You would never expect a weeks-long trial in Harrisburg about such an important yet super-complicated issue — whether wide disparities in school funding across rural, urban, and suburban school districts in Pennsylvania violate the state constitution — to create a viral moment that would rock social media.
Yet a brief exchange between a lawyer for budget-crunching GOP lawmakers in the Keystone State and a superintendent in a remote rural district in the deer-hunter country of north-central Pennsylvania did exactly that, by voicing an entire nation’s anxieties about how America educates its young people and — much more important — to what end.
I’ll even go way out on a limb here to argue you can draw a straight line between the country’s collective decision — hardened somewhere in the late 20th century — to stop seeing education as a public good aimed at creating engaged and informed citizens but instead a pipeline for the worker drones of capitalism, and the 21st century’s civic meltdown that reached its low point nearly one year ago, in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
This lightbulb moment occurred in the middle of weeks of arduous testimony over unequal K-12 funding during the Harrisburg trial. On the witness stand was Matthew Splain, superintendent of the underfunded Otto-Eldred School District in sparsely populated McKean County and board president of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. His inquisitor was John Krill, a lawyer representing the state’s top Republican lawmaker, defending a political regime that’s made Pennsylvania 45th in the nation in state support for its public schools.
Splain, who advocates for Harrisburg to do more for schools in rural areas experiencing economic hardship, testified about his belief that lack of resources is linked to lower student test scores in subjects such as biology and math in recent years. Krill then basically said the quiet part of Republican education policy out loud in the packed courtroom.
“What use would a carpenter have for biology?” asked Krill, questioning the need for learning for learning’s sake in a locale where many of the available jobs don’t require a college degree. In stating so plainly the modern conservative philosophy that public schools exist solely to develop a workforce — one in which not everyone need be a rocket scientist or a philosopher — the Harvard Law-educated Krill didn’t stop there.
“What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?” Krill asked. The big, implicit but unanswered question of who decides who’s on “the McDonald’s track,” let alone why we would even have one, is largely what prompted a Twitter backlash after Krill’s comments were covered in The Inquirer. It’s hardly surprising that two of America’s leading Black public intellectuals — New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie and Nikole Hannah-Jones of the Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project — weighed in. After all, horribly misguided decisions about school resources, staffing, or just the prevailing mind-set that some poor kids won’t ever be college material have loomed over many urban public schools for decades.
But what about rural McKean County, Pa.? True, that carpenter hammering drywall wouldn’t have to call on a knowledge of basic genetics, presumably — but education isn’t only about facts, but also about developing respect for the wider processes of knowledge, and how we find it. When I poked around, I wasn’t shocked to learn that McKean County — where a school superintendent concedes that math and science education is struggling — also has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in Pennsylvania, just 38.1%, compared with 52.7% statewide.
I reached out to Splain, who was understandably reluctant to do an interview while the court case is still underway. I ended up speaking with one of his colleagues, the Pottstown schools superintendent, Stephen Rodriguez, who is also president of the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools Caucus of superintendents. He told me that, of course, a would-be carpenter would benefit from “a foundational knowledge of biology” — in a world where being a good citizen depends on honing an ability to understand what is true and what is misinformation.
“If we do not give our children a good basis for an understanding of their world, how will we know if our government lies to us about anything?” added Rodriguez, who specifically mentioned the spread of QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory centered on child sex trafficking that animated so many of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.
With his crude yet bluntly honest questioning, Krill had touched on a debate that has hovered over American education since the heady days immediately after World War II, when the GI Bill proved that U.S. kids from all kinds of backgrounds actually were college material after all, and when generous support for public schools was seen as a path to win “the space race.” Just as important and arguably more relevant as we enter 2022, U.S. leaders also thought the concept of “liberal education” — broad learning for the sake of knowledge, rather than narrow career skills — would boost democracy after an era rocked by totalitarianism.
In 1947, in a world made anxious by the invention of the atomic bomb, a landmark panel created by President Harry Truman to plan for a future in which millions more young people could have access to higher education saw such learning as a path for creating better citizens invested in democracy and eager to foster world peace.
The Truman Commission reported that “general education” (also called “liberal education”) would be “the means to a more abundant personal life and a stronger, freer social order.” The panel added that “through education society should come to recognize the equal dignity of all kinds of work, and so erase distinctions based on occupational classes.” In other words, nobody was talking about “the McDonald’s track” back in 1947.
So what the heck went wrong, after a brief generation of low (or free, in places like California and New York City) college tuition and massive public support for science education? A lot of things, including a conservative backlash when liberal education was linked during the 1960s to campus protests for liberal causes (such as, in an ironic echo of the Truman Commission, ending a senseless war). Ronald Reagan, who fought as governor of California to end free tuition, said famously that taxpayers shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” — the philosophy that echoed in a Harrisburg courtroom last month.
The idea that education exists for workforce development — to create skilled laborers who won’t question authority — was honed by Reagan acolytes like ex-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. GOP-led state governments — especially in Pennsylvania — slashed their contributions for all levels of education. So-called STEM education in the science fields became a priority mainly for the anointed ones on “the Space-X track,” which apparently doesn’t run through McKean County or North Philly. And in this new environment, there was suddenly neither the money nor the time for civic education, once seen as the pathway for creating the next generation of informed voters.
By the late 2010s, less than a quarter of American eighth graders scored at or above the “proficient” level in civics, according to a National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in that subject. I guess that jibes: In a world in which a carpenter has no need for biology, why would he need to know how a bill becomes a law, or the role of the Supreme Court? Or why it’s good when the candidate with the most votes wins an election?
This coming Thursday will mark the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Over the next few days, you’ll read a lot of think pieces and hot takes about the fragile state of America’s broken politics, or more immediate concerns about what the fallout from an almost-coup means for the next election. But we don’t talk enough about the role of education. The Truman Commission advised that liberal education could preserve the American Experiment, and yet we stopped doing liberal education — and Jan. 6 happened.
Is it a coincidence that McKean County, with its cash-poor public schools and its low vaccine rate, showed such enthusiasm for the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally that kicked off the day of insurrection that it sent a busload of partisans? (Note: The county has just 40,000 residents.) Or that two citizens of McKean County were later arrested for breaking into the Capitol, including Pauline Bauer of Kane, Pa., who was recorded in the seat of U.S. government saying that she wanted to find and hang House Speaker Nancy Pelosi?
The alleged insurrectionist Bauer later wrote in a Facebook comment, “You can thank me after you start researching that these Democrats not only cheated and stole this election from the people but they have been trafficking children for years.” It’s hard to read that and not hear echoes of Rodriguez’s comments to me about education and the ability to detect lies, including the Big Lie from an American president about a stolen election.
Would funneling a few more tax dollars to McKean County to hire a new biology teacher or add a couple of civics classes have stopped Jan. 6? Not in the short run, but then it took decades for us to undo the American Dream of a true higher education with only one track, the good-citizen track. As we start a new year with our new resolutions, let’s resolve to start the long journey of getting back to where we once belonged — before the next White House coup or iceberg collapse or plague or incoming comet or whatever makes that impossible.
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