On Education as Social Action, Not Crisis Response
by Robbie McClintock
Observing the current scene with some dispassion, we might wonder whether crisis-mongering has exhausted its capacity to move the nation to action. In 2012, most Americans perceive, quite without the aid of an august task force, a persisting economic crisis, at home and in Europe, with unemployment persisting at unconscionable levels. Further, we see a political crisis, both confused and confusing, with the capacity for collective action stymied by an unprecedented partisan stalemate, with the likelihood of the upcoming election failing to resolve it. Perhaps everyone has become jaded, dissociating crises from suffered consequences, perceiving them merely as a new form of spectator sport. Observing how an evident economic crisis is simply reinforcing commitment by all parties to business as usual, TF68 might have chosen a different construct than that of looming crises for discussing education reform and national security.
A multi-part, close critique.
All of us can, as reasonable persons, deeply want to improve public schooling significantly, without having to base our effort on a perception of national crisis. Better education is good for the quality of American life. Reasonable people can also want sound provisions for the security of our country without asserting that the nation is tottering, its defenses in disarray. Both education and national security merit thoughtful public deliberation, crisis or no crisis. But public schooling and national security are the two largest governmental activities in the United States, which poses a paradox for power-speak. Having built up a ferocious presumption that governmental efforts are by nature inefficient and undesirable, power-speak must gin up a sense of crisis to justify public initiative that does not lead directly to the further contraction of governmental services. For many, national security has a sense of threat, of crisis, inherent in it. Unwilling to propose improvements in public schooling simply as desirable enhancements to the quality of public life, TF68 starts its report explaining how “The Education Crisis Is a National Security Crisis.”
TF68 opens with a reasonable question, one which might elicit a variety of reasoned responses. “Why is education a national security issue?” In response, a reader might expect discussion of the pros and cons of a universal national service program or increases in the funding priority assigned to those sectors of higher education particularly important for military preparedness. But TF68 entertains no such considerations. To the question why education is an issue of national security, it immediately responds: “The Task Force members believe America’s educational failures pose five distinct threats to national security.” Education does not strengthen national security; public schooling’s failures tangibly threaten it.
After a long career at Teachers College, Columbia University -- 50 years as a student and teacher -- I have "graduated," as I like to put it. Looking ahead, feeling energetic and well-prepared, I will concentrate on radical scholarship and criticism, work that goes to the root of education, public affairs, and culture. Early in 2012, I published a Utopian critique of schooling and historical life -- Enough: A Pedagogic Speculation. Further essays will follow. Let us speak out against fear mongers, the pundits of public parsimony, and the peddlers of self-serving prudence. We can aspire to more positive possibilities -- constructing historical realities in which humanity achieves elegant, fair, and meaningful solutions to the great uncertainties of our time.