The Selfish Case for the Common Good

“Now Tom said ‘Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.'”

Bruce Springsteen
The Ghost of Tom Joad

This is a hard post to write, because…

I’m white.

I’m male.

I live in the suburbs.

I have enough money.

I had parents who were able
to afford my college costs.

I reek of privilege
that has had the effect of offering me tremendous opportunities
that I am eternally grateful for.

In spite of this privilege, and because of the values my parents and community instilled in me, I have always been compassionate towards the underprivileged. I have tried to fight the good fight and my heroes have been those who have done so. I try to act with awareness of my privilege.

Yet this ‘fight’ has been allowed to remain an abstraction because of my privilege. The ground I have stood on has been built under me on the foundation of class and race. I don’t own it. I can’t help it. But I haven’t lived with the negative effects of my privilege either. I have been insulated by thinking that these ‘things’ are happening in other communities and therefore have no effect on the concrete reality of my daily life.

The fact that this is a blissful illusion is becoming clearer all the time.

The corporate education reformers are coming after all of us, and poverty is the lever being used.

The argument for the corporate ed reform movement rests on the assumption that the U.S. is a meritocracy. That is, if you work hard, your merit will be rewarded. And if you accept this assumption, then maybe we should reward schools according to their achievement. The logic makes sense.

The problem is that this is assumption is entirely untrue. As Paul Thomas points out in Is Poverty Destiny? Ideology V. Evidence in Education Reform,

“The short answer, then, to whether or not poverty is destiny in the U.S. is yes; in fact, all categories of socioeconomic status in the U.S. are primarily static. In other words, the majority of people in the U.S. remain in the social class of their birth.

Poverty is destiny, and affluence is destiny in the U.S. And these facts have almost nothing to do with the effort of anyone in those categories. (Emphasis added)

And therein lies the crux of the matter for all of us. The corporate education reformers’ construction of the argument ignores poverty and focuses on testing data. As long as we only argue about test scores, the argument’s framing necessarily limits it to a ‘school’ issue. Within this frame, the corporate educational reform movement has already won. The purpose of education thus becomes helping those in poverty have access to economic success via the educational system. As I have written before, this is a privatized, individualistic argument that leans on individual merit. However, as Thomas points out, the evidence shows the meritocracy that would allow for the climbing of the class ladder doesn’t actually exist. In spite of best our hopes and wishes, class in the U.S. is static. There are exceptions that prove the point, but they are exceptions and the point remains. The real issue is the context of poverty. So any effort at reform that ignores the conditions that lead to poverty is necessarily destined to fail. The corporate reform argument is a red herring drawing us away from the meaningful discussion of community inequity. As long the conversation is limited to the parameters of what occurs within the walls of schools, then we don’t need to talk about the conditions that create so-called ‘failing schools.’ This will continue to insure that public education as a whole, all of our schools, will be painted with the same broad brush, and all of our schools will continue to be defunded and perverted beyond recognition by the testing ethos.

So if in the past you have not been able to affect minimal action to protect those entrenched in poverty on moral grounds, you must now realize that what is at stake is not only the communities of the ‘other,’ but ‘our’ communities too. Yes, I mean those communities previously protected by class and race. If before you recognized the need to fight from the basis of moral reflection, you must now add the desperation of selfish survival. The neo-liberal corporate reformers are coming after all of us. We are interconnected, rich and poor communities that value public education, to a degree that is becoming blatantly obvious. When “failing schools’ are disparaged, all of public education is criticized. (And by implication, all educators and all of our communities.)

By ignoring the issue of poverty and its effect on children, we are allowing for the argument that all public education is failing.

If we expect things to change we have to recognize that our fight is for more than public education, it is for all of the communities that public education serves. The health of public education is inextricably linked to the health of the communities it is grounded in. Context matters. It is impossible to separate the health of a school system from the health of the community that it exists within.

We need to broaden the argument, to fight poverty, to recognize the connections between poverty and wealth, suburb and inner-city, black, white and Hispanic. We need to work with recognition that the greater the income gaps in any society, the more we are all hurt. We need to acknowledge that the more we act from a place of fear to protect our privilege, the more we insure the conditions that will lead to our own harm. (Richard Wilkinson has an excellent TED talk explaining the connection between income gaps and community well-being. As Wilkinson points out, the effect of privilege is not only a negative to those who don’t have it, but to everybody, including the rich.)

I can only benefit myself by acting to benefit others.

So continue to fight against the narrowness of measuring school and student success by testing data.

But if you don’t also work to strengthen those communities decimated by poverty you are wasting your time.


2 responses to “The Selfish Case for the Common Good

  1. You made a very powerful conclusion from Dr. P.L. Thomas’ work that I’ve never heard phased this way “affluence is destiny.” That abject fact is the real issue we’ve been dealing with all along.

    By switching the first word in that phrase, the corporate reformers have continually tried to hold the moral high ground while all the while promoting policies that assure that their affluence remains destiny. Thank you for sparking the insight

  2. Thank you, Bill. We must continue to argue for the Commons, we must.

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