Friday, June 10, 2011

More questions of worth

Often, on summer days in DC, walking through the glass doors of our office building feels like an immersion into something we would rather all deny. In this case, the heat, which is sometimes visible on the other side of the window, a thickness and wavering quality in the air. A synesthetic illusion, my arms burned in the heat walking to the metro.

These days, it's easy to confuse the reality of a life taking place in air conditioned spaces (where my days are spent) and the actuality of the climate outside, temperature magnified by asphalt, concrete and marble. Something like trying to locate yourself within the media echo chamber that includes Sarah Palin's insistence that Revere's warning was directed toward the British, Rick Santorum's declaration that American soldiers fought on D-Day for the right to make their own decisions on their healthcare plans (don't believe me? watch this), and, yes, Anthony Weiner's revelation that the junk shot seen around the world was, as you may have heard, his. Lexington and Concord, take that ...

On one side of a glass wall, I'm never sure if I'm in the AC or in the sauna of the summer air. I don't know which side of the divide my fellow citizens are on. And I don't know if the politicians above quite understand where they are either. Weiner was simply caught within the fun house mirrors of his own deceits, Palin (god love her, her reward is in heaven, if the teachers will let her in) looks like a deer caught in headlights if she's ever in a position where a question is asked that she actually has to answer, and Santorum? Santorum, hypothetically, should know better. Or his aides can't be bothered to develop a base of knowledge about the issues in his speeches. Dude, aside from the obvious freeing-the-world-from-actual-as-opposed-to-imaginary-tyranny thing going on at that historical moment, soldiers rushing the beaches at Normandy couldn't have been thinking about the value of their health insurance plans because THOSE PLANS DIDN'T EXIST. Employer-based healthcare plans become a feature of modern life after WWII.

Which brings me to education. Last night, watching the news, I wondered why the founding fathers, in all their apparent and supposed wisdom, did not establish a civics and history test for candidates for office. If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he'd be at his computer now, re-typing the latest draft of the constitution. John Adams would be initiating a Skype session among the delegates to the Continental Congress and Franklin would be tweeting suggested questions. Suggested, not suggestive, although Franklin was quite capable of the latter.

The truth is, education is undergoing a profound restructuring in this country. At issue is not just the right of disabled children to education, but the populace as a whole. The issue is money. The issue is always money. Those of us with disabled children are feeling the pressure now--we've always felt the pressure. Last month, I posted a link to the trailer for Certain Proof: A Question of Worth, the new film on the challenges students with disabilities face in order to access an education at all. (See also Including Samuel.) Both of these films engage the humanistic belief that human value is not quantifiable, that all of us have civil rights, yet each film acknowledges the reality that we live in a society that asks the disabled, in particular, to prove their worth in measurable outcomes. Metrics. Econometrics. Dollar value. These pressures become more intense as this country struggles with its imaginary budget and deficit issues.

Imaginary because this country is rolling in money. Yes, I'll say it. We are imagining our own demise because we've lost the will to function as a community. People in politics are always going on about the Constitution. Of course the Constitution is important, but it was written as a legal document and makes awfully dry reading. The preamble, of course, has been animated to make it palatable, as everyone my age will remember.

What engages me most as a reader is the Declaration of Independence, our country's Dear John letter to Great Britain:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Don't forget that the preamble starts with "we"(the Declaration starts with "when"). "All" of us (I'll just go with the universal use of 'man' here) are created equal, endowed with rights. The Declaration goes on to remind us that we are, as thinking people, free to establish, participate, and dissolve governments. Yet the Declaration (and the American Revolution as a whole) has often, of late, been downgraded to a tax dispute (when it's not being described as an attempt by the British to disarm us). There are 28 "facts" of the King's tyranny the Declaration presents to the world. Only one of them mentions taxes, and it is, in fact, only the 17th complaint of the colonists. Even then, the colonists are only upset that taxes have been imposed "without our consent," leading one to believe that taxes then were not the devil's scourge they are described to be today.

But I digress. Or maybe not. Education is undergoing a profound shift in this country. Some of us, as I've noted, struggle with access to education at all. Some of us have access to education, but don't pay attention in class--or so it would seem. Others, in this country, struggle in public schools that are under-resourced because their states and municipalities have too little revenue available. Public education is inherently unequal--we all know this. But four-year college used to be something of a socioeconomic leveler--expensive, but not out of reach, with grants and scholarships available that covered the cost of education. (For a technical approach to some of these questions, see this report.)

