America’s retreat from its century and a half commitment to public education has now become a rout. There has not been a greater betrayal of our country in my lifetime. There is no more disastrous portent for our future.
Before the Reformation of the sixteenth century, no one dreamed of universal education. Literacy was essentially the prerogative of the elite, and a prime means of maintaining the social power of the privileged few. Two events challenged this monopoly: the invention of the printing press, and Martin Luther’s challenge to Europe’s dominant institution, the Catholic Church. Luther spread his message by pamphleteering, and he sought to make its basis popularly available by translating the Bible into the vernacular. Much came out of this, including the birth of modern democracy itself.
Literacy rates gradually rose in succeeding centuries, partly as a result of economic expansion and urbanism. The notion of universal literacy came only with the growth of popular democracy, and it became a reality only under the impetus of the Industrial Revolution, which required an educated work force. Public education was the only practical means to achieve this, and it was astonishingly successful: by 1900, literacy was approaching 100% in economically advanced nations.
My own education was a public one, up through my bachelor’s degree in college. Graduated taxation supported it. My parents, themselves publicly educated, paid nothing extra for it. Nor did I. It was by this time taken for granted as a right as well as a necessity.
Public education was also democratic education; that is to say, it answered to the will of the people. It both prepared the young for citizenship and exemplified it in itself. It thus rested on a foundation of trust based on experience. The state provided education, but the community ultimately controlled it.
The system was never perfect, of course. Richer communities had better schools. Segregation separated black from white education. Biases of various sorts were built into the curriculum. Nonetheless, public education was by and large the most successful initiative undertaken in modern times. It transformed Western society, both as the basis of its civic consciousness and material prosperity. It was, and is, the indispensable basis of modern democracy.
It is today under near-universal assault.
Our long retreat from public education, now approaching a rout, began as the backlash to the student activism of the 1960s, which demanded the full implementation of civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam. Students demanded social justice and the cessation of a genocidal conflict being fought half a world away. They showed the proud success of public education: young citizens ready to stand up for their country’s professed values. Instead, they provoked the attack on it by Richard Nixon, which resulted in the student massacre by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, and the beginning of what would become a systemic onslaught on public education at every level.
The story’s a long one, but simply summarized. School desegregation, mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, was tacitly walked back. Steadily rising income inequality starved locally-funded school districts in poorer areas. As schools began to fail, privatization set in in the form of for-profit charter schools, subsidized by the state and thereby creating a vicious cycle that undermined the essential principle of public education. Less and less money for such education meant deteriorating facilities, declining teacher salaries, and the general assault on tenure protections from grade school to university levels in both the private and public sectors. The result was a general degradation of the academic profession. Students did not learn; teachers did not earn.
The crisis of public education has been slow to engage the corporate media, but the horrific wave of school shootings that climaxed (but has surely not ended) with Parkland and the “red” marches of teachers from West Virginia to Arizona demanding money for education, have at least momentarily made it newsworthy. That teachers must pay out of pocket for basic supplies and that students must march on state legislatures and the Congress to protect their very lives is, simply, evidence of a society in freefall. That they do so without significant response or effect shows how very near, if not at the bottom we are. A society that cannot or will not protect its young has surrendered already. A society that will not educate them has abandoned its own future.
As the schools have failed, the vultures have swooped in. Bill Gates thinks his billions give him the right to dictate the curriculum of schools that are the recipients of his largesse. Stephen Schwarzmann thinks his hedge fund money entitles him to rename a public school in his name, complete with a huge portrait and plaques for his siblings. Public education’s last chapter will be as a vanity showcase for obscene wealth.
Meanwhile, education is being outsourced at its core, as native-born teachers are increasingly replaced by hires from places such as the Philippines, who’ll work on temporary visas for pittance wages and pay for the privilege to corporate placement agencies. Thus will the last vestiges of teaching as a profession be broken, as educators become as disposable as seasonal crop workers. And when the Bill of Rights is taught to students by recruits from a country whose president has egged on the slaughter of thousands of his fellow citizens in the streets, how long will our own public institutions endure?
I’ll put it as simply as I can. Without robust public education, America cannot survive even nominally as a democracy, or much of anything else. Without safe schools, we can’t have learning of any sort, except in the palisades of the rich.
We can join the marching students and teachers, or kiss our country goodbye.