Failure, or Success?
Whenever I read mainstream news sources (NYT, NPR) these days, I realize that my notion of reality has undergone a major shift in recent years. Either I’ve gone crazy or, after decades of complacency, the scales have fallen from my eyes. I think I know which, but perhaps I’m not in a position to judge.
Here’s the thing. I attended a presentation today about the future of museums, museum best practices, and such, and at one point I realized that I heard something the speaker said in a way that must be at odds with how everyone else in the room heard it. Are they all blind, or am I just mad?
The speaker was talking about the need for museums to engage their communities. Not just outreach, bringing the riches of the museum to the people, but engaging them more deeply. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without examples, and she offered a few, such as a program a small museum in a southern state ran that engaged inmates in painting, in parallel with an exhibition.
That’s roughly what the program did. The details don’t matter. What matters is that the speaker spoke about other work engaging museums and prisons, and mentioned how poorly we do in this country with our prison system. She passed over this lightly, not wanting to turn the conversation to the politics of prisons and our failed war on drugs, but she said enough to suggest that this is what she had in mind. First offenders locked away for years because of mandatory sentencing guidelines, drug offenders locked up for life rather than getting treatment and becoming productive contributors to society. States spending funds on ever-growing prison populations rather than on underlying social issues. That sort of thing.
The underlying message: our prisons are failing us. Our legal/justice structure is failing us. Well, yes. Then again, maybe it’s succeeding. This was what I thought, and what sent off the alarm that maybe I’m crazy.
What is the goal of the prison system anyway? Rehabilitation? If so, then yes, the system is a disaster. But we can make sense of it all if we simply re-state the mission of the system. It’s not rehabilitation. It’s increasing the profits of the corporations that build the prisons and, more and more often, run them. State after state is privatizing the prison system.
Let’s see. Oh, here. Here’s Adam Gopnik, reporting on prisons four months ago in The New Yorker:
A growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.
Who said our prisons are failing?
Then there’s our war on terror. You can see where I’m heading. Failure? All these years and we still can’t shut al Qaeda down? Well, what’s our measure of failure? More money to private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. More money for drones in countries with which we aren’t at war, such as Pakistan and Yemen.
Heck, what about our own country? We’re not at war with ourselves, are we? Yet, drones are our future, with local law enforcement agencies getting into the act. And all those full body scanners at the airports. Do they work? Do we need them? No matter. Companies are making big bucks off them. Michael Chertoff, Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, is a lobbyist now representing the companies that make the scanners. What’s good for our national security corporations is what’s good for the country.
And education. Yes, our public schools are a failure. We all know that. Everyone says so. The answer? Privatization, of course. We’re going to pay companies to make the schools better.
But perhaps school failure is a success, as it justifies handing public funds to a handful of for-profit companies that have convinced mayors, governors, presidents that they have the answer.
You see? Our prisons aren’t failing. Our national security system isn’t failing. Our schools aren’t failing. They are succeeding. They are ensuring that money flows where it’s meant to.
Don’t agree just yet. I bring you Diane Ravitch, who has an article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. I may be crazy, but she isn’t. She’s one of the most widely respected voices on public education in this country. Professor at NYU, Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board under Clinton and the second Bush.
In her NYR article, Ravitch reviews the recent Council on Foreign Relations report U.S. Education Reform and National Security: Independent Task Force Report, written by, among others, Joel Klein (former head of NYC city schools, now a Murdoch employee) and Condi Rice. The article is not behind the NYR paywall. You can read it without charge, and I urge you to do so. After reading it two nights ago, I was feeling a little more relaxed about my bout of madness.
The beauty of the report is its brilliant interweaving of two great failures: our schools and our national security system. The solution? Shovel money into the usual educational stoves.
I could quote many passages. This one will do:
Statistics are marshaled to prove that our schools are failing, our economy is at risk, our national security is compromised, and everything we prize is about to disappear because of our low-performing public schools. Make no mistake, the task force warns: “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”
Despite its alarmist rhetoric, the report is not a worthy successor to the long line of jeremiads that it joins. Unlike A Nation at Risk [published in 1983], which was widely quoted as a call to action, this report is a plodding exercise in groupthink among mostly like-minded task force members. Its leaden prose contains not a single sparkling phrase for the editorial writers. The only flashes of original thinking appear in the dissents to the report.
What marks this report as different from its predecessors, however, is its profound indifference to the role of public education in a democratic society, and its certainty that private organizations will succeed where the public schools have failed. Previous hand-wringing reports sought to improve public schooling; this one suggests that public schools themselves are the problem, and the sooner they are handed over to private operators, the sooner we will see widespread innovation and improved academic achievement.
Ravitch’s skewering of the report is worth reading in full.
With that, I rest my case. I’m not mad after all. Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Let me out of here!