the invisible heart
Yglesias highlights an interesting interview with Jeb Bush on Sweden’s education system, which in short utilizes all sorts of neat ideas like credit-based learning a la four year colleges, and voucher systems that allow for public and private cooperation. Says Bush,
“The idea that somehow Sweden would be the land of innovation, where private involvement in what was considered a government activity, is quite shocking to us Americans,” Mr. Bush says. “But they’re way ahead of us. They have a totally voucherized system. The kids come from Baghdad, Somalia — this is in the tougher part of Stockholm — and they’re learning three languages by the time they finish. . . . there’s no reason we can’t have that except we’re stuck in the old way.”
To which Yglesias responds:
I think there’s something to that. Certainly, the US system of K-12 education has gotten pretty hidebound in ways that other countries have left behind. At the same time, conservatives who want us to learn from Nordic education systems need to understand that these schools are working in a Nordic context featuring, among other things, radically lower child poverty rates…
That’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t do anything to change the schools until we radically reduce child poverty. But it is to say that the success of Nordic education comes in the context of a comprehensive commitment to children’s well-being, which means innovation not just in schools but in delivery of health care and nutrition services, in the provision of enriching early-childhood services, etc. Getting child poverty down to Swedish levels would be extremely difficult, but there’s a realistic agenda to cut poverty in half in just ten years that we could be pursuing if we cared enough.
This is true, and it leaves me with that nagging feeling that maybe the United States, ostensibly the richest nation on Earth, has taken individualism too far, and has worried too much about the creation of wealth, and not enough about the fostering of minds, and the care of our children and poor. I’m not as idealistic as Yglesias, though, and so the focus of most of my policy suggestions is to bolster and expand the middle class, rather than directly targeting poverty, which is as much a symptom of a declining middle class demographic as anything.
I also wonder if there isn’t a question of cart and horse involved in this debate. Which side is getting ahead of itself? Conservatives push hard for privatization, and on some levels I can’t argue with the voucher system. In my home state education budgets have been slashed so drastically that I’d have to be a fool to put my kid into public schools. By the time my younger brother graduated from High School, we’d already lost almost all the “non-essential” subjects, like art and theatre and so forth. And I’m left truly struggling with what the real heart of the problem is. I’d really like to see major funding for education at the Federal level, but I worry about it, too. When a new Government takes shape and cuts those funds, then what? This is what happened in Arizona, basically overnight. The State giveth, and the State taketh away.
But back to the cart and the horse. What comes first? An end to high levels of child poverty or better schools? In other words, does the better education lead to less poverty, or is it simply impossible to achieve high levels of success when the kids we’re trying to teach are coming from such a difficult place.
I’m from a family of educators, so this topic is near and dear to my heart. My dad taught for years and is now in higher education. I’ve substitute taught–my first class was the “troubled” junior high kids, with a 1-1 student/teacher ratio–and I’ve seen how the schools have gone downhill since I was a student. It’s breathtaking and sad.
I think the end solution has to be some sort of compromise between private and public institutions, and it has to be accompanied by genuine efforts to erect safety nets for those less fortunate and their children. Children shouldn’t have to want for basic health care, and quite honestly, the private system of health care hasn’t managed to provide universal health care in any meaningful way. They’ve been given the chance and it hasn’t worked, so I think it’s about time to take the next step toward at the very least a national health insurance that is means-tested and covers the middle class down.
Then maybe we can determine a fitting partnership for public and private efforts in our education system, too.
I don’t think we’ll achieve the same low level of poverty that the Scandinavian countries have. I don’t think we need to. And we should also look to American needs when we’re tackling this, like giving kids who don’t want a liberal education the ability to learn, at some point in their education, a useful trade.
I think this is a moral necessity. We’ve let our ambitions and our politics get the better of us, I fear. We’ve let our ideological stubbornness snuff out any meaningful dialogue, with one side claiming the only solution is a vouchers-based one, and the other firmly entrenched in what is clearly not a working system, at any level of public education. Technology, innovation, and the recognition that much of what ails the system exists outside of it, in kids’ homes and neighborhoods, all will go a long way to healing. This is another area I think the religious community should also play a role, and another reason I’m in favor of funding faith-based initiatives, which have a strong track record of actually making a difference. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I used to go to Catholic school in Canada, and it was paid for entirely by the State–an instance of Church and State mixing to provide something truly beneficial to society as a whole.
I think there’s room for all these partnerships. That’s what society is, a vast system of organism-like institutions, cooperatives, and individuals. Somewhere in all of this, I think I’m searching for what Chris was discussing earlier, regarding The Commons. I think we need to reevaluate how our institutions interact–the public, private, and religious spheres–and harness the energy that comes only from their collision. Any one of these realms, left unchecked, will throw off the balance. They need to function as part of a larger whole in order to operate well, and create lasting societal stability. This is one reason I’m not a libertarian. I just don’t believe in the markets enough.
The invisible hand has no invisible heart.
UPDATE: I always need to remember to read over these before I hit the publish button. Damn typos can ruin an otherwise decent post….
UPDATE II: I have changed this to the series “The Great Education Debate” since this is something I want to keep talking about, and that I really want to work out at least for myself. For one, I think we have