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Mar 21

Food for Thought

The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, CXXII)

Bosch Baha'i School on Science and Religion Apr 9, 2011

Bosch Baha’i School on Science and Religion Apr 9, 2011

A number of key Bahá’í principles relate to education. Bahá’u’lláh made the independent investigation of reality and truth a primary article of His faith. He further says the acquisition of knowledge “is incumbent upon all”. This, obviously, requires a person to have the skills to acquire knowledge through independent investigation. Hence, universal education is a foundational principle of the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh instructs the community-level administrative bodies of His Faith (Local Spiritual Assemblies) to provide for the education of children if parents are unable to do so.

Besides being the force that can bring the gems of human virtue to the surface, education is the key to success in almost any endeavor, which is why so many Bahá’í social and economic development projects begin with education and literacy.

Bahá’ís share this regard for the importance of education with the founding fathers of the American republic. John Adams wrote, for example, that

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” (John Adams to John Jebb, 10 Sep. 1785)

img.phpI was understandably surprised (to put it mildly) to stumble across this headline in the blog of an Ohio state official: Public education in America is socialism, what is the solution? The article was topped by a large, red Soviet hammer and sickle.

I just love to take things apart and put them back together, so I’m going to do that with this headline. It posits that 1) Public education is socialism, 2) that this is a problem that needs to be solved, and 3) that this form of socialism is to be associated with Soviet Communism.

I’m skeptical of all of these points (though the American founding ideal of a government of, by and for the people may be more truly socialistic than the Soviet version), but this last item is particularly odd because Mr. Brenner notes in the article that “our public education system is already a socialist system, and has been a socialist system since the founding of our country.”

In other words, this quintessentially American form of “socialism”, with its regard for universal education and an informed electorate, predates Soviet Communism (which it fails to resemble) by several centuries. This begs the question as to why the accompanying image was the Soviet hammer and sickle and not the Liberty Bell, but I think I know the answer to that one: the Liberty Bell is not nearly as scary.

golden-dollar-sign-10036559Let’s dig deeper into the article: The blogger proposes that we dismantle our system of universal education and let the free market shape the educational system by allowing parents to buy the best education they can afford. Though the reference is vague, he seems to suggest that where parents do not have the funds to purchase a good education, “the tax dollars will follow the student to whichever school they choose”. I find this interesting, because the model he proposes is no less socialistic than the public school system as it exists. Having the tax dollars follow the student in the form of scholarships or tax rebates or even vouchers is still a redistribution of wealth, which is one of the presumed features of socialism that draws the most skepticism in a capitalist society.

All that aside, Mr. Brenner makes a claim that I find stunning and which cuts to the heart of the Bahá’í ideal of truly universal education. He says that in a free market system “successful” schools will thrive, and “unsuccessful” ones will simply die off. He asks, in all seriousness:

“The free-market system works for cars, furniture, housing, restaurants, and to a lesser degree higher education, so why can’t it work for our primary education system?” (Andrew Brenner, Brenner Briefs)

Where do I start? First, there are many ways a school can fail. Let’s consider two.

  1. It can fail economically.
  2. It can fail academically—or more broadly, it can fail to educate.

Books-with-Letters-above-it-300x199

A school that teaches state-of-the-art science would seem, at first glance, a school that would succeed. I think we must be realistic in acknowledging that that would depend entirely on what part of our vast nation it is in. Such a school—regardless of its academic excellence—would fail in some parts of the country because the parents of the children in that school do not want their children to learn state-of-the-art science. If the parents don’t like that school’s curriculum, they will withdraw their children and financial support and the school will die, despite its academic excellence.

Conversely, these same parents might send their children and tax dollars to a school whose academics are poor, but whose worldview they are comfortable with. So, while the school would thrive financially because parents that support its curriculum would pay for it to thrive, it would fail to educate. Those who will chiefly suffer because of this, of course, are the children who—when they go out into the world to forge careers or just get jobs, will find themselves disadvantaged by their education.

