A MODEST PROPOSAL
There was a time when most Americans and most American educators believed that the purpose of American education was to prepare students for life. Alas, life has become more complicated since those days of yore when a high school diploma certified one as a citizen prepared to engage in the civic responsibilities of the nation, the state, and the community. Everywhere one hears about the preternatural death of American education. The symptoms leading to that death vary, depending on the Crier. Since the 1980’s, William Bennett, Harold Bloom, and E. D. Hirsch have lambasted the decline of American education. Bennett blames it on the diminution of teaching Western values in the schools. Bloom thinks we’ve stopped reading the Great Books of Western civilization. And Hirsch argues that it’s the lack of “cultural literacy” in the schools. In many quarters, educators contend that the schools have become politicized. When were they ever not politicized?
My aim here is not to delve into the philosophical underpinnings of American education but to consider how American education has changed from those benign aspirations of yesteryear to the mill of churning out umpteen thousands of students to a burgeoning workforce feeding the voracious appetite of American business. This is not a diatribe against American business which is a necessary and compelling sphere of American life.
The question is how voracious is the appetite of American business for graduates of American education? It seems to me that that voracity is of megatronic proportions. The expectations of American business drive not only the haste of education production but the curriculum and content of that production. In other words there is more than a tacit relationship between American education and business as evidenced by the following WICHE Report:
A new report from Georgetown University`s Center on Education and the Workforce provides a 50-state overview of employment opportunities for college graduates with the purpose of helping students, educators, and policymakers make better decisions about college planning and workforce development. “State Online College Job Market: Ranking the States” categorizes states based on how many job openings there are per college-educated worker overall and within industries and career fields. According to the report, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Washington State provide college graduates with the best chances of finding managerial or professional jobs, while Rhode Island, South Carolina, and West Virginia provide the worst job opportunities.
The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE),:https://cew.georgetown.edu/wpcontent/uploads/O CLMStates_
My concern is that this modus operandi in its public school form is financed principally by the property owners of the nation in the form of property taxes to school districts. Financing higher education differs from state to state but is financed essentially from tax funds allocated to state universities and colleges. Again, the public is asked to support the education of its own. That’s not an inappropriate expectation.
In this scenario, American Business—the beneficiary of public funded graduates—invests modestly except when it contributes to university and colleges endowments. In the main, though, the essential support of American education is from the public trough. There are exceptions, of course.
My modest proposal is that since the American education system appears to be the incubation of a workforce for consumption by American Business that American Business ought to bear a more proportionate financial part of that incubation. Developing a financial structure for American Business to bear its financial part of that incubation will not be easy, but it seems to me an equitable solution can be worked out.
I’m not suggesting the elimination of property taxes that support public education—just spreading the burden more equitably. Moreso in these times when funds for state colleges and universities are dwindling and state colleges and universities are asked to raise funds for their survival. State colleges and universities that once were state-supported are now state-assisted. In this funding crunch, teaching salaries become null, institutional fees are imposed, tuition is increased.
The outcomes of this belt-tightening affect college and university enrollments as well as retention. Higher costs of education hit the children of low-wage earners who most aspire for their children a college education as a way to achieve the American dream.
According to Robert Putnam, “The financial crisis of 2008, in which Wall Street oligarchs walked away with huge bonuses while imposing enormous costs on ordinary Americans, has finally made it acceptable for the political class in the US to talk about the issue of inequality” (Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam, Simon & Schuster).
Inequality, then, is the real issue. Given that inequality, rethinking the funding of American education would be a good step in optimizing the playing field and its relentless emphasis on higher education. We have long believed that education is the great equalizer. Economic disparities highlight the gravity of inequalities in the United States. Soaring costs of education have created a new wrinkle of debtor’s prison—tying our children into a prolonged prison of debt.
When they enter the workforce, the average debt burden for college graduates is $26,600. Obviously that kind of high investment in a college education does not yield high returns. Repayment of student loans may take a lifetime. The tuition debt for college and university students is staggering. “In a ten year period from 1993 to 2003, the cost of a public four-year institution doubled, a private four-year education increased by 60%” (Bob Giannino-Racine, “Ensuring Higher Education Access for All: A New Deal for Equalizing Opportunity and Enabling Hopes and Dreams,” Campus Compact). The cost of attending a public four-year college went from 42 percent of family income in 1971 to 114 percent in 2011. Profiting by offering student loans, Banks and Sallie Mae have done a poor job of serving students.
The problems relating to the cost of a higher education may lie in the philosophy of regarding higher education as a business, failing to grasp its social role as mediator in the development of a nation. In many countries that mediation is regarded as the crucial role of government. More than a dozen nations graduate more students than the United States. It appears that instead of helping American college and university students to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, the government has taken away their boots, relegating them to a caste system of debtors.
What happens to a dream deferred? Langston Hughes asked:
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The United States can ill afford the loss of the ignis fatuus of the American Dream. As ephemeral as that mantra may be at times, it helps to sustain the spirit of American opportunity. As a child of Mexican American itinerant works, that dream sustained me through the Great Depression, through World War II as a Marine, through college as a high school dropout, through a ten year stint as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, through a Ph.D. in British Renaissance Studies, through more than a half-century of teaching in higher education and a celebrated career as a writer. It would be ignoble of me to say: “If I made it, anyone can.”
These are indeed the times to try men’s souls, as Thomas Paine lamented during the War for American Independence. More is at stake than ever before in our history. We must all take up the oars to keep the nation afloat. Failure is not an option. The answer may lie in universal higher education with the costs borne by American Business under a federal plan of equality. This is no time for ideological snarling. The nation is in peril of division between the haves and the have-nots, the poor and the economic elites. We cannot allow the 1% to hijack the American Dream.
This may be the time to ask as Jean Jacques Rousseau did in his time: What is the responsibility of a government to its people? Absent that responsibility, what is the fealty of the people to the government? Moreover, we must confront the prejudices that have shaped the national polity: slavery, Manifest Destiny, women’s suffrage, gender equity and identity.
According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education there are five national trends that auger educational reform:
1. Increases in tuition have made colleges and universities less affordable for most American families.
2. Federal and state financial aid to students has not kept pace with increases in tuition.
3. More students and families at all income levels are borrowing more than ever before to pay for college.
4. The steepest increases in public college tuition have been imposed during times of greatest economic hardship.
5. State financial support of public higher education has increased, but tuition has increased more
It’s time for educational reform!
Copyright 2015 by Dr. Philip De Ortego y Gasca. Photos of young students studying and skyscraper in the public domain. “Our Kids” book cover used as “Fair use.” All other photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc.