Have We Been Sitting Idly By While the Meaning of the Term “Public Education” Has Been Corrupted?

George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist now retired from the University of California at Berkeley, introduced many of us to the idea that metaphoric moral frames shape our political thinking.  Lakoff concludes his 1996 Moral Politics with an epilogue on the problems posed for public discourse when most of us assume we can neutrally discuss public policy.  Instead, explains Lakoff, political language is always laden with moral judgements that remain invisible to most of us  as we listen, speak, or argue. There is no such thing as neutral, objective political dialogue:

“Conservative and liberal political positions are impossible to compare on an issue-by-issue basis.  Instead, understanding a political position on an issue requires fitting it into an unconscious matrix of… morality… There are no neutral concepts and no neutral language for expressing political positions within a moral context…. (N)ews reporting assumes that concepts are literal and nonpartisan. But concepts, and the language that expresses them, are typically partisan, especially in the moral and political spheres…  To use language of a moral or political conceptual system is to use and to reinforce that conceptual system… (T)he very nature of political discourse in this country makes it difficult to discuss the relationship between morality and politics at all.  The separation of church and state has implicitly left the church as the institution that is seen as guarding morality.  It has been assumed that all political discussions are issue-oriented and morally neutral.” (Moral Politics, pp. 384-387)

One must read Lakoff’s book to learn about the moral frames he believes are juxtaposed in the politics of the right and the left, but Lakoff’s thesis that our political language is never neutral surely speaks, more than 20 years after he published Moral Politics, to the proliferation of politically polarized news media and to rancorous accusations today from right and left about biased media and fake news.  Lakoff’s thesis ought to remind us to pay close attention to the biases implicit in the words we hear in public discourse.

I thought of Lakoff last week, when a news reporter delivering a supposedly unbiased story on immigration casually adopted the language of the Trump administration to describe immigrant families in America bringing grandparents or siblings to this country.  We all know families who have, quite legally for many years, brought their loved ones as immigrants to our communities. But the reporter, seemingly without any awareness of her bias, adopted the anti-immigration and anti-immigrant term, “chain migration.”

Then there was the fine piece about political language in Sunday’s NY Times: Who’s Able-Bodied Anyway?.  The reporters comment on growing use of the term “able-bodied” as a condition to preclude public assistance or as a test for health care eligibility: “The ‘able-bodied’ are now everywhere among government programs for the poor, Republican officials point out. They’re on food stamps. They’re collecting welfare. They’re living in subsidized housing. And their numbers have swelled on Medicaid, a program that critics say was never designed to serve them. These so-called able-bodied are defined in many ways by what they are not: not disabled, not elderly, not children, not pregnant, not blind.  They are effectively everyone left, and they have become the focus of resurgent conservative proposals to overhaul government aid, such as one announced last month by the Trump administration that would allow states to test work requirements for Medicaid. Able-bodied is not truly a demographic label, though: There is no standard for physical or mental ability that makes a person able.  Rather, the term has long been a political one.  Across centuries of use, it has consistently implied another negative: The able-bodied could work, but are not working (or working hard enough).  And, as such, they don’t deserve our aid… In Washington, ‘able-bodied’ has retained its moral connotations but lost much of its historical context.  The term dates back 400 years, when English lawmakers used it the same way, to separate poor people who were physically incapable of supporting themselves from the poor who ought to be able to.  Debates over poverty in America today follow a direct line from that era.”

So what about “public  education”?  Has it begun to take on the connotations of the other public programs that are thought to be only for those who are not able-bodied—the kind of people conservatives condemn as living in “public housing” or who are on “public assistance”?  Have people begun to absorb Betsy DeVos’s admiration for parents with the gumption to go out and shop for a school that will more perfectly suit each child’s needs or each parent’s wishes?  Should we admire those with the will to try to escape to something that a mere “public” school cannot provide?  The biases I worry about here admire individual grit and associate “public” with something less—something that parents might accept if they are just takers and are too lazy to look around.

I worry that we have begun to permit one of our society’s longest and most admired institutions to be tarnished by the political linguistics of people who  idolize markets and choice and everything private.  By contrast as public institutions, public schools protect students’ rights by law and promise access for all students to appropriate services for their educational needs. Too often, we who believe in the public schools neglect to point that out.

Here is the Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker in a 2016 interview about the positive role of government—the institution that represents the public.  Hacker focuses on the positive role of government—the public—for the economy, and he identifies the role of public education as central to that public benefit: “The mixed economy is the effective combination of government authority and private markets… The mixed economy made us not just richer in terms of material wellbeing, but also vastly richer in terms of health and education… The United states led the world in massively increasing educational levels with the creation of universal high school and then the encouragement of college degrees.  Additionally, there was the investment in science and research that began in the 1930s and really blossomed during and after World War II… The combination of the right political conditions and the development of science and knowledge, in part because of the increased public investment, allowed private actors and public leaders to capitalize on the opportunities created by an increasingly prosperous and interconnected society.”

Hacker blames growing inequality and the growing power of financial and business elites since the 1970s for widespread loss of faith in the role of government: “It’s true, of course, that Americans are much less trusting of government than they were in the past. The decline began in the late 1960s, accelerated in the ’70s, and has reached a point, now, where only a small minority of Americans say they trust the government to do what’s right…. I think the shift in the broader ideology around government has been led by business and political elites. We went from an industrial economy to a financial economy… Business associations moved dramatically to the right. The Business Roundtable moved from supporting the mixed economy along with the larger interests of the business community to being much more focused on CEOs’ bottom lines. The Chamber of Commerce became closely tied to the Republican Party and effectively a lobbyist for hire for narrow business interests. And Charles and David Koch, committed libertarians, created their own network that rivals now the Chamber of Commerce in size. They created a set of advocacy organizations and lobbyists who push for a small-government philosophy.”

It is important to note that one of the members of the Kochs’ elite circle, Betsy DeVos, who founded, funded and chaired the Koch-friendly American Federation of Children, has now become the fox guarding the hen house.  As U.S. Secretary of Education, DeVos is responsible for overseeing the federal government’s role in supporting the 90,000 public schools across America that continue to serve 50 million students.  As Betsy DeVos persistently extols the individual parents who shop around in her imagined market place of privatized schools and as she disparages the need for a public system of education, we need to listen to her rhetoric for what George Lakoff would call its moral connotations.  Her philosophy of education represents a political-moral frame that idealizes the role of the family and the private marketplace but derides any sort of public system.

In his recent work Hacker reflects more generally on government’s role in general for balancing the power of markets.  Here are the words of another political philosopher, the late Benjamin Barber, who sought to define the meaning and importance of the concept of the public specifically in the context America’s creation of a vast system of public schools:

“Through (school) vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

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“Government Schools” vs. “Public Schools”

Last weekend, the NY Times published an important story by Julie Bosman about the political importance of how we name our institutions: “Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court… Somewhere along the way, the term ‘government schools’ entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system.”

Bosman briefly quotes George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, an expert on the metaphoric thinking that characterizes our politics.  In his book, Moral Politics, Lakoff describes the way savvy communicators frame political issues with language that connotes deep values and morals:  “(M)ost of our thought is unconscious—not unconscious in the Freudian sense of being repressed, but unconscious simply in that we are not aware of it. We think and talk at too fast a rate and at too deep a level to have a conscious awareness and control over everything we think and say. We are even less conscious of the components of thoughts—concepts. When we think, we use an elaborate system of concepts, but we are not usually aware of just what those concepts are like and how they fit together into a system…  (M)etaphorical thought need not be poetic or especially rhetorical. It is normal, everyday thought. Not every common concept is metaphorical, but a surprising number are.” Moral Politics, (pp. 4-5).

To define the connotation of “government schools,” Bosman quotes John Locke, a linguist at the City University of New York, who worries that the term “government schools” is austere: “It has an oppressive ring to it.  It sounds rigid, the opposite of open or friendly or charming or congenial. The people who use that term are hoping those words will come to mind.”

Actually, I believe that in the context of today’s battle over school reform and privatization, the term “government schools” evokes far more than concerns about rigid and austere schools.  The term “government schools” works as a metaphor for a very different political frame.

As a pejorative, “government schools” immediately evokes the ideal opposite to which it contrasts: privatized charter schools—free of regulation, and vouchers that privilege the  private institution of the family over the calcified “government schools” that impose on the individual freedom and choice of parents. Those who disparage “government schools” are rejecting the twentieth century public school—paralyzed, as they see it, by bureaucracy, resistant to disruptive change and innovation.  “Government schools” lack the efficiency of schools kept accountable through marketplace competition, where individuals are free to choose, free to thrive, free to race to the top. And, especially in Kansas where there is a long-running school funding battle, “government schools” are known to impose a very heavy tax burden.

“Public schools,” on the other hand,  connotes democratic governance, public funding, universal accessibility, and accountability to the public. The term, “public schools” evokes  the ideals of equal opportunity, equal access, and protection, through democratic oversight, of students and tax dollars. Public schools that operate on a huge scale, constituting a universal system that pulls our society together, are comprehensive—intended to serve all children and protect their rights. Public schools are democratic institutions; citizens are expected to provide ongoing oversight and demand corrections by law.  And citizens are expected to pay taxes as a civic responsibility. Public schools privilege the public—the common good—as well as seeking to educate every individual child. Historically, public schools have been understood as a centerpiece of the social contract. “Public schools” as a term is a metaphor for public obligation and public responsibility.

For the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, the term “government school” would connote a particular individualist definition of the model citizen: “(M)odel citizens…. are those (1) who have conservative values and act to support them; (2) who are self-disciplined and self-reliant; (3) who uphold the morality of reward and punishment; (4) who work to protect moral citizens; and (5) who act in support of the moral order.  Those who best fit all these categories are successful, wealthy, law-abiding conservative businessmen who support a strong military and a strict criminal justice system, who are against government regulation, and who are against affirmative action… They are the people whom all Americans should emulate and from whom we have nothing to fear.  They deserve to be rewarded and respected.  These model citizens fit an elaborate mythology.  They have succeeded through hard work, have earned whatever they have through their own self-discipline, and deserve to keep what they have earned.  Through their success and wealth they create jobs, which they ‘give’ to other citizens.  Simply by investing their money to maximize their earnings, they become philanthropists who ‘give’ jobs to others and thereby ‘create wealth’ for others.  Part of the myth is that these model citizens have been given nothing by the government and have made it on their own.” (Moral Politics, pp 169-170)

According to today’s school reformers, “privatized schools” are the ideal opposite of “government schools.” But for many of us, traditional public schools remain the best institution to serve our society.  Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, castigates the “government school” frame: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good… It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive… Privatization ideology today encourages us to believe that the market is not only efficient and flexible but can somehow turn its regressive impulses to the service of what is left of the idea of the public good… Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right…  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Sides in Polarized Education Debate Reflect Different Moral Frames

George Lakoff is the cognitive linguist who has published a series of books (Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics, for example) about how people think about issues of public policy.  People don’t form political opinions, according to Lakoff, by examining empirical evidence.  They don’t evaluate how particular policies and programs are really operating in their communities or in the nation or the world.  Instead they vote their core values as those values are incorporated into the meta-narratives—frames—by which they understand how the world works.  Lakoff writes: “The debate is not a matter of objective, means-end rationality or cost-benefit analysis or effective public policy.  It is not just a debate about the particular issue…. The debate is about the right form of morality….” (Moral Politics, p 169)  If you want to speak to someone’s heart—and therefore that person’s vote—you must evoke the moral frame by which they understand how the world works.

On Monday, in her Washington Post Answer Sheet column, Valerie Strauss published a thoughtful piece along these lines from Arthur Camins, who examines the moral assumptions and values of those who promote creative disruption in education as the key to innovation.  (This blog has considered the issues around education policy based on the theory of creative disruption here.)  Camins wholeheartedly agrees with Lakoff about the role of values and morals in decisions that affect education policy: “It appears that the battles over what counts as better for education in the United States will be decided, not by the relative strength of evidentiary arguments, but instead by who most successfully claims the moral high ground.  Public acceptance of policy prescriptions does not turn on technical determinations, but on values identification and moral judgments.”

Camins believes today’s school “reformers” value individual merit, hard work, and motivation via competition and filter their understanding of what’s possible and how to get there through this lens: “Success (defined as beating the competition), reformers appear to reason, is influenced by competitive advantage, which derives from application of fixed capacities (some have it, and some do not) that are motivated by extrinsic reward.  As a result, policies focus on hiring and firing able teachers rather than on developing them.  ‘No-excuses’ charter schools filter out those who do not fit in or have the ‘grit’ to struggle through… Individualism and a failure to consider more equitable socio-economic structures lead reformers to an inequality vision that is extraordinarily constrained…. increasing the chances of some students to escape from poverty.  Reformers accept inequality in the United States, with its vast wealth disparity and competition for limited resources and rewards as inevitable, if not motivational, in an unquestionably superior system.  Hence, evidence of limited impact of charter schools, their tendency to increase segregation and the apparent folly of firing a few presumably ineffective teachers in order to have systemic impact are not viewed as problematic.  Systemic impact was never the goal.  What they envision passing through their filter is improved chances for some motivated children who with a stronger education will have a competitive advantage over the rest of the children stuck in schools that simply cannot be improved.”

Camins writes, “Maximizing competitive advantage represents a core value, while disruptive innovation is a moral choice about means, in which moral certainty about achieving goals excuses the collateral damage of getting there.  This vision accepts inequality as inevitable, if lamentable.”

Camins believes we must examine the moral issues behind the policies if we are to have any hope of correcting the damage of today’s school “reform.”  “An alternative core value is maximizing economic, social and political equity.  These values support an effort to alter the current structures to create an equitable society.  Such values lead to different moral choices about means, including ensuring a public education system in which: all students are known, valued and respected by adults and peers; all students develop their talents and expertise to be successful in work, life and citizenship; and, policy and decision makers are answerable to the public in order to ensure the common good.”

About today’s school “reformers” Camins writes: “I have little hope of dissuading these ardent reformers.  I do hope that shedding some light on the nature of their ideological filters will influence public perception and undermine the credibility and traction of their policies.”

I urge you to read and consider Camins’ thoughtful piece.