I went to my 25th college reunion last weekend--when I entered, tuition, room & board were about $11,000 per year. When I left, the total was $15,000. Now it's $53,420 per year. This is many, many times the rate of inflation. Even before reunion, I'd had conversations with people I know who attended this college or similar colleges, wondering whether this type of education would be within reach for our children. The topic came up at reunion, as we sat in beautiful new buildings that replaced what we had known. No one can really say what's responsible for these rapidly escalating costs: new infrastructure, the cost of technology, the expectations of high-income students, the admissions race to secure the top 10 percent of applicants, the availability of lending and too-easy credit to cover cost increases--these are among the culprits, according to many experts.

But many people in this country are pointing to the over-valuation of college and wondering whether a four-year college best serves all students. At reunion, many people I spoke with talked about the way this top-flight liberal arts education had helped them shape and re-shape their lives, through all the economic hurdles of the last couple of decades. Yet many experts are emphasizing community colleges and trade schools and certificate programs as a solution to higher education and training. On the face of this, it sounds reasonable--not everyone is cut out for college, for some college is too expensive, and so on.

The problem with this rationale is that it sounds a lot to me like 'a question of worth': a child needs to prove they're worth anything to be considered for any societal investment. Yes, the approach to college applications is winnowing--admissions requirements vary by school. Not everyone goes to Harvard. Or Middlebury. But this conversation is different--this conversation is about who deserves a four-year degree, or even a two-year degree. Maybe some people just need to learn a trade. And maybe that's true. But I've got to say I agree with Mike Rose in Education Week, who writes of his discomfort:

The fundamental issue underlying this debate, and one I don’t hear addressed, is the very divide between the academic and vocational course of study. This distinction emerged out of a cluster of troubling beliefs about knowledge, education, and the social order, and these beliefs continue to constrain our educational imagination.
The comprehensive high school and curriculum tracking were an early-20th-century response to the rapid increase of working-class and immigrant children in urban centers; the separate academic, general, and vocational courses of study seemed an efficient way to address the wide-ranging educational needs of this population. But perceptions of ability were made amidst the emergence of IQ testing and a full-blown eugenics movement of the 1920s. So there was much talk about the limited mental capacity of various immigrant and working-class groups and the distinct ways their brains functioned. In contrast to college-bound students (overwhelmingly white and middle- to upper-class) who were “abstract minded,” working-class and immigrant students were “manually minded.” We don’t use these phrases today, but they echo in loose talk about “learning styles,” “kinesthetic learners,” and other terms heard in contemporary educational discourse that reduce and reify cognition.
Why is this conversation going on in education policy circles? Money, funds, taxes, the budget, the deficit. The fact that the Pell Grant maximum (the only federal need-based grant for undergraduates) is currently at $5,550. And that's only for families making less than $40,000 per year; Pell is on a sliding scale relevant to income. There's no guarantee that funds for Pell won't be cut this year or in coming years. Poor students, first-generation college students, and other disadvantaged students benefit most from Pell funding. They attend a wide range of four- and two-year colleges nationwide. Some attend our most elite colleges and universities, but only a small minority of recipients. The average tuition charge of a public four-year college for in-state students is $7,605, which does not cover room and board. Living costs taken into consideration, Pell covers far less than half of the cost of attendance, even at state university. We're living in the era of why-do-I-have-to-pay-for-? when it comes to taxation and revenue and budgets. 

Often, on summer days in DC, walking through the glass doors of our office building feels like an immersion into something we would rather all deny. We the people. Are we going to have a country that focuses on human beings, or are we going to have a country that focuses on numbers and costs at the expense of human beings? How far do our rights extend? Only as far as our quantifiable worth? 

Kids and parents in the disability community are just the canary in the coal mine of this obsessive focus on value and budgets and costs in a country that, really, yes, really, has extensive financial resources. Remember that old saw about "first they came for the [insert group here]," which ends, "and then there was no one left to speak out for me?"


A said...

Hear, hear!

Elizabeth said...

The Church of Jeneva.


I love, love, love, that you've actually written the sentence that our country is rolling in money.

erika said...