In the weeks after the 2016 presidential election, I continuously heard that “it still hasn’t really sunk in yet.” Yes, we protested. Yes, we wrote articles, gave speeches and comforted those who needed it most. But there was still the hope — borne out of desperation, perhaps — that the coming administration couldn’t possibly live up to the promises of its campaign rhetoric and Twitter wars. Even after the inauguration, this optimism remained — that is, until the executive orders started flowing in. The Muslim ban, the silencing of federal agencies, the alternative facts and now the contentious confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education have thoroughly disabused us of our denial.
This latest blow — the ascent of someone with no educational experience to the highest education office in this nation — should come as a particular outrage to the Yale community, whose mission is the advancement of education and scholarship.
Our new secretary of education does not believe in public schools. Make no mistake: This means she doesn’t believe in education, at least not in any equitable form.
The history of education in the United States is long and winding, full of paradoxical twists and always subject to the ebbs and tides of political vogue. Still, its most important fruit is the universal public school system. While far from perfect, public schooling up to and including the secondary level is one of the few guarantees made to young people in this country — regardless of race, gender, religion, class or ability — and it is something that we should be working to expand and improve, not cast away at a critical juncture.
Here at Yale, it may be easy to feel secure. After all, what better place could there be to ride out the storms of the next few years than within the high stone walls of a rich, liberal university? Still, I cannot help but wonder at what our ivory tower would be had it not been for public education and the advances it has spawned over its relatively short history in the United States.
The faces we see as we walk to class would certainly be more of a monochrome, since many of the most important victories of the civil rights era were won over issues related to educational equity. Today, public schools are often still the only option for many people of color. Title IX would not have made equal opportunity for women the rule rather than the exception, and the Women’s Table on Cross Campus would probably be just another aesthetic indulgence. We would have no need to build new residential colleges, since Yale’s enrollment would be limited to those who could afford the costs of private secondary education.
As for me, my brother — the severely and multiply disabled light of my life — would not be a proud graduate of a public high school, and my deaf-blind mother would not be a proud special education teacher in a public school. And no, I would not be here at Yale. Were it not for public schools, for the laws providing equal access to students with disabilities that grew out of public education and that our secretary of education shows such disinterest in, I would probably be preparing myself for a lifetime of living on what little work I could find and whatever support I could claim as a blind man.
There are so many of us who would not be here today, and, for those of you who perhaps would be, you would miss us.
DeVos calls public schooling a “dead end,” but I can confidently say that it wasn’t a dead end for us. Public education has opened innumerable doors — both directly and indirectly — for countless people over the years. We should not deny ourselves and future generations the benefits it can continue to bring if we properly invest our resources and time in its improvement. This should be a priority for both ends of the political spectrum. To borrow a right-wing slogan, we have a duty to do this “for the children.”
In the meantime, we at Yale should actively push back against this affront to educational equity with activism and protest, but also by going into the community and teaching. This is our duty, not because of some vaunted sense of Ivy League exceptionalism or elitist burden, but because there are so many opportunities already available for us to do so. From groups that promote interest in STEM fields among children of underrepresented communities to organizations that work with young refugees in our city, we can make our actions speak as loud as our chants in support of education for all.
Brennan Carman is a freshman in Calhoun College. He teaches for the student group Demos. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .