Brill: Why education?

Education in America

It’s hard not to write in platitudes about why education is so crucial in America. Phrases like, “Our children are our future,” or “education is the new civil rights movement” are so endlessly repeated that they become almost laughable. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

As my four loyal readers know, I’ve written since September about public school policy and politics. After graduation, I’ll begin teaching at a charter school in Brooklyn and intend to make a career out of education reform at whatever level I can. But like every other senior with or without a job after May 24, I can’t stop asking why I want to enter this particular profession.

At the macro level, the first platitude I’ll offer is that education has proven to be the only way to eradicate American poverty.

For previous generations, gaps in wealth, nutrition, working conditions, housing, health care, and civil and political rights were mostly the result of discriminatory government policy. Many liberals and conservatives in my generation believe various social movements and political actors — from the progressives to FDR, from the civil rights movement to LBJ — have largely reversed the tide of intentional inequity.

But in an era where regulating health insurers is equated with socialism, Americans may not be willing to stomach further government efforts to ameliorate disparities.

And perhaps with good reason. The tortuous complexity of ending poverty in the past 50 years has rendered most government policy ineffective, particularly in urban communities. Lowering crime, raising employment, preventing drug addiction, nurturing strong families and developing local economies are each so interrelated — so dependent on exogenous factors — that efforts from the Great Society to the Third Way have not fundamentally affected American poverty.

But education is different. Schools across the country — some charters, some public—have demonstrated remarkable success in unearthing the potential of impoverished, often minority children. Crime, unstable families, neighborhood drug dealers and underdeveloped communities all become subordinated to great teachers, school leadership, and a new community of learning. When students enter school, everything changes.

Creating such havens of success is surely difficult, but the rewards of a community full of high-achieving college graduates are astounding. No one doubts that strong schools create a benevolent ripple effect across crime, drugs, employment and family structure. Poverty is not at the root of educational failures; education failures are at the root of poverty. And for conservatives bent on cultural solutions and fiscal prudence, what single policy change can alter the urban landscape at so cheap a price?

Other conservative arguments abound. A strong education system has been America’s chief asset in economic competition and national defense. At the close of World War II, Roosevelt laid the foundation for the post-war boom by radically expanding access to college with the G.I. Bill. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Eisenhower responded by pushing through the National Defense Education Act to grant science and math funding for public schools. And in the 1980s, when Japan’s economy seemed poised to eclipse our own, Reagan released “A Nation at Risk,” a report which lambasted the “rising tide of mediocrity” in public schools and ignited education reform.

And at the micro level, the argument for the paramount importance of education is fundamentally conservative as well. At the heart of our culture, politics and society since the days of de Tocqueville has been the concept of the American Dream. Contrary to the interpretation of more liberal American thinkers, I don’t believe the Dream guarantees wealth and happiness to all Americans.

I do believe the American Dream constitutes a promise that, as Barack Obama once said, “Through hard work and sacrifice each of us can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams, as well.” Education must be the vehicle for fulfilling this promise — for allowing each American to make of his life what he may and for passing along the Dream to his children. That all may be a platitude, but I think — and hope — it’s also true.

Sam Brill is a senior in Trumbull College.

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