The attacks on public education seem sharp and relentless these past few years. In higher education, this has particularly taken the form of state legislatures strangling education budgets, private corporations using universities as sponsors for their research projects, and tuition rising to ridiculous levels. There have been protests across the country over these developments and now we face the increasing prospect of massive government loan default from people who can't pay their way out of debt in the stalled economy. But resistance in the U.S. has been tepid in comparison to actions around the hemisphere.
To the South, the Chilean Winter demonstrations brought schools to a halt as students and teachers went on strike throughout the country. Demonstrations over education have become the focal point of broad unrest, shaking the government of right-wing Chilean president Sebastián Piñera.
In Mexico there is an ongoing confrontation at the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México (UACM) founded in 2001, in response to the student strike at the much larger Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México (UNAM) a year earlier -- founded through the occupation of a former prison. The UACM has been immersed in conflict for the past two years as the founding rector, Manuel Pérez Rocha retired and biologist Esther Orozco took his place and initiated a series of counter-reforms that culminated in demands for her resignation in April of 2011 and the outbreak of a student strike this month. Issues include curriculum, union rights, tenure, and manipulation of elections for the university council.
To the north in Quebec the student protests known as Maple Spring have gone even further. The Liberal government had implemented fee hikes which led to more than a year of steady demonstrations. What was at stake was not just the fee hike, modest by comparison to the U.S., but the very notion of privatized education as opposed to the tradition of free or nearly free education. The Liberals doubled down on their position by passing legislation which made demonstrators liable to arrest for simply gathering without pre-approved permits. That attempt to dampen the protests only increased them and brought out unionists and democratic-minded citizens from all walks of life. The Liberal government was forced to call elections, resulting in a victory for the Parti Quebecois (PQ) led by Premier Pauline Marois this month. The PQ's first act when the cabinet convened was to repeal the tuition increase as well as the anti-demonstration legislation.
The issue of education is not a side issue nor is it a concern only of those privileged enough to get to college level schooling. It is a focal point that concentrates and tests all of a society's values -- about what kind of future it wants, about how it values its youth, about the very meaning of democracy. As Chicago teachers have shown us, the advocates of Social Darwinist and libertarian marketing of education, the rhetoric of austerity as a cover for attacks on working class people and the strangling of government, the march of the elite to limit democratic access to only themselves, will not go unchallenged. You can only push so far. Then it might be time for a solution like we've seen in Chile, or Mexico, or Quebec.