Happy Fourth America

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WASHINGTON – I run into an old acquaintance in the elevator. A few pleasantries are exchanged. And his farewell greeting is”: “Happy Fourth”. Appropriate, of course, as we are getting close to the Fourth of July. But I would like to think that something more meaningful is conveyed in what may otherwise appear as just ritualized wishes –something polite to say just because we are very close to Independence Day. Indeed, “Happy Fourth” may convey more.

Optimistic about The Fourth

If we want to be optimistic, celebrating the Fourth of July is an opportunity to reflect on what was meant, so long ago, at the beginning of a novel experiment aimed at creating sustainable institutions of self-government. Think of it: the first attempt at creating a republic in the modern era. And this effort was supported by uncharacteristic faith in enduring human wisdom, as success of self-government whose authority would rest on consent rather than force was largely predicated on the virtue of the citizens.

Indeed, The Declaration of Independence of July 1776 and the train of events that followed it represented the very first attempt in the modern era to give life, in a very practical way, to an elected government conceived as an instrument created to protect individual liberties. Such an idea up to that point had only been declared in books. Amazing that anyone really believed that this experiment based on the continuing ability to strike careful balances could come to life and then survive.

America is a Utopian Dream that came true

It may appear odd, but we have to come to an understanding that the creation of America was and is the wishing into reality of what could  only be a Utopian Dream –a Utopian Dream that, however, despite all odds survived the tests of real life application and overall became more real than unreal. Most Political Utopias either stayed just that, interesting dreams, perhaps, but only mental creations of imaginative individuals, or –much worse—they came to life as hellish manifestations of human perversion and madness.

Other Utopias not so good

The still cherished 1789 French Revolution was theoretically about justice, of course; but justice to be realized through the gruesome physical elimination of entire social classes. At some point the revolutionaries thought that the best way of achieving their noble goals was by creating “Terror”. In the end the whole thing collapsed, to be replaced by a new autocracy, with Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor. (The French had to try several times, before giving life to a viable modern republic not too long ago). And the connection between the sacred duty to kill in the name of a beautiful idea has been the common thread of many Utopias, from Bolshevism to Nazism up to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Do humans have enough wits to manage self-government?

The American Revolution was about obtaining freedom from foreign rule, of course; but this Revolution was meant as the necessary precondition so that a novel form of government, based on all those famous European writings on natural law and constitutionalism that all the leaders had studied and absorbed, could be created.

it was a Utopia in as much as the whole idea of self-government was premised on the assumed existence and self-perpetuation of a high degree of human maturity, reason, restraint and willingness to respect rules of fairness, coupled with the ability of always striking a reasonable balance between the rights of the majority and the need to prevent the majority from crushing the minority. How could one reasonably believe that such wisdom could exist?

“A Republic, if you can keep it” –Benjamin Franklin

In truth, at the time many argued that such a high level of maturity might be hard to achieve and, if achieved, difficult to keep. But  nonetheless they went ahead. Again, uncertainty about the success of the enterprise remained. Indeed, a few years after the Revolution, at the end of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin famously replied to someone who asked him what was it that the Convention had accomplished: “A Republic, if you can keep it”.

And so Franklin tersely uttered that this New Republic, itself the child of the Revolution, was only a tentative accomplishment. It was there, but only as long as the citizens would have enough wits to understand its value and do what would be necessary overtime to keep it.

Major flaws in the design

And, of course, we do know that right at the beginning there were major flaws in the whole design. The obvious “original sin” at the very birth of America was the inability, at that time, to seriously deal with the glaring contradiction represented by professing the universal principle of human equality and the institution of slavery. And we know that it took almost a century and a bloody Civil War to legally rectify this sin; while it took another century to eliminate, at least formally, the segregation regime that in practice had the same effect as slavery.

Well, as imperfect as it is, the creature of the Utopian Founders is still much better than most other human concoctions in the sphere of government. Another Fourth of July gives us the opportunity to reflect on what is it that we have done and what needs change.

Education is a key ingredient

Let me offers my thoughts. The Founders, as children of the European philosophy of the Enlightenment, had great faith in the power of education both to lead men to achievement and to give them the intellectual tools to protect the very republican institutions that they were forging at the time.

Impossible, they believed, to have people who are both ignorant and free. Knowledge empowers people in a healthy way, they thought. It gives them tools to better understand all things, including the actions of government and the ability to act against nefarious behavior.

Education for the good of man and the good of the commonwealth

And, even though this was not explicitly stated as a “right”, it was obvious that for them the whole American experiment was predicated on the availability of education as the tool that enables the cultivation of the human spirit and the ability to improve our knowledge in all fields. There was for them a seamless continuity between greater knowledge of the physical world and the progressive refinement of human sensibilities and sensitivities.

It is not accidental that among the Founders we have Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The latter well known as inventor, publisher and entrepreneur; while Jefferson was a dilettante scientist and an eternally curious man who built a huge collection of books, later on bought by the government thus becoming a key component of the early Library of Congress. Not an accident that both men are tied to the creation of institutions of higher learning. Not an accident that Jefferson cited his role as founder of the University of Virginia as an important personal achievement, while he did not mention his years as President of the United States.

We lost the understanding that access of education for all is key

The Founders understood all this. But their message has been lost along the way. While America made great strides in expanding the reach of education in earlier times, (think of the innovation of land grant universities, think of the G.I. Bill that sent masses of veterans to university after WWII), overtime our education system, as a whole, has declined in both quality and quantity –especially its backbone: public secondary education.

“A Nation at Risk”?

This is a fact that has been described and substantiated in many authoritative studies. The landmark 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education”, drew attention; but then the focus shifted elsewhere. And yet, the report famously stated that: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war“. Well, interesting rhetoric notwithstanding, the Nation at Risk report came and went and, almost thirty years later, we have not made much progress. 

Some focus on education and the economy

When falling standards of education get attention this is only because some key business leaders, not without cause, point out the inevitable loss of economic competitiveness resulting from declining academic standards in America; while other countries have better results. The outcome, it is appropriately said, is that they will better than us at mastering complex technologies and processes, while we shall slowly fall behind. This is true.

Economic decline and more

But, while accurate, this ominous warning and prediction of economic decline does not really capture the full value of education as the Founders intended it –and as we should intend it. While education is certainly about intellectual skills and the advance of scientific knowledge so that people will innovate and engage in ever more complex economic activities resulting in higher profits, our lives are not just about economic pursuits. Sure enough, a successful economy is essential, for without riches very little else is possible. But riches alone do not satisfy all our needs.

The promise of a good education

And thus education should be about the broadening of the spirit and about the identification of those unique talents that provide substance and depth to that right of the “Pursuit of Happiness” indicated in the Declaration of Independence that we are about to celebrate once more. So education should provide skills but more importantly an avenue for self-discovery and for the growth of one’s own spirit. And, along this journey, the person will also discover the intrinsic value of liberty and of the republican institutions created to uphold it, while providing practical tools for managing the commonwealth affairs. 

This is a very tall order, no doubt, and this is why I call the whole exercise that started on the Fourth of July, 1776 an attempt to give life to Utopia. But, whatever the odds of lasting success, either we label the whole enterprise fanciful and abandon it, or we try and pursue the agenda set by the Founders as best we can.

American public education: not even the basics

Yet, before we get too lofty, and engage in arcane debates about the best tools for self-discovery, let’s review our landscape and acknowledge that, while we are failing to reach the aspired to depth of spiritual awareness, we cannot even do a decent job with the very basic stuff that should be expected as minimal education achievements in terms of literacy and other simple academic skills. Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of ground across the board in almost every sphere of public education.

No education, no “Opportunity”

This, in and as of itself, is a betrayal of the spirit of 1776 that implictly stipulated that for America to succeed, its citizens need to be educated. And the negative consequences of inadequate education are really great. Let’s consider why. America, quite clearly was conceived as an egalitarian society; but only in a formal way, in the sense that there would be no individuals enjoying special status because of the accident of their birth. No aristocracy in America. Yet America was not predicated on any economic egalitarianism. It was believed that people would progress in life as far as their talent would carry them. But, quite clearly –and this circles back to the need to foster education– the cultivation and refinement of talent requires training and learning.

“Opportunity” is the magic ingredient

And the cultivation of individual talent implies access to education and thus the existence of concrete, available “Opportunity” through schools. Indeed, meaningful, available “Opportunity” –intended here as access to the tools that allow meaningful self-expression through a variety of means– is the magic, secret ingredient of the American Dream. Indeed, for “America”, conceived as a healthy environment in which all is possible, to become a tangible, practical reality for most people, there has to be at least a minimal level of real opportunity for all, regardless of their individual circumstances at birth. Formal, legal equality without real opportunity is almost meaningless. If only the rich have access to quality education, then there is nothing different about America: just another country in which social class is the key to almost anything; just another country in which “birth is destiny”.

The great American stories of the “self-made man”, although probably inflated in terms of the impression created as to the actual numbers of common people who truly “made it”, are nonetheless real. And certainly upward social mobility has been more real in America than in countries in which birth, status, connections and political ties often prevail over individual talent and ingenuity.

Unfortunately in America for many “birth is destiny”

But in today’s America, just like in other traditional societies, there are barriers that cannot be overcome through hard work alone. Sadly enough, just like in more backward societies, we are confronted now, despite laws that prohibit discrimination, with a reality in which “birth is destiny”. Millions of young people, having no access to real education, are trapped into marginalization or poverty that they have no real means of escaping.

Failed public schools

Indeed, how can so many inner city kids have a real chance, unless meaningful, quality education is made available to them? Even those who want to, by virtue of their geographic locations that provide no real choices in terms of the schools they may be able to attend, are stuck with horribly insufficient public schools in which they learn almost nothing. Huge numbers do not graduate. Those who do graduate are often functionally illiterate or semi-illiterate and thus woefully under equipped to have a shot at higher education and all the opportunities that on average at least go along with college and post graduate degrees.

Charter schools to the rescue

Well, there are some glimmers of hope in this otherwise grim landscape. The growing phenomenon of “charter schools” shows once again American Ingenuity at work. Charter schools are privately conceived and manned schools aimed at providing substantive education to those who otherwwise would have no choice. Their relative success has encouraged local administrations to give them a chance. Parents are given the opportunity to send their kids there, regardless of location. So far, so good. But the fact is that the supply of good charter schools does not even remotely equal demand.

Charter schools and lotteries

Brilliant film maker Madeleine Sackler ably portrayed this reality in her acclaimed documentary “The Lottery”. This film documents the stories of New York families that want to send their kids to charter schools, recognizing that this can be the only chance to good education and thus a better life for these children. But all these families have to face the obstacle of a lottery, legally mandatory when there are just not enough places in charter schools to accommodate all children who wish to attend them. The documentary also shows bigotry on the part of those who oppose the expansion of charter school seen at least by some as a cultural threat to some kind of ethnic orthodoxy. (White people trying to open new charter schools like the “Harlem Success Academy” in predominantly Black Harlem are apparently not welcome).

Resisting change

But the worst part is that from the story narrated in the documentary it clearly emerges that the teachers unions are defenders of the failed system, as opposed to fighting the good fight for higher standards of education and truly professional teachers. They oppose charter schools as a threat to their union monopoly, even when it is obvious that the schools they want to preserve are failing institutions that provide little if any value to the children.

The chance to have a meaningful future is still a “lottery”

So, “The Lottery” shows us the real life travails caused by a failed public education system and the attempts at remedying these failures. But the very word used in the title –lottery—conveys how still unjust all this is. Given the scarcity of meaningful, coveted alternatives represented by a few charter schools, the future of many children is in the luck of the draw. For many of them their destiny and future station in life in some measure may be dictated by the outcome of the lottery. Those who cannot get into the charter schools are thrown back into the caldron of the failed public education.

In America we should do better

Sure enough, better to have some charter schools than none. But it is truly shameful that in this supposedly modern society, here in America we tolerate a tax payer funded public education system of such low quality that people had to come up with remedial alternatives aimed at filling huge gaps. it is quite obvious that in the many circumstances described in the documentary, “Opportunity” is denied. Opportunity is only partially restored via the good will of those behind good charter schools initiatives, But opportunity is nonetheless denied by the complete inadequacy of public educational institutions created –let us not forget– for the sole purpose of providing that basic shared cultural and knowledge common ground that all should have in order to be full participants in our society.

President Obama’s efforts and their limits

True enough, President Barack Obama has raised the profile of public education reform and many worthwhile initiatives have been launched by his administration through Arne Duncan, his thoughtful and well meaning Secretary of Education.

But we know that public education in America is still essentially a local government responsibility and thus much of the action has to take place at that level. Furthermore, the essentially negative role of teachers unions in impeding reform and in impeding the necessary goal of creating a truly accountable and highly qualified “army of teachers” is not part of the national conversation. If the teachers do not teach, or at least do not strive to reach higher standards, while their unions staunchly defend the status quo, the battle is already lost. The teachers unions are key constituencies of the Democratic Party. Will Obama have the courage to confront them? No clear sign of that, for the moment.

Not enough awareness about the failures of public education

Sure enough there are many responsibilities here, including chronic under funding of education and consequent low salaries for teachers that do not encourage good people to pursue teaching as a profession. Worse yet, an apathetic general public does not grasp the gravity of the situation, starting with parents who do not seem to fully appreciate the damage done to their children by failing public schools.

The parents portrayed in Madeleine Sackler documentary who hope and pray that their names will be called the day of a charter school lottery certainly understand all this. But, while this film helps us focus on this national failure, all this may not be enough to change the tone of the national conversation; while we cannot expect charter schools alone to magically remedy our nationwide systemic educational failure. Do the American elites, the pundits, the policy-makers get how bad all this is?

With real education in America we can restore opportunity

Again, as we celebrate the originality and the good intentions underpinning the American experiment, let us remember that there is no American uniqueness without real opportunity for all. And a good education is certainly the indispensable tool to provide avenues for opportunity to all children.

The Founding Fathers clearly recognized the value of education as a pillar of both viable republican institutions and as the engine of human and economic progress. Just as they did, we have to recognize that if we fail to have at least decent, if not excellent, schools, America as we would like to think of it may not last much longer, neither its free institutions nor its economic prowess.

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