Politics of educational apartheid

Effective self-rule (i.e. true democracy) hinges on an educated and enlightened populace.

I learn things over my children’s shoulders as they make their way through the excellent education that I did not get in elementary and high school.  One thing I learned recently is that a policy of “enclosure” in England during the industrial revolution helped lead to the oppression of the working class; enclosure happened as the landed aristocracy increasingly boundaried, fenced and delineated the lands they owned (and land ownership was what had always separated the rich from the poor).  As peasants were denied access to pastureland, they couldn’t keep a goat, for example, and in turn couldn’t sustain themselves at the meager levels they had existed, free but poor, for centuries.  With diminishing ability to self-sustain, poor country folk were funneled to the cities, with their sprouting mills and factories, where they quickly became slaves to their wages—never making enough to get out of their indentured servitude to their new feudal lords, the bourgeoisie.

This got me thinking about how the oppression of the lower classes happens not only by design, but by side-effects of trends, such as enclosure.  Enough oppression and you have the seeds of revolution, but perhaps not every revolution has to be violent; perhaps some revolutions can happen by way of consciousness.  Perhaps some revolutions are revolutions of consciousness itself.

As a society we have spent less and less on education.  The rich increasingly pay privately for education, especially in the elite corridors of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  While the rich lament that education is expensive, at the same time they secure their children advantage by keeping it expensive.

This propagates and sustains a giant lie:  the idea that anyone is free to have a top rate education, regardless of race, gender or anything that might have been the battle line in the middle of last century masks the stark truth that education is expensive, and the rich get it and the poor generally do not.

We have an economic apartheid in education, an enclosure whereby public schools get dwindling funds that are withheld by the rich and privately directed toward the children of the rich.  And while it would be un-American to suggest that the rich shouldn’t have the option to send their children to school where they choose, how is it democratic to deny the vast majority access to a top rate education?

Crumbling buildings, underpaid teachers and lack of books is a sign that as a culture we do not want the poor to be educated.  It isn’t just a shortage of funds, it is a conscious desire of those with power to place their children in the most advantageous position; it very well may be an unconscious desire for those with advantage to block other children from competing on an equal footing.

Just as the sons and daughters of the aristocracy were born to advantage, the children of the well educated and affluent are born to good education.  As the inequity continues, it grows more marked.

What would happen if congress made a study of what the rich provide for their children and made this the standard for all children?  Would well-paid teachers, ample facilities, freedom to shape curriculum, tailored education to different learning styles, etc. become the basic minimal expectation of what this country stood to offer to every child?

After all, when it comes to our own children we do not consider basic education to be a luxury; instead we kid ourselves to the extent we get that charter school, move to that good neighborhood for the schools or fork over the private school tuition that we are going way beyond basic education rather than admitting that we are scraping and scrounging for what should be considered basic education.  In contrast we must also admit that those who cannot find a way to secure the luxury education are in fact left with an inferior education.  How is this consistent with a true democracy?

As it stands, there is obviously no wide support for this (or we would have better public education in America).  My point is that we, not the government, must face our unconscious behavior of educational apartheid.  We need to either get more uncomfortable in the service of a better, fairer and ultimately healthier society, or we need to look in the mirror and admit that we are not interested in empowering all children for fear that our own children will be hurt by this.  This may be human nature, but even Darwin might have to rethink his definition of the “fittest” in a democratic society—“fittest” for what?  Fittest for “survival” is perhaps different from fittest for happiness, or compassion, or fittest to evolve in one’s consciousness.

America seems to have become a blunt and aggressive bully on the world stage, and thus capitalist pseudo-democracy has proven fittest in a world of deforestation, war, global warming and overproduction of goods.  But this is unsustainable, and we are building a country that may appear in the eyes of much of the rest of the world like one big Versailles?  Maybe the sooner we deconstruct our own internal enclosures the sooner the rest of the world will grow less inclined to attack us and tear our walls down for us.

The few kids who come from disadvantage and yet who may be given a shot at good education must usually distinguish themselves by standing out by way of their gifts, be they intellectual, artistic or athletic.  This may strike us at first glance as fair, as a meritocracy; yet a democracy should offer every single child a chance for an equally good education as wealthier peers.  This is the essence of fairness; and fairness would make our society better by making it kinder.

Having gotten to know enough very well educated people, as well as extremely wealthy people, I have become rather unconvinced about these as routes to happiness.

You don’t need a Harvard education to understand simple and just concepts; if we deny children access to good education we actively oppress and suppress them.  We are not un-American to hold our country to a standard envisioned by those who fought and died for freedom (in the revolution, in the great Wars).  Freedom today means freedom from economic slavery; and economic slavery is perpetuated by educational apartheid that spits people stuck at minimum wage into a society in which it is not possible to survive on minimum wage.  How far can you push people down before they wake up and realize that they have nothing to lose?  That is precisely when things, at least historically, get ugly for those in power.

I don’t really see Washington as gridlocked; I see our zeitgeist as complacent and content with non-action.  Change will weaken the position of those with power, and therefore the fact that we see no change reflects the fact that we are not living under an effectively working democracy.

