The Assault on Public Education

One of America’s greatest achievements is being defunded and degraded by the dictates of the marketplace.

Noam Chomsky

UCLA students occupy the hallway outside the university chancellor's office to protest funding cuts and rising tuition in March 2010. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Pub­lic edu­ca­tion is under attack around the world, and in response, stu­dent protests have recent­ly been held in Britain, Cana­da, Chile, Tai­wan and elsewhere.

Mass public education is one of the great achievements of American society.

Cal­i­for­nia is also a bat­tle­ground. The Los Ange­les Times reports on anoth­er chap­ter in the cam­paign to destroy what had been the great­est pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem in the world: Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty offi­cials announced plans to freeze enroll­ment next spring at most cam­pus­es and to wait-list all appli­cants the fol­low­ing fall pend­ing the out­come of a pro­posed tax ini­tia­tive on the Novem­ber ballot.”

Sim­i­lar defund­ing is under way nation­wide. In most states,” The New York Times reports, it is now tuition pay­ments, not state appro­pri­a­tions, that cov­er most of the bud­get,” so that the era of afford­able four-year pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, heav­i­ly sub­si­dized by the state, may be over.”

Com­mu­ni­ty col­leges increas­ing­ly face sim­i­lar prospects – and the short­falls extend to grades K‑12.

There has been a shift from the belief that we as a nation ben­e­fit from high­er edu­ca­tion, to a belief that it’s the peo­ple receiv­ing the edu­ca­tion who pri­mar­i­ly ben­e­fit and so they should foot the bill,” con­cludes Ronald G. Ehren­berg, a trustee of the State Uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem of New York and direc­tor of the Cor­nell High­er Edu­ca­tion Research Institute.

A more accu­rate descrip­tion, I think, is Fail­ure by Design,” the title of a recent study by the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, which has long been a major source of reli­able infor­ma­tion and analy­sis on the state of the economy.

The EPI study reviews the con­se­quences of the trans­for­ma­tion of the econ­o­my a gen­er­a­tion ago from domes­tic pro­duc­tion to finan­cial­iza­tion and off­shoring. By design; there have always been alternatives.

One pri­ma­ry jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the design is what Nobel lau­re­ate Joseph Stiglitz called the reli­gion” that mar­kets lead to effi­cient out­comes,” which was recent­ly dealt yet anoth­er crush­ing blow by the col­lapse of the hous­ing bub­ble that was ignored on doc­tri­nal grounds, trig­ger­ing the cur­rent finan­cial crisis.

Claims are also made about the alleged ben­e­fits of the rad­i­cal expan­sion of finan­cial insti­tu­tions since the 1970s. A more con­vinc­ing descrip­tion was pro­vid­ed by Mar­tin Wolf, senior eco­nom­ic cor­re­spon­dent for The Finan­cial Times: An out-of-con­trol finan­cial sec­tor is eat­ing out the mod­ern mar­ket econ­o­my from inside, just as the lar­va of the spi­der wasp eats out the host in which it has been laid.”

The EPI study observes that the Fail­ure of Design” is class-based. For the design­ers, it has been a stun­ning suc­cess, as revealed by the aston­ish­ing con­cen­tra­tion of wealth in the top 1 per­cent, in fact the top 0.1 per­cent, while the major­i­ty has been reduced to vir­tu­al stag­na­tion or decline.

In short, when they have the oppor­tu­ni­ty, the Mas­ters of Mankind” pur­sue their vile max­im” of all for our­selves and noth­ing for oth­er peo­ple,” as Adam Smith explained long ago.

Mass pub­lic edu­ca­tion is one of the great achieve­ments of Amer­i­can soci­ety. It has had many dimen­sions. One pur­pose was to pre­pare inde­pen­dent farm­ers for life as wage labor­ers who would tol­er­ate what they regard­ed as vir­tu­al slavery.

The coer­cive ele­ment did not pass with­out notice. Ralph Wal­do Emer­son observed that polit­i­cal lead­ers call for pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion because they fear that This coun­try is fill­ing up with thou­sands and mil­lions of vot­ers, and you must edu­cate them to keep them from our throats.” But edu­cat­ed the right way: Lim­it their per­spec­tives and under­stand­ing, dis­cour­age free and inde­pen­dent thought, and train them for obedience.

