Sunday, March 9, 2014

#155 March 9, 2014- Ideology and Education

Stand Up For Education . . .
Most of us want to stand for something, to have values and principles that define us and that we consistently apply in our daily lives.  Honesty, courage, persistence, loyalty and a solid work-ethic are all traits that most people would like to be identified with.  We put forth effort in our daily lives to live in a way that represents our values and beliefs.  We look to surround our selves with people who are like minded and who validate our beliefs. 

As we move from the individual to our larger society we put forth a great amount of effort trying to define what makes a society "good" and to create conditions that will perpetuate, honor and defend what we value.  The same desire to stand for something is applied to a larger group and we look to leaders and organizations to help us promote our ideological beliefs.  It is natural for us to view like minded people with respect and to support efforts that move our society in a direction that we feel aligns with our values and principles.

Over time we have seen a number of different philosophies and ideologies develop in an effort to identify and promote ideals that are supposed to help guide us to the best society possible.  People approach this task from a variety of viewpoints; religious, economic, political, psychological, sociological, historical, or a blend of different perspectives.  In the end, no matter the point of view that is taken, the efforts to define what makes a society a positive one rely on simplifying human interactions in order to make sense of what is really a very complex reality.

Here in America we have seen two main ideas put against each other, often in confusing and misleading ways.  They are presented as being diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive.  There is the belief that they can't exist together and that there is an ongoing war between the two philosophies.  This ideological conflict emerges any time there is a disagreement between competing ideas and is applied in ways that are sometimes logical, but other times irrelevant and unnecessarily divisive.  These conflicts can bring out the worst in us at times.  

On one hand we have the idea that we should base our thinking on the ideals of the free market, capitalism and democracy.  According to this line of thinking, America was founded on the shoulders of individuals and we should honor the freedom of the individual no matter what the costs to the collective whole.  If we keep our government and other societal institutions small and relatively powerless, then the most qualified individuals will thrive and society as a whole will be lifted by their efforts.  It isn't difficult to find historical references to this ideal, and we seek to find and glorify these individuals in the present day as well. 

The other viewpoint in this dichotomy is based on the ideas that we must work collectively in order to survive as a thriving, sustainable society.  A society is judged, not by the successes of those already on the top, but by the way that people at all levels of our society live.  While the philosophical expressions of this ideal have often been publicly rejected by mainstream Americans, just look at how Socialism is portrayed in our media and public discourse, we don't have too much trouble identifying examples where the ideals of this viewpoint are espoused.  "An injury to one is an injury to all" isn't too far removed from "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

One of the major problems that we face as we try to identify our national ideology is that we put forth philosophies and ideas that are grounded in idealism and not in the real world.  Socialism, Communism, Capitalism and Free Market ideologies are all ideals that have not been fully implemented in the American experience.  This isn't a bad thing, all of these lines of thought are impossible to implement in the complex reality that we live in.  Here in America we have been quick to point out the flaws in Marx's thinking, but need to recognize the fact that Capitalism and Free Market ideas are also based on creating circumstances that don't, and may never, exist in reality.                

All of this would simply make for interesting debate and discussion, or at least interesting debate and discussion for those who enjoy political science, except that the conflicts around our social, political and economic ideologies have real consequences for the citizens of America.  Our utopian views, no matter what side of the argument we fall on, conflict with the reality we live in and leaves us frustrated.  Our beliefs become brittle, rigid and divisive, and instead of being a tool to help us shape our world in a positive way become weapons that weaken all of society.  The mischaracterization of our opponents' viewpoint cause all ideologies to become caricatures and oversimplified versions of what we really aspire to.  We fail to embrace the diversity of thinking that our Constitutional freedoms guarantee and instead fight to silence those who think differently then we do.  The political turmoil in Wisconsin provides a very real example of just how far we have ventured towards political extremism and ideological warfare.

Here in America we have dealt with the reality that none of the political ideologies that have been put forth fully deal with the realities of human experience by creating a blend of public and private enterprises.  From the start of our nation we combined government and private to try and meet the needs of our citizens.  At times we have emphasized the importance of one over the other, but always there has been a mix of public and private services that work, either together or in opposition, to move our nation forward socially and economically. 

