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Educating for Democracy: Occupying the Future

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The news that the burning issue in Congress at this moment -- 11/3/11 -- is to reaffirm the national motto "In God We Trust" is about as reassuring as if the crew on the Titanic, in desperate need of leadership, had found the captain on his knees in his cabin reciting "The Lord's Prayer" as the ship sank. Faith is comforting but when an emergency arises, it's more reassuring, at least to skeptics like me, to have a definite plan of action while hoping for a miracle.

A small example of how my analogy of the Ship of State to the Titanic is appropriate can be found in the most recent issue (November 2011) of NYSUT United, the magazine of the New York State teacher's union. According to an article by Sylvia Saunders, "Budget cuts widen gap between haves and have nots," in what is thought to be "prosperous" Long Island, class sizes have risen to 34, "Huntington reduced full-day kindergarten and Wyandanch lost all of its high school art courses." In the same article AFT President Randi Weingarten drew attention to the impact of budget cuts in Yonkers: one school psychologist per 2600 students and one guidance counselor for 900; the elementary schools have no librarians and the pre-kindergarten program is now half time with hundreds on the waiting list.

If I had read about these school conditions ten or even five years ago, I would have been certain they described the educational system of what is still called a "Third World Country." But it seems now that in terms of education and other public services, the United States is entering their own "Third World."

The impending federal budget cut of either $1 trillion or $4 trillion, depending on whether Congress or the special committee appointed last summer come up with a "big" plan, makes me anticipate our further descent into Third Worldification, if I may be allowed to coin an appropriate term.

I have been an educator since what I now look upon nostalgically as the "Learning 60's" when the Baby Boomer generation was pushing its demographic bulk through our school systems. Despite conducting a war in Vietnam, the nation still had the money to build new schools, hire hoards of teachers, and do experimental educational projects such as the UFT-sponsored More Effective Schools. That was the first charter-school-like project of Albert Shanker, and was to be a research center for better teaching practices, not a rival for scarce school dollars. From my perspective, considering the decade and a half of prosperity that the nation enjoyed from the late 50's to the mid-70's, thriving schools seemed to be an important part of those "good old days" even if the initial impetus for the rise in educational opportunity was political: "Sputnik."

Of course, at the time the United States was an unrivaled economic power, that is, until the Europeans, Japan and, lately, China and India caught up with us. But I am mystified at the thinking of the politicians who believe that the more money is cut from the Federal budget with the increasing loss of jobs, the quicker the nation will return to prosperity shared by all. If their purpose is to demonstrate to the rest of the world that by impoverishing our educational system they are showing that we are being serious about our fiscal problems, I would suggest they examine the commitment to education in other countries, some of which are our chief competitors in the Global Marketplace.

Which brings me to Occupy Wall Street. Having visited Zuccotti Square several times, what strikes me as an educator is its role as a "Marketplace of Fresh Ideas." I have heard people debating, questioning, developing. Although there are many young people represented, a number of grey heads like myself are also engaged in what seems closer to the ideals of Greek democracy rather than the shabby "votes-for-sale" democracy we are suffering from in Washington.

I would love to make several proposals that would be guaranteed to cure our economic ills: the return to a barter economy, a less materialistic and more human-scale mode of existence, an educational system that was modeled on ways in which students learn rather than the industrial-strength systems relentlessly being erected today to destroy a child's natural enthusiasm for knowledge.

Although at this point Occupy Wall Street is in its formative stage, its most notable presence being its emulation throughout the nation with marches and protests, I am still enough of an optimist to believe that serious thought will produce serious solutions or, as is inevitable, partial solutions to some of the most ominous problems we face today. In contrast to the Congressional wranglers that seem unable to think out of the box, especially since they've nailed themselves inside the box, the OWS seems to be moving toward Occupying the Future. I think our national motto should be: "In Common Sense We Trust," at least as evidenced by the people's legislatures that are springing up throughout the country.

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