Finally, I’d like to follow Mr. Brenner’s suggestion above and look at how free enterprise treats certain elements of society now. Education is intellectual food; let’s look at physical food. Right now, the free market has created circumstances in a great many communities—both urban and rural—in which inhabitants find it difficult to get healthy food. While there are few grocery markets, there’s a 7/11 or liquor store on every corner but one, and a Micky D’s on that. The affordable food is junk. If you’ve ever wondered why so many poor people are obese, this is a chief contributor. It’s not how much they eat, it’s what they eat. These are called food deserts and they exist because commercial enterprises do not want to put their markets or restaurants, or other businesses in poor neighborhoods where crime is rampant and profits are not.

Even with the ‘socialized’ system we now have, there are education deserts in these same areas. Schools already find it difficult to find teachers willing to work there or to afford state-of-the-art educational resources. By what miracle does Mr. Brenner propose that the education deserts we already have in poor areas will not get much worse if the attraction for commercial schools is entirely monetary?

The education of our society’s members is too important a subject to leave to the vagaries of the marketplace. Knowledge is not a commodity, it is food for thought.

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About the author

Maya Bohnhoff

... is a professional writer, editor, recording / performing artist, and Baha'i. She lives in San Jose, CA.

4 comments

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  1. Andrew

    First off I was not the first person to suggest that our education system is a socialistic style system, the great late Nobel Economist Milton Friedman did. I also wrote that it would move it towards a more free-market system. I never said it would be free-market. What Milton Friedman had suggested is that the collective money, though taxation, will still be pooled together, but the money will follow the students to whichever school they wish to chose. This in a way though grants and scholarships already happens with higher education yet any suggestion that this might occur to primary education seems to be taboo.

    Charter schools have already proven that there is demand for them. Much of the time it is for academics, other times for safety or sports. Either way parents along with their kids chose to utilize charter schools. If they didn’t charter schools would not exist and we would still have a one sized fits all monopoly.

    You also missed one of my points, mind you I probably should have done a better job explaining my position. I was comparing the fall of the soviet union as an opportunity their society had to privatize their education system. They tried to privatize it, along with everything else when the soviet union collapsed, but corruption caused it to fail. Many of our urban schools have failed their students academically. In Ohio cut scores on the Ohio Graduation Test, which are the minimum scores needed to be declared proficient are for Math and English only 41%, yet many of these urban schools can’t even come close to this low bar and because they are public schools they can not be closed. To me that is a huge failure, especially given the fact that we spend twice as much money on students in urban areas as we do in most rural and suburban areas here in Ohio.

    1. Tom Martin

      If we spend more in urban schools, it is because of things like free lunches, free breakfasts, security guards, guidance counselors and other needs necessitated by the poverty of students in most urban schools. But that does not mean that urban schools have better labs, libraries, textbooks and other needs, often they have it worse. And the better teachers don’t want to teach in schools with a lot of poor kids, so such schools usually get the worst, least capable teachers. So that is one reason for their low scores.
      Another reason is that in many cases the parents of poor kids don’t put much emphasis on education, don’t urge their kids much to study hard, might not help the kids with homework or to understand the textbook better, some of these parents are even functionally illiterate, not able to read beyond fourth grade lever or something. Or might be working two minimum wage jobs to survive, so not have time to help the kid. So no wonder that even many charter schools in urban areas are failing too.

    2. Maya Bohnhoff

      Mr. Brenner, thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog. I appreciate it. I hope you can explain some of your positions further. First, I’m not certain that the wikipedia definition of socialism (common management of the economy or holding production means in common) really applies to public education, but my question to you was: Why is it a problem if it does? Can you explain, please?

      I’m uncertain of the relevance of your being the first person or the thousandth to suggest that public education is socialistic, but you said it very clearly in your article in just those words: “Public education in America is socialism.” The founders of this country made education a public resource because they understood how important education is to our progress as a people. This was why I quoted John Adams:

      “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” (Letter to John Jebb, 10 Sep. 1785)

      Milton Friedman was an economist, not an educator. He said a great many things—among them that businesses should have no other goal than to turn a profit. They should not, he said, concern themselves with ethics. Keeping them honest was the job of the public—us. The only effective way we have of doing that is through our elected government, which we can task to keep businesses honest. Yet, to improve their “bottom line”, businesses constantly strive to subvert the attempts of our elected government to protect our interests. In short, Milton Friedman advocates a relationship between the public and private sectors that is based, not on mutual trust, but on conflicting interests and mutual distrust. Can you think of any institution that would thrive and progress under those circumstances? Christ said it best: “A house divided against itself shall not stand.”

      You wrote: I never said it would be free-market.

      I quote part of your blog’s seventh paragraph verbatim:

      “In a free market system parents and students are free to go where the product and results are better. Common core and standardized tests under such a system will not be necessary, because the schools that fail will go out of business. Government will not be there to prop them up with more tax dollars and increased regulations. Successful schools will thrive. The free-market system works for cars, furniture, housing, restaurants, and to a lesser degree higher education, so why can’t it work for our primary education system?”

      Taken at face value, this explicitly advocates a free market system for education, as if knowledge were, indeed, merely a commercial product and not foundational to our society.

      Here, I raised an important point that you didn’t address, which is that schools can thrive financially and fail academically and if there are no standards by which to judge the “product” (the knowledge and skills of the students coming out of the schools) then we will have no way of knowing which schools are actually teaching children useful things until those children go out into the world as adults and either succeed or fail—a process that could take years.

      Your question about why the free market system wouldn’t work for education is apt, but rests on a flawed premise, as I pointed out. The free market doesn’t work for for far too many people. The free market system is failing in poor rural and urban areas to even bring citizens necessities such as food, jobs, transportation, or safe, affordable housing. That is as true in Ohio as it is in California. I ask again, given that this is the reality, do we dare suppose that it will work for education?

      In the final analysis, your article is really saying that what needs solving is poor educational results, which have nothing to do with socialism and everything to do with our hit or miss approach to education. It is not universally valued, and many things—such as poverty, lack of parental education and involvement, cultural imperatives, institutional hierarchies etc.—are allowed to short-circuit our attempts to create a truly effective system.

      I’d like to focus on the last remark in your comment. You said: “we spend twice as much money on students in urban areas as we do in most rural and suburban areas here in Ohio.” Tom Martin already commented on some of the reasons for this, but I’d like you consider how those reasons would affect privatized education. It’s one thing to state this as a principle and another to install the mechanisms that will make it work.

      Consider: If a family living in urban Cincinnati wishes to send a child to a thriving suburban school in the area, they would have to receive more of the tax dollars than a family living next door to that same school. Why? Because their children will have to be bussed to the school, will probably need free or subsidized lunches, and more help with their studies than students who do not have to travel to the school and whose parents are, themselves, better educated and able to afford the time to help with homework. In short, it would still be more expensive to educate kids from inner city neighborhoods than kids from more prosperous areas.

      You mentioned charter schools. Two of our three children attended a charter school for the academics, the virtue-based ethics and the integrated model of education, which was much like Common Core in its focus on analytical thinking. It was this model that caused my son to come home from school one day and say, “Mom, I finally understand how math is USED. Now I get why we’re studying it and how it works with other things.”

      Might not the solution to this problem of unequal education be to strive to make all our schools as excellent as the best charter schools or blue ribbon public schools so that all students receive a quality education? Perhaps the solution is not to weaken the socialized nature of this shared resource, but to strengthen it so that it really is delivering resources to all students with more equity.

  2. Andrew Brenner

    I can be reached by going to my website http://www.andrewbrenner.com

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