Education and the Constitution

Right now my advanced writing students are working on a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution for the United States of America. I have them read the real ones and look for things that bother them: things that they thought should be in there, but aren't; things they're surprised to discover are in there, when they shouldn't be. 


I have them do this in part to keep the revolutionary spirit alive. As the real constitution Declaration of Independence says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
I think that we too often accept the illogical but common notion that all the solutions to our 21st Century problems lie in the text of an 18th Century document. I'm not putting the US Constitution down. Even my students quickly decide, after reading it, that there's a lot of good and meaningful stuff in there worth keeping. But 18th Century tax policy? Thank goodness for amendments (XVI)! Protections against having soldiers quartered in your home? I suppose there's no such thing as a useless right, no matter how unlikely. And all that stuff about protecting the self-armed militia, and funding safeguards that are supposed to keep the US from establishing a large standing army? Let's just call that "water under the bridge" and move on. 

There are other problems: the ERA was never ratified, and a better Constitution would give us freedom from sexual discrimination. ("All People are Created Equal" might make a nice amendment to the Declaration, were such a thing possible.) And while our core  rights are simply defined and "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," nothing grants us a right to basic health care, which also surprises my students.

But my students are quickest to note -- usually with great alarm -- that there's nothing in the Constitution guaranteeing us an education. This is perhaps the biggest mistake of all, because all else good in the world comes from education -- innovation requires it, commerce requires it, engineering requires it, wisdom in policy requires it, city planning requires it, citizenship itself requires it. How can a system of government which depends so heavily on its citizens (an ever-expanding pool of people) not ensure these people a right to education? Right, schmight. It ought to be compulsory, since the whole system depends on it.

And we all know that, in effect, it is. States create education policies, and localities fund schools. But it's a half-assed and patched-together solution to an 18th Century-created problem that results in some schools (say, in Central and Southern Arkansas, where Brian and I have both volunteered to work with under-served kids) having almost no resources at all -- a one-room trailer for a classroom, half a dozen out-of-date books, rickety desks from the 70s (someone's surplus), and a volunteer teacher being paid by a New England-based charity organization to experience a year or two teaching America's impoverished -- while other kids in richer, denser districts go to large schools with science labs, high-speed internet, teachers with Master's degrees, and almost endless resources. 

If Education were a federally-guaranteed right and a federally-funded enterprise, with equality of educational opportunity a mission second only to raising the overall knowledge, skill, and understanding of the entire country, America would be a stronger country. A Right to Education is as important as a "well regulated militia" to the safety, security, and strength of a nation, not to mention its wealth -- so why is it so hard to get a decent education in this country?

Even the students who make it to college are finding it harder and harder to stay. This NYTimes article from the Ed pages tells us that higher education is getting further out of reach for more people:
...college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, while median family income rose 147 percent. Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.

...

“When we come out of the recession,” Mr. Callan added, “we’re really going to be in jeopardy, because the educational gap between our work force and the rest of the world will make it very hard to be competitive. Already, we’re one of the few countries where 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than older workers.”

...

Last year, the net cost at a four-year public university amounted to 28 percent of the median family income, while a four-year private university cost 76 percent of the median family income.

...

Among the poorest families — those with incomes in the lowest 20 percent — the net cost of a year at a public university was 55 percent of median income, up from 39 percent in 1999-2000. At community colleges, long seen as a safety net, that cost was 49 percent of the poorest families’ median income last year, up from 40 percent in 1999-2000.

...

The likelihood of large tuition increases next year is especially worrying, Mr. Callan said. “Most governors’ budgets don’t come out until January, but what we’re seeing so far is Florida talking about a 15 percent increase, Washington State talking about a 20 percent increase, and California with a mixture of budget cuts and enrollment cuts,” he said.
Education is a commodity, but it's not a commodity like ice cream, which the consumer pays to devour and enjoy. It's more like a measles shot, where the consumer benefits somewhat, but the real benefit is to the society as a whole. We're treating Education like it's ice cream, like it's a luxury, like it only benefits the purchaser (and so the purchaser ought to expect to be saddled with a lifetime of debt in order to get it -- like it's a house!). But society benefits more from a broadly and highly educated populace than the individual benefits from the degree.

I hope that, when my students put the Constitution into their own hands and start tinkering, they see that we are most like the founders when we do not try to imitate them at all. We are most American when we all look at the problems of the world and try to come up with solutions -- and when we effect those solutions -- instead of depending upon tradition and the assumptions of the past. I hope that someday they'll find themselves arguing for and voting for the changes to this country they want to see -- an amendment guaranteeing education, health care, and whatever else they deem necessary. It's their world. They need to make it.

Newer Post Older Post Home