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Occupy Public Education: A More Public System of Education is a More Democratic System of Education by Paul Skiles

People Are Not Capital
A quarter of a century ago, many Americans became dissatisfied with the overall performance of American students. It was precisely at this time that research fellow at Hudson Institute, Dennis P. Doyle, and the Director of Educational Issues at the American Federation of Teachers, Marsha Levine argued that as more American schools had to compete for students, the competition would cause American educational standards to rise (Doyle and Levine 17-18). In that same article in which the authors often refer to students as “human capital,” they also argued that such an increase in privatization would lead to more jobs and a stronger economy.

Nowadays, American businesses prefer the term “human resources,” over the term “human capital”; however, the meaning is the same: businesses often view resources as essentially nothing but capital. Thus, the former part of the term is a red herring; “human” is, at most, secondary, when set beside “resources.” “Resources” seems to have fewer negative connotations than the word “capital,” especially as “human capital” may remind one of a particularly despicable chapter of American history involving slavery. Nonetheless, the problem is that when people are viewed as resources or capital, their humanity often becomes viewed as an inconvenience of sorts. Under such circumstances people become just capital, forget about the human part.

In the years of increasing privatization since Doyle and Levine claimed that privatization of American schools would provide great benefits to our society and economy, the American economy has plummeted into a great recession which privatized education did not prevent. In addition, despite what many Americans still tend to believe, when we abandoned the responsibility of providing educational quality to the free market, we produced an education system that fails those who need it most. Many American students, such as those who participated in recent “Occupy” protests at Berkley, are now calling for a much more public education system, such as the education systems found in Canada and Sweden. Berkley is one of our finest universities and its students have some of the finest minds of our society. We should heed their advice. The United States shouldreadopt a public educationsystem because it will provide equal academic and professionalopportunities, it will ensure equality in our society, and it will ultimately produce conditions in which American society can flourish.

As a word, school has its roots in the Greek word for leisure (σχολή) because in ancient Greece, only the leisure-class could attend school. If we are not careful, America may soon reinstate this model and become a society where only the elite can afford an education. Economist at the Labor Institute, Sharon Syzmanski, along with professor of political science at University of Pennsylvania, Adolph Reed, wrote in 2004, “With insufficient federal loan funds available, students and their families have to turn to private loans, which have skyrocketed. Nonfederal loans through banks and private lenders amounted to $7.5 billion in 2003 and represented a 41 percent increase just from 2002. Also, students and their families rely increasingly on home-equity loans and high-interest-rate credit card financing” (Reed and Syzmanski 42). Reed and Syzmanski continue, “Recent estimates suggest that as many as 25 percent of students depend on credit cards to help finance college costs. The result is that 64 percent of students graduate with a loan debt averaging close to $17,000, almost double the average amount in 1992” (Reed and Syzmanski 42). It has been nearly a decade since that report from Syzmanski and Reed was published; we can only hope that the average student loan debt has not redoubled since then. If the trend continues, the education system in America will devolve into something like the model used in Ancient Greece sooner than we think.

Undoubtedly, the interest students owe to banks and credit card companies is not what most Americans had in mind when the privatization of schools was first explored. One of the most troubling indicators of the peril our education system is in, as shown by Syzmanski and Reed, is that higher education is now affordable to a smaller percentage of Americans. The question of whether the overall quality of schools has risen or not as a result of increased privatization does not matter to the growing percentage of Americans who can no longer afford to go to college. Privatization of American schools has made the gap between rich and poor more intense: for many of our citizens, not only has privatization of schools meant worsened economic conditions because of fewer, if any, professional opportunities, but it also means the ever-widening gap between the “Haves” and “Have-Nots” is now also becoming a widening gap between the “Knows” and “Know-Nots.

Where popular sovereignty, the basis of participatory, pluralist democracy is concerned, the main problem with creating a class of “Know-Nots” is that an entire economic class is created. That class, in turn, may not be educated well enough to properly represent itself politically. If an entire economic class is not educated well enough to cast informed votes or lead, only those who can afford a good education are left in charge, and such people are often affluent enough to take education for granted. Thus, without equal political representation of all economic classes, corporations are essentially left with little or no oversight and may impose any policy changes they desire on issues ranging from workers’ rights to environmental standards. Therefore, such an increase of corporate influence in our everyday life is a problem to be addressed with utmost seriousness. Corporatist influence should not dominate let alone even be a part of our education system.

