I got involved in a brief discussion on Facebook about privatizing the U.S. postal service. Briefly, those in favor of privatization argued that the post office is inefficient and costly, and that exposing it to market forces through privatization will result in much improved efficiency at lower cost to the American taxpayer.
First of all, if you’re looking for a wasteful government agency to privatize, why not start with the department of defense, which spends roughly $750 billion a year, and which has never passed an audit? Leaving that aside, the privatization enthusiasts assume that “market forces” will necessarily generate improvements in efficiency and improved service. But what if it just monetizes everything, leading to higher prices and poorer service?
Furthermore, why should “efficiency” be the primary goal for a public service? Many small communities and villages rely heavily on local post offices. Under an “efficient” and private system, these local post offices are likely to be closed or consolidated in the name of efficiency, with prices rising for poor and rural communities. Those steps may be “efficient” to private owners, but they won’t be beneficial to all the people who just want mail and related services (and maybe a place to chat with neighbors).
Service to the public should be the primary goal of a public service, not “efficiency.” Sure, efficiency is a good thing, but so too is affordability, convenience, trustworthiness, courteousness, and so on. When you elevate efficiency as the goal above all others, and measure that by metrics based on money, you are inevitably going to compromise important aspects of public service.
Consider the state of public education. When you privatize it, new metrics come in, driven by profit. Private (charter) schools, for example, pursue better students and reject marginal ones as they attempt to maximize test scores so as to justify their approach and ranking. Public schools have to take all students, the good and the bad, the affluent and the disadvantaged, and thus their ratings are often lower.
There’s a myth afoot in our land that government is always wasteful and inefficient, and that unions are always costly and greedy. Our postal service employs roughly 213,000 people, fellow Americans who work hard and who, when they retire, have earned a pension and benefits. Why are so many people so eager to attack public postal workers as well as public schoolteachers?
In my 55 years of living in America, I’ve been well served by a public post office and well educated by public schools. I see no compelling reason to privatize public services just because someone thinks a corporation driven by profit can do it more efficiently.
People think that corporations driven by the profit motive will inevitably produce a better system with improved service. While profit can be made by providing superior service, it can also be made by providing shoddy service or even no service at all, especially in a market resembling a monopoly, or one where corporations are protected by powerful interests.
To recap: public service and efficiency are not identical. Nor should we think of ourselves merely as consumers of a product, whether that product is mail service or education. We need to think of ourselves as citizens, and the post office as composed of citizens like us providing a public service for us, a service where “efficiency” is only one driver, and not the most important one.
A final, perhaps obvious, point: often those who argue for privatization are also those with the most to gain, financially, from it. A lot of people are making money from charter schools, for example. It’s not “efficiency” that’s the driver here: it’s the chance to make a buck, and despite what Gordon Gekko said, greed isn’t always good and right, especially when public service is involved.
So, the Trump Administration wants to merge the Department of Education with Labor. What a surprise. According to Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, “They’re [Education and Labor] doing the same thing. Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?”
I saw this push for education as workforce development when I was a professor of history in Pennsylvania. Education was largely reduced to vocational training, in partnership with business and industry. My classes in history (including the social history of technology) were essentially “filler” classes, and indeed I had a student tell me he might see me again if he needed another “filler” class. I wasn’t angry; I was amused at how perceptive and honest the student was.
Of course, America will always have the Ivy League. Education as training for a job won’t really drive the curriculum at Yale or Harvard or Princeton. You can still get a decent liberal arts education in America, assuming you have money. But if you don’t, it’s off to “workforce training” for you.
When I was still teaching, I used to argue that my history classes were especially valuable to students at the college where I taught since they might be the only college-level course in history that they’d ever experience. I’d argue that plumbers and welders and nurses needed to know history too. Why? Because they’re not just aspiring plumbers and welders and nurses — they’re American citizens, and the health of our democracy is based on a well-informed and broadly educated citizenry.
The Trump Administration doesn’t want such a citizenry. Their vision of education is not about creative and critical thinking, and it certainly isn’t about challenging authority. Rather, it’s about job training, workforce development, preparing people for a lifetime of labor — and supine obedience.
Well, as our “stable genius” president said, “I love the poorly educated.” Under this latest proposal, he’s putting his “love” into practice.
An Addendum: When you treat education as a business, as administrators have been doing in higher ed, is it any surprise when education is reduced to a feeder and filler for labor, for business and industry, for the workforce? As a professor, I had plenty of experience with administrators who sold education as a commodity, who talked about students as “customers” and professors as “providers” of a product. One high-level administrator insisted that we professors meet our students “at their point of need.” Another big push when I was a professor was on retention. Keep those students in college! If only to keep enrollment up and the tuition dollars flowing.
