Obama's Education Speech: Reactions

Obama’s Back-to-School speech deserves commentary on many points. Here I am going to simply mention some telling assumptions that are laced through the presentation.

The President, of course, gets some points for talking about how students must accept responsibility for their own achievement. Though fundamental, this is hardly new. The elephant in the room is – achievement… for what? What is the real purpose of an education – a public education – in America 2009?

1) Obama talks about getting a good job as a major goal of going to school: “You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You are going to need a good education for every single one of those careers”.

The idea that America today is full of good jobs, waiting for each year’s crop of graduates has been exploded many times. Here’s one from Gerald Bracey, for years a harsh critic of the notion that America’s schools are failing:

From On Education, Obama Blows It, by Gerald Bracey:
I have not the expertise to address the merits of President Obama’s speech to Congress on the issues of the economy. I do claim some expertise on education. He blew it.

He accepted the same garbage that the propagandists, fear mongers such as Lou Gerstner, Bill Gates, Roy Romer, Bob Wise, Craig Barrett and many others—God help us, Arne Duncan?--have been spewing for years.

Obama said, ”Right now, three quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma, and yet just over half of our citizens have that level of education. Scary, huh? Not really. This statistic was a favorite of ex secretary of education of education Margaret Spellings, about whom we can all express a sigh of relief that the operative word is, “ex.”

If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics stats on job projections, it is almost true (but not really) that what Obama said is right. But there are two hugely compromising factors that make this statistic much less fearsome that it first appears:

1. The definition of “more than a high school diploma” is a weasel phrase, an incredibly slippery statistic. It does not mean a B. A., an Associates Degree, nor even a year of on-the-job training. The BLS projects that the overwhelming majority of jobs to be created between now and 2016 will require “short term on the job training.” That’s one week to three months.

2. The “fastest-growing occupations” account for very few jobs. For every systems engineer, we need about 15 sales people on the floor at Wal-Mart (and we have three newly minted scientists and engineers for every new job in those fields). The huge job numbers in this country are accounted for by retail sales, janitors, maids, food workers, waiters, truck drivers, home care assistants (low paid folk who come to take care those of us who are getting up in years), and similar low-trained, low-paid occupations. Note that I did not say these people are “low-skilled.” As Barbara Ehrenreich showed after she spent two years working in “low-skilled” jobs, there really is no such thing (see her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).
The reality, that every President knows full well, is that computer-driven automation is polarizing the labor market and eliminating most high paying jobs. Hi-tech robotic production is labor-replacing technology that requires a tiny few highly skilled engineering-level jobs on one hand, while “creating” jobs that require little sophistication for those who can actually get them.

Manufacturing as a percent of all employment has dropped from 26% in 1970 to about 10.5% today.

No one who looks seriously at the labor market makes any projections about enough new jobs to put America back to work.

2) In the next paragraph Obama states, “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country”. Then in the next paragraph, he says, “You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.”

Isn’t it a little disingenuous to conflate “this country” with “new companies”? Is it only corporations who can offer us a decent future? They aren’t doing a very good job on handling the present these days.

Furthermore, the lack of jobs, especially quality jobs in the US is a direct result of corporate policy to move jobs out of this country into regions where workers can be paid pennies an hour. Corporate interests, by law, must always be antithetical to the interests of the public, since corporations are required to place maximum profit above any other concern.

The Bail-Out of Wall Street is up to $13 trillion dollars to corporations, all paid for by working people (since corporations now pay a small and ever-decreasing share of taxes). For this price, don’t we deserve someone in leadership who can separate the public of “this country” from organizations that increasingly proclaim their right to privatize our public schools?

For $13 trillion, the Bail-Out could have paid off the mortgage of every household in the country. That money would have gone into the banks that went bust for speculating with other peoples’ money, then the public and corporations would have been solvent. But… that didn’t happen. And Wall Street isn’t even required to tell the public what it is doing with our money!

3) Eight paragraphs later, the President states one of the great, unchallenged platitudes, “No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.

How true is this, really?

– Did the millions of families who will be evicted because they were suckered by predatory mortgages write their own destiny?

– How about the thousands of people who will be denied health care by corporations because they had “pre-existing conditions”?

– How about the California state workers who have been forced to work 4 day weeks and lose close to 20% of their income, while less than 50% of the profitable corporations in the state pay zero income taxes?

The list of people who were worked really hard but were screwed by a system that glorifies it’s right to make a profit off of human misery would fill Wikipedia. This idea that America offers success for all who work hard has been a crock since it was first propagated by Horatio Alger. But it is the flip side that is so dangerous today.

It is not so strange that a country that was obsessed with slavery for three centuries can think of nothing but working hard. The corollary to the “Your Own Bootstraps” myth is another false idea that is preached across our country everyday: “It’s your fault that you are poor. You didn’t work hard enough. Everyone else can do it, but you chose not too. Now you want a free ride.”

What else can the President be saying? “You make your own future”. So if you are poor that is the future you made. Tell it to the hundreds of thousands of good high school students without papers who are not allowed to go to college unless they can pay cash. Tell it to the thousands of Detroit auto workers who were denied – by Obama – any kind of Bail-Out and whose pensions and health care are virtually day-to-day.

It’s this corporate vision of what education is that needs to be changed. For over a hundred years, corporations have used their vast power to guarantee that public education should be is tied to a job. Well, since they aren’t providing too many of those these days, maybe we can develop a more transformative vision.

This has been well stated by The Charter for Public Education, developed by the teachers of British Columbia [It has nothing to to with charter schools!]. This charter says:*
Public Education is a Sacred Trust.

As a community we promise to prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build. We promise a public education system which provides learners with knowledge and wisdom, protects and nurtures their natural joy of learning, encourages them to become persons of character, strength and integrity, infuses them with hope and with spirit, and guides them to resolute and thoughtful action.

Everyone has the right to a free, quality public education.

Each first nation has the right to be recognized and respected by those within the educational institutions located in their traditional territory.
We promise:
* To recognize that the learner is at the center of public education. To offer learners a broad-based education which includes aesthetic, artistic, cultural, emotional, social, intellectual, academic, physical and vocational development in order that they can find and follow their hopes, dreams and passions.
* To nurture and value critical thinking so that learners are equipped to be reflective and analytical global citizens.
* To respect, encourage and foster the learner's role as a full participant, together with others in the educational community, in developing their own goals, learning activities and curricula.
* To create an environment in which each learner can reach their greatest potential, each learning style is affirmed, and the achievements of each learner are measured and assessed accordingly.
* To provide a safe and respectful environment for life-long learning which celebrates diversity, embraces the physical, spiritual, emotinal and intellectual integrity of each individual, recognizes and acknowledges differences and prevents discrimination in all of its forms.
We expect:
* Government to be responsible for fully funding all aspects of a quality education.
Steven Miller
Oakland, Ca
8 September 2009

*One official definition of charter: A document outlining the principles, functions, and organization of a corporate body; a constitution.
h/t PP

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