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Third in our three part series about education policy and the US Presidential Elections

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

This is part three of our three-part series examining the public education policy of President Obama and Mitt Romney. Part one was President Obama, two was Mitt Romney. If you haven’t watched them, you might want to go back and see them first. At any rate, now we’re going to ask our guests what they would like to see as education policy, ’cause they’re not all that satisfied with either candidate.

So now joining us from the Bronx, New York, is Mark Naison. Mark is a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University, founder and principal investigator of the Bronx African American History Project. He’s the author of a lot of books and a lot of articles about African-American history. And he joins us from the Bronx. Thanks for joining us, Mark.


JAY: Now joining us from Buffalo, New York, is Henry Louis Taylor Jr. He’s a professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo, New York. He’s the director of the Center for Urban Studies. He’s a coauthor of Historical Roots of the Urban Crisis: African-Americans in the Industrial City, 1900-1950. Thanks for joining us, Henry.


JAY: So let’s start off with a kind of big-picture question. It used to be there was all this talk about the need for America to compete in the world. It had to have the highest education standards. People needed to understand the way the world worked. There was at least talk, if not execution in reality (but to some extent, maybe), that people should know history, should have a connection with human culture.

It seems to me that this has changed, that the American elites actually don’t think this anymore, that, you know, it may even be a product of digitization and how sophisticated production has become in the industrial sector, and that so many people are now in the service sector that you actually don’t need such an educated population, that they may in fact prefer that people don’t know much about history. I can talk to journalism classes at the masters level and I cannot believe how little history they know, never mind high school graduates, who barely know the history of their own city, never mind country or globe.

But maybe that’s actually—the elites in this sense are okay with that, ’cause the other thing I’m always taken aback by when I talk to some kids that go to some of the top private schools, for example, in New York, I mean, they’re so much better educated than I am. It blows me away how detailed their sense of history is, and they know Latin and this and that. This two-tier education system has probably never been so wide. And maybe that’s okay with those that make such decisions. Henry?

TAYLOR: Actually, I think it is. Jeremy Rifkin wrote a few years ago a very significant book entitled when work disappears. And what his basic argument was and what a number of economists agree is that this new 21st-century economy simply will not employ the same number of people as the older economies. And then, when you think of the way in which the world economy is shifting and changing, there’s a lot of evidence to that. For example, in another ten to 15 years, among the top ten economies in the world, only the United States and Germany will be listed among those. That means that a wide variety of countries across the world will be sharing the world’s finite resources.

So Rifkin poses the question in his book that one of the great challenges that we will face is how to find useful ways in which to put this surplus population to work. I think the United States has answered that question by creating a massive pool of folks that you send to prison and that are part of what I call the misery industries. These are industries that emerge and make money off of the misery and pain of others. For example, the prison-industrial complex produces billions of dollars each year, and that the kids in the ghettos, the kids in the barrios are the primary raw material for these industries. So there’s a reason that the rise of mass incarceration—and it occurs simultaneously with an intensification of neoliberalism.

If you look at the growth of the police industry, the court systems, the welfare systems, all of these industries are generated on the basis of the misery and pain of people. So black pain, Latin pain creates jobs and opportunities for a growing number of people. And as long as you have this two-tier system, you are actually producing the raw materials for this industry. So I think that perspective—powerful and true.

JAY: Mark, you know, when I talk to people that work at some of the auto manufacturing plants in Detroit, those that still do, and some—you meet some ordinary workers, and they know that specific job, they know—you know, even sometimes it can involve some computer programming, some special skill set, but they don’t know much else. And, you know, if what they do is then just go home and watch TV and tune out, don’t watch news, and don’t know much about what’s going on the world, well, that’s okay, because they know how to go to work and do that specific thing. So it’s not just the issue of the service sector. It’s almost manufacturing in general, that maybe the economy doesn’t need people that have any sense of culture.

NAISON: Yeah, but it’s not only that. If you educated the majority of people to a knowledge of history and a sense of the democratic traditions as they’ve evolved in this society, they might revolt against the levels of inequality that we currently have in this society. Look at Walmart. The CEO of Walmart makes $16,000 an hour while the entry-level worker makes $6.50 an hour. We have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners in the United States. The CEO-to-worker ratio is now 450 to 1, and there’s no other industrialized country where it’s over 100 to one. So it makes sense that Sidwell Friends or Horace Mann or Collegiate has an enriched curriculum, but the public schools are being deluged with more and more tests, which crowd out history.

I got involved in becoming an advocate for teachers when my research project was driven out of the Bronx schools by test prep. We did community history projects involving teachers, parents, community members in 13 Bronx schools and had the most incredible experience of everybody getting engaged and excited. But you can’t do that for two months now because you’ve got to prepare for the tests.

JAY: Right. Right.

NAISON: And I think that—but let me just say one other thing. I am now getting invitations to talk about labor and African-American history from Occupy groups all over the Northeast, that when people are questioning economic inequality, they want to know history. But the obverse is true: if people know their history, they will then raise questions about economic inequality. And that’s the last thing this elite wants.

