“In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility towards human life; towards the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of error, and of God”? James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Part II Section 3, Education.
If this quote from the landmark examination of poverty among tenant farmers in the rural South of 1941 resonates with you, then the election results of November 8, 2016 must surely give you pause since it appears that we have apparently elected the reincarnation of Jacob Marley to occupy the Oval Office. Not one of his picks for his cabinet suggests that humankind will become his business for the foreseeable future. Sure, a few will become richer, but nothing will be said of those who get trampled in the stampede for what little manages to trickle down.
Of particular note, the appointment of Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos as Secretary of Education must terrify all proponents of equitable opportunity in the public schools, because nothing in her résumé suggests anything but disdain for the cause of public schools as the foundation of an egalitarian society. Her policies, if implemented, will only serve to deepen the social & economic divisions of this nation by systematically dismantling access to equitable educational opportunities for all children. What Gandhi suggested about society-at-large applies also to schools, “No society can survive if it attempts to be exclusive.”
Vouchers – most of which are delivered into economically privileged households – essentially endorse educational elitism and fail to deliver education equity to the children facing the greatest challenges.
Reflect for a moment on the possibility that nearly every child is capable of accomplishing some stupendously unimaginable feat that satisfies a salient need of our human species. Why are we not willing to invest in children to such a degree that they might achieve what Simone Weil dubbed their “indispensable destiny“? How can we deny any child the right to that opportunity for self actualization.
Imagine for a moment each of our most economically disadvantaged children on such trajectories, perhaps forging a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians; or designing the magnetic containment field for a fusion reactor; or isolating a molecule that deactivates the aging gene; or finding an inexpensive way to desalinate and purify seawater; or curing cancer; or leading a successful mission to deflect interplanetary debris from an Earth orbit intersect; or solving any of the host of environmental, medical or economic problems that beset all of humanity.
Which of these indispensable destinies would you sacrifice to tax cuts for the wealthy or larger profits margins for private enterprise?
Now, imagine each of those potential world changers settling for a McJob, simply because politicians could not justify the immense effort and expense of truly educating all children to the limits of their potential. Imagine those children lost in the anonymity of large classes and taught by marginally qualified instructors. Imagine those potential movers and shakers of history competing against what is known, today, as the “digital divide“. Not much imagination is required since our tale of two school systems is right in front of our eyes.
Which of these scenarios constitutes the greater loss for our society?
Too much is currently left to serendipity when it comes to educating children. A few children find their way, against all odds, out of challenging circumstances… A few years ago, a former student returned to visit his high school teachers at our majority-poverty high school. He had not been a particular standout in high school, but he had just graduated in 3 1/2 years with a double major and was headed for a prestigious medical school.
He was among the fortunate few who undertake what Anne Sexton called “The Awful Rowing Toward God” on the way to achieving his “indispensable destiny” despite large classes and inadequate resources. Still, such success stories should be the trend and not the anomaly. Nor should such statistically insignificant anecdotes suffice as justification that we have, collectively, provided enough to remove the stumbling blocks for all children.
No child should be allowed to languish in conditions that permit little more than a flourishing of social darwinism. Rather, it is the purview of adults to remove impediments to learning and furnish the resources necessary to achieve self actualization. It is also incumbent on adults to elect representatives who will make such schools possible for all children instead of a privileged few. Should you believe, as does Jonathan Kozol, that ‘spending more on [prisoners] than [students] is a form of cultural suicide’ then the time for political apathy is long past with an understanding that our national greatness will ultimately be determined by how we treat the least powerful among us.