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Michael Meranze

Michael Meranze

Posted: July 31, 2009 04:34 PM

Jefferson's Epitaph...and Ours

While I watched the theater of the absurd that produced the 2009-2010 California Budget my thoughts kept returning to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson -- first Secretary of State, second Vice-President, third President of the United States -- drew up his own epitaph shortly before he died. Jefferson's epitaph was simple -- and it did not include his public offices or his many awards. Instead, he wanted to be remembered as the "Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia." For Jefferson then, national independence, freedom of thought and conscience, and education were closely linked as central to the problem of democratic life and the success of the Republic. Nor was this a momentary concern. Throughout his life Jefferson returned over and over again to the question of education as preparation for citizenship and the common projects of society. As he put it in a letter in 1786:

"By far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness."

If Jefferson linked together education, freedom of thought, universities and national independence what can we say about our own political leaders? This last budget cut billions of dollars from California's formerly world renowned higher education system -- striking many of the most productive programs of the community colleges, cutting back access to the CSU, and cutting into the educational and research missions of the UC. As damaging as this year's cuts are, they only accelerate California's two decade de-emphasis on higher education. For the state government has been consistently demanding of its colleges that they educate more students than the state funds and that they raise tuition to the point that increasing numbers of students cannot afford either of the university systems. And those who do must take longer and longer to graduate because of the jobs they take to meet the added financial burdens they face. Looked at together, these cuts attack one of the fundamental premises of democratic and public education -- its role in providing opportunities for all citizens and its role in providing all citizens the tools and knowledge not only to function as workers but to take part in the governance and self-governance of society.

But more is at risk than higher education. The recent budget all but ensures that elementary class sizes will increase, that the ability of teachers to nurture curiosity and cultivate basic skills of reading, writing, mathematics, history, and the natural world will decrease, and that rather than developing a more knowledgeable, more critical, more imaginative future citizenry, we will train students to focus narrowly on pre-formed rote answers. California drew businesses and companies, drew artists and entrepreneurs, drew innovators and engineers because it offered a terrain of educated citizens working on an advanced and developed infrastructure of schools, roads, services, and governments. All of that is at stake -- and with it the economic future of California.

But beyond the specifics of the budget, this year's political theater laid bare the hollowness at the heart of our politics. From the Governor to the legislature, through the media and the columnists, our hills have been alive with the sound of double-speak. We are told that economically we must cut government spending -- but economically that is anything but clear. Reducing government spending at a time of recession promises only to prolong the recession; economic theory and economic history both suggest that government spending should be increased, not decreased, during a recession, to make up for reduced consumer and business spending. This budget isn't about economics, though, it's about politics--an effort to use a dysfunctional budget process to achieve political ends (weaken environmental regulations, attack certain unions, further reduce the funds and autonomy of local governments and school boards) that could not be won openly in an election. And despite the rhetoric of shared sacrifice there is little of that in this budget--instead the burdens will fall on the elderly, the young, the needy, the sick, and the disabled. If there were shared sacrifice the Governor and his allies and abettors would have acknowledged that we all need to chip in -- with more taxes if need be. Instead we have chosen to take funds from public employees and public functions--including police, firefighters, paramedics, librarians, and teachers. And Governor Schwarzenegger did it wielding his knife, smoking his cigar, and smiling.

It was precisely this sort of viciousness that Jefferson hoped a republican education could eliminate. He feared that without it we would lose sight of our common life and shared needs. He wrote his own epitaph. What epitaph will we write?