Industry's Whims Subjugate Student Needs

by Jonathan Kozol

The best favor the school administrators of this nation could and should be doing for our children is to advocate courageously against the juggernaut of business-minded, profit-driven, and commercial forces that threaten to privatize our public schools or simply turn them into public instruments of private greed.

By cutting public funding for the schools that serve the poorest children of our land, corporate forces have succeeded in creating a dependent mode of supplication among many school officials who feel forced to curry favor among business interests in exchange for any crumbs of charity they will throw our way. Flattering phrases such as "private-public partnerships" cannot disguise the fact there are no authentic partnerships between the powerful and those who go to them on bended knee.

Yet school leaders, strapped for funds as a result of the austerities imposed upon our schools by business interests that have lobbied powerfully against school taxes and school equity, find themselves in the humiliating role of needing to pretend that they are willing to be "partners" with the very corporations that have kicked our children in the teeth.

Appeasing Industry

Perhaps the most disturbing consequence is that curriculum has been increasingly distorted to appease the interests of the business sector. Children are being taught to view themselves as little more than future cogs within the world of industry and enterprise. Curriculum guides increasingly promote the virtues of a sharp-edged and competitive ethos at the cost of any emphasis upon compassion, gentleness, unselfishness, or moral generosity.

Even those of us who advocate for children seem to feel the need to frame our arguments in terms that will appeal to business leaders. Thus even when they advocate for elemental needs like preschool programs, smaller class size, or sufficient funds to rebuild ugly and decrepit and degrading school facilities, educators seem to feel obliged to argue not in terms of simple justice and fair play to children but in cold commercial terms: "Every dollar spent on Head Start will save seven dollars later on in higher productivity for private enterprise." It is as if we have agreed to view our children as no more than little pint-sized deficits or assets for a corporation’s future bottom line.

But children are not simply "embryonic workers." They have value in themselves for who they are already. Children are not just "prepatory grown-ups." They are alive right now and must be valued, blessed, and treasured for the multitude of gifts they bring to us as a society, not for the "added value" they may bring to IBM.

And yet this view of childhood as a protected period of innocence and grace—as something with inherent goodness that is wholly different from "potential economic value" to the world of commerce—is not often voiced by school administrators in this business-minded and dehumanizing age. Thus, even humanitarians appear unwilling to defend the interests of the young unless they can assign a dollar corollary to compassion. "We ought to give them a full day of kindergarten," we are sometimes told, "because it will save money for us later on." This is the shriveled thinking of Dickensian shopkeepers. Why not do it because they’re babies and deserve to have some hours of joy and happiness before they die?

But joy and happiness are not in fashion in the mercenary dialogue of education nowadays. Spirituality is not in fashion. Eccentricity and poetry are not in fashion. Love and tenderness are not in fashion. "Utility"—pragmatic, cold, conformist, disciplined, predictable and money-saving—is the new religion of our public pedagogy.

Conflicting Interests

I am not proposing that administrators ought to be embittered adversaries of the business world nor that they cannot at times find common cause with corporate concerns. But finding common cause is not the same as an abject surrender to the very forces that have starved our schools of public funds, cheated our children, and defaced the dreams of Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann.

The interests of business and the interests of a good society are not by any means the same. Business makes no profit from a poet like Walt Whitman or a novelist like Toni Morrison. Business does not benefit from William Faulkner, Maya Angelou, or Langston Hughes. Business may be very glad if we turn out another Clarence Thomas, but it will not celebrate another Malcolm X. No agricultural corporation will be grateful to the school that turns out Cesar Chavez. No Wall Street firm will thank us for Ralph Nader or Thoreau. Business needs team players who are not resistant or iconoclastic and do not waste precious time with metaphor or ethics. But society needs prophets, poets, trouble-makers, saints and rebels, beautiful dreamers, glorious eccentrics.

The next time any school official sits down at one of those ritualistic business luncheons and is forced to hear one of those standard speeches at which CEOs assure us, "You are turning out my future workers," I hope we will have the nerve to look him in the eyes and say, "No. That is not our plan at all. Children do not exist to serve the needs of business. Business ought to exist to serve the needs of children. If you want to be a ‘partner’ to us, we’ll be very glad to have you join us as an ally in the struggle to restore the food and welfare benefits that have been stolen from our children. We will be glad to have you help us end the separate and unequal schooling system that denies our poorest children all those opportunities you give to your own children. We will be honored to have you as an ally in dismantling the racial segregation that you’ve faithfully sustained and bringing back the jobs that you have willingly exported from the neighborhoods in which our poorest children live.

"If you want to be our ‘partner,’ those are four good ways you can begin."

Advocating With Honor

To speak in candid terms like these may not contribute to the cloying mood of forced consensus that is common at these business-sponsored meetings. But if our school administrators wish to advocate with honor and audacity for children, this would be an ideal time and place to prove it.

It isn’t easy to threaten the hand that feeds us, especially when we know that it is also capable of doling out some savage blows to school administrators who are not regarded as sufficiently compliant. But advocacy for justice never comes cost-free. Evasive pedagogic jargon is cost-free. Falsified smiles are cost-free. Facile boosterism is cost-free. The cloudy pretense of civility is cost-free. Ethics are not. Ethics are dangerous. But ethics are at certain times the only thing we have if we intend to speak with truth to power and defend the interests of the very young and very poor who have no power at all.

Jonathan Kozol is the author of Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace.