Friday, August 05, 2011

The Myopia of Knee-Jerk Conservative Opposition to the US Department of Education

A meme I hear a lot on the budget-slashing bandwagon of the conservative Tea Party express is the push simply to cut the entire U.S. Department of Education. Just obliterate it without a second thought. When I hear conservatives jump on this "cut-the-entire-Department-of-Education" bandwagon, I know that these folks have really no clue about the U.S. Department of Education and its various programs. It leads me to think that such bombast is nothing but an ill-considered visceral opposition to what is perceived as an agency of worthless liberal brainwashing programs. The ignorance that envelops this radical position is so very clear to those who have even a cursory knowledge of what the U.S. Department of Education really does. Conservatives who claim that the federal government has a constitutional obligation to protect the security of the United States fail to even look at how the U.S. Department of Education has been vital to that critical constitutional function over the years. When I hear such blathering conservative antipathy to the U.S. Department of Education, I ask those holding such positions if they have ever considered the national security ramifications that such a position entails. And I'm often met with a blank, open-mouthed stare. I see it in their eyes and I know what they are thinking. They're thinking: What could the U.S. Department of Education possibly have to do with national security?

And so I always lay out for them just one example of many that I know very well about: the Title VI program that provides federal funding for global area studies and foreign languages instruction. Without this federally funded program, and given this country's linguistic and cultural ethnocentrism, we'd have very few people who would be able to speak Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Swahili, Tamil, Quechua, Guarani, or any of the other dialects that we really need to have some competency in to protect our national security. If left to the states, do you really think that the individual states would think about national security concerns enough to fund the study of Arabic in their state universities? Come on! Get real! Most states would think that teaching "ethnic studies" and those "terrorist" languages are just un-American! And yet the security of the country so desperately depends upon developing knowledge of global cultures and foreign languages. Additionally, without Title VI funding from the U.S. Department of Education, we'd have even fewer people in our country, in an already dismally ignorant environment when it comes to understanding the world (see Sarah Palin as exemplary display number 1 on this front), who could identify where Libya is on the map, much less understand what the different tribal groups are in that country's sociopolitical makeup. [Aside: Do you really think conservative patriots who can sing the Marines' Hymn can even identify what countries the "halls of Montezuma" or the "shores of Tripoli" refer to, much less the historical moments they address?]

And I haven't even mentioned U.S. Department of Education programs like the Fulbright/Fulbright-Hayes program, or the myriad other international research and cultural exchange programs that the U.S. Department of Education funds, or the collaborative role that the U.S. Department of Education plays in providing resources that make the Foreign Area Officers program of the U.S. Defense Department successful. So, if you ever hear any conservatives argue for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, don't take them seriously, especially if they fashion themselves as supporters of the constitutional mandate for the federal government to protect the national security. They're just probably swept up by a visceral hatred of state-led education initiatives as nothing more than a vehicle for liberal brainwashing, an attitude propagated by the likes of David Horowitz. They haven't studied what the U.S. Department of Education is actually doing. Not one iota. They represent nothing more than the thoughtless ravings of anti-state-originating education troglodytes. A real national security, constitutionalist conservative would at least look at what programs the U.S. Department of Education has in the service of national security interests -- programs that wouldn't likely be done well by any other agency -- before calling for the entire agency's head on the chopping block.


Eric said...

I'd support doing away with the Dept of Education, and not one of your arguments persuades me otherwise.

Under a wholly state managed system, we'd have some states where foreign language instruction is a priority in the education system, and even in states where it wasn't, you'd still have a segment of parents who see the benefit, both mentally and culturally, in teaching their children multiple languages, even obscure ones, and they could seek outside instruction. Even if we ended up with net fewer speakers of some obscure languages, the national security aspects you mention could be managed by the agencies in charge of national defense. The CIA can recruit and train people to speak the languages it needs help with (and if they are in short supply, they can demand higher salaries, thus driving up demand for education in those languages).

As far as teaching children where Libya is on a map, I believe there is a much larger degree of myopia at work in the argument that the federal government must be actively involved in order for children to learn geography. The opposite seems more likely to me. How many high school seniors do you think could find Libya on a map prior to the Department of Education's creation in 1979?

Cultural exchange programs are valuable, but there is no need for those to be exclusively administered through a Department of Education. The traditional Fullbright Scholar program is, in fact, administered through the State Department, not the Department of Education. And many communities have created and administered their own cultural exchange programs through the 'sister city' concept. These are incredibly effective because they foster interaction multiple levels, including business and civic engagement, and not just at the school (though they offer a lot there as well). And they don't require a federal Department of Education.

In short, I don't think the Department of Education has a Constitutional basis for its existence, and even if it did I think it is institutionally incapable of directing education in America in a positive direction. Our education problems are cultural, regional, and much too nuanced for a wide flung government bureaucracy to effectively handle with top down one-size-fits-all solutions. If we had the budget for it (we currently don't) I would support a federal education program that was dedicated to studying and publishing the methods, demographics, and *results* of various state education programs. Beyond that, the federal government simply does not have a Constitutional role to play in public education, unless it involves training individuals for work in specific government departments. It's a small but growing factor in public sector finance and curriculum, and rather than see it continue to grow, I think our nation woudl be better served if it were simply done away with.

Huck said...

Eric - As I said in the title of my posting, I think your position is very short-sighted. The CIA, the FBI, the Dept. of Homeland Security, and the Defense Department are complex agencies in their own rights without having to be burdened with the additional task of specializing in basic cultural literacy education, foreign languages instruction, and educational pedagogy. They are not set up to be educators or to assess educational outcomes. Surely you can acknowledge the importance of intercultural exchange and foreign language capacity for national security, no?

As for the traditional Fulbright program you mention coming out of the State Department, yes, the State Department manages the selection and awarding of scholars; but they have no role in educational instruction for the scholars. The Fulbright-Hays program, on the other hand, is precisely about content, instruction, and pedagogical competency for its fellowship recipients.

And we will have to agree to disagree about the importance of a federal educational department that can guarantee that citizens have the ability to be educated without being subject to discrimination or segregated curriculum, or without access to faulty knowledge driven by parochial state interests.

And no one will convince me that basic literacy of all kinds is not a national security concern that merits the attention and coordination of the federal government.

Eric said...

I submit that we fought two world wars and most of the Cold War without a federal Dept Of Education. Apparently in the past our national defense structure managed to find ways to recruit enough educated people to keep us safe (if you ever get a chance to read about the CIA's relationship professional baseball player Moe Berg, it is some interesting stuff). I also think the military can do a better job than the DOE at identifying and training people in accordance with strategic needs of the defense apparatus. The military has a strong history and tradition in the fields of education and pedagogy... our current system would probably enjoy increased success if it took more cues from them.

And yes, I can acknowledge the importance of cultural exchange to national security, but within the confines and as directed by our national security infrastructure. There are also many advantages of cultural exchange not related to national security, and those can be adequately administereed at the state and local level.

As to your arguments about discrimination and segregation, I agree with you that these are real issues... and the proper domain of the US Department of Justice. And if we are going to institute a federal department to protect students from being taught faulty knowledge driven by parochial state interests (which is not something the DOE currently does or even tries to do), then who is going to protect students from faulty knowledge driven by far-away political federal interests?

Finally, where basic literacy is concerned, the federal government can't do anything more than the states to make uncaring parents start giving a shit about their child's ability to read and write. The DOE contributes about 10% of the budget of this nation's K-12 programs, and of course that money comes with enourmous amounts of regulatory strings attached. The best thing you could do for literacy is to let local schools collect that money from local taxpayers and decide for themselves, unrestricted by top down federal one-size-fits-all regulations, how it can best be used to teach kids to read and write.

eric said...

This is how the federal Department of Eduction encourages basic literacy:

Huck said...