We have reduced education to a business and classes to commodities, so why not combine education with labor? It makes perfect sense … and supports perfectly authoritarian rule.
Five years ago, I remember talking about lockdown drills (or “active shooter drills”) with colleagues at Penn College. Such drills were voluntary. Basically, the drill involved locking the classroom door, moving students to the back of the classroom, and having them hunker down, away from windows, while keeping silent so as to avoid detection by a shooter roaming the halls.
I was against these drills. I thought they added to the fear, and I chose not to do them. But maybe I would do them today.
After one shooting massacre (I can’t recall if it was Virginia Tech in 2007 or Sandy Hook in 2012), locks were added to the classroom doors. In theory, if I heard gunshots, I or one of my students could jump up and lock the door before a shooter got in. But what if a determined shooter shot the lock out?
What a world we Americans live in. Locked classrooms, lockdown drills for active shooters, and now the proposal to turn teachers into so many Harry Callahans (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) and our schools into “hardened” targets by arming teachers with pistols. Perhaps we should keep an AR-15 in each classroom (alongside the fire extinguisher), with a sign that reads, “In case of emergency, break glass – then lock and load.”
President Trump has argued that select teachers be armed – following the NRA’s theory that a good man with a gun is the best insurance against a bad man with a gun. It’s a crazy idea, but we live in a crazy country. Among the worst parts of Trump’s proposal was his stingy suggestion that armed and trained teachers might earn “a little bit” of a bonus. How generous of our brave commander-in-chief.
Think about that for a moment. There is an active shooter (or shooters) in a school, armed with military-style assault weapons and perhaps protected by body armor. Young people are running and screaming, bullets are flying, and in this bloody chaos, we place our faith in a teacher, perhaps armed with a 9mm pistol, thoroughly trained in shooting under combat conditions, willing to risk it all “for a little bit of a bonus.”
It’s a powerful fantasy: the cold bold Harry Callahan-like teacher, taking aim with his or her pistol and blowing away school intruders with perfect head shots. And that’s exactly what it is: a fantasy. As Belle Chesler, a teacher, put it at TomDispatch.com, “We are not warriors, we are teachers. We are not heroes, we are teachers.”
It’s one thing to shoot at paper targets on a gun range; it’s another thing entirely to fire accurately in combat when you’re outgunned and someone is firing back at you. What if, during the chaos of shooting, a teacher accidentally shoots a few students? So-called friendly fire incidents happen frequently in combat, despite the most careful troop training.
If you want more security guards in America’s schools, hire them. Don’t try to turn teachers into cheap cut-rate guards. Yet “a little bit of a bonus” for armed teachers is the best idea our stingy billionaire of a president can come up with.
As we saw in Parkland, Florida, even armed and trained deputies may hesitate before confronting a heavily-armed shooter. How is your average teacher going to react? At least we know Trump will rush in, heel spurs and all, whether he’s armed or unarmed, to save the day. Or so he says.
Most people, even when armed, will not rush toward the sound of gunfire. We tend instinctively to freeze, to take cover, or to run. It takes a combination of training, willpower, and courage to rush toward danger, often strengthened by teamwork and inspired by one or more leaders who set the example. The problem is not as simple as “give a teacher a gun, and he or she will blow the bad guy away.”
In a country awash in weapons, there are no easy answers. One model is to turn our schools into fortresses, complete with surveillance cameras and panic buttons and smoke ejectors in hallways, as in this “safe” school in Indiana. Trump’s model is to arm select teachers for a tiny bonus. Limited efforts at gun control, such as raising the age to purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21, are like putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. One thing is certain: better law enforcement is crucial, e.g. there were many warnings about the Parkland shooter that were dismissed or ignored.
Again, there are no easy answers. And so Lockdown America is now our reality.
Update (3/9/18): In the wake of the Parkland shootings, Florida legislators have approved guns for teachers in the classroom, as well as more spending on school security. Assault weapons, however, are not to be banned. So the solution to bad men with guns is indeed good men with guns, according to Florida. The NRA wins again.
How long before a teacher, teacher’s aide, or coach with a gun accidentally or intentionally hurts a student with a gun? How long before the inevitable lawsuits result from this, the multi-million dollar settlements? Will school districts be required to carry expensive insurance against gun shootings by educators? Are taxpayers ready to pony up a lot more money to cover the costs of insurance premiums and lawsuits?
When I was still teaching college, I’d tell my students that a major goal of their education was developing a bullshit meter. This BS meter, I said, would help them to discriminate between fact and fiction, between informed views and misinformed ones, between respectable opinions and disreputable propaganda. Become critical thinkers, I told them. And that included being critical of my teaching, for every professor has biases and makes choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to stress and what to elide.
Critical thinking skills are what is being elided and excluded in much of education today. This is obviously convenient to those in power, for they do not wish to be questioned. In the name of economic competitiveness, of teaching job skills, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), students are encouraged to focus on getting ahead, on making a high salary after graduation, the better to repay student loans and contribute back to the college as alumni. On their web sites and marketing brochures, colleges often feature prominently how much their students can be expected to make in salary after graduation. The almighty dollar sign: It’s the key metric of success.
A narrow utilitarianism, based on money, has come to define education. Much like war, education is becoming just another racket (think here of Trump University!). Eight years ago, when I was still teaching away in the classroom, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com. I’ve decided to share it here today, because I don’t think much has changed since 2009. Indeed, education in America has only worsened as Donald Trump and Company have taken a hatchet to educational funding. But stupid is as stupid does. (Then again, Trump isn’t so stupid; as he himself enthused after the Nevada caucuses in 2016, “I love the poorly educated!” Yes, hmm, yes.)
Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don’t perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.
Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today’s so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today’s collapsing job market.
Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life — 20 years’ service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level — I’m convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It’s simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)
And here’s one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job — if it’s merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods — you’ve effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.
Three Myths of Higher Ed
Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.
Today’s college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn “degrees that work” (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They’re being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They’re being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to “keep current” is to “stay competitive in the global marketplace.” (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won’t be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)
And here’s a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.
One “bonus” from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or “assess,” as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).
A third pervasive myth — one that’s found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education — is: If it’s not quantifiable, it’s not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?
Three Realities of Higher Ed
What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system’s technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls — thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.
Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don’t know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don’t know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires,” and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.
Perhaps I’m biased because I teach history, but here’s a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.
We don’t have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history — not when they never learned them to begin with.
Donning New Sunglasses
One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That’s a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.
It’s a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country’s direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself — and so your own limits and those of your country as well.
To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous — kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive “B” movie They Live (1988). In Piper’s case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.
Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds — a struggle against accepting the world as it’s being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.
Today, access to technology and its services is often associated with equality of opportunity in society. In education, for example, getting computers and Internet service to low-income students is considered a vitally important step to students’ maturation and their skill sets in a competitive global marketplace. The “digital divide” must be bridged, else disadvantaged students will be stuck in the dark ages and left behind. Focusing on technology as both “bridging” mechanism and source of enlightenment has the added benefit of being easily measurable and “correctable,” e.g. by increasing the number of computers per class, the number of connected classrooms, and so on.
Spending (or, as they say, “investing”) money on classroom technology, moreover, is obviously favored by tech companies both for present and future profits (raise a child on Apple devices and perhaps as adults they’ll always favor Apple). Parents like it too: perhaps Johnny and Susie mainly play games on their school-provided iPads, but at least they’re occupied while “learning” computer skills.
Of course, the digital divide does exist, and computer skills are valuable. But hyping access to technology is often a distraction from much bigger issues of inequality, as George Orwell noted back in the early 1930s in “The Road to Wigan Pier.”
Back then, Orwell was concerned with electricity rather than computers and connectivity. But what he says about electrification could be said about any technology presented as a panacea for social ills.
Here’s what Orwell wrote at the end of chapter 5 of his book:
And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.
Orwell was rightly skeptical of technological “miracles” like electricity that were sold as mitigating fundamental inequalities such as access to healthy food and warm and adequate housing. Empty bellies and empty prospects are not filled by instant news, whether via the telegraph and wireless radio or via the Smart phone and wireless LANs.
The point is not to blame technology. The point is to highlight technology as a choice, one that often doesn’t address fundamental inequities in society.
Long ago in a used bookstore, I came across a “Big Blue Book” featuring the counsels and maxims of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. My dad liked philosophy and was a fan of Schopenhauer, so I picked it up, I think for one dollar. My tattered paperbound copy, published by Haldeman-Julius Company in Girard, Kansas, is not dated, so I had to do a little research. According to Indiana State University:
Sold for as little as a nickel or a dime the Little Blue Books and the larger-format Big Blue Books were published and republished by the Haldeman-Julius publishing house located in Girard, Kansas to foster the ideals of American socialism and to provide a basic education for the working man. Titles began appearing as early as 1919, but the Little Blue Books series was not christened until 1923.
I think my copy dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s, since it features a catalog at the back that says 1500 “Little Blue Books” are available, all for a nickel each. You could order all of them — all 1500 books — for $45.00, “packing and carriage charges” included. The “little” books were about 3.5″ x 5,” or the size of a small index card, a handy size for shirt pockets; my “big” book is roughly 5.5″ x 8.5″.
