BLISS: Higher education for all

April 22, 2013

Education is the common pool from which many other goods flow - it lowers crime rates and increases civic engagement; decreases poverty and improves public health; it pushes society forward and creates fertile ground for real democracy and social justice.  Education is a human right, a public good, and a critical infrastructure without which no society can prosper.  And most importantly, education is the means by which we prepare younger generations for the challenges and opportunities of the future that belongs to them.  At least, that is what education should be.

Unfortunately our nation's education system, like many public infrastructures in America, is outdated, underfunded, and increasingly controlled by unaccountable private interest groups.  For decades now, the political and economic establishment has presided over a systematic defunding, dismantling, and privatization of our nation's public education system - a shift that has deepened some of the ugliest inequalities and injustices of our society and is dangerously undermining our nation's ability to remain an informed, engaged, critically-thinking polity that expects and values democracy.  There has been bipartisan consensus that we should take control of our public education system out of the hands of the communities that use them and give it to private corporations that wish to turn learning into a commodity to be bought and sold.

And most shameful of all, the American education system has thrown our children under the bus.

The generation that is coming of age today has been the victim of some of the most damaging and disastrous policies in the history of American education.  It is they who will be left to deal with the drastic social, political, economic, and environmental shifts our society will face in this century, yet the current administration and the status quo in education is not only failing to equip younger generations with the creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving skills that would help them confront - much less survive - those challenges, it is actively harming and discouraging our youth’s ability to cultivate and develop those skills..

No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have made public education irrelevant to the social and developmental needs of youth and the broader public and have left it with grossly distorted priorities designed to fit the prerogatives of industrial sectors seeking to profit by making our children into their future employees.  All the while, the political duopoly has presided over a vicious resegregation of our schools along lines of class and race. It has forced our youth into massive student debt for an education we need them to have. It has shifted university research agendas away from one aimed at public benefit to one of corporate profit.  And it has made a quality, empowering education not a right to be enjoyed by all, but a privilege reserved for the few.

But nothing about this situation is inevitable or irreversible.  There is an alternative to the corporate-driven movement to "reform" our education system: a growing movement of teachers, students, parents, and other community leaders are working to renew, reimagine, and revitalize our education system from the bottom up and to reclaim public education that is for the public, not just the economy.

As part of that movement, I have joined a new initiative -- the Green Shadow Cabinet -- to show that another government is possible. Specifically, I will serve in the our Department of Education as Assistant Secretary of Education for Higher Education. Together with other members of the Green Shadow Cabinet, we will show what a government looks like when it is on your side, working to make our public education system one that serves to democratize our society, facilitate upward mobility, and continually prepare our youth to build a better future.

With Green leadership, the education system would have two main priorities. First, the empowerment of the nation's youth and the development of their capacities to contribute to society as a whole, not just the economy.  Our policy would be to consciously make the education system one that equips our young people with the tools they will need to tackle problems we know they will face in the future:

  • They will need to be competent participants in a democratic society, so we will teach group decision making and make participation in the governance of their schools a central part of their education.
  • They will face violence and disputes in their families, communities, and workplaces, so we will teach them about restorative justice and conflict resolution.
  • They will need to cope with food shortages and other crises caused by climate change, so we will teach them about ecology and how to grow their own food.
  • They will need to be able to discern when politicians, advertisers, or news pundits are misleading them, so we will teach them media literacy and rhetorical analysis.
  • And they will need to fight the racism, sexism, classism, and myriad other forms of oppression that still infect our society, so we will teach them to resist oppression and not to hate.

Our second priority would be to equip schools and universities to be tools for the uplift of society that are fully integrated into the communities in which they reside.  Instead of sitting nearly empty during the summer or after students leave for the day, schools should be reimagined to serve as libraries and community centers for the public. Instead of referring children of poverty to external social services or simply ignoring their issues until they drop out, schools should have wrap-around social services incorporated into them as crucial tools for both academic success and the support of their home communities. And instead of being guided by distant policy makers and corporate agendas, control and decision making for schools should be returned to teachers, students, and the local communities they serve.

There is no longer any question that our nation's education system is hurting our youth and jeopardizing our nation's future.  So that is why the Green Shadow Cabinet would do away with the harmful policies favored by the current political establishment, and replace them with policies that strive to make public education a force that serves to democratize, facilitate upward mobility, and continually renew society.  It is time for us to stand up for our children and for our futures.

The ways in which we educate our young people determines the future of our nation.  And we in the Green Shadow Cabinet are committed to making it the peaceful, just, and green future that we all deserve. We ask that you stand up with us as we not only demand a radically different system, but as we work to create it ourselves.

Roshan Bliss is a community organizer and masters student at the University of Denver who is a leader in the growing the U.S. student movement that has formed to democratize their schools, to resist the corporate takeover of education, to resist the economic violence of student debt, and to empower young people to reassert their voice in the societal debates that will shape their futures. He is Assistant Secretary of Education for Higher Education in the Green Shadow Cabinet. See http://www.GreenShadowCabinet.US