COMMENTARY: “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” So said Aristotle, and likewise a number of others such as St. Francis Xavier, to whom the quotation is sometimes attributed. Even Adolf Hitler took credit for this quotation, as did an American billionaire recently speaking about the importance of early childhood education. Aristotle lives, as his thoughts are being cribbed more than 2,000 years later.
To paraphrase another famous quote, a great phrase has a thousand authors, and that’s because Aristotle’s statement rings true to this day. The proof of this pudding is the eagerness to destroy and privatize public education, especially as seen in billionaires from Rupert Murdoch to Bill Gates, and right-wing politicians.
It is inarguable that to be fully functioning, responsible members of any society, children must be properly educated — a process that is thousands of years old because it is indisputably vital to the community interest.
Consequently, in our times, we must beware of the politicization of the public discourse aimed at disparaging public schools and public-school educators. How can authentic education happen when it is reduced to ingestion, regurgitation and controlled performance not unlike the training of seals? We must ask, how can an educative process take place when children’s noses are pressed against computer screens informing only themselves in a controlled, circumscribed and contrived personal world and not always in a classroom with other children?
We must also ask: What is the purpose of this recent interest in public education by people and groups that have no training and no expertise in the field? Can it be simply that Rupert Murdoch sees K-12 education as a “$500 billion sector in the U.S. alone” that is his for the taking with the help of ambitious politicians? Yes, it could be about money, but profit is neither a humane nor a socially constructive motive. I believe childhood education must be more than that; a civil society depends on it.
If you wanted to control any society where would you start? With the health and welfare of the general public perhaps? Or maybe civil courts, where well-paid insurance company lawyers beat back attempts to hold culpable parties responsible? How about ubiquitous universal surveillance of your activities, phone calls, and internet browsing?
Controlling the public narrative is especially effective and important because so many people don’t look beyond what they see and hear in the media or the circumstances of their own lives; they often don’t look beyond information that confirms their beliefs or feeds their fears.
If you are in it for the long game, wouldn’t public education be the best place to start your agenda? And what would the “long game” be about?
I believe the long game is about social control. Historically, while propaganda has been one of the central tactics used to create and maintain social control, so too has childhood education. An often-used tactic today is funding charter schools and taking money from traditional public schools. Couple this with a continual disparagement of public-school educators who work long hours with pay that falls far short of their education and dedication, who are replaced in many of the new schools with cheaper-to-hire staff who in many cases are not trained as teachers.
In some states, educational management organizations (EMOs) are running 30 percent of all charter schools, and of those 16 percent are for-profit operations. There are also “virtual” charter schools where instruction is provided at home over the internet, further distancing children from the socializing aspects of public schools.
The foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism or socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, and it has never been, before now, about profit. Public education has always been about the development of each child as an individual to the fullest extent of their abilities for the ultimate benefit of society.
Public schools are about community, about democracy, about civility. The antithesis of self-centeredness is community, and community means all of us working together, learning and teaching, not grasping whatever can be at whatever cost to others, oblivious to an inclusive social contract. Public education is where children learn and practice these values.
The proper focus of authentic education is not ingestion and disgorgement of information like trained seals clapping their flippers on command, but a process of development that leads to critical thinking and life-long learning skills. Information can readily be absorbed when that information is relevant to human purpose and life as it is lived.
I have been writing about this question for a long time, I taught about it for several years at one of the world’s great universities, and it worries me to see politicians and non-educators controlling children’s lives as a form of self-promotion, as profit centers. It is well worth repeating now: It is what Aristotle was telling us so many centuries ago.
Emanuele Corso’s essays on politics, education, and the social contract have been published at NMPolitics.net, Light of New Mexico, Grassroots Press, World News Trust, Nation of Change, New Mexico Mercury and his own — siteseven.net. He taught Schools and Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he took his PhD. His bachelor’s was in mathematics. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, where he served as a combat crew officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He has been a member of the Carpenters and Joiners labor union, Local 314. He is presently working on a book: Belief Systems and the Social Contract. He can be reached at [email protected].