“All too many of those who live in affluent America ignore those who exist in poor America; in doing so, the affluent Americans will eventually have to face themselves with the question that [Nazi death-camp supervisor Adolf] Eichmann chose to ignore: How responsible am I for the well-being of my fellows?” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since the first application of what Arnold Toynbee referred to as “the thin veneer of civilization”, humankind has struggled with the idea of subjugating the desires of the individual to those of the community.
Self-preservation is almost universally hard-wired and true empathy is too rarely experienced. The motivation for most humans action is self-interest followed closely by our genetic programming to assure the survival of our offspring and family members. Generosity becomes increasingly difficult when addressing the needs of neighbors, the nation or the entire species.
Humans show promise, at times, as the events of recent months demonstrate. However, the pride inspired by our collective response to noisy tragedies such as the felling of the World Trade Center must be tempered by our acquiescence before the quiet tragedies of own making.
As a nation and as a community we largely abdicate our responsibility to provide and adequate and equitable education for the children of the poor. We turn a blind eye to the plight of latchkey children sitting in over-crowded, poorly-equipped classrooms staffed by overworked and underpaid teachers.
We are to quick to condemn the working poor as neglectful of their children when they work long hours in their effort to climb out of poverty and improve their social status.
When it comes to social welfare many resent the sustenance that government furnishes the unemployed. When it is a question of supplying educational opportunities the privileged now resent the strain that the children of the working poor place on limited resources for the public schools.
Our indifference to the plight of our fellow citizens virtually assures that children of the poor will not break the cycle of poverty.
What, if anything, do we owe our fellow travelers on planet Earth?
That depends of whom you ask, but consider the Book of Mark, Chapter 21, Verse 6: Jesus replied, “If you want to be perfect, go sell everything you own! Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come and be my follower.” When the young man heard this, he was sad, because he was very rich.
Much like this young man, most of us are not prepared to meet the demands of such a saintly life. Many seem more likely to regard the passing of a camel through the eye of a needle to be an engineering problem rather than to consider the possibility that the essential message has been missed.
Our popular culture tempts us with the rhetoric that greed has gotten a bad rap over the centuries. We joke that the winner is the one who dies with the most toys.
Conspicuous consumerism has become a social responsibility to drive the economy and the acquisition of wealth our national aspiration. “It’s your money!” has even been a political campaign slogan.
Some neighbors ask why they should pay for schools when they have no children. Others complain about elevated taxes with one breath and the the lack of services with the next. Some political leaders worry more about a legacy of architectural achievements than making this region a place where all souls can flourish.
Our government, of the people and by the people, should insure at the very least, that all schools are funded adequately and equitably. In the words of John Adams, “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”
In the coming, weeks we will hear that insufficient funds will fill the county coffers to fund the budget request of the Board of Education. Those who advocate for children must present a united front and demand sufficient resources for all the children of this jurisdiction. For the first time in nearly four decades, this community must fight to fund the entire school budget request. For like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. each of us must have “the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.“
[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on January 20, 2002. Photo from MadMikesAmerica…]