BY EDWIN E. VINEYARD
“Then outspake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate,
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.’”
– Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas B. Macaulay
The last time this citizen lifted pen to write under the title above, it was during the period of the Newt Gingrich takeover of Congress after the elections of 1994. Mr. Gingrich immediately declared his first targets to be the defunding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, The National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Humanities Foundation. Does anyone not see the logic of the metaphor of persons with hostility toward education, the arts, and culture taking over Congress, and the barbarians at the gates of Roman civilization?
Everyone familiar with history knows that the earlier barbarian takeover set back the progress of humankind for nearly a millennium. Fortunately, Mr. Gingrich was never so successful.
During the last few decades, the whipping boys of the ultra-conservatives have been education, culture, the arts, and intellectualism. Has anyone forgotten Spiro Agnew’s terms “effete intellectuals” or “the nattering nabobs of negativism?”
Although less semantically talented, the current crop of ultra-conservatives in the Congress and in the Oklahoma Legislature are just as much in the spirit of anti-intellectualism as those in the past. This then translates into an active disrespect for the “establishment” in the schools and the colleges. While our common schools have their faults and may be in need of significant improvements, they have not deserved being made the target of consistently vicious negative attacks by conservatives in the media.
It should probably be said that historically public schools have always had their opponents. This has had nothing to do with the quality, or lack thereof, in their performance. It has everything to do with an age old ideology which holds that academic education is for the elite. The term “elite” in this context has never referred to the brightest or most mentally capable, but instead has referred to the children of those wealthy enough to send their children to private schools. Persons holding to that ideology believe that working class children should be educated in the occupations or skills of labor. The economically well-to-do, as a class, have tended never to fancy paying taxes to support the education of working class children with aspirations above their family’s ability to pay.
However, a basic tenet of democracy has always been that of equal opportunity. And the truth of equal opportunity lies in the open and free access to education of all kinds at all levels. This was enunciated well by Thomas Jefferson.
Schools have done nothing to justify the harshness of the continuing conservative media war against them. Yet that has succeeded in making the gullible half of citizens ready to support some kind of destructive “reform” moves against our public schools, the teachers, and the colleges who train the teachers.
This gullible half of our voters has unwittingly put in place a deadly combination of ultra-conservatives in the Legislature and in the executive offices governing our schools. Those legislators are threatening to give despotic powers to an “elected” official, who is a declared enemy of the public schools system as it now exists, and who has espoused unproven alternatives to public schools which are set up to move money while evading all rules, mandates, and standards which have assured some semblance of quality and equality in our schools.
At stake is the entire funding formula for education. Who gets the money? Is it the urban schools? Is it only the rural schools which consolidate in some pleasing fashion? Will the rich get richer, or will the poor districts keep getting “equalization” money? Or, perhaps they will just siphon off the funding to “charter schools” letting public schools starve or close? Is that the goal? Is the ultimate goal the privatization of education, with attendant selectivity?
Are taxes the real problem? Lately it has appeared that any agency or public service that receives tax money is subject to vilification. Those who contribute the big money to candidates for political office just don’t like to pay their share of taxes. What if they could convert those pesky public schools into some cheaper structure? What if the taxes could be tapped to pay for private schools free of state regulation? Could it all start under the name of “charter” schools?
The future of public education is threatened by politics. The tragedy is not that those with contrary ideological views are storming the gates, the real tragedy is that the people themselves fail to see what is happening to their own beloved institutions of democracy.
The calls of those representing a modern day Horatius go unheard and unheeded. The beneficiaries of public education lie in their stupor of brain-washed ignorance while the barbarians pour through the gate. So shall it be written.
– Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate, lives in Enid, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer