One morning I opened The New York Times to read that tuition at Manhattan’s elite private schools had reached $26,000 a year, starting in kindergarten. On that same page was another story about a school in Mount Vernon, just across the city line from the Bronx, where 97 percent of the students are black and 90 percent of those are so impoverished they are eligible for free lunches. During Black History month, a six-grader researching Langston Hughes could not find a single book by Hughes in the library. This wasn’t an oversight: There were virtually no books relevant to black history in that library. Most of the books on the shelves date back to the l950s and l960s. A child’s primer on work begins with a youngster learning to be a telegraph delivery boy!
★ The neglect of urban education – a capital moral offense in its own right – is but a symptom of what is happening in America. We are retreating from our social compact all down the line.
★ Our country is falling apart. Literally. Last year (2005) the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report on our crumbling infrastructure. The engineers said we are “failing to maintain even substandard conditions” in our highway system – with significant economic effects. Poor road conditions cost motorists $54 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, and the 3.5 billion hours per year Americans spend stuck in traffic, costs the economy more than $67 billion annually in lost productivity and wasted fuel.
★ The report said the country’s power grid is likewise “in urgent need of modernization” as maintenance spending on transmission facilities has declined 1 percent annually since 1992, while growth in demand has risen 2.4 percent annually over the same period. In 2002, the Department of Energy warned that system “bottlenecks” due to transmission constraints were adding to consumer costs and threatening blackouts. The next August (2003) a blackout blanketed the Midwest and Northeast (and parts of Canada), leaving 50 million people in the dark, some for days, costing billions of dollars in lost commerce and production.
★ Connect the dots: Neglected schools, crumbling roads, permanent environmental “dead zones,” inadequate emergency systems, understaffed hospitals, library cutbacks, the lack of affordable housing, incompetent government agencies, whether it is FEMA or state bureaucracies charged with protecting helpless children – these are characteristic features of our public sector today. Partly it’s about money; little noticed amid all the concern about growing deficits and entitlement spending is this fact – non-defense discretionary spending declined 38 percent between 1980 and 1999 as a share of Gross Domestic Product. According to economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, federal investment in non-defense capacities, including research and education, plummeted in the 1980s – from over 2.5 percent of GDP to only 1.5 percent in the late 1990s.
★ Theology asserts propositions that are believed whether or not they meet the test of reality. Not only do our governing elites act as if there’s no tomorrow, they behave as if there is no reality. Alas, they won’t be around to feel our grandchildren’s pain.
★ In his recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed , the Pulitzer-prize winning anthropologist Jared Diamond writes about how governing elites throughout history isolate and delude themselves until it is too late…… Any society contains a built-in blueprint for failure, Diamond warns, if elites insulate themselves from the consequences of their decisions. Then he describes an America in which elites have cocooned themselves in gated communities, guarded by private security patrols and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. Gradually they lose their motivation to support the police force, the municipal water supply, social security, and public schools.
★ But look around: Democracy has been made subservient to capitalism, and the great ideals of the American Revolution as articulated in the Preamble to the Constitution are being sacrificed to the Gospel of Wealth.
★ I don’t need to tell you that a profound transformation is occurring in America. And it’s man-made. Over the last 30 years a disciplined, well-funded and closely-coordinated coalition of corporate elites, power-hungry religious conservatives, and hard-line right-wing operatives has mounted an aggressive drive to dismantle the public foundations and philosophy of shared prosperity and fairness in America.
★ So I have a practical suggestion for those of you who are principals, superintendents, school board members, and teachers: Go home from here and revise your core curriculum. Yes, teach the three Rs; teach the ABCs; make sure your kids learn algebra, biology, and calculus. But teach them about the American Revolution – that it isn’t just about white men in powdered wigs carrying muskets in a time long gone. It’s about slaves who rose up and women who wouldn’t be denied and unwelcome immigrants and exploited workers who against great odds claimed the revolution as their own and breathed life into it.
Teach your kids they don’t have to accept what they have been handed. Teach them they are not only equal citizens under the law, but equal sons and daughters – heirs, everyone – of that revolution, and that it is their right to claim it as their own. Teach them to shake the torpor that has been prescribed for them by calculating elders and ideologues. Teach them there is only one force strong enough to counter the power of organized money today, and that is the power of organized people. They are waiting for this message; the kids in your schools have been made to feel as victims, powerless, ashamed, inferior, and disenfranchised. Tell them it’s a great big lie – despite their poverty, circumstance, and the long odds they’ve been handed, they have the power to make the world over again, in their image.