Wednesday, August 27, 2003

On a Paranoid Theory Being Vindicated
I have a friend, a brilliant historian, author, professor, and former Catholic school teacher, who asserts that the American educational system is designed to create and maintain a large underclass to serve the purposes of the economic elite. I used to tease her about her paranoid (not to mention Marxist) tendencies...until recently, when by way of Electrolite, I found this.

Then, today, I found this. One of the families profiled were Billie Jo Smith and her children:

Billie Jo Smith and her children live outside McArthur, Ohio. They’re new to hunger. Her husband was the sole breadwinner but the marriage broke up a few months ago, and now the money’s gone. The kids are on a free school lunch program and, often, 12-year-old Shane brings part of that meal home.

Shane, Billy Jo, Joey, and Jenny are living on $700 a month in welfare and food stamps. Sometimes Jenny doesn’t eat at all between lunches. "It's terrible. I usually wait until the next day to go to school and eat," she says.

Billy Jo Smith is banking on a good education to lift her children out of poverty. The kids are good at math but, still, school is a struggle. Jenny says hunger makes her fall asleep sometimes at school: "I can't concentrate half the time. Sometimes, I'm really weak in class."

There is something monstruously evil in children going hungry in the world's wealthiest nation. Politicians always spout off about "leaving no child behind", but when it comes to setting national priorities children always come in somewhere between the corporate farming subsidies and the iguana breeding studies. We know that well-nourished children do better in school, but the first thing to go during budget cuts are school meal programs. We know that healthy children are more likely to grow up to be productive adults, but we skimp on pre-natal and children's care. We know that children who have access to interesting activities are less likely to become delinquents, yet art, music, and after-school clubs are now rare as dodo's eggs in the American educational system.

Please note that I am saying "we". These things would not happen if a majority of us, the American people, did not acquiesce in or even approve of these things. I remember the derision with which so many conservatives and libertarians greeted Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village; no, said Robert Dole righteously, it takes a strong family. Well, there are strong families out there in America's heartland, and coastland, and every square feet of land, who are floundering because their share of the American dream has evaporated. Their children are suffering from malnutrition, with all its attendant physical and mental ills. Our response has been modern updating of Scrooge's questions: are there no food banks? are there no churches?

We are told that in this global post-industrial economy, the most important assets for a nation are its workers. We are told that an educated, creative workforce is the key to maintaining national economic growth. But actions indicate that we want exactly the opposite, and that makes no sense. Unless, of course, we accept my friend's theory. I don't want to. But it's beginning to make a sick kind of sense: it doesn't matter if children can't learn. Most of them are not meant to do much with their lives.