People spend a lot of time complaining about the aspects of life that are unfair. Why do jerks always date hot women? Why do movie stars make more money than people that work everyday for a living? Why does that one girl in the office get away with stuffing her face with cheese and still wear a size 2, while I gain 40 pounds if I some much as breathe in a restaurant?
The answers to these questions are at the same time mystifying and frustrating, but when we get to the truth, we may find that there’s less injustice than first appears. This is especially true when we remove our own bias of morality or expectations, and look instead, at the real dynamics of the situation. For example, your buddy may be a jerk, but he obviously had the guts to say hello to the beauty now holding his arm, and as long as she stays with him, he must be doing something worthy of keeping her there.
This doesn’t mean that it’s “fair”, but it is so, and the sooner we accept it, the better. Because what’s left is the plain truth: reality, fair or unfair.
And that brings us to the current state of education in the U.S. Much is made of our schools by parents and politicians, newspapers and local television, but no one seems to want to acknowledge the ugly truth, which is that our system of education is exactly what we should expect it to be. In most states, class sizes are much higher than they’ve been in recent history, classroom days have been shortened and/or cut, and federal and state governments have rained down regulation after regulation, creating new standards and new standardized tests, seeking to define, refine, and restrict the mission of American education. At the same time, money from the state coffers has dried up, due to the Wall Street Recession as well as competing demands for funding, such as prisons, health care, state employee pensions, etc. The background to all of which is a culture that is obsessed with entertainment, and is at the same time, distractedly disinterested in learning and academia; a culture that finds reading a chore, and political or intellectual discussion socially uncouth.
Conservatives constantly bitch about costs: teachers’ salaries, benefits, and pensions target number one. They point at falling test scores and say why pay more taxes if we don’t get results? Why throw more money at the problem?
As usual, their logic is flawed. To make the point simple, imagine a sink hole that suddenly appears on a major highway. The money allocated to fix the hole is inadequate, and worse, the hole’s getting bigger over time. As expected, studies come out saying that the hole has neither been filled, nor fixed. And conservatives, on cue, come out with their cry that since the hole’s not being fixed, we shouldn’t keep throwing money at the problem.
A simple analogy, and yet eerily similar to the problem that American education faces. The hole is getting bigger. As poverty and wealth inequality rise, so too does the burden on our schools, for wealth and the level of education received by one’s parents are the number one predictors of a student’s academic success. And obviously, our schools are not funded to the point where they can fill that hole. When class sizes hover around 35–even in elementary schools–and students are in school for only 170 days a year, it’s neither reasonable nor realistic to believe that teachers can provide the kind of instruction needed to stem the tide.
So we get what we deserve: mediocre test scores, low graduation rates, and fewer college graduates than we need, for we are now transitioning from a post-industrial economy to one that is almost entirely intellectual. Unfortunately, our politicians don’t possess the courage or foresight to find more money for education, and the public is too divided to push them to do it.
But don’t be deceived, there are solutions out there. The simplest and probably most effective would be to simple hire more teachers and expand the school calendar. Lower class sizes and more days in school would go a long way, because, despite the widespread, false belief that bad teachers are rife within our schools, the truth is that the vast majority of teachers are highly educated, well-trained professionals that, given more time with their students, could do a great deal to help those kids reach their fullest potential. If we wanted to go further, we could address teacher quality by requiring, as Oregon and some other states do, that all teachers earn a Master’s degree within five years of entering the profession. We could also provide scholarships for that additional education, and develop structures within our schools that offer veteran teachers opportunities to take positions that demand more of them and pay higher salaries, so that there’s a career path for educators aside from going into administration. Finally, we could offer more interventions for at-risk students, such as vocational internships starting as young as 8th grade, and making evening, weekend, and summer school available for those students that have fallen behind or learn at a slower pace.
But all of this costs money, and so, we get what we deserve. In truth, the same is true of most of our other problems. Politicians and newspapers consistently talk about the debt and the deficit, readily offering pieces of the social safety net, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, as sacrificial lambs. Yet military spending is almost never mentioned, despite the fact that the nearly $700 billion we spend per year is more than the next 10 biggest militaries combined. Still, the GOP tells us we’re broke: we don’t have enough money to spend on infrastructure, education, scientific research, etc. We can’t even provide unemployment insurance for the long term unemployed, and our government just passed a farm bill that cuts food stamps by $8 billion. But we dare not collect more taxes, whether raising rates on the highest income bracket, cutting taxpayer subsidies for massive corporations–including oil, gas, and big pharmaceutical companies–or even simply making investors pay the same tax rate on their income as everyone else.
Granted, we can’t solve all of our problems by increasing taxes and government spending, but clearly, if we are to move forward as an economic power, we have to start investing in this country. Even if we didn’t want to increase taxes, we could at least shift a portion of our military spending to education and infrastructure, and we could at least demand that the subsidies we grant to large corporations are contingent on that money being invested in the U.S., as opposed to paying stockholders or building factories overseas.
But until we do so, we will get what we deserve, and that is a society that is in decline: a society that refuses to educate its people for the careers of tomorrow, let alone those of today. A society that, in the next 20 years, will have a massive shortage of doctors, because medical school is both expensive and exclusive. A society that is content to sit by and watch its roads and bridges crumble into disrepair, while refusing to build the electrical grid, rail, and transportation systems demanded by a 21st century economy. A society in which many people still foolishly and stubbornly believe in the myth of the poor corporation, struggling to make a profit, and the greedy union, ever eager to demand more compensation for less work, no matter the consequences; they believe this despite the facts that union membership is as low as it’s ever been, corporate profits are soaring, and American cities, counties, and states are falling all over themselves to offer tax breaks and public benefits to businesses and entrepreneurs. A society in which one political party is given over entirely to serving the needs of the richest and most powerful Americans, while cynically deluding their supporters, who are angry, reactionary, white, Christians that shun those who are not like themselves, and in which the other political party hasn’t the courage, fortitude, or will to act fully and forcefully in the best interests of the vast majority of Americans, even while they mouth these promises election after election. A society that would rather entertain itself than solve its problems, too cynical and hedonistic to be bothered with critical thinking or political activity.
And so, we get what deserve.