People who understand the reality of the needs that our citizens and nation have, recognize the need to have strong public and private sectors.  For our nation to grow and for individuals to enjoy the most success possible, a strong private sector is necessary.  However, our public sector must provide some regulation and control in order to attempt to insure some equity and protections for all citizens.  There are also some services and industries that should be in the hands of the public and not privatized.  In fact, when we are not so ideologically divided, the public and private spheres have often worked well together and provided a balance that has helped make America one of the world's most prosperous nations. 

However, this mixture of public and private sectors along with the confusion around the political theories that support our systems can also be problematic.  This is especially true when political conflicts are heightened.  Our current situation here in Wisconsin, and around America, cause us to rethink the ways that our public and private sectors interact.  This rethinking and restructuring isn't necessarily a negative thing.  In fact, as a society we should always be looking carefully at the way we do things and looking to improve our efforts and outcomes.  The problems arise when we see efforts made to destroy political opponents and to advance one way of thinking over another.  This is especially true when the motives for doing so are questionable in nature. 

The ideological confusion, along with the intense ideological debate (often with questionable motivations) are visible in many areas, but nowhere is it more clear than in the world of education.  In the best of times we have public and private systems that coexist and provide choices for families with a majority of them choosing the public schools.  Those who have strong religious convictions, or who have specific requirements for education can choose other alternatives that are available through private funding and paid for by the families themselves.  However, in times like those we currently live in, the confusions around the purposes of education, the value of education, the methods for delivering instructions and evaluating achievement, and the financing of schools become problematic and divisive. 

The sad truth is that the final confusion, revolving around money, has taken center stage in the battles around education.  We have been conditioned to think of education in financial terms.  Sometimes it is in treating our public spending as the equivalent of a mutual fund, an investment that can be measured in specific, often financial outputs.  A practice that distorts our views of the true values of education to our society and that puts public schools on the defensive.  

Because public schools are funded through public monies, the control of education has shifted from educators and families to politicians.  This means that school funding becomes warped by the inevitable political battles and political spin.  Is the Obama budget's K-12 education focus a movement "toward ending the era of austerity," or is it simply continuing our recent traditions of validating a system that creates "winning and losers"? 

We know how the efforts to control education spending have worked in Wisconsin, and are continually getting more examples of just how harmful the politicizing of school spending is for our students and our schools.   

The emphasis on the fiscal aspects of education means that the actual education of our students ends up being overshadowed and undervalued.  The more we seek to measure our efforts to educate students, the more divisive and less educationally sound our efforts become.  Efforts to improve our schools and provide opportunities for students waver between educationally valid practices and profit making enterprises or political power grabs.      

Make no mistake, we need our public schools now more than ever.  They provide access to educational opportunities for all students, not just the wealthy, academically capable, or well behaved.         

Our public schools also provide stability, cohesiveness and a sense of community in our neighborhoods, towns and cities that private schools are inherently unable to offer.  Whether viewed as an investment, or as a resource, our public schools are the vehicle that all members of a community can access, and that drive a healthy, vibrant and sustainable society.  

The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .
The Good . . . All of the efforts to draw attention to the need for corporations like McDonald's to pay their employees a living wage are having an impact.  Of course the company is trying to threaten consumers with the threat of higher prices in order to maintain profit margins.

Fast food giant McDonalds says that growing concerns over income inequality may force it to raise wages.

We can't forget that raising the minimum wage may supposedly "harm" corporate bottom lines, but that it is a positive for people and our economy in general.  Who is our government and our society supposed to benefit anyway? 

Raising minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would cut food stamp spending by $4.6 billion a year, report says.
Washington Post

The Bad . . . When we look at economics and politics on large scales we lose sight of the fact that real people are impacted by the policies that are generated by these ideologies and theoretical constructs.  

The Ugly . . . Racism is alive and has a very public voice.

We need to do something about the problems around financing higher education.  It is vital that we change the way we finance and pay for education in this country.  An education should be a pathway to achievement and stability, not an obstacle to success.  

Just as scary as the idea of student loan debt for a college education is the idea of debt incurred for K-12 educations.

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