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THE GREAT BRAIN ROBBERY


Doug Dowd

Let

not young souls be smothered out before

They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.

It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,

Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.

Set

those words beside these: 

I

am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain

than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in

cotton fields and sweatshops. 

The

lament is that of the left poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), written in the

1920s; the judgment about brainpower was recently expressed by the

paleontologist/biologist Stephen Jay Gould.  The dulling of lives is of

course not the world’s "one" crime, but it is fed by and feeds most of

the others, and is among the most heinous; and one may be sure that Gould’s

opinion refers to the lives and deaths of countless billions of the past and

present who never saw a cotton field or a sweatshop — whether in rich or poor

countries, in time past or present.

What

ties the two observations together is implicit:  responsibility for ongoing

human calamities lies in our social institutions, not in the genes of their

victims.  The calamity dealt with here will be education in the United

States.  The high point of its accessibility for those who need it most was

reached in the 1970s; then began its descent to already disastrously low levels. 

Before examining education’s quantitative condition, however, a brief comment is

in order as regards its quality.

Educational

systems characteristically function first and foremost to maintain and

strengthen the status quo, the core of which here is of course capitalism and

nationalism.

When

the educational needs of the young are considered, they are defined in terms

whose point of reference is that status quo.  That the young have other

needs and, even more, quite other possibilities, is given short shrift, except

by a small percentage of teachers –  the exceptions proving the rule, and

as likely as not to be punished as rewarded for their efforts:  all

education, even for the well-off, is thus not only defective but mutilating. 

(It should go without saying that for a good 80 percent of the world’s people,

our educational system would be seen as glorious.)

In

the United States, the first steps toward free public education began in

Massachusetts, in 1852:  compulsory elementary school for (only) 12 weeks a

year, ages 8 to 14.  Not until 1914 were even such low standards enacted in

more than a few urban areas; and when those requirements were met at all they

were diluted, for they stood in conflict with the widespread use of child labor

(legal until 1938; reduced, but enduring still). 

 

Whatever

is wrong in general with our public education is all the worse for the urban and

rural poor.  Chronic inadequacy of access to education for them has been

the nation’s way of saying they are useless except for menial work and,

intermittently, as cannon fodder.  An appalling illustration is how, in

these triumphant years of sustained economic growth, both the educational and

income conditions of those on the bottom have worsened: Congressional Budget

Office data show that between 1977 and 1999 the annual income of the bottom 20

percent of families fell by 9 percent; the next highest 20 percent had just a

one percent rise:  over 100 million people.  (The top one percent –

about 2.5 million people — had a rise of 115 percent.)   

By

the unreasonable official definition, less than a third of that bottom 40

percent are "officially" poor, even though all of them must struggle

to survive on low wages, little or no health care, dreadful housing, and diets

worse than deficient.   The official poverty level for a family of

three is an annual income under $16,000; the figure for the median family (half

above, half below) stands at about $40,000.  One would like to have those

who set such measures live with their families for a year at even $30,000 in any

urban area; then, in the discomfort of their costly but meager apartment, they

might redefine "poor. 

Families

with an income of less than the median income are also parents of well over half

of the children in the United States.  Whatever might be wrong with even

the best schools when set against acceptable criteria, it may be said that

everything is wrong with the schools for those children.  There is nothing

new about any of that; since the 1970s it has all become systematically worse,

in tandem with the rightward plunge of policies called "centrist"

which would have been deemed reactionary 30 years ago.  Item:  my

"liberal" and very rich State of California, once the highest per

capita spender on public education, now is seventh from the bottom; now

California leads the nation in spending on prisons — an obscene transformation

that receives little comment.

Those

who are poorly-educated have always had trouble finding a decent job; but in the

not too distant past they did at least have the possibility of moving up to one.

Nowadays they often compete for low- and unskilled jobs with no future with the

now de-skilled victims of downsizing and outsourcing, all pitted against each

other in an economy that needs them less and less.

Politicians

of every feather are now shouting "education!"  But their

policies are aimed at the fears and hopes of those at the top levels of income,

not the needs of those at the bottom — exemplified most clearly in voucher

proposals, which, to the degree that they come into being will make rubble of an

already rickety public school system.

What

about us?  We must push for policies that integrate badly-needed

educational reforms with their natural kin:  that whole broad range of

issues comprising comprising exploitation, oppression and repression,

inequalities at home and globally, peace, and environmental safety.  Here

are only some of the more important measures needed to insure a basic education

for those to whom it has been and is being denied:

  •     

    a renewal and expansion of Head Start for small children;   

  •     

    extensive child care programs for the working poor;

  •     

    extensive programs to insure needed health care for all children, at least;

  •     

    a renewal and expansion of Job Corps programs;

  •     

    an assurance that all public colleges and universities will admit the top

    10-15 percent of graduates from all high schools in their states;

  •     

    the improvement of wages and working conditions for all teachers, K-12;

  •     

    a large-scale slimming down of educational bureaucracies;

  •     

    a proportionately large-scale increase in the influence of parents,

    teachers, and students on schools’ means and ends;

Little

can be done about changing either the means or the ends of our schools except

insofar as the effort to achieve such a program becomes part of a political

movement that seeks to change much in addition to education; just as clear is

that such a larger movement requires and must demand, with no ifs ands or buts,

that free and good public education be available for everyone, soonest. 

As

existing quantitative deficiencies are reduced there is every reason to believe

that we may then begin to move toward a qualitatively different educational

system, one designed to nourish the grand possibilities of our species instead

of rewarding our worst possibilities. 

Our

political work always has been cut out for us; as this society becomes always

more decadent and cruel the imperatives facing us deepen and increase in

proportion.  Clearly fighting for a decent education system is one of those

imperatives.

 

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