With our withered economy and emaciated job market, it’s tough being an American right now. We’re facing staggering unemployment rates, a nearly unchecked corporate aristocracy, and a stock market that’s about as stable as Lindsay Lohan in a high school chemistry lab. Still, I’m a “glass is half-full” kind of guy, so I tend to look at the brighter side of things. Which is to say that, as bad as things are, they’d be a lot worse if I were a kid right now.
Not that it’s ever easy being a kid. I mean, as a child of the 80s, I faced my fair share of peer pressure, big hair and parachute pants, and, yes, I was raised to live in fear of the dreaded “stranger danger.” Still, I never once had to deal with the modern day GOP and its unabashed war against public education.
Sure, you can trace this war back to Reagan, but the missiles didn’t really start flying until after the elections of 1994, when former House Speaker Tom Delay announced: “We’re going to destroy the Department of Education.” Of course, Delay was simply pandering to the Christian right. And if you’re a member of the Christian right, I totally understand why you wouldn’t want your children going to school and learning about the world you’ve lied to them about. The rest of us, however, are now living with the consequences of the GOP’s war—a war that is now drawing to a close. And no, the good guys didn’t win this one.
Take a look at any GOP-sponsored legislation addressing education, and you’ll see that these bills, often reading like updated versions of Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal, have a very clear message for America’s youth:
Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, or we’ll choke you to death with them.
Consider House Republicans’ recent legislation attacking President Obama’s efforts to promote healthier school lunches. In particular, Republicans want to challenge a voluntary program that limits which foods can be marketed to children, encourages schools to provide nutritional information for cafeteria lunches, and recommends that “starchy vegetables” be served but once a week in school cafeterias (and for the record, “starchy vegetables” is lobbyist-speak for “freedom fries”).
According to Chris Crawford, an aide for Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga, Obama’s efforts to fight childhood obesity are “classic nanny-state overreach.” And if you let that quote sink in for a few seconds, you’ll understand completely why Rep. Kingston chose not to say it himself.
In any case, Crawford then expounded on the absurdity of letting kids watch TV shows filled with sex and violence when they “cannot see an advertisement for Tony the Tiger during the commercial break.” Crawford makes a poignant argument for Rep. Kingston, who apparently believes that while sugary breakfast cereals are good, sex and violence “are GREAT!”
Of most concern to Republicans, though, is the limit on “starchy vegetables,” i.e., the potato. According to the GOP, the potato, aside from being spelled with an “e,” is cheap, nutritious and fried in oils that, just like the potato, are heavily backed by lobbyists. Long story short: as long as your kids’ waistlines and Crisco’s profit margins are inexplicably tied together, the GOP won’t be happy until your child’s “homeroom” is a McDonald’s.
Now, as an educated person (assuming you’re over 40 and/or from another country), you might think the placing of corporate profits over the health of children is dangerous, but that’s because you’re a communist who doesn’t care about a corporation’s civil liberties. And in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, our corporate citizens have discovered that public education provides a perfect business model. After all, in a free market Pepsi has to compete with Coke. The same is not true at your child’s high school. No, at public schools across America, corporations are paying big bucks for the right to exclusively provide school lunches, beverages and snacks. And as teenagers are particularly susceptible to “branding” strategies, the high school cafeteria is more important to Pepsi’s long-term growth than any 30-second Super Bowl commercial.
The truth is, today’s average American student may not learn the theory of evolution or the facts surrounding Paul Revere’s famous ride while at school, but s/he will learn all the possible lunch combinations at Taco Bell. And that’s just in the cafeteria. In the classroom, they’re learning all the ins-and-outs of Microsoft Windows and becoming completely versed in MS Office. Now, if you were Bill Gates, how much would you pay for the kind of competitive advantage that comes from exclusive access to a captive, adolescent audience? What would you pay for the exclusive right to brand a customer for life?
Frankly, that kind of opportunity is better than being a Catholic Priest at a summer school for the deaf and mute.
Now, if the idea of public education being invaded by capitalism saddens you, cheer up. I mean, if corporate America hadn’t figured out how to turn your children into pimply ATM machines, there’s a good chance public schools would be extinct all together. And sure, our schools are failing, and the average America student has problems locating America on a map, or, for that matter, correctly spelling “map,” but what we have is better than nothing. And it’s certainly better than what the GOP would like to see: a nation totally educated either by private schools or by the intellectual incest known as “home-schooling,” in which a child’s questions about the Magna Carta or the 1st Ammendment can be quickly answered with, “Jesus.”
The truth is, by adding a profit incentive to public education, Republicans have found some motivation for keeping schools around—even if said schools no longer serve to educate people. And they don’t. Still, keep in mind that public education makes up over half of most state’s operating budgets, and that’s a lot of money that can be diverted from the classroom into the bank accounts of corporate America.
And I’m not even talking about the pyramid scheme we call higher education. Seriously, the American university is the banker’s answer to unemployment. Most people go to college because they’re either not prepared for work or they’re underemployed. As such, they tend to have lower-end incomes and cannot qualify for a home mortgage. They can, however, get a student loan. And for the promise of a piece of paper that will get them a job at the factory that just closed down, students will borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even better (well, for the business community): while you can discharge a home mortgage in a bankruptcy, your student loan is like Herpes. Yeah, you can keep it under control, but it’s there forever, which is much more than can be said for the job you’ll be lucky to get with your degree which, considering current market conditions, will likely be in career counseling.
Education used to be about enlightenment and developing your critical thinking abilities, and in the latter part of the 20th century (when minorities and women gained access to public schools) it became about job training. Today, it’s about neither. No, aside from the occasional cultural clash (evolution vs. intelligent design, or evolution vs. sniffing glue), or the opportunity to depict the “noble profession” of teaching as a satanic conspiracy to turn our youth into pinko bastards, education in modern America is all about profit. Not for the community, and not for the students. And certainly not for the teachers.
Still, look at the bright side: when you send your ignorant child off to a school whose name he can’t spell, with books he can’t read, and pens he keeps trying to sharpen, take comfort in knowing that he’ll be getting a good work out in the Wells Fargo Commemorative Gym, falling asleep to the works of Shakespeare in the Twitter Theater of Tragedy, and strengthening his bones and muscles with a lunch of Green Lantern Gorditas.
Sure, he won’t know how many calories are in that Gordita (or which breakfast cereal he can chase it down with), but he will know that the Green Lantern will be coming to a cinemaplex near him soon.
And the second schools stop teaching that lesson, your “family first” Republicans will dismantle public education with one quick shake: like an Etch-a-Sketch.
In part two of this column, I’ll address the issue of public education in my home state of Arizona, which for years has proudly served as our nation’s epicenter of dumb.