Like a lot of people, I have been watching with a mix of amazement and despair the spectacle of American politics over the last year. One of the many issues that has been shredded in the rhetorical meat grinder of our political discourse is the belief in the public and the public good. Anything identified with “the government” is reviled. Public institutions (like schools and libraries) are either ridiculed or abandoned. The old American boogy man of “socialism” is invoked with powerful effect, and communitarian concerns are trumped by declaration of individual liberty.
When I travelled across the country to write Possible Lives – a travelogue of good public school classrooms – I was led by what I saw to think a great deal about the idea of the public and the central role of the public school (and other public institutions) in a free society. About four years ago, I wrote a new preface for the book, and I returned to this concern with public institutions. Things were bad then, but they’ve certainly gotten worse as a potent reactionary force has emerged in our politics.
I’d like to reprint a section of that recent preface from Possible Lives. It predates the fury of the Tea Party, the further rightward lurch of the Republican Party, and the rise of the newest generation of political and media opportunists, from Glenn Beck to Rep Michele Bachman. Reading the four-year old preface in the midst of this political movement, I’m certainly aware of its tone, no match for the firebreathing rhetoric of the Right. I just hope that the version of the public it offers reasserts itself in our political life.
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One of the fundamental issues that frames the events of Possible Lives is the commitment to public institutions and the public sector as an arena of social responsibility. There have been times in our history when the notion of the public has been invested with great agency and imagination. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amidst disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency but more so from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.
Clearly, there are domains of public life that benefit from market forces, and individual enterprise is a powerful force for both personal advancement and public benefit. Furthermore, the very notion of “public” is a fluid one, changes historically, exists in varied relation to the private sector, and, on occasion, fuses with it in creative ways. Finally, we must not simply accept our public institutions as they are, but be vigilantly engaged with them. One way to read Possible Lives is as a critique—though one built on hope—of a central American public institution, the public school.
Our reigning orthodoxy on the public sphere is much less nuanced. We have, instead, a celebration of the market and private initiative as a cure-all to our social and civic obligations. This orthodoxy downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar-driven. “The market is governed by a pricing system,” writes economic activist Edgar S. Cahn, “that devalues precisely those activities most critically needed in communities: caring, learning, worshipping, associating, socializing, and helping.”
The orthodoxy operates with a good dose of social amnesia, erasing the history of horrible market failure and of private greed that led to curbs on markets and the creation of robust public institutions and protections. The free market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance about all things public. A guy is being interviewed on National Public Radio. “The post office,” he says, “ is the worst-run business in America.” This was within the same week as the opening of the trial of Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, with the recent memory of Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and New York’s then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s indicted rogue’s gallery.
This easy dismissiveness of the public also has its ugly side, characterizing anything public as inferior—or worse. I think of a talk-show host who labeled children in the Los Angeles School District as “garbage,” and tellingly, sadly, the kids I met during my travels on several occasions said they knew that people thought of them as “debris.”
We have to do better than this, have to develop a revitalized language of public life.
One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there— a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere. This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of numbers or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language. It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled. When a local affair or regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word. When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward. When a student said that his teacher “coaxes our thinking along.” When a teacher thinking back on it all muses on the power of “watching your students at such an important time in their lives encounter the world.” It is in all such moments—moments in public school classrooms—that something of immense promise for the nation is being confirmed.
There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities. They occur daily in private schools, in church organizations, in backyards. But there is something compelling, I think, about raising one’s gaze outward, beyond the immediate window or fence to the science lesson at the forest’s edge or the novel crammed into the hip pocket on the city bus.
The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the “general diffusion of knowledge” across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.