Education Does Not Cure Poverty – It Cures Ignorance

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What good is an education?

Will it get you money? Will it make you rich?

No. Not really.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with American public school policy of the last 15 years. It misunderstands the purpose of the very thing it purports to promote.

Poverty is skyrocketing. It’s been on the rise for at least three decades, but since the economy collapsed in 2008, the ranks of the poor have swollen like an untreated wound left to fester and rot.

We could be doing something about that. We could be working on a jobs package – on something to get people back to work. Instead we crowd around unemployment data and clap each other on the back because on paper it looks like we’ve overcome this obstacle.

Unfortunately, we haven’t.

Since President Barack Obama took office, there have been less people out of work than during the disastrous Bush years. However, most new jobs created since the crash only pay minimum wage. The good jobs are drying up and being replaced by poverty wage employment. And that’s not even counting the hordes of people who’ve given up even looking for a job but don’t merit a mention in these Pollyanna publications!

So how do we truly answer this dilemma? How do we get America back to work?

According to our policymakers, through magic.

Provide people more training, they say. Make sure those out of work obtain new skills and the next generation receives a rigorous education.

It’s the kind of solution our grandparents – who lived through the Great Depression – would have laughed to silence. Give someone a book, put them in a school, place them before a teacher and – POOF – they’ll be able to get one of the nonexistent well paying jobs that – may I repeat – DON’T EXIST!

It’s not that we have an unskilled workforce. We have more people than ever with Doctorates and Masters degrees living on food stamps. The problem is lack of well paying jobs. We’ve tax sheltered, down sized, and corporatized America into a land where the rich play Monopoly with all our cash while the rest of us subsist on McJobs.

Claiming that education alone can resolve this problem is like saying all a starving person really needs is a fork and spoon. But that won’t help if he has nothing to eat!

It should be no surprise that those championing our school system as a silver bullet to our jobless nation speak out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they say, education can save us. On the other, they say, if education was better we wouldn’t need saving. And since they’re almost exclusively employed by the same people who gobbled up all the jobs in the first place and then spat them out to China, it’s a travesty that anyone listens to them.

They’re not offering a solution. They’re making a last ditch effort to clear the board of any remaining public money – education dollars.

If only the teachers had taught us better, they say, we’d all be able to have a corner office in the sky. But since those evil, lazy educators are doing such a bad job, we need to close as many schools as possible to save those kids. And then we can privatize them and swipe even more of that sweet, sweet public money to the 1% who can run charter schools and cut student services while scarfing up the rest as yummy profit.

To prove this thesis, policymakers force untested and irrational reforms on public schools – standardized testing, computerized test prep, Common Core. When none of this works (as planned), they simply blame the educators who never wanted any of this in the first place. But it helps us serve up teachers on a silver platter as the scapegoat of the day.

These so-called reforms solve nothing – they just make things worse.

Furthermore, they’re a distraction, smoke and mirrors so we won’t see the real issue of how we’re being swindled by the 1%. After all, THEY were the ones who got us into this mess in the first place! They were the ones who crashed the economy – not Mrs. Jones, the local science teacher.

We should know this already. It’s out in the open and easy to see. The media is not doing its job of reporting the truth. The public is being dazzled by propaganda that appeals to our basest selves. But most importantly, we’re being fooled because we no longer remember what education is for!

Even under the best of circumstances, education does not make someone rich. That’s not it’s goal. It never has been. Education seeks to enrich people’s minds, not their bank accounts.

Yes, there is a relationship between the two, but its several steps removed. A well educated person may be able to more easily obtain money than an uneducated one. She may be more prepared for a well-paying job. However, being prepared is rarely what makes someone rich.

People gain wealth most often by inheriting it (See Paris Hilton, Bill Marriott, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump). Others get money by cheating the public out of it. This takes a person with a weak moral code, not necessarily strong book smarts. For instance, look to the Walmart model of selling groceries cheaply by paying poverty wages to employees who then must rely on the federal government to survive and thus can only afford to shop at Walmart. That’s not smart. It’s sociopathic. Anyone could have thought that up, but it takes a person with a stunted conception of the value of other people to actually do it.

