Some wars are more conspicuous than others.
Sunday, September 17th, two noteworthy series premiered. One, The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick was aired on PBS, preceded by months of expensive promotion and anticipation.
The other is a series of eight short films produced by the Network for Public Education (NPE). The first film features NPE co-founder Diane Ravitch and has as its provocative initial caption, “Why are Betsy DeVos and Bill Gates so afraid of this grandmother?”
The Vietnam War was among America’s greatest shames. It was based on lying and propaganda. Its endless prosecution enriched the military industrial complex of which President Dwight Eisenhower warned like Cassandra, but his warnings were not heeded. The war extracted a terrible toll, as wars do, primarily on the poorest Vietnamese and Americans. It is discouraging, but business as usual, to hear and read about this as an American tragedy. We lost 58,000 troops, a tragedy by any measure. Estimates of Vietnamese deaths very widely, but 1.3 million is frequently cited. I wish our remorse began with that incomprehensible statistic.
Now, 50 years after I was commissioned as an Army Officer, we are still revisiting the sheer, bloody, dishonest shame of it all. Have no empathy (or blame) for me. I fortunately did not serve in Vietnam.
The NPE films, beginning with Ravitch’s powerfully important Cassandra-like warning, offer America an opportunity to change direction so that we don’t have to revisit another national shame 50 years from now.
The war on public education, like the war in Vietnam, is being prosecuted on the basis of propaganda. In the 1960’s it was the myth of the threat of communism toppling one nation after another like dominos. It wasn’t true and it certainly wasn’t implicit or explicit in the conflict between South and North Vietnam.
Now, in the 21st century, the war on education is being prosecuted in the name of another set of myths: that public schools are failing – they are not; that school choice gives families more opportunity – it does not; that teachers unions serve only to protect incompetence – a vile, unsupportable lie; and that competition and free markets can deliver everything, including education, with greater quality and efficiency – a heroically grandiose and inaccurate assertion.
The other striking facet of the wars that bookend my adult life is the way in which the least advantaged among us are used as fodder for the ambitions of those most privileged.
America’s casualties in Vietnam were disproportionately skewed toward young men of color and relatively poor, rural white men. The draft was ostensibly color blind, but privilege finds it way through the law. As most folks know, deferments for education and other dodges were easily sought and obtained for those with privilege. The cases of George W. Bush and Donald Trump are particularly vivid examples. But if you were poor and black, the choices were jail or service, not Yale or the podiatrist’s office.
At least in 1967 no one claimed that the Vietnam War was being waged on behalf of the black men and boys who crawled through the jungle. But now, in the 21st century, the war on public education is being waged on the disgusting false propaganda that suggests education reform as a way of improving life for poor folks, particularly girls and boys of color. That is a bald-faced lie too.
Education reform, particularly in urban charters, is touted as the salvation for communities of color when, in fact, education reform is furthering the decimation of poor communities of color. Education is a $700 billion “market.” As in the 60’s, there is money to be made.
Public education is central among the institutions that hold our fragile democratic experiment together. Public education is where we assimilate, where we congregate, where we communicate and where we learn to debate the great issues that face the nation. Education is not a commodity or a profit opportunity. Students and families are not consumers. If we lose public education, we may never get it back. And make no mistake; education reformers are hell-bent on replacing public schools with charters, religious schools and all manner of unaccountable and corrupt enterprises, all too often lining the pockets of those whose pockets are already stuffed.
Diane Ravitch knows this and she is a hero. She has nothing to gain and everything to lose. She is our Cassandra.
Listen to her.