Plutocracy Is Not Democracy
Perhaps the administration of former President Hoover had better minds for economics than the administration of his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt; perhaps global warming is a hoax; perhaps President Barack Obama is a Stalinist who was born in Kenya. Such are the assertions that populate American discourse. In that same spirit which so many of us are used to by now, Americans such as columnist and author Jonah Goldberg, ask us to dismiss as mere partisan rhetoric well-founded critiques of corporate indoctrination. However, when it comes to the topic of corporations exploiting our government, many Americans still readily admit there is a problem. Notwithstanding, in his book, Liberal Fascism, Goldberg seems to suggest that what we should fear most is government’s exploitation of corporations, not the opposite (Goldberg 286). Such governmental influence is the real fascism in his view; forget that America’s governmental leaders are elected representatives of public interests, not private interests, save for when the general public can no longer afford to represent itself because of privatization in schools, of course. Service to private interests should be considered more suspiciously than service that honors the will and oversight of the public. The public does not typically have a way of knowing who or what private interests actually serve.

With our education system starting to fail to meet its most basic requirement of educating citizens for democracy, the extent to which dangerous corporate indoctrination exists in our schools should be explored.  In his book, When Corporations Rule the World, economist, author and former Harvard Business School professor, David Korten, states that large corporations now become active in education beginning at the elementary school level to essentially brainwash youths into subscribing to corporatist ideals. Korten wrote that private corporations even go so far in that endeavor as to produce classroom materials like textbooks (Korten 154-155). When textbooks are written and approved for classroom use by private interests alone, our understanding of the world is completely shaped by private interests, and when our understanding of the world is shaped by the private interests of corporations, some of which may not even be American, then our ability to make policies that are always in the best interests of our general public and not just in the best interests of corporations is made all the more difficult. Additionally, providing equal political representation in this context is hopeless.

While some like David Korten inform us that privatization is turning public education into a system of factories owned by the elite and for the purpose of producing human resources, others are convinced that what we should really be afraid of is left-wing indoctrination by a vast conspiracy of radical teachers. Perhaps Barack Obama is a Stalinist Kenyan, perhaps global warming is a hoax. In much the same way that such rumors were spread, the claim of supposed indoctrination from a mass of radical teachers has become a popular generalization within right-wing circles and is now often utilized in arguments supporting the privatization of American public schools. The author David Horowitz, founder of the Students for Academic Freedom, and one of the loudest voices against supposed leftist indoctrination, even went so far as to publish a list of “The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America,” in his book The Professors. Therein, Horowitz indicted a seemingly broad range of American professors whom we are meant to believe are all liberals, and whose crimes against conservatism often constitute no more than having dared to publish books wherein they expressed their own views. One such case involves a professor who, according to Horowitz, had the audacity to write a book suggesting that the unapologetic, confrontational characteristics of “gangsta rap” might be forcing more privileged Americans to finally consider the social problems most common in impoverished African American communities (Horowitz 132-133). Although Horowitz’s list does contain some examples of professors who apparently steer students into leftist ideologies inside public university classrooms, his total list of 101 professors, even if they were all legitimate threats to fair education, would not even represent one percent of all public university professors in America. Furthermore, Horowitz fails to connect each of the professors he lists to the next; any conspiracy meant to be serious enough to frighten us away from public education, should, I think, be at the very least an organized conspiracy. After all, we can probably find examples of people who disobey rules in every field of work; the small fraction of rogue professors on Horowitz’s otherwise questionable list of the “most dangerous academics” speaks for, not against, the integrity of American public university professors.

The very presence of those who suspect a secret leftist plot in education could be further evidence that public education is in trouble. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Menand explained in his book, The Marketplace of Ideas, we should indeed be concerned with the individual politics of professors, but the things professors do or say outside of classrooms usually cannot be used to measure how professors conduct themselves inside classrooms. According to Menand, almost all American professors allow for the academic freedom of their students, a claim that also seems to be confirmed by the lack of condemning evidence in support of charges that there is a leftist conspiracy in public schools. Menand illustrates that instead of a conspiracy involving professors, suspicions against professors arise, rather predictably, when societies experience troubled times (Menand 129-131).

For some conservatives, however, academic freedom itself is a leftist conspiracy. In his book, The Closing of the American Mind, philosopher Allan Bloom criticized fellow philosopher and important American education reformer John Dewey, for a system that Bloom claims completely disregards tradition. What Bloom and Dewey seem to disagree on is whether we all have a natural right to live by presuppositions without interruption from the state (Bloom 29). Dewey thought that free inquiry, the liberty to question anything one chooses without regard to a society’s biases, is vital to democracy. Free inquiry is basically academic tolerance, and Dewey simply recommended that we should have a system of education that is tolerant of all opinions, not a system that disregards tradition or anything else. It is true that the system which Dewey helped design challenges each generation to examine traditions through the lens of critical thinking (Dewey 101-102). However, it should be noted that indoctrination cannot occur where critical thinking is sanctioned and used, as critical thinking requires that we question all sides of a debate, both left and right. Indoctrination cannot occur where there is a combination of academic freedom and critical thinking, and it is therefore Dewey’s system of education that made American universities so worthwhile and successful. Only in educational systems that incorporate the supervision of all constituents of an informed society, and which allow for critical thinking as well as complete academic freedom, are we safeguarded against indoctrination and assured of a democracy of equal political representation.

