During a recent driving trip across the country, my husband and I sometimes felt we were threading our way across a map of American consumerism: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, and even Pita Pit. It can be argued that our society’s growing diversity has improved the food—Mexican, Lebanese, Thai, and even a Kathmandu Café in Rapid City, South Dakota, but as Benjamin Barber has pointed out, in marketplaces, “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.” (Consumed, p. 139) And competition among the choices has not necessarily delivered food that is tasty and nutritious.
As I looked at the fast food marketplace from freeway interchange to freeway interchange, it was sobering to consider that this is the model many are trying to adopt for our schools.
Franklin Roosevelt had a different philosophy, one that I worry is beginning to feel frankly old fashioned. Eighty years ago, in August of 1934, President Roosevelt visited Glacier National Park. The President was traveling by train, making visits to new dams. He had visited Grand Coulee in Washington and was headed to Fort Peck in Montana. On August 5, Roosevelt delivered his weekly radio address from the lodge at Glacier Park’s Two Medicine Lake: “Today, for the first time in my life, I have seen Glacier Park. Perhaps I can best express to you my thrill and delight by saying that I wish every American, old and young, could have been with me today. The great mountains, the glaciers, the lakes and the trees make me long to stay here for all the rest of the summer.”
His address became sober as he described what he believed is the role of government and the importance of the public space: “Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 by Act of Congress as a ‘pleasuring ground’ for the people. I like that phrase because, in the years that have followed, our great series of parks in every part of the Union have become indeed a ‘pleasuring ground’ for millions of Americans… As is the case in the long fight for the preservation of national forests and water power and mineral deposits and other national possessions, it has been a long and fierce fight against many private interests which were entrenched in political and economic power. So, too, it has been a constant struggle to continue to protect the public interest, once it was saved from private exploitation at the hands of the selfish few.”
President Roosevelt understood that the marketplace enriches private individuals not the commons and responds to the power of money. He believed that an essential role of government is to protect the common good and he looked to the well-being of future generations as well as those who might prosper today. Speaking about the National Park Service, Roosevelt said, “It took a bitter struggle to teach the country at large that our national resources are not inexhaustible and that, when public domain is stolen, a twofold injury is done, for it is a theft of the treasure of the present and at the same time bars the road of opportunity to the future…We have won the greater part of the fight to obtain and to retain these great public park properties for the benefit of the public. We are at the threshold of an even more important battle to save our resources of agriculture and industry from the selfishness of individuals.”
President Roosevelt’s 1934 radio address from Glacier National Park did not touch on the role of ambitious individuals trying to commodify education. Nobody in 1934 would have imagined creating an education marketplace. But Roosevelt’s speech about the role of government to protect the environment for the benefit of the public speaks directly to what is happening 80 years later as entrepreneurs try to privatize K-12 public schools.