The vile max­im” and its imple­men­ta­tion have reg­u­lar­ly called forth resis­tance, which in turn evokes the same fears among the elite. Forty years ago there was deep con­cern that the pop­u­la­tion was break­ing free of apa­thy and obedience.

At the lib­er­al inter­na­tion­al­ist extreme, the Tri­lat­er­al Com­mis­sion – the non­govern­men­tal pol­i­cy group from which the Carter Admin­is­tra­tion was large­ly drawn – issued stern warn­ings in 1975 that there is too much democ­ra­cy, in part due to the fail­ures of the insti­tu­tions respon­si­ble for the indoc­tri­na­tion of the young.” On the right, an impor­tant 1971 mem­o­ran­dum by Lewis Pow­ell, direct­ed to the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, the main busi­ness lob­by, wailed that rad­i­cals were tak­ing over every­thing – uni­ver­si­ties, media, gov­ern­ment, etc. – and called on the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty to use its eco­nom­ic pow­er to reverse the attack on our prized way of life – which he knew well. As a lob­by­ist for the tobac­co indus­try, he was quite famil­iar with the work­ings of the nan­ny state for the rich that he called the free market.”

Since then, many mea­sures have been tak­en to restore dis­ci­pline. One is the cru­sade for pri­va­ti­za­tion – plac­ing con­trol in reli­able hands.

Anoth­er is sharp increas­es in tuition, up near­ly 600 per­cent since 1980. These pro­duce a high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem with far more eco­nom­ic strat­i­fi­ca­tion than is true of any oth­er coun­try,” accord­ing to Jane Well­man, for­mer direc­tor of the Delta Cost Project, which mon­i­tors these issues. Tuition increas­es trap stu­dents into long-term debt and hence sub­or­di­na­tion to pri­vate power.

Jus­ti­fi­ca­tions are offered on eco­nom­ic grounds, but are sin­gu­lar­ly uncon­vinc­ing. In coun­tries rich to poor, includ­ing Mex­i­co next-door, tuition remains free or nom­i­nal. That was true as well in the Unit­ed States itself when it was a much poor­er coun­try after World War II and huge num­bers of stu­dents were able to enter col­lege under the GI bill – a fac­tor in unique­ly high eco­nom­ic growth, even putting aside the sig­nif­i­cance in improv­ing lives.

Anoth­er device is the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of the uni­ver­si­ties. That has led to a dra­mat­ic increase in lay­ers of admin­is­tra­tion, often pro­fes­sion­al instead of drawn from the fac­ul­ty as before; and to impo­si­tion of a busi­ness cul­ture of effi­cien­cy” – an ide­o­log­i­cal notion, not just an eco­nom­ic one.

One illus­tra­tion is the deci­sion of state col­leges to elim­i­nate pro­grams in nurs­ing, engi­neer­ing and com­put­er sci­ence, because they are cost­ly – and hap­pen to be the pro­fes­sions where there is a labor short­age, as The New York Times reports. The deci­sion harms the soci­ety but con­forms to the busi­ness ide­ol­o­gy of short-term gain with­out regard for human con­se­quences, in accord with the vile maxim.

Some of the most insid­i­ous effects are on teach­ing and mon­i­tor­ing. The Enlight­en­ment ide­al of edu­ca­tion was cap­tured in the image of edu­ca­tion as lay­ing down a string that stu­dents fol­low in their own ways, devel­op­ing their cre­ativ­i­ty and inde­pen­dence of mind.

The alter­na­tive, to be reject­ed, is the image of pour­ing water into a ves­sel – and a very leaky one, as all of us know from expe­ri­ence. The lat­ter approach includes teach­ing to test and oth­er mech­a­nisms that destroy stu­dents’ inter­est and seek to fit them into a mold, eas­i­ly con­trolled. All too famil­iar today.

© The New York Times News Service/​Syndicate

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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