International Opinion

It’s the Economy ...

By Deborah Meier — January 26, 2012 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’ve had an epiphany so I’m tossing the piece I wrote for this week to “spread the word.”

Can America Make It?” is the headline on the cover of the December issue of The American Prospect. Thelead article is written by an old friend, Harold Meyerson, who argues that, “with the right trade and industrial policies,” we can be a nation with a strong middle-class majority.

It’s a fascinating piece and makes me think that the debates we’re having about school reform have so distracted us that we forget that a good education system depends on a strong society. There’s no point in scaring 5-year-olds into thinking if you don’t work hard, you won’t get a good job—when in fact virtually no one (well-educated or not) is going to have a good job in the future. Except the 1 percent—or maybe it’s 5 to 10 percent?

Meyerson’s vision is not going to be realized through reforming our schools, although they have a role to play. But it depends on whether we think having such an America is what we want to do—for all sorts of reasons. So our own grandchildren will earn decent livings, for example. So that we can sustain democracy, which in turn rests on a certain level of economic wellbeing and security.

Meyerson convinces me anew of what I already suspected. Most American companies that are thriving hire more people abroad than here at home. Think about Apple, for example. Hurrah! It’s an American company. But it doesn’t employ many American citizens. And the industries that have maintained a domestic workforce are increasingly doing it by paying somewhere between minimum wage and $15 an hour—more or less, without pensions and minimal benefits. In short, by paying wages BELOW the poverty line.

Patriotism, nationalism, or whatever you call it, isn’t a motivator for American companies. Let’s accept that as a fact about capitalism, unless it’s the Chinese sort in which industrial policy ultimately rests with the Communist Party’s best interests.

We need to be having serious and public discourse—frank and open—about where our economy is going. We need leadership that educates the public from kindergarten through old age. We need to face the truth ... or else.

We can look abroad not to everyone else’s education systems, but to the way they’re tackling this worldwide problem. We used to have lots of “look at German education” articles way back when—the ‘70s? Now it’s Singapore. And China.

Instead, we might even go back to looking at Germany, which has nowhere near the industrial crisis, the job crisis that we do. Why not? Maybe because it’s a semi-socialistic society in which the government is not afraid to come to the aid of workers and management? Or, are we so afraid of “socialism” that we’d rather look for our future to a nation controlled by the Communist Party?

I like the Finnish school system. I think we can learn a lot from it. But the Finnish political and economic system is also not in a crisis. Ours is. And if we allow ourselves to get bent into pretzels arguing about education as though it held the key to our future, we’re wasting our energy.

I care about our schools because our children spend 12 or more years in them—school is at the heart of their lives. And, children deserve good lives, even if school doesn’t lead to a better job. They deserve to be respected and treated with dignity so they get accustomed to that as the norm. They need to be safe so their parents can go about their adult working lives without fear.

I’m not regretting having spent 50 years trying to reform American public education, and I think it’s more imperative today than ever. But the future doesn’t depend on it the way it does on our economic crisis, our political system crisis, and our planetary self-destruction.

There, I’ve gotten that off my chest. That’s why the Occupy movement has made such a difference. It has collapsed a complicated message into an easy-to-remember slogan: We’re the 99 percent. Oligarchies create educational systems that don’t threaten them. It’s just the way it is unless we dismantle the oligarch’s power to dictate national policy.


P.S. In addition to Harold Meyerson’s piece, I recommend you read Linda Darling-Hammond’s current article in The Nation.

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