The Crime of Education

As a U.S. History teacher I strive to produce lessons and procure content that stirs my students to feel history as much as possible. Historical empathy is not an easy thing to conjure up. For help I have often turned to Howard Zinn and his “Voices from a People’s History of the United States” and other sources that provide a voice for those whom were cast aside in the history books to make room for presidents and senators. While looking ahead to the consequences of the American Industrial Revolution, I came across a timeless reflection on the social roots of poverty and it got me thinking about the appropriation of technology today.

In 1885 Henry George addressed a crowd in Burlington, Iowa. As a 19th century human rights activist, George worked to debunk the contention that poverty was the fault of the individual. His poignant message from last century floored me. In “The Crime of Poverty” George proclaimed that with all of the enormous powers of the human brain, people are still subject to toil and work all day, all week, and still fall short of the promise of humanity, or rather, they are being robbed of that promise. He states:

“Think how invention enables us to do with the power of one man what not long ago could not be done by the power of a thousand… We have not yet utilized all that has already been invented and discovered… In every direction as we look new resources seem to open. Man’s ability to produce wealth seems almost infinite — we can set no bounds to it.”

Now, where George takes this is where paradigms diverge. George’s solution rested in the socialist view of an equal distribution of wealth and resources. However, we all can agree with the utter truth he speaks on the vastness of human potential. And yet there’s a problem. His message is 135 years old. Haven’t we continued to surpass great achievements and redefine society through innovation and technology? Every generation trumps the achievements of their parents. Americans have witnessed the greatest century technologically in human history, and yet we can’t seem to figure out how to proceed in educating our children for our future.

The problems and questions regarding the American educational system is complicated by multiple opposing parties and special interests that all claim to have the highest stake in education. All the while, the voices of those who fall victim to the poverty of education remain silenced. If we as an advanced society have learned anything it is that we can communicate. Students in our classrooms “deviantly” text, email, post and reply to status updates on Facebook, and network through multiple sources for a variety of reasons. They have been appropriating resources toward these ends naturally while academics and policymakers hash out theories of learning in the 21st century. The ecology of the school system changes some when teachers fear about how they are referred to on Facebook. A student recently told me he advocated on my behalf in response to a Facebook post regarding my class. What surprised me most about this is that the student shared his behavior, not that those conversations exist, because they do more than we know.

The dual reality behind this is that just as poverty is a crime of which the poor are victims, our education system is robbing our students of something that has great potential value. Society has progressed to a point where there should be no need for federal dictates and top-down initiatives, yet that is what we are subjected to. Where the toiling masses a century ago were incapable of rising above their situation, individuals and groups today can. It took a few decades for the working class of the 19th century to secure a better life and provide greater opportunities. I wonder how long it will take for the today’s masses to generate for themselves what no one else can provide.

I’d like to see what would happen if students became “self-aware” like SkyNet from The Terminator. We all know that the tools exist to allow them to launch a coordinated effort, yet this does not happen. What would it take to empower them to take control? 

We all know we are better than what we’ve become, yet we can’t reach a consensus as to exactly what that is or how to proceed from here. As a result, a century later, we are still robbing individuals from the promise of humanity. It seems educating for our future has us all tied up.

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One comment on “The Crime of Education
  1. Anonymous says:

    Technically I am not the first to comment on this post. I’m referring here to a comment where this was cross-posted: http://ideaplay.org/2010/10/the-crime-of-education/

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