A Pink Floyd education
District must not be just another brick in the wall
Construction on Badger Middle school and construction on the school district’s budget raise the same question in my mind: Are we allowing economic values to override human values in deciding what we build for the next generation? Are we reducing kids to being just another brick in the wall?
Philosophers, economists and theologians were worrying about this question for over a century before Pink Floyd posed it back in 1980. Catholic theologian Josef Pieper, in particular, worried about a process he saw well under way by 1950. He believed the human values that built western culture (friendship, loyalty, charity, and personal responsibility) were being replaced by a set of values grounded in economics (cost/benefit analyses and, most of all, efficiency). Nothing succeeds like success so, as the economies of the 20th century expanded, economic values began to shove human values aside.
We can hear the same conflict between human and economic values today in the School Board debate about how best to manage a school system on a tight budget.
We keep hearing that the “problems” with our educational system can be solved by treating schools as businesses – by letting economic values dictate what's best for us.
This is a dangerous idea. Most of the social catastrophes of the 100 years can be traced back to replacing human-centered values with economics-centered values; by replacing what’s good for humans, in other words, with what’s efficient.
The problem with this approach is that human beings are not merely economic beings – you’re not your job – and human values cannot be reduced to economic ones without reducing human beings to something less than human.
Think for a moment about all of your most important relationships. Are they governed by human values or by economic ones? (Frankly, this question should be too obvious even to bother with, but let’s indulge in a bit of logical fun and assume for a moment, that economic values are more important than human ones.)
Economic values are grounded in a single idea, that something is good when it’s efficient. Think about how this would play out in real life.
Is your relationship to your spouse, your partner, your significant other, efficient? Can love be captured as a kind of Pareto optimality in a spread sheet? Do you think it’s a good thing when your spouse, your partner, your significant other, kisses you efficiently? (Yuck!) Would we even call that kind of relationship a good one, much less a human one? I mean, seriously, don't you want to be kissed inefficiently?
Or what about your religious or spiritual life? Is religious or spiritual pilgrimage ever remotely efficient? Put another way, do you pray for money or do you pray for wisdom?
Or how about friendship? Would you even want efficient friendships?
These examples are clearly nonsense. Friendship is not about efficiency; religious commitment is not about efficiency; love is not about efficiency – and neither are our responsibilities to children.
The word economics literally means “household management” and economics is a perfectly appropriate way to determine what we can afford to run our households and even our schools, but that is the extent of its applicability. We must never use economics to determine our responsibilities or what we should sacrifice for those we love. Human responsibilities require us to know what’s good, not what’s efficient.
Put a