Eric - The department of justice doesn't set curriculum guidelines, performance standards, and assessment criteria. School boards do. And school boards are beholden to US Dept of Education regulations. Those pesky guidelines that the Justice Department will need to have in order to prosecute any violations of the law about what constitutes non-discriminatory teaching practices and curriculum. You seem to want to fold education into departments whose purpose and competencies are decidedly not geared to be successful in this regard, and you seem to advocate for having such departments sub-contract out tasks that they are not equipped to manage and implement themselves. I just don't get the rationale for this. if you think education is critical to national security, and thus a necessary federal government function, why would you object to establishing a federal department geared towards meeting this need by specialists trained in this field? The only difference in shifting the responsibility from the Department of Education to the Defense Department or the CIA is that of putting education in the hands of people who aren't trained to deliver it or assess its successful delivery. It would be like arguing that the CIA and the FBI and the Defense Department should all be rolled into the Department of Homeland Security. The fact is that while all these agencies address aspects of our security needs, the demands of the particular types of security need are best managed by creating an independent agency better trained to meet such needs. So we have CIA agents who can get intelligence from anywhere in the world, we have FBI agents who can track down our own home-grown terrorists, and we have the Defense Department to fight wars and drop bombs. Why wouldn't we want to have an education department do the job of developing curriculum and assessing student/teacher performance?

If education is of national import, then it demands a federal government role of some kind. And given how extensive education is, it demands its own department to try to manage it. If you think national security interests related to education would be preserved by turning over the task of education to the states, the lack of uniformity in the quality of our education would be stark and the risks of knowledge fragmentation broken down according to indices of socioeconomic status, race, and gender would be even worse than they currently are.

Just because the US Dept of Education is grappling with some seemingly intractable problems isn't an argument for turning the task of solving such problems over to the states, where there is just as much a likelihood that the state is even more vested in perpetuating the problem for whatever reason (ideological, racial, religious, etc.). All this is not to say that states shouldn't take a lead in educating its citizens, in designing curriculum, in assessing teachers, etc.; but the federal government needs, on behalf of a national interest, to have a hand in the process with the states. And it does so through the U.S. Dept of Education.

Eric said...

Well it's also important for national defense that soldiers be able to shoot, but I don't hear you arguing for public schools to do weapons training. All I'm saying is if there are specific educational requirements that factor in to national defense considerations, such as the language instruction you mentioned, those can be folded into existing military schools and training academies. We already have a massive military education system that consists of many branches and specialized fields. It is not some huge obstacle to add a language component to it (they probably already exists). I don't think you give the defense establishment enough credit for its ability to impart formal education and and instruction to soldiers and defense operatives.
As far as basic skills go, the military currently has no problem meeting its recruitment goals with the output of our public education system, and there is absolutely no reason to think basic reading/writing skills would get worse without the Department of Education.

At any rate, you and I are not goint to agree on the necessity or propriety of the Department of Education, but I can assure you there is more to my objection than a brainless and visceral opposition to "liberal brainswashing programs". I just think states and local communities can do an adequate job of providing education without federal assistance, and I don't believe the federal government can accomplish the things you seem to believe it can in education. I realize your endorsement of a robust federal education program stems from a thoughtful and well intentioned concept of civic organization... I just wish you could extend the same courtesy instead of dismissing the complaints conservatives have as "knee jerk" reactions. Most conservatives, especially homeschooling families, have given these matters serious consideration. They just arrived at different conclusions than you.

Huck said...

"I just wish you could extend the same courtesy instead of dismissing the complaints conservatives have as "knee jerk" reactions. Most conservatives, especially homeschooling families, have given these matters serious consideration. They just arrived at different conclusions than you."

That's a fair criticism and a well-taken point. In my own defense, I would say that my comments weren't directed at the folks who have really studied and given thought to the purpose and value of the US Dept of Education, but rather those who simply hate the Department of Education without giving much thought to it. Also, it seems to me that perhaps you are conflating my criticism of those conservatives who oppose the Dept. of Education with those who have concerns about the nature and quality of public education generally. There is a difference here that I think is important.

I have to say that in my experience, the vast majority of people who are outspoken opponents of the US Dept. of Education as a federal executive agency (as opposed to critics of public education generally) really don't know much about what the department does and can't give any coherent fact-based explanation of why the department should be eliminated.

I know my comments tend to over-generalize (and so your complaint is valid on that score to the extent that it comes across as a critique of general conservative opposition to the success/value of public education), but I also know that I'm not simply making it all up that some conservative opposition (and I'd even say perhaps most -- and certainly the most vocal -- conservative opposition) to the US Dept of Education is more of the knee-jerk variety driven by reflexive ideology.