“Where we demand rights and deny obligations, we assert Entitlement. We secure our rights when we accept matching obligations.“ Robert Fripp
Persons who have never heard of Robert Fripp have likely heard his music. He is guitarist extraordinaire for the likes of King Crimson and David Bowie. Mr. Fripp has been fighting a lengthy battle against piracy of his music by both individual listeners and corporations who enable that piracy, like Grooveshark. He justifiably bristles at the notion that persons feel entitled to deprive him of earnings by illegally “sharing” digital files of his music.
But Mr. Fripp’s quotation is one-sided, and requires a corollary:
Where we prescribe obligations and violate rights, we assert Tyranny. Where rights are demanded, or obligations are pronounced by one party without consent by the other – citizen taking advantage of society or unilateral demands of citizens by government – both individual rights and the common good are endangered.
We need to acknowledge the reciprocal relationship between individuals and society that democracy demands. For example, students have the right to expect an appropriate educational program in the public schools as long as they respect the institution and facilities that serve that purpose. Another student obligation is to do a reasonable amount of work to justify the investment society makes in their pursuit of happiness. As adults, they should also support that society by paying reasonable taxes and contributing to the improvement of government through active participation in public affairs.
Society, on the other hand, should accept that the student and their family will have a reasonable level of input into the determination of the purpose and process of the educational experience. The rules of education should not be changed midstream; the benefits of the educational experience should be primarily to the student. Society must also accept that this investment meets a public obligation to support the individual’s rights to a true “education,” and that this education is not guaranteed to produce compliant workers. A society’s only “profit” from education is in creating a population committed to democratic principles that sustain the social order.
When organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations make remarks like “students are leaving school without the math and science skills needed for jobs in modern industry…These efforts build on President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which was the first federal effort to measure and publicize student test results, and the success of charter schools and voucher programs, which allow families to choose the best school for their children,” they reveal the dark undertones of their vision. John Ralston Saul calls such statements indicators of “an anti-public sector campaign that has created a sense of panicked urgency around the subject of privatization and cuts.”
The current “Standards Based” movement is a cause that threatens Tyranny. It is being implemented despite the fact that it is less than likely that such a plan will facilitate the pursuit of happiness by any individual. It is excessively focused on producing what the corporate structures that rig the game demand—obedient taxpayers who will strive to maintain American economic dominance in a world economy.
But education has never been a sufficient means to that end. It is a necessary part of the equation, but is distorted in purpose when an economic outcome becomes the measuring stick for success. Economists wrongly argue that anything and everything has its price—that learners (or their tax-paying parents) are simply consumers of the ”product” of education, and that cost/benefit analysis is sufficient criteria for assessing its value.
This distortion exposes the inappropriate role of corporations in educational policy. Bill Gates feels entitled to use his wealth to reform schools. His attempts, however, do nothing to amplify the voice of the individual who obtains an education and much to increase the obligations of the individual to accede to the prescriptive approach for schooling that the Standards Based movement represents.
It is time to make schools a place where democracy is not just “taught,” but practiced. When we make that commitment, alienation of students and teachers from the institution they share will lessen. Educators and legislators need to tell Bill Gates that America’s schools are no longer for sale, and they then need to build democracy by providing students with direct experience of that fundamental value during their twelve years of public education.
© David Sudmeier, 2014