguided are pilloried with all manner of ad hominem attacks, onus probandi fallacies, or the fallacies of single cause.

As always, the purpose of these weekly posts is not to tell you what to think but to beg your engagement in the thought process and the discussion of election-year issues. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and arguments in the comment section below.

1 comment:

  1. The irony of the spend on education is that education is not a commodity. You can't purchase an education. You must earn an education. I understand there are certain expenses involved to provide amenities but the common and disturbing mentality that I've seen from the left is we must increase educational funding in order to ensure students are properly educated. This simply isn't true, these two do not correlate. Perhaps we could hire better teachers with increased salaries but seldom/never is additional funding allocated to salaries. Rather it goes to the ignorant programs you mentioned above (No Child Left Behind, Every Child a Success..etc). I fear our particular government will never have a sufficient resolution for educating the youth. Don't even get me started on post secondary..



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