More important than a college degree are connections. The Rich know the right people. They have contacts in high places with whom they can barter for lucrative tips, jobs and partnerships. They have friends on Wall Street who can tip them off when a stock is about to rise or fall. They know editors at prominent papers who have no problem changing the headlines to match a preconceived narrative rather than the facts on the ground.

Again, that doesn’t require all A’s on your report card. It’s the result of a lottery of birth, social standing and an undeveloped sense of fairness.

There are some people who actually do gain riches on the merits of their intellects. But they are few and far between. Even among them there is a large portion who are more lucky than genius. I love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, but it doesn’t take an Einstein to come up with it. Sometimes the gods of finance just smile on hippy dippy flavors with fun names.

Since the ancient world, thinkers have postulated that the purpose of education is not to increase material gain – it is to become a better person. The Ancient Greeks believed that there is value in knowledge and wisdom that doesn’t translate into gold. Aristotle called it eudaimonia or human flourishing. The best life includes wisdom.

This builds on the philosophy of Socrates – one of the founders of Western thought – who famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We have strayed far from these ideals. Today we might say the unreciprocated action is unworth doing. If something doesn’t translate into cold, hard cash, it is considered weak, a wasted effort. Even philanthropy has become a way to gain control over the industry you’re ostensibly trying to help. (See Bill Gates immense influence on Education policy.)

In their hearts, most teachers would side with Aristotle and Socrates over the Waltons and Gates’. And that’s why our corporate masters look down on us. We represent an ethos that they have abandoned and tried to destroy.

They tell themselves the fairy tale that wisdom means cheating others out of money. The removal of ignorance, they say, is the removal of any obstacles toward clawing and punching your way to the top.

But true wisdom recognizes that people are more than mere animals. We do not need to continue the Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest among ourselves. We can cooperate. We can value each others lives. We can love.

If people valued this kind of knowledge over money, what would happen to the rich? Wouldn’t it prove that they have wasted their lives betraying and manipulating the less fortunate? Wouldn’t it reveal the poverty of their souls?

Because if people were truly educated, they would see these sick, twisted individuals for whom they really are. And we would demand justice. Not so that we could replace these penny-ante tycoons with our own wealth addiction. But instead so that we could all live in peace and bask in the joy of knowledge, compassion and an unending quest to chip away at our own ignorance.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

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15 thoughts on “Education Does Not Cure Poverty – It Cures Ignorance

  1. Great essay, but it misses an important point that proves its conclusion is invalid.

    Curing ignorance would eliminate republic voters, which would end government policy that creates and promotes poverty.

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  2. A slight correction: the purpose of compulsory schooling has never been “to enrich people’s minds”, though that lie has been used to sell it to the masses. Its institutional function, which Prussian and American social planners were very clear about, was to produce a passive and obedient population of unthinking workers, soldiers, and consumers, to suit the needs of industrial capitalism. And it has done that with success, producing a population ignorant of the the myth of progress, ignorant of the destruction wrought by industrial capitalism, ignorant of the domination at the heart of Western science, and ignorant of how schools are used to destroy thousands of other cultural ways of knowing. If we really cared about raising healthy children, we would raise them in accord with how we evolved to learn: through free play in nature.

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  3. Fantastic article. If Bill Gates had taken more of a variety of classes during the couple of years he was at Harvard instead of just playing with computers, perhaps he would be aware of his lack of knowledge on so many issues.

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  4. A reader over at Diane Ravitch’s blog named Michael Fiorillo had a great quote he applied to Bill and Melinda Gates:

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made.”
    -F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

    Shows the worth of literature as a mirror of reality.

    The funny thing is that Gates has a quotation from The Great Gatsby on the ceiling of his library, but it’s something about a dream and a blue lawn. Fiorillo’s choice is more apropos.

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  5. For me the heart of this inspired piece comes in the third to last paragraph. The final three sentences of that third-to-last paragraph just appear like valuable jewels on a conveyor of coal. Impressive! Maybe not everyone is at a place where they can appreciate those lines, but please know that’s how I feel, and from what I know, there are many others who would also agree… Cheers to complex thoughts brought to coherence through accurate language! – JM

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “If people valued this kind of knowledge over money, what would happen to the rich? Wouldn’t it prove that they have wasted their lives betraying and manipulating the less fortunate? Wouldn’t it reveal the poverty of their souls?”

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