Thursday, October 11, 2007

Civil Right or Public Trust?

If the President of the United States makes a public spectacle of his failure to grasp the nature of our country's crisis in education, why should we expect anyone else to take the issue more seriously? Consider that Rose Garden ceremony on Tuesday, reported in The New York Times by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Diana Jean Schemo, basically a gratuitous piece of political theater designed to pressure the Congress to renew the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law. Note that the staging for this event surrounded the President with civil rights leaders, because the message he wanted the microphones to record and broadcast to the nation was that "education is a basic civil right."

Does this really mean anything; or was it just a cheap trick of specious logic based on the premise, "If civil rights leaders say it is a good thing, then it is a good thing?" Education is certainly not a civil right under the benchmark of the Bill of Rights. We are not talking about legislation that would infringe upon rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution, even if there is a guarantee of public education institutions for children up to a particular age. However, I would argue that. beyond the guarantee of the institutions themselves, we are talking about something significantly different, which we used to associate with the profession of journalism.

I recently invoked John Carroll expressing his regret that the newspaper had ceased to become the public trust that it had been for most of the first 200 years of our nation's history. This phrase has been used so frequently that we seldom give much thought to its meaning. It embraces a concept that a newspaper was something more than a product whose success or failure depends on its circulation numbers. Rather, the public depended upon the newspaper for a variety of services. Those services included more than just timely delivery of news. Newspapers provided other forms of information, ranging from objective "facts" to (often richly) subjective opinions. The real public trust of the newspaper was perhaps best expressed about 100 years ago by that great sage of that era, Mr. Dooley:

Th newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward.

These days such a service-oriented view of journalism is about as quaint as Mr. Dooley's way with words. However, it should remind us that education is also, fundamentally, a service profession. Indeed, as I have said before, education is basically the second oldest profession; and the first is also a service profession. However, I feel that this point cannot be repeated enough, since, as I have also said before, since the beginning of the twentieth century, the practice of education has been seriously contaminated by the principles of scientific management, which had been developed with the production industry in mind.

My point is that, while educational institutions may not do "ivrything f'r us," they have traditionally done far more for us than enable students to meet specific standards of achievement in reading and mathematics. Indeed, to the extent that we can trace the practice of education back to Socrates (which is to say before education was institutionalized), the scope of education has always been far beyond meeting achievement standards. Unfortunately, ours is very much a culture of production and productivity, which means that neither our lawmakers nor their constituents have much grasp of why service professions are different from production professions. The general consensus seems to be that those differences are only of interest to academic social theorists who never seem to matter very much when real-world issues are at stake. Unfortunately, that consensus makes us vulnerable to the blatant exhibition of misunderstanding that dominated Tuesday's Rose Garden ceremony.

Perhaps the best analogy can be drawn from that Russian comment about art that I cited at the beginning of this week. Education may be best viewed as "food for the soul;" and, in that context, the "public trust" of an educational institution is that it provide its pupils (and, therefore, indirectly, the community-at-large) with a "balanced diet." Pursuing that analogy leads to the proposition that No Child Left Behind has enabled a solution that fills the stomach without addressing nutritional needs, which is to say that it is a "junk food" solution. To try to cast this solution in the arena of civil rights is to distract from the lesson of that analogy. Any serious educator could tell our President this fundamental truth, which may be why none of them were present at Tuesday's political theater. Indeed, considering where we are in the week, I suspect that this willful disregard of practicing educators should provide sufficient grounds for granting President Bush his fourth "personal" Chutzpah of the Week award!

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