Amusingly, the advert used these words to sell them: “There is not a trashy, cheap book in the lot.” The “blue” came from the color of the cover (mine is faded), not from any “blue” or lurid contents.
What strikes me today is the focus on educating the working classes, with the expectation that workers wanted intellectually challenging and controversial material. The back cover of my book features the following list of “Big Blue Books” available:
Perhaps my favorite title is the “Tyranny of Bunk.” We could use a book like that for these times.
Titles featuring Voltaire, agnosticism, Clarence Darrow (of the famous Scopes Trial, in which he defended the teaching of evolution), and the debunking of religious miracles point to the free-thinking nature of these books. Here the “working man” is not being talked down to; rather, he’s being given the intellectual tools with which he can lift himself up. Workers of America, read Blue Books and become educated: that was the message of these books.
Workers of those days had fewer distractions than the workers of today. No vapid television, no video games, no materialistic orgies on Black Friday and Cyber Monday: one can imagine more than a few workers picking up a Blue Book for a nickel and enjoying it.
How much was a nickel back then? My dad was a teenager in the early 1930s. He told me you could go to the cinema for a nickel. In other words, a nickel was real money, but it was also a manageable sum.
Nowadays, I suppose, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has access to libraries of knowledge that far surpass 1500 “Little Blue Books” and their “Big Blue” cousins. Yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is lost in today’s cyberworld. Under socialism and other free-thinking systems of the Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties, there was faith in workers, specifically in educated workers, as representing the future of a better, a more just, a fairer America.
Do we still have that same faith, that same optimism, in the common man (and woman)? It doesn’t seem that way. We are simply not trying to educate everyone roughly equally, irrespective of social class and status and so on.
Assuming literacy, back then it seemed that all that was needed was to place the right books in the hands of workers thirsty for knowledge. Maybe that was a simple vision, but I admire its idealism.
Can we “make America great again” by getting Americans to read again? To read real books that address serious subjects in a mature way? Why not start with some new, inexpensive, little and big blue books? No lithium batteries or internet required.
Not a bad step, I think, as we fight to restore Democracy and against idiocracy.
On a snowy evening in January 1965 four friends, including myself, drove across the Hudson River from Tivoli NY, where we were living at the time, to Woodstock. We had heard that the folksinger, Tom Paxton, was singing at the Café Espresso. I had become enamored of Paxton’s music so I was anxious to see and hear him in person. What we didn’t know was that the rising counter-cultural folk star, Bob Dylan, was also going to be there. By the time we arrived I was wondering whether it was good idea to drive the twenty miles for this mini-concert. The roads were treacherous.
As a college student in 1965 I hadn’t heard much about Bob Dylan but I did like some of his music, which my dorm mates at Bard College played constantly. Dylan was sitting at the next table when we entered the cafe. There were only a handful of customers, mostly from the area. As Paxton started singing some of the patrons were still talking. Suddenly, Dylan shouted at them to shut up. Perhaps he was already experiencing his celebrity because his manner was slightly intimidating. Heck, he was just a scrawny, unimpressive kid, about my age—one year older, actually.
During a brief intermission of Paxton’s mini-concert I found myself in a backroom with the two (not too distant) future giants of counter-cultural folk music, the heirs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Dylan wanted to show Paxton, if memory serves me, some chords on the guitar. There were four of us in the room, including my classmate, Paul, who was the driver of the car to Woodstock. I can’t remember how this little gathering happened, what permission or lack thereof we had to witness this intimate discussion between Dylan and Paxton. I do recall thinking that I should not give up the chance to be as close to Bob Dylan as I could get.
At one point during this strange encounter Dylan looked at me directly with a penetrating stare. I was nervous and amused at the same time. Did he know something about me I didn’t know or did he see me as a kindred spirit? I’ll never know.
Fifty one years later I still listen to the music of the “old Dylan.” I still marvel at the fame he’s achieved since the time I met him in person when we were both barely beyond being “kids”—at least by today’s standard of what it means to be a “kid.” Today, I can appreciate the impact songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a’ Changin’” have had on my generation especially.
What I don’t take for granted is that the younger generation, the “kids” I teach today, can appreciate, much less have heard of, the lyrics of those songs. I don’t believe they would find Dylan’s music or even Paxton’s music inspiring. Their clarion call for a change in the status quo wouldn’t seem relevant to them or even “cool.”
Richard Sahn teaches sociology and embodies the mission of Bracing Views. In his own way, he’s as cool as Dylan.