Providing Education Is a Responsibility, Not an Industry
Recently, in the United Kingdom, some have asserted that the overall excellent performance of universities in the United States is due to more privatization within the American education system. In his essay, Transforming Higher Education, Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, used that claim to demand that government involvement in British universities should end. Kealey even goes so far as to suggest that the remaining funds of The Higher Education Funding Councils be given to a new group, which should then distribute it to prospective students based on academic merits alone (Kealey 2). The problem with Kealey’s claim that privatization leads to better educational quality is that most recent studies show that Cambridge University in England has been the best university in the world for the last two years, with several other English universities not far behind it.

One factor that is commonly used to determine which universities are the best is faculty-to-student ratio. Faculty-to-student ratio is of particular importance because as American universities become increasingly privatized, like many other businesses, they might attempt to make higher profit goals by cutting staff, which would then squeeze more students into each classroom, making learning and teaching more difficult.Moreover, the prominent critical pedagogy theorist, Henry Giroux, has elaborated on such parsimoniousness, saying that when the interests of an education system becomes the same as those of businesses, universities then begin to retain only those parts which are minimally required for operation, elements such as school libraries and humanities classes, he notes, are cut to maximize profit. While libraries may not be integral to a university from a business standpoint, Giroux writes that institutions such as public libraries are nevertheless integral for conducting relevant critiques of society, and providing arenas for making such critiques is one of the proper roles of academia. Therefore, institutions such as school libraries are integral to providing the best societal conditions in which to live (Giroux 1).

Occupy Educational Equality, Occupy Your Future
In summary, I am arguing that a more robust public system of education is essential to a more democratic system of education. Privatization not only leads to a more undemocratic system of education but also to a more undemocratic society. A more democratic system of education, by which I mean one that is governed by public interests and needs, leads to an economy that operates in the best interests of the general public, rather than leading to an economy that operates in the private interests of those few whose needs are least of all.

As our tuition costs have skyrocketed beyond the rate of inflation, we have seen horrible disparities in American society. A truly public system of education would create more opportunities and reduce such disparities. It would also give our children a better opportunity to realize their full potentials, both as students and as citizens.

The more privatized our system of education becomes the more it will serve only private interests. The more public our system of education becomes, the better it serves the needs of all our citizenry. We should endeavor for a more public system of education until we have a system that represents every American with perfect fairness, especially as education is an issue that often involves children and children cannot be expected to undertake this struggle for equality themselves.

Works Cited

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. Print.

Doyle, Dennis P. and Levine, Marsha. “American Business and Public Education: The Question of Quality.” Peabody Journal of Education 63.2 (1986): 17-26. Print.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Print.

Finacom, Steven. Creative Cal Tuition Protest Signs. Digital image. Berkley Daily Planet.Com. The Berkley Daily Planet, 09 Nov. 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. <http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2011-11-10/article/38772?headline=Creative-Cal-Tuition-Protest-Signs##38772&gt;.

Freakonomics.Com. Inflation of Tuition and Fees (Private Four-Year Colleges), Medical Costs, and Cost of Living, 1978-2008. Digital image. Freakonomics.Com. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/10/27/cost-of-college-on-the-rise-again/&gt;.

Giroux, Henry. “The Politics of Ignorance: Casino Capitalism and Higher Education.” Counterpunch.org. 31 October , 2011: 1. Web. Date of access: 1 November 2011.

Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. New York: Doubleday, 2007. Print.

Guardian.Co.UK. University Rankings. Digital image. Guardian.Co.UK. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/sep/08/worlds-top-100-universities-2010.&gt;.

Horowitz, David. The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2006. Print.

Kealey, Terence. “Transforming Higher Education.” AdamSmith.org, 20 November 2007: 2. Web. Date of access: 31 October 2011.

Korten, David. When Corporations Rule the World. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press,      1995. Print.

Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Print.

Q.S. Top Universities. Q.S. World University Rankings 2011-2012. Digital image. TopUniversities.Com. Q.S. University Rankings. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2011.&gt;.

Reed, Adolph Jr. and Syzmanski, Sharon. “Free Higher Education.” Academe 90.2 (July – August 2004): 39-43. Print.

Rutgers University. Wall Street. Digital image. Fin.Math.Rutgers.Edu. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://www.finmath.rutgers.edu/index.php?d=home&p=lettertoemployers&gt;.

United States Postal Service. John Dewey, Prominent Americans Issue United States Stamp. Digital image. Colnect.Com. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://colnect.com/en/stamps/stamp/92647-John_Dewey-Prominent_Americans_Issue-United_States&gt;.

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Paul Skiles is working toward a degree in occupational therapy at Macomb Community College in Michigan. He is a parent, an activist, an active reader of the Buddhist Dhammapada, and a “Whovian” (fan of Doctor Who). He became interested in the issue of public education when he learned that American students participating in the “Occupy” movement were brutalized by police.

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