Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Educate the People—But Not So Much That Corporations Can't Still Exploit Them, OBVIOUSLY

by Shaker BrianWS

When I attended the Clinton Global Initiative with Liss, there was on particular portion of the conference that stood out to me, and that was a panel discussion on education that we attended Wednesday afternoon. There were five people on the panel, on four of whom I'm going to focus for this post—Stephanie A. Burns, Chairman of Dow Corning Corporation, James Heckman, University of Chicago economics professor (and Nobel Prize winner!), Kaya Henderson, D. C. Public Schools chancellor, and Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., president and CEO of TIAA-CREF .

The theme that the panel was interested in discussing was how we need to improve education, because education improves the ability to get a job, and folks getting jobs helps drive the economy. Fine. Fair enough, in theory.

And those who don't believe that America is quickly becoming (has already become?) a corporatocracy would have almost certainly heard the panelists to be saying that very thing: Education is good. Jobs are good.

But that's not what I heard.

After more than an hour, I was left wondering: Who is education meant to benefit, and whose interests is educational reform meant to serve in this country?

Burns, speaking from the point of view of the chief of a major corporation, insisted that yes, education is important, because manufacturing and other jobs are not what they were twenty years ago, so one needs an education—and a specific kind of education, at that—in order to get a job at Dow Corning. If you get an education, then you can work to serve a corporation so that they can make even more money, and of course they promise to give you a little bit of that cash for showing up for work—so see, it's good for you too! It really is all about the children, we promise! America's future! For serious! Pinky swear!

Even when Burns begins to talk about the education initiatives that Dow Corning has created, there is seemingly no pretense at all, and I'll paraphrase, that she's really saying, "We have created these programs for inner-city kids in Detroit to teach them these skills...these skills that they will need to know when they work for us."

Yet when Henderson spoke, from her point of view as someone on the ground, actually educating kids in the U.S., perhaps the end result sounded the same, but it was discussed in a much different way. Henderson spoke of "interventions" with kids of varying ages, and how those allowed these children to excel, to become more educated, become more enriched and prosperous. She spoke passionately about how education serves to benefit those being educated, while reciting a great list of programs introduced in the D. C. Public School system that have been designed to do just that (and have done so, successfully, I may add). There was something in the way she spoke that struck me as incredibly genuine—the ways in which having more accessible, and progressive, and productive education programs will wind up empowering those involved to be able to improve their lives.

The thing is, perhaps the end result is the same if you don't care to make the distinction. Perhaps the D. C. Public Schools will turn out an educated person who will use that education to go work for Dow Corning. They'll get paid. They'll have a job. They'll spend money. Economy improves. Rejoice! But from Henderson's worldview, the goal is to have that person paving their own path, armed with their education and opportunities. From Burns' worldview, the goal is to have the same person get paid by having a job, and spending money to the point the economy improves, but it must FIRST be run through a corporation like hers. The benefit must FIRST be that this education has served a major company, improved their profits, and then the trickle-down effect might leave it looking the same in the very end.

But the distinction between those two views, even if on paper, the end-game is the same for the person with the job, is that public policy is shaped almost exclusively by the idea that Burns' view is the right one, because we all know, we've all been told, that corporations have our best interests in mind. That's why we keep giving them tax breaks, because they'll create jobs, right? We should be focusing our education plans on how to make our children capable of working for Dow Corning, not on being capable of say, starting their own business, or working for themselves, or anything else that comes from being empowered by education.

Burns and Henderson weren't alone, however, as the panel seemed to divide into two "teams." Burns was joined by Heckman in the corporatists' corner, while Ferguson seemed to align himself with Henderson's view, from the educators' corner.

One of the most interesting (where interesting = RAGE!) exchanges in the entire discussion came when the panelists were tossing about ideas on how to ensure success from a young age, and Ferguson (a black man) noted the glaringly obvious, that we "can't ignore race." This opened up the door for Heckman (the only white male on the stage, natch) to pontificate at length about not "using race as an excuse." Shakers, there was some serious 'splaining going on. I didn't have a stopwatch, but it was curious that the up to that point reserved Heckman came to life and came out swinging the moment Ferguson brought up race. It appeared that this was one of his favorite things to talk about (or that he just liked hearing himself talk?), as he essentially hijacked the conversation for five minutes to do his best to deny that race has anything to do with educational success and opportunities.

Ferguson and Henderson both had very reasonable (and obvious) responses to his 'splaining, which was depressingly unsurprising as the only two people of color on the entire panel. Ferguson attempted to note that talking about race and the institutional privileges conferred upon white people was not an "excuse," but an acknowledgment of a society and a culture that unfairly values and privileges whiteness, and that children of color are at an inherent disadvantage in the education system from the day they begin. It's not an "excuse" to simply acknowledge that not everyone is given the same opportunity for success from the beginning, but rather an honest assessment of a society that confers unfair advantages on white children.

Ferguson's and Henderon's incredibly obvious rebuttals sent Mr. Mansplainer off into another lengthy discussion with himself, but I'm going to be honest, Shakers, there was a point where I just fucking turned him off—because he was saying all the things we've heard a million times before, making sure that the people of color on the panel (who might…just might have some firsthand knowledge, eh?) knew that they were wrong and knew that they were making excuses for under performance by children of color in the education system, all while aligning himself with a corporatist view that is by default prone to not giving a shit about inequities in the system, as long as they get their workers.

Apparently they give out Nobel prizes for being an asshole?

That's a tension that is evident in every discussion of how to improve education, how to right this country, how to create a more fair playing field where the corporations don't decide what's good for us, but where we decide what is good for us (ya know, for the people, by the people, or whatever that shit they once said was), and where if what is good for us is working for a corporation, then we do that—not where the only way for us to be successful or to have ANY chance of having a reasonable standard of living is by serving a corporation that has been catered to at every level of government with financial breaks, windfalls, and other various forms of political heavy petting.

Strange how that works. One group—those making millions (billions? Bieberillions?) of dollars think education is important because at the end of the day, it benefits them. The other group—those slogging away, educating children, doing the so-called "dirty work" on the ground think education is important because it empowers the individual receiving the education to have some control over hir life's destiny.

And the latter group has no help in our fledgling corporatocracy. It really is about education. It really is about our children. It really is about our future. BUT, it's only really about those three things insofar as they serve to benefit a corporation first, and the chairman of a major corporation didn't even really go out of her way to pretend it wasn't.

Kaya Henderson, on the other hand, is an extraordinary woman. She moved me on so many occasions yesterday. Her ideas, her acknowledgment that not everyone is born with the same advantages, that some people start on first base and some start on third base, was refreshing. Her vision for improving education, and her stories of how they have already begun to do so in D.C., were inspiring. From my best guess after seeing her speak, I would imagine that the trunk of her car is filled with giant bags full of nothing but teaspoons, and she is wielding them on a daily basis.

And it depresses the shit out of me that I know she and those fighting the same battles are so far up against it in this country that we're living in today. But she's the kind of person doing what is right out there.

She is the America I know still exists, struggling underneath a suffocating pile of gilded bootstraps. And if we ever get this country back, it's going to be because of honest, determined, inspiring people like her—not some corporation who gave us our freedom back like a fucking tax break.