Archive for March 24th, 2012

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rice, Klein: An Equal Shot at the American Dream?

There seem to be four big American political mainstreams these days, when it comes to competitiveness: there is the  “political left”, with a strong camp of people with a sense of entitlement – to welfare – on the one hand, and one that emphasizes the importance of education and personal skills on the other. On the “political right”, there is a camp of people with a sense of entitlement – to national greatness – on the one hand, and one that emphasizes the importance of education and personal skills on the other. The “left” and the “right” still seem to have certain things in common.

Manifest Destiny (by John Gast)

Manifest Destiny (by John Gast): click picture to see the Goddess of the Frontier in her capacity as a cablecaster.

Condoleezza Rice seems to have managed to combine some elements of both collective “greatness” and personal achievement. Shortcomings in the educational systems have become “a national security threat”, she argued in an interview during the PBS Newshour.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of the competitiveness of our economy, people who can fill the jobs and be the innovators of the future, so that the United States maintains its economic edge, and then finally the matter of our social cohesion. The United States, we’ve always been held together by the belief that it doesn’t matter where you came from. It matters where you’re going.

And that is — absolutely, without education, we cannot maintain that cohesion.

She also explains – indirectly -, why they chose to refer to lacking education as a national security problem:

Putting it into a national security rubric shouldn’t be underestimated, because it’s very easy if it’s just about my child. And my child can get a good education because I can either put that child in private school or I can move to a community where the schools are good, then I don’t have to worry so much about that child in East Oakland or in South Central L.A., or in Anacostia, for that matter, who won’t get a good education.

But when you say this is a national security problem, then it is a common problem for all of us.

One could also say that she is trying to reach Republicans with a sense to entitlement to national greatness. Being a member of a task force on education, along with the head of one of the largest teachers union (Randi Weingarten), she may need to justify the company she is in, after all.

It seems to dawn on me why the CCP and the GOP can do business with each other. They aren’t shy of social engineering when their countries’ manifest destinies, or any other destinies, seem to be at stake.

But that’s not the ideal motivation to get things done. A society shouldn’t only ask itself what it owes its children (beyond individual offspring) once this obligation becomes a “national security threat”. It’s an obligation anyway, the times may be good or bad.

The feelings I’m getting when listening to Rice are similar to those I had when reading about Amy Chua‘s account of how she had educated her daughters. Quoting myself,

Issues of education, the question what kind of life a child should live, are not only a matter of ideology here (that’s unfortunatle, too, but normal anyway), but it has become a matter of global politics. This isn’t what Chua necessarily wants to happen, to be clear. She makes it very clear that achievement is good for a child as an individual. But it was foreseeable that the issue of how children could become beneficiaries of their own efforts wouldn’t become the focus of the debate. It’s  “America’s decline” or “China’s rise”.

It’s probably not what Rice wants to happen either. She wants to sell a topic which is usually considered “left”, to a constituency – her own – which is usually “right”. But education is about individuals’ potentials, and an individual’s right to access opportunities. A society that cares about its children as a matter of principle will have a future, and discussions about “national security”, in that case, could stay where they actually belong: within government and within the military.

Should I wish her and her task force on education success? Learning from the CCP is to learn victory? Here’s a quote from the task force’s recommendations:

Human capital will determine power in the current century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine America’s security,” the report states. “Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy.

Students as human capital.  It’s a very common term, but that doesn’t make it less ugly. But what a handy approach: paint an awesome picture of “the enemy” to motivate society, including those who could care less about human rights at home otherwise. In certain ways, Germany’s new president might be a subscriber to similar formulae, but it probably wouldn’t be fair to suggest that he thinks of people as raw material.

Joel Klein, another task force member who joined Rice in the PBS interview, stated the issue this way:

If people believe the game is rigged, if people no longer believe that you can start out anywhere and end up at the top successfully in America, that the American dream is part of the past, I think that erodes a sense of belief and confidence in our nation.
It makes us inward-looking. It makes us envious of other people, all the kinds of things that we have avoided as a people. If that turns against us, then I think our national security will be affected.

But I can’t help but feel that there is something wrong. It’s a nice interview, but that’s probably that. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss:

Klein was chancellor of of New York City public schools for eight years, running it under the general notion that public education should be run like a business. He closed schools, pushed the expansion of charter schools and launched other initiatives before resigning in 2010 after it was revealed that the standardized test scores that he kept pointing to as proof of the success of his reforms were based on exams that got increasingly easy for students to take. Now he works for Rupert Murdoch.



» Unlikely Murdoch Ally, N. Y. Times, July 23, 2011
» Creative Destruction or Development, March 15, 2010
» Charter Schools, Wikipedia


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