Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Shame of the Public Schools

I am used to BBC reporters showing up within a stone's throw of where I live. Between the Circuit Court of Appeals and City Hall itself, there is almost always something happening of interest to the international BBC audience. Nevertheless, I was surprised to see that today's BBC NEWS Web site has a feature report, which Rajesh Mirchandani filed from Los Angeles, on the utterly pathetic conditions (not to mention future) of public education in the state of California. The bottom line is that, as Mirchandani put it, "with the economic slowdown and falling revenue from sales and property taxes, the state faces a budget deficit that could top $20bn this year." This puts our illustrious Governor in the sort of crisis situation that none of his movie personae ever had to confront:

In March, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to rule out tax rises and deep cuts in services, including education - anything, he said, that could help make ends meet.

Needless to say, this has administrators, teachers, and parents all worrying about whether California will end up ransoming off its future in order to keep treading water in the present "slough of despond." As they say, when you are up to your eyeballs in alligators, it is too late to worry about draining the swamp. The alligators are there, they are hungry, and the prevailing opinion is that this is no time to ask how we got into this mess in the first place.

Still, in light of my recent indulgence in a conspiracy theory, I have to wonder whether we got into this place purely out of our stubborn resistance to just about any form of taxation (Wikipedia even has a page for "California Proposition 13 (1978)") or whether we are here through an act of more "intelligent design." After all, it is worth remembering that Newt Gingrich's Contract "on" America involved some rather long-term thinking and planning; and the "side effect" of "The Project for the New American Century" was launched through the momentum of Gingrich's spade-work. This latter effort could not be sustained for even ten years, but Newt is still a presence. He is now more of a "background presence," rather than a "foreground presence;" but the guy is so good at planning that this could well be by his latest "cunning plan."

So what if there is a design to introduce (in the words of my conspiracy theory) "a new class of slaves?" Consider how such a design might benefit from a wholesale undermining of our public education system, not just in California but across the country. On the surface this would seem like bad news for all those wealthy institutions: there would be a shortage of skilled talent available for hire. On the other hand, notwithstanding the latest claptrap from JP Rangaswami on "a genuine war for talent," from the point of view of the institutions themselves, that bad news might actually be good news! Yes, it would mean that such an institution would have to assume the responsibility of training all new hires in the necessary skills; but it would also mean that we would have a future work force dependent on those institutions for most, if not all, of the education they get. That dependency could ultimately result in a "new economy" of indentured servitude. (I use those scare quotes out of cynicism for the economic thinking that was so seductive as the dot-com bubble inflated; but I see that I have used it more recently in conjunction with my writings about the War Against the Poor.) Yes, if you want their "hearts and minds," one way is to get them "by the balls;" but controlling their education may be an alternative. Furthermore, it is an alternative that is, on the whole, less painful and is thus less likely to be met with resistance!

When I was working in Singapore in the early Nineties, I had the opportunity to hear a talk by the Dean of the Business School at Carnegie-Mellon University. About the only thing I remember from that talk is what he had to say about their work-study program. I was familiar with this idea, particularly since many of my personal undergraduate friends at MIT had benefitted from it. What struck me, however, was that Carnegie-Mellon was taking a new approach, which required an entering freshman to commit to a corporate work-study sponsor before even matriculating. This early commitment was required, because the "work" side of the work-study plan could begin even before the student had completed the basic core requirements. That commitment would then sustain through the entire undergraduate career; and, unless I am mistaken, it also involved a "payback" commitment of serving as an employee for some fixed period of time after graduation. I heard all of this about fifteen years ago; and even then it sounded as if the corporate powers behind work-study at Carnegie-Mellon were basically calling the shots on the sort of academic life a student could lead. If this sort of thing could happen at the undergraduate level, why could it not have a similar impact on how education is handled at the level of what we currently call "public education?" Are we witnessing the disappearance of "public" from "public education?"

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