The politics of educational promises

Education isn’t a poker chip to be dealt away.

by Trent M. Kays

Education is a deeply political animal. I doubt many realize exactly how political it is, despite its profound role to uplift communities, encourage success in individuals and populate the future with thinking human beings. Yet, in civic discourse, education becomes more a poker chip to be played than a thing to be valued.

It is true that poker chips have value, but the value they carry is transitory. Education, however, is meant to be something that follows from one generation to the next.

You’ll never hear politicians suggest they are against education. Who would be against education? To suggest any resistance to education would be political suicide. However, most disheartening is the hollowness with which politicians throw around concepts they clearly do not understand. Their hypocrisy highlights the political nature of education and puts any involved with education in danger of false promises and tenuous futures.

Politicians are masters of verbal magic tricks. Politicians are skilled in rhetorical technique, though their use of words to confuse, to promise and then deny might be the greatest bastardization of civic discourse. Education — or the mere concept of it — has become a chip to be played by politicians.

The education poker chip is played most notably on the national stage. This is where most of the notice begins and ends.

In Indiana, former Gov. Mitch Daniels Jr. — who is now president of Purdue University — enjoys treating education like his personal plaything.

It’s no longer news that Daniels tried to keep Howard Zinn’s seminal work “A People’s History of the United States” out of schools and out of teacher preparation courses. Considering Zinn’s work “propaganda,” Daniels felt the conservative viewpoint of history was missing.

Daniels’ ignorance is appalling and typical of a politician who undermines education in the name of support. Moreover, Daniels is now in charge of one of the most prestigious public universities in the U.S.

This may be, in part, due to the fact that Daniels appointed a majority of the Board of Trustees while he was governor. He appointed eight of the 10 people who gave him a job.

The ethics, or lack thereof, is repulsive enough to make my head spin. A university is only as good as its ability to uphold its mission to students. When real or perceived conflicts of interest and ethical issues affect higher education, the system becomes corrupted.

Last month President Barack Obama came out with his plan for higher education. Certainly, it is a welcome sign that the president is actually paying attention to higher education. While his plan is impressive in that it shows thought put into managing student debt, its review system quantifies aspects of education and a university experience. The plan is better than nothing, but it still favors tests and measurement by the numbers.

I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, since our culture is obsessed with quantifying everything in our lives. Through metrics, the president’s plan will rate us, catalogue us and push us into the workforce without actually making college affordable — which should have been the focus of his plan. The president indicated he would work to make college affordable, yet his plan does little to question things like tuition costs. Once again, education is a poker chip to be played — not continually valued.

What should we expect? Honestly, I’m not sure what we should expect from politicians masquerading as educators anymore. I certainly do not expect them to educate or understand the foundations of education. I do not want them playing with education like schoolchildren playing kickball.

I don’t mind politicians taking an interest in education, but we need to stop thinking that they can understand education like educators. The president may say he cares, but in a world where Congress can barely agree on student loans, where students take on huge debt and where people think STEM degrees can succeed without humanistic understanding, I doubt any politician cares enough to do something about the unquantifiable problems that permeate education.

Most disturbing is that education is the entire foundation of our society. We will fail or succeed based on our commitment to education.

Yet, we let politicians talk about education with such a lack of seriousness that we are the ones who will pay. Daniels won’t pay. He is now in charge of a higher education institution, but he doesn’t value academic freedom.

This is what education in 21st-century America looks like: politicians leading universities and quantified students. Allowing politics to lead education isn’t the solution; it’s the problem. The problems with higher education can be reversed, but it must come out of a place of understanding and genuine interest in promoting academic freedom.

I’m not sure we have any more chips to parlay. We soon will be dealt out of our own game. Then, what?