William A. O'Brien: Beware the 'corporate war on public education'

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“Young men who have trodden the paths of science together, or have joined in the same sports, whether of swimming, skating, fishing, or hunting, generally feel, thro’ life, such ties to each other, as add greatly to the obligations of mutual benevolence.” — Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush’s strategy to use public education to fashion political community where none exists — to manufacture an unum from e pluribus — defines one of America’s most significant, and certainly one of its most unique and challenging political dynamics.

Effective governance demands being able to take for granted a faith among citizens that government speaks for them. All of them.

Sociologists term it socialization — the endgame to a process whereby one’s very personhood is defined more by what we have in common with those around us than by our individuality. By the values, norms, ideals, habits and principles that make us one. A people.

It’s this universality, this sense of alikeness, sameness of purpose, that best justifies government’s legitimacy. Only when it emanates from us, the body politic, does it have license to speak for all of us. Consequently, government best defines the public interest because it most closely reflects our own essence. The true manifestation of what Rousseau termed “the general will.”

Whether the basis of this togetherness — the cultural glue that makes us one — is molded by common language, religion, parentage, history or tradition, it best defines who we are as a people. In most nations, it’s always been there.

Government’s job is merely to articulate, honor and make use of it. In America, it never did exist. It had to be created. Much of what’s most relevant in our nation’s history is the narrative of that process. Always in flux, forever challenged by a seemingly endless stream of diverse newcomers, it’s a process that never truly ends. A people in the perpetual state of becoming.

What is an American?

In 1782, de Crevecoeur, enamored by his travels in America, tried to explain to Europeans (“Letters of an American Farmer”), “What ... is the American, this new man?” His protracted answer to his own question made him the first American celebrity in Europe.

“Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.”

Many Americans since have chosen to believe what de Crevecoeur only suggested. That this nation is destined to complete a mission much bigger than itself. To “finish the great circle.”

Rush’s 1792 essay, “On the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic” — written for his own state of Pennsylvania — presents us with an educational game plan to transpose the challenges of pluralism into a community-building asset. To use education to “melt individuals of all nations ... into a new race of men.”

The key to its success? A unitary system of education. Where every child — irrespective of nationality, language, religion, class or upbringing — contributes meaningfully to the success of a common curriculum, ever evolving, where “the obligations of mutual benevolence” translate into the transmission of and devotion to a viable political community.

“Our schools of learning, by producing one general, and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government,” he wrote.

No more education for all

What makes this story relevant today is that public education is under severe attack. In its place, its most vociferous critics promote a two-tiered alternative. An educational system wherein quality is best defined not by what’s in it, but who’s slated to receive it. One that affirms the curse of income and wealth inequality in America rather than vowing to cure it.

Its rationale? To save money by directing shrinking dollars to where they’ll do the most good. Society’s best and brightest. All to the detriment of those who have looked to education for generations as their ticket to opportunity and success. And the continued effectiveness of the political system so dependent upon it.

No longer will education be what Horace Mann called “the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” To accomplish that, he reasoned, it had to be universal: “It is well, when the wise and the learned discover new truths; but how much better to diffuse the truths already discovered, amongst the multitude? Diffusion then, rather than discovery, is the duty of our government.”

Mann’s message is consequential. Government’s role in education is to unite, never to divide. To treat education as opportunity for all, not a reward for talent or privilege. To view it as an instrument of inclusion, never an excuse for exclusion.

In a December 2016 commentary, I speculated on causes for such volatile hostility to the Common Core Standards in West Virginia schools. Why those placed where they could do the most good for kids chose instead to engage in “obstructionist activities and behavior intended to deliver a dependable stream of labor to the state’s most influential industries.”

My conclusions? That our employers seemingly needed manpower, not brain-power. So they determined to dumb down education to produce a compliant, easily controlled workforce that did what it was told, believed what those who signed the checks demanded.

An outlandish idea? Pure speculation? There now seems substantial evidence to indicate that that’s exactly what’s happening. Not by accident, but by deception and deceit. All of it well organized and funded.

Lower expectations

Gordon Lafer in his 2017 book, “The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time,” provides indisputable evidence of an organized, well-funded campaign by large corporations and wealthy political donors to destroy public education in America. To produce a low-skilled, noncompetitive workforce prepared to fill growing numbers of service jobs in our society, but little else.

To build a compliant, docile workforce, satisfied with the jobs available, devoid of aspirations for anything better, with few perceptible expectations that the promise of education can every become reality. At least for them.

To counter the pushback, a program like this is sure to create, to deflect attention away from a job market the masses can never penetrate, Lafer writes: “One of the ways ... they try to avoid a populist backlash is by lowering everybody’s expectations of what we have a right to demand as citizens. When you think about what Americans think we have a right to, just by living here, it’s really pretty little. Most people don’t think you have a right to healthcare or a house. You don’t necessarily have a right to food and water. But people think you have a right to have your kids get a decent education.”

That, Lafer claims, is what opponents of public schools believe must change. Expectations must be lowered. Parents must learn to accept that their kids can expect no more than what their test scores prove they can handle. Schools must abandon the idea that every child is educable, can be motivated and succeed. There’ll be jobs, but not the kind associated with what was the American Dream. For most, what was attainable as the reward for study and hard work is to be redefined into what it really was all along. A pipe dream.

How to pull it off? By attacking public education and the dollars being wasted to fund it. Raising questions about the value of a college education, and the benefits to be derived from much less. Marketing online instruction as true reform, when the experts know that’s not true. Lowering graduation standards to raise completion rates and reduce dropouts. Teaching kids in less expensive, large classes, using digital platforms, instead of small classes with well qualified, more expensive teachers. Channeling tax dollars into vouchers and for-profit charter schools. All of it accompanied by a relentless attack on teachers and a “failed” public education system that costs too much.

Public education, the most visible evidence of socialism in America, is “a dead end,” claims Betsy DeVos, the national leader appointed to head that system.

We know much of the legislation being passed in state legislatures doesn’t originate there. That it’s being drafted outside these states and delivered to compliant party leaders dependent on out-of-state money for re-election. Now we’re beginning to get some idea of where all this behind-the-scenes activity seeks to take us.

It’s important we refuse to go.

William A. O’Brien is executive director of the Virtual Center for Study of the Constitution and Civic Responsibility in Beckley.

Funerals for Sunday, July 5, 2020

Canterbury, Kimberly - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Green, Della - 2 p.m., Evans Funeral Home, Chapmanville.

Miller, Brinley - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Rogers, Robert - 2 p.m., Wallace Funeral Home, Milton.

Starkey, Roger - 2 p.m., Clover Cemetery, Clover.