So, as you read these words it may serve to ask yourself, in the privacy of your own heart: do you have power in this game or not?  If you do not, is there anything you can do to empower your own community?  Can you empower your neighbors, your kids and your community to educate itself on what good education really looks like and start to make it happen?  This could be forming study groups for kids, searching for ways to master and teach the basics of Reading, Math, History and Science.  If we sit down with the books, we can figure out ways to make things interesting and understandable; if we watch less dumb TV and model reading and learning for our kids, they might step up and join us.

And if you do have power, how much might you be willing to give up in the way of time, money or even in giving up old and arguably useless fears in the service of all kids getting a fair shot?  Can you honestly say you think things are fair right now?  And if not, how willing are you to put fair access to truly good education as a top political and social priority in your own mind?  If you are part of the power situation, the way you spend your time and money can change the game.  Finally, ask yourself if you are truly happy, secure and living true to your deep Self (ask this of the high-achieving friends that surround you); could it be that demanding and being part of fairness and generosity for all our collective children might help happiness and well-being sneak up on you?

More of what doesn’t work, simply doesn’t work.  So, let’s be conscious, bravely conscious even if it’s uncomfortable, in the service of fairness and good education for every one of our collective children.  This is enlightened Self-interest.

Namaste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “Politics of educational apartheid”

  1. Lindsey M Nelson Says:

    I just watched The Blind Side a few days ago, and this speaks to what was milling in my mind in regards to the film without words to express it. We have decided to step out of the system and to school our children at home. But I know that this also has ill effects on our crumbling public schools because fewer bodies in the desks means fewer dollars for the school. Do you know if there are any countries (Sweden, maybe?) where educational access is less influenced by family affluency?

  2. Alana Says:

    I have a dream (one of many). In this dream a public school is a series of rooms. Each room is full of wonderful resources based on a particular subject. The rooms are “staffed” by teachers, parents and grandparents. Children of differing ages can roam from room to room, based on their true interests, their passions. They can spend a week learning about astronomy, an hour reading, doing yoga, or playing football, a day making art. Children are respected and trusted – when their natural curiosity is not beaten out of them, they know how to ask the “right questions”, find the answers, learn what they need to know to be happy, productive, successful on their own terms. There are always adults present, not to control but to support as there is no need for control when everyone is given the freedom to be themselves. Possible? I believe so. Probable? Not in my lifetime. Sigh.

  3. Sue Says:

    Once again, Bruce, you are a genius. Since reading your post I listed to a podcast about the re-categorizing of autistic and Asperger’s kids all into “autism spectrum disorder” in the proposed new DSM-V. Some people are worried, understandably, about their more seriously autistic kids losing services if the funding is required to be spread over a larger number of kids. But some Asperger’s kids had trouble qualifying before for services that could truly be helpful.

    That made me relate back to your post. It is VERY hard to want to fix a system when you are benefiting from it being broken. Especially if there is not agreement about it being broken. It is one thing to want more for everyone, but if it means your child will get less… that is an almost impossible decision for most parents to make. We just aren’t wired that way.

    And in most cases, those who are benefiting from any “current” system are more empowered than those who are not. I think that’s why things tend to continue in the direction they are going, because the empowered act in their own best interest until the forces against them somehow become strong enough to make the pendulum swing back the other way. You are playing a part in pushing back. Good for you! We need more politicians like you (if that isn’t a logical impossibility!).

    Interestingly enough, I went to private school in spite of my parents raising 5 kids on a waitress’s income. My husband and I have college degrees, and we always thought we would try to send our children to private school. But the way life works out, we only have one child and he is going to public school and thriving. I did struggle with the guilt of depriving the public school of a body in a seat (and the associated $$), and depriving his potential classmates of a bright, well-adjusted peer who will probably succeed wherever he goes. But in the end I chose what happened to be best for his and our unique situation. The deciding factor ended up being the fact that certain therapies he is legally entitled to, were only available at the public school. Kind of an ironic twist.

    Now, given the tendency for an object at rest to stay at rest, our son will probably stay in the public school unless something makes us consider other options. So there are ways, maybe small ways, in which public schools may have an advantage sometimes and all is not lost.

    We have charter schools in our part of Michigan, and several private options as well, but not the inner-city concentration of crime and poverty that makes it so hard for some public school systems (like Detroit) to survive. Detroit public schools are failing despite getting almost twice as much what our schools do, per pupil. Of course, declining enrollments from people leaving Detroit in droves doesn’t help either. But it is frustrating when statewide all public schools and charter schools are losing over $400 per pupil next year, and that results in a 6% cut for our smaller schools and only a 3% cut for Detroit schools. I don’t want to begrudge Detroit the money to help their kids, but when that increased funding doesn’t seem to be helping…

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I like your dream school. It sounds a little like home schooling to me. Libraries, museums, universities… with the children free to explore to their mind’s content.

    Thanks as always for your thought-provoking posts.

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