I want to look at the truth without flinching. Some days it exhausts me. My brother Paul insists there is a silver-lining. For example, we did elect a man of color as President—unthinkable in the Golden Age (1945-70). Women are breaking new barriers everyday. Gay men and women are safer than they have been for centuries.
But we are also in the midst of a bold maneuver by wealthy ideological foes to roll back as much if not all of the New Deal/Fair Deal victories: enough so that even if they lose badly two years from now it will have been worth it. We would at best have to spend fulltime just undoing damages. They are prepared, I am convinced, to lose the "independents" and more. They are probably right—so to speak. It is a strategy that in my more revolutionary socialist youth I was in favor of too. They have essentially created a new rightwing political party with a revolutionary agenda led by a wealthy vanguard. Curtailing democracy and misinformation are often essential parts of revolutionary ideology as they intend to undertake reforms that would not be possible under ordinary democratic procedures.
In short: Public schooling may not in my lifetime be preservable. Something I was sure was untouchable, at the core of our nation. I am prone to short-term thinking these days. It is hard not to at 80. While I am not sure I will live long enough to see the undoing of 80 years of progress I do not regret having been on the other side of the barricades (so to speak). But… it hurts. Of course, actually the reform era I am remembering lasted "merely" 50 years.
Was I as certain of the true path to utopia as the Right is now?
They have distracted us by a fight over school reform in the name of equity and civil rights while they have destroyed the playing field that might over time have produced such equity. For example, "Chicago's unemployment rate for African Americas is triple the rate for whites—at 21.4%, and for every dollar the employed black Chicagoan earns, an African American makes 45 cents (Don Rose, Post Racial or Racially Dead Last? The Observer, 3/22/11). The financial bust we lived through has undermined, above all, the last Americans who made it into the middle class: Black Americans.
"If New York City were a nation it's level of income concentration would rank 13th worst among 134 countries, between Chile and Honduras." Lower than Egypt. Nor do we rank high regarding social class mobility anymore. Odd, isn't it, that what we all have nostalgia for is the America we knew between the 40s and 70s—"when the upper strata did just fine, enjoying a robust 10 percent of the pot" Versus 50% today (quotes from Tom Robbins, Village Voice, 2/02/11). And I used to think 10% of the pot was an outrage.
Then I look at the larger scene and realize that our flaws are built into some unwise structures and maybe we were just plain lucky to have done as well as we have. Example: I could put together eight of the most Republican states in the nation with a population smaller than NY State—but that they have 16 senators to our 2. How did we get as far as we did?
In 20 years we have tripled the number of people behind bars at a cost of billions—mostly non-Whites for non-violent crimes; a rise not due to more crime, but a policy shift.
Despite Brown vs the Board of Education, we have more segregated schools in the North (at least) than we did in 1954! And if there ever was a reform designed to segregate schools—and not just by race—the charter school movement has the patent on niche schools for aspiring poor non-Whites—note that in NYC at least they may take a lot of the poor—but the target audience are the "reduced" not the "free" lunchers. We are seeing a flourishing new K-12 market for the smart/gifted/mostly White kids in the public sector. (Data from NYC and NYS "Separate and Unequal," from the UFT.)
No changes dependent on new habits of heart and mind can succeed over time without persuading the "changees." But with enough money you can skip slow persuasion and fairly rapidly overwhelm what were once the norms of middle class American ideology. And it can last for longer than I would like to think given the lopsided media, and the enormous cost of running for "public" office.
Had we been able and willing to take fuller advantage of the reform climate that flourished twenty or thirty years ago, with their staunch assumption that the nation's wealth should be more fairly distributed, we might have averted this counter-revolution. Had we been able to continue to grow the progressive reforms initiated in the 70s and 80s, and had we anywhere near the financial support that the new deformers have, we would have begun to see how much further schooling could take us. It is more than 20 years since the States began ramping up top-down pressure for testing and "our way – or no way" plans. The shift has been lightening swift. The absence of success—in virtually every state for virtually every one of the Rights favorite reforms—has not made a dent; and in fact such reforms now lead the way ideologically to the bashing not only of teachers, or public workers, but of all those who are not smart or skillful enough to be members of the organized rich. Thus meeting a subsidiary goal of the "deformers"—destroying public unions.
The promise that charter schools offered us at their start was quickly abandoned as they morphed into large undifferentiated chain stores, ruled not by independent-minded "moms and pops" the way we imagined, but by the most powerful billionaires on earth..
By focusing our attention on schools as the lynch-pin we have distracted attention from the forces that truly undermined both America's economy and democracy. America's economy is "recovering" while the people of America and its democracy are sinking. Fear has been restored as the foundation of a "thriving" economic system, and "security" as something only the very rich have a right to value. And leisure is again a sin—for those who cannot pass down huge wealth to their children's grandchildren. Even my friend/foe Jay Matthews (Washington Post), in decrying the lack of sufficient homework, sees leisure as a waste of time. At least for the young. Get them pedaling on the treadmill early—maybe that is a solution to the energy crisis? It is a treadmill for, at best, staying in place because a true ruling class needs leisure and self-confidence, and encouragement to play outside the one right answer out of four. Redefining "achievement" will get harder, not easier to do. But it is a must.
I am not planning to give up. I wake up in a sweat some nights thinking about officially sanctioned torture, multiple undeclared wars, and a Supreme Court that not only thinks corporations are equal to people when it comes to their civil rights, but push comes to shove would put them first, I fear. But I continue to keep my eyes on schools—it is an old-habit by now.
Someday we shall wake up. Maybe even tomorrow. I have often been wrong.