by David Safier
One of the greatest strengths of this country's educational system — which also leads to some of its most intractable problems and its huge expense — is our system of unlimited second chances, which holds that everyone should have the opportunity to go as far in their educational attainment as their ambition and talent allows, no matter how many times they stumble and fall along the way. So far as I know, our system of unlimited second chances is unique in its scope, and it's part of what makes us what we are as a country. It's being challenged by the Right,which wants to limit the quality of education for the lower economic half (or two-thirds) of the country while giving the top half (or third, or fifth) the best possible education from preschool through grad school — though conservatives hypocritically couch their attempts to dismantle our educational system in language that promises to improve education for everyone.
Our education system is a version of the "Anyone can be president" egalitarianism which we promote as an ideal even though we aren't able to make our aspirations a reality. A student can flunk out or drop out of K-12 schools numerous times and be welcomed back for a fresh start with open arms, again and again. A student can be a mediocre K-12 student, get into community college on the basis of his/her high school diploma (or even with a GED), try and fail and try and fail and finally succeed at the community college, go from there to university, then go to grad school and end up with a PhD from Harvard. Stories of that type are commonplace in the U.S. I read a few in the Star over the past few weeks — maybe not the PhD from Harvard part, but stories of obvious "failures" who ended up graduating with honors from Arizona universities.
There's a story in this week's NY Times Sunday magazine about Misal, a young man in India from a low caste (yes, the caste system still operates unofficially if not officially) who managed to succeed in spite of the ridiculous odds against him. The key to his success was his dogged determination to get an education, even though the system was stacked against people like him.
In an earlier India,[flunking out of school] might have been his story’s end: there were no second chances then, and there were no other routes upward. Knowledge was the rampart that protected the well-born from the rest. In an earlier age, that meant confining Sanskrit learning to the priestly castes; in more recent times, it translated into massive public investment in elite colleges and universities and the neglect of basic schooling for most Indians. Even today, the quality of instruction at all but the best institutions is miserable. And so if you were like Misal, you were probably not getting a very good education to begin with, even before an unforgiving examination system cut you loose.
Read that passage two or three times if you want to understand the difference between our imperfect egalitarian educational model and India's calculated use of education to perpetuate social and economic inequality. We may do a lousy job of giving everyone an equal educational chance, but it's something we strive toward. India, which is being heralded as an example of high quality education, rations its schooling to give the best possible education only to the worthiest members of the elite.
When conservatives laud "school choice," meaning vouchers for K-12 private schools, and Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute says we should cut back on the number of people attending Arizona's universities and community colleges, they're talking about creating a structurally stratified educational system. Their social/economic ideal is a country where the top three to five percent control the wealth and power in the country, leaving a few people in necessary middle class positions while the rest are consigned to low wage lives. To keep the limited number of top level positions in the hands of the children of people who currently hold them, and to spend less money trying to educate people who really don't need more than sixth grade literacy and math skills to do their jobs, conservatives are striving to create an educational caste system similar to the one described in the paragraph I quoted about education in India.
Anyone interested in the future of our country's education needs to understand the long term goals of the conservative movement when it comes to our economic and educational future to cut through their verbiage to their actual intentions. The real reasons behind the "reforms" they promote are often the exact opposite of the reasons they give.