JAY: Henry, is that not a big piece of this, that one of the things schools, but culture in general, is doing is [incompr.] lowering people’s expectations? People don’t expect much more out of life than what America’s delivering right now. And a lot of that has to do with the school system, doesn’t it?

TAYLOR: It has a lot to do the school system. But I want to go back to the earlier point that I’m making. The question is why. It’s not that they just don’t want you to know.

Right now we’re dealing with a graduation rate in a number of places under 60 percent. These are the kids that graduate from high school. We know that these kids that do not graduate are doomed to a life on the economic margins. You can predict on the basis of these graduation rates the number of people that are going to be a part of the prison-industrial complex, the number of people who are going to end up in various aspects of these prison and these misery industries.

What I am saying specifically: it’s not about just them not wanting you to know. It’s profitable for you not to know, it’s profitable for them to have segments of a society that are not functioning, because they have figured out how to generate profits on it.

And the fact that they’re not teaching these higher-level intellectual skills has a lot more to do with the elite schools, because—and when I say the elite, I’m talking about the suburban schools, I’m talking about the high-performing public schools, because we’re turning out kids who have technical skills but could not analyze and understand anything, in the sense that they have no levels of critical consciousness. And my own program at the University at Buffalo, in our planning and architectural schools, we have a requirement that anybody that gets into this program has to come out of college with around a 3.45. Yet, the students I’m seeing today with these higher GPAs have less consciousness in terms of understanding the realities around them than students that I saw ten years ago.

So you have these two things occurring: kids that are completely turned off by the educational process that end up in the misery industries on the one hand, and on the other hand, kids in these schools that do not have the consciousness and the understanding to produce a very different set of policies.

NAISON: Yeah. Let me put another situation with a slightly more optimistic slant. My students from Fordham are unable to get jobs in their field. One of my best students just took a job as a housekeeper with the Hampton Inn. They’re dog walkers. They’re bartenders. They’re receptionists. And many of them have $60-$80,000 in debt. And it is this group that, you know, became fuel for the protest of the Occupy movement.

The society is failing on many different grounds. And I see a point now where young people who are graduating from college with a very questionable future are going to go to the neighborhoods and try to connect with some of the high school kids who are being geared to head straight to prison, as Henry was saying.

We now have a very interesting development in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy, called the Paul Robeson Freedom School. Paul Robeson High School was a school that was designated for turnaround and was closed over the protest of its students and teachers. And this summer they are organizing a freedom school in that community for young people who want to learn history, want to learn culture, want music and the arts and all the things that they’re not going to get in this, you know, test-driven environment. So I think there is hope of revolt against what is so obviously a constricted, narrow approach to educating young people in this country.

JAY: Yeah, we’ve been doing quite a few stories on this, and I’ve been quite taken with it myself, the number of parents and teachers and students marching together to save their schools and rebuild their schools in defense of public education. It’s a genuine national movement, is it not, Henry?

TAYLOR: There are also other movements that are—Mark is talking about the protest movement. The protest movement is evolving, and I think that the protest movement is extremely, extremely important, because without that protest movement, other forms of reform will not happen. But there are other movements that are occurring within the framework of the schools, the university-assisted school movement led by Ira Harkavi, who’s doing some fantastic work out of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. And there are other places around the country. Here in the city of Buffalo, I think we’re involved in some very exciting things, attempting to build pipelines that allow us to develop very, very strong in-school and afterschool programs, so that we can find ways to enrich the academic experience of these kids, give them early childhood training and learning, even in the midst of a high-stakes testing environment.

And this summer, my center, in partnership with the New York State, University at Buffalo Liberty Partnerships Program, launching our first academic summer camp on neighborhood development for middle school kids. And we’ll be working with some 25 middle school kids, working around creating linkages, showing them the connection between writing, reading, research, problem solving, critical thinking, and neighborhood development, where they will be doing three major projects utilizing these skills that will be focused on improving conditions in their own neighborhoods.

So there are some exciting things that are going on on the educational front that are demonstrating that new approaches to pedagogy, new systems of evaluation—because we believe that things need to be evaluated, because we have to be able to determine if in fact we’re making progress and if in fact we’re moving toward the educational goals that we hope to achieve. So it’s a kind of a—it’s worst of times and the best of times. And we fight out of the madness of American public education to [incompr.]

JAY: Hang on, guys. We’re kind of out of time for this segment. But we’re going to do another segment—and I’m not sure if we’re going to shoot it right away, guys, but we’re going to do it soon—where we get into more specific proposals for public education, ’cause we kind of talked big picture in that segment. So I said this was a three-part series, and now I get—’cause I’m the host, I get to say it’s a four-part series. So there will be another part, and we’ll show it to you soon. And so please join us again soon on The Real News Network.


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Mark Naison is a Professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, and the founder and principal investigator of the Bronx African-American History Project. He is the author of four books, and over one hundred articles on African American History, labor history, sports and popular culture.

Professor Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., is one of the nation’s leading authorities on distressed neighborhoods and inner city development. A historian and urban planner, this internationally known scholar is a full professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo. He is coordinator of the Department’s Community Development and Urban Management Specialization and is the founding director of the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies (CENTER), a research, neighborhood planning and community development institute that focuses on the regeneration of distressed communities.