Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On Why We Need To Fund Education

Two news items of late reminded me yet again that we have a collective obligation to support education.

The first is the ongoing scuffle out of the Miami-Dade School District about an otherwise-harmless little book about Cuba. The New York Times rightly describes this as censorship, pointing out that the issue arose from the strong anti-Castro sentiment in the area and that "the omissions [which were cause for the original complaint] in A Visit to Cuba were appropriate in a book written for such a young audience." Just as social science texts for elementary schools describe World War II without going into detail on the concentration camps or the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, so too are the finer points of Cuban life (indeed life anywhere) not suitable for the "4-to-8 year old" bracket for which the book was written. Likewise, not talking about Cuba is hardly helpful, and since the only thing the anti-Castro can say that's fit for the 4-to-8 year old ear is "Castro is BAD" there's really not much they could contribute that would be different from the text that's been pulled.

On the other hand, we have another example of the genius (/sarcasm) of the Republicans. Representative Steve Austria (R-OH) has been busy rewriting history on the House floor:
"When (President Franklin) Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression," Austria said. "He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That's just history."

As a trained historian, who specialised in the Industrial Age, I simply have to take this one apart. The Great Depression was a nebulous affair with roots in the 1918 Treaty of Paris and the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 as well as the misguided policies of Harding and Coolidge. The Ottoman Empire and Hapsburg Empires had both collapsed by war's end, and the fledgling states of Turkey, Austria and Hungary were just climbing out of the wreckage. The other European states formed during the negotiations - Poland, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia etc - were each saddled with the unenviable jobs of constituting themselves and recovering from the fighting. The British economy, sapped by four years of fighting, recovered but little between wars. Burdened by Reparations, impeded by the French looking for their cut to pay their War Debt and taking whole German provinces when they couldn't get deutsche marks, and throughly torpedoed by the German continuation to pay salaries to German workers in French-held territory, the German economy collapsed into hyperinflation by 1924. The ripple effects spread globally, and by 1929 the effects, coupled with a decade's worth of lax fiscal oversight, shady banking practices and poor government policy, hit the US. Civil war in Spain effectively closed their market. France managed to stay relatively unaffected until 1934: however, when the Depression hit there, it did so with such force and longevity that France was essentially still in its grip when World War II broke out five years later. So unless you were living in Paris, the Depression hit you long before FDR took office in 1933. There are, in fact, arguments made that the Depression had its beginnings, not from any domestic fiscal policy, but from US insistence at the Paris negotiations that debts owed by the (victorious but cash-strapped) Allies be repaid immediately: with no means of paying themselves, they assessed the War Debt on the sole surviving Central Power (Germany) which was in no condition to protest.

I learned the basics of the Depression in middle school, and can recall four semesters' worth of undergrad study that paid no small attention to it. The dates are especially clear. Yet Rep. Austria seems oblivious to such things, preferring an ideological stance over actual verifiable dates.

I'm of an age group that has watched the education debate move from the generic "practical" through "relevant" in the 70s and 80s to "marketable" from the 90s onward. Increasingly, the importance of education to the public is seen, not as a means to learn or think critically, but as a tool to achieve some lucrative career. In the process, many subjects that would lend scope to such goals are neglected or abandoned: music, social sciences, literature and mathematics spring to mind immediately. The "fixes" applied heretofore, while of some debatable use in the primary and secondary school curricula, are ill-suited to the higher education that is increasingly a requirement for anything more complex than cashiering at McDonald's.

All the while, our own students continue to fall behind their peers around the globe. Foreign students are at least bilingual by the time they start university; ours can't seem to match those numbers by the time they've finished. They have at graduation a better grasp of their own histories than we do of ours, and they have about as good an understanding of the US as we do. Not being an educator I will not speculate here as to why, but everything I have encountered as a student, traveller and professional tells me our own system is deeply flawed and needs more attention, not less.

All of this leads me back to the two stories of the day. It is dangerous for any school district to get into the business of banning books for children based solely on a political agenda. If freedom of speech is at all valuable it is precisely because the free flow of ideas and information - of all kinds - yields a better society. Students should be (at the appropriate ages and stages) exposed to such things, and if that means reading the Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen, Das Kapital, Mein Kampf, The Making of the English Working Class and other works besides the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Tom Sawyer, The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men, so much the better. The results of failing to do so include a government staffed by clods such as Rep. Austria, who don't know their own history well enough not to repeat it.


  1. Not speechless, indeed. Very well said.

  2. A couple of points to ponder. 1) In Miami, anything to do with Cuba is a touchy issue, and logic has nothing to do with it. Don't even try.

    2) Expecting a Republican congressman to stray from the party line, whether he knows history or not (and I'm guessing he doesn't), is also like trying to argue with Harley about the finer points of quantum physics. (Chances are even if you're right, he won't admit it, either.)