The modern American crisis is less poverty than it is poverty of education. Even if politicians are stubbornly stuck in denial, the American population must still grapple with the schizoid battle between bloated sense of entitlement and exceptionalism and the realities of a crumbling education system. While schools around the nation crumble under the weight of overcrowding, teachers work long hours for low pay, and children learn out of decrepit textbooks, the military can order superfluous F-35 fighter planes that cost $1.45 trillion over their lifetime. It’s worth noting that if the insidious enemy costing trillions of dollars in lost human capital and dooming whole communities to vicious cycles of poverty were some external aggressor, the United States would have declared war without hesitation.
When confronted with abysmal international education rankings, including 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math, politicians instead blame our educators and teachers. The argument makes as much sense as a patient suing a cardiologist over his obesity or a dentist over his cavity. Gushing libertarianism suddenly evaporates in the public education arena, where leaders from Democratic mayor of Chicago Rahm I. Emanuel to Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott K. Walker have adopted the counterintuitive strategy of blaming and shaming the men and women to whom most of the American population entrusts their children. After all, collective bargaining sounds a lot like collectivization to the untrained ear!
Citing budgetary concerns, politicians shamelessly eviscerate education funds from all educational programs from critical early development programs to state universities. The University of California, Davis, for instance, saw tuition for in-state residents surge from $4,595 in 2002 to $15,123 in 2012, a 229 percent increase. Cuts in needed education programs to fund a wasteful military-industrial complex are myopic and merely procrastination: Standards of living in the U.S. will plateau and ultimately stagger as public education is quietly strangled. In a sad display of American prioritization, the budget of the U.S. Department of Education is only $69.8 billion for 2013, while the Department of Defense will receive $613.9 billion. For every pinpoint explosion springing from multimillion-dollar missiles subsidized by taxpayers, there are many implosions of the American dream into the fragmented debris of apathetic citizenry, financial insecurity, and disillusionment.
Why is it so easy to attack the teachers, principals, and institution of public education while speaking ill of military is akin to political suicide? First, we have to realize that our political leaders are beholden to a single question. It’s not, “How do I help my party?” It’s not even, “How do I better the life of my constituents?” Instead, our democratically elected leaders ask, “Where’s the money, Lebowski?” The men and women elected by the people are no longer entirely for the people. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United case made it clear: Money is speech, and any person (or corporation) who can pay more gets a larger voice. So when defense contractors manufacturing military technology like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and the like are each putting up over $11 million toward lobbying, most politicians passively tolerate or actively encourage military splurges. On the other hand, teachers’ unions and education advocates have much less money available to purchase our political system.
It’s important to realize that an endless string of deferments and attacks on the institution of public education is unsustainable. Dismantling the public education system discourages the care and community essential to intellectual development. It makes as little sense to completely privatize the education system as it would to privatize the military. Portraying and demoralizing teachers with endless threats of funding cuts and increased reliance on arbitrary standardized testing is one of the more counterproductive strategies we could employ. The anger springing, perhaps rightly, from America’s slip from the pinnacle of education is more effectively spent in holding our leaders’ feet to the fire.
The order to ensure domestic tranquility precedes the commandment to provide for the common defense in our Constitution’s Preamble. Perhaps the citizenry owes it to our Founding Fathers to convey that message: Destroying our domestic tranquility for unnecessary layers of common defense is unacceptable. Our leaders have tuned out the cries of necessity from the American public, choosing instead to subsist on the hawkishness of a swollen industry.
Idrees Kahloon ’16 lives in Weld Hall. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.