On Saturday afternoon, while driving through downtown Spokane – as isolated and homogeneous a city as you can imagine – we drove past a small group of Occupy Wall Street protesters. We rolled down the windows, clapped, honked, and cheered, but couldn’t take time out from our busy consumerist life to participate. I feel that this is the sentiment of most of the "99%," and it is sad because this movement is something I personally have been looking for since 2004. What I failed to understand until recently, is that the revolution could start right under our noses and many of us wouldn’t even realize it – despite how important it is to our future. The people’s movement currently underway in more than 100 cities across the, U.S. and 1,500+ cities globally, is important in many ways, but none more so than for what it could mean for education.
Harvard economics professor Lawrence Lessig explains the larger meaning of the Occupy Wall Street movement:
The key issue of Occupy Wall Street is economic fairness. Fairness in regard to the wages that individuals earn. Fairness about the costs of goods and services such as healthcare. Fairness about the way social and political policy are influenced by big money. And fairness about how much higher education costs and who controls what is taught. This last issue: the cost of higher education and control of the system are, in my opinion, one of the core issues that have incited this movement. While many inside the movement seem reluctant to crystalize the issues beyond "fairness" (Fitzpatrick, Oct. 8, 2011), as an outsider writing from a perspective as an educational reformer, making explicit what this movement means for education is essential to generating more widespread support.
What it Should Mean for Public Education
What would an equitable system of education look like at the elementary and secondary levels? For starters, we need to understand one thing that I have been aware of since my first student teaching experience in a public school – equal and fair are two different things, and things do not have to be equal in order to be fair. As a way of clarifying this, look at Brown v Board of Education (1954). In this landmark civil rights case, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that separate, but equal, is not equal. This decision illustrates how things that may seem equal may also not be fair.
So my opinion of fairness in education is going to tread a very fine line. For starters, a “fair” system of education requires adequate funding. Now adequate means a very Marxist thing here – from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. This notion removes “equality” from the equation. Some schools and individuals simply require more funding than others based on the demographics of the school and the pre-existing skills and abilities that students in a particular area bring with them when they enter the school. A school with students who are less-well-prepared would require more fiscal resources than a school with better-prepared students. Now this does not mean that either group of students should be forced to do without anything that would make their educational experience rich, meaningful, and rewarding. Adequate funding means just that – giving each school the funding that it needs to provide a positive educational experience for every student.
That said, fairness in education also has a great deal to do with autonomy, or, if you prefer, separateness. Each teacher, school, or district needs to have the discretion to run their classroom(s) or system in a way which they, as the local experts, know will best benefit their students. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators in impoverished rural or urban areas need to have input into decisions that concern their school in the same way that parents in suburban schools often do. National control and standards do a great injustice to the individual student by failing to account for differences in social, ethnic, gender, or other background factors that affect performance on these tests and should be abolished in favor of authentic assessments that measure innovative and critical thinking within a context that has meaning for the student and their community. This move away from standardization can only happen through local autonomy.
What it Could Mean for Higher Education
Higher education is a different animal than public education to its very core. In the U.S., there is no free, compulsory higher education. It is a luxury rather than a mandate. This is the first area in which a movement towards creating a fair society would have to look in terms of higher education. Signs of this are already starting to emerge. Yesterday I received an email from moveon.org asking me to sign a petition to have the federal government forgive all outstanding student loans as an economic stimulus initiative. While unrelated to Occupy Wall Street on the surface, such an initiative is very much inspired by the fact that a significant number of the protestors are disgruntled college students or recent graduates who are saddled with insurmountable college debt and little real hope for employment in a struggling economy (NPR, Oct. 14, 2011).
I am not going to propose that all colleges and universities should be free. It will not happen. In the same way that some people choose to enroll their children in private schools, some, regardless of any societal shift, will enroll in high-cost, private colleges and universities. However, there needs to be a free, government funded college option for anyone interested in pursuing higher education. This free option could be through community colleges, state universities, or some other new system involving online and informal learning. Regardless of what the actual system looks like, the value of higher education is currently out of alignment with the actual costs. Given the immense value of learning and the importance of continuing education for all Americans, easily available free educational alternatives should be a priority of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
This is Our Moment
Realizing when you are in the midst of an historical event is always a challenge. Usually they sweep over us and we don’t realize that we have missed something until it has passed. The Internet and social media have made it possible for all of us to see this movement unfold and discuss its significance. Our connected world also makes it easier to recognize the moment and mobilize in support. This is one historic moment in which we should, en masse, rise up demand that our society moves back into balance and that fairness, equity, and humanity for all become the central tenants by which we want to live. If you don’t believe me, ask John Donne:
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." – Meditation 17
We are all a part of this movement and it is a movement for all of us. Don’t let it be swept away before it can spark the changes our society is in dire need of. Go to OccupyWallStreet.org or OccupyColleges.org to find out how you can get involved and to make sure that education is on the agenda.