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Michael Meranze Headshot

Jefferson's Epitaph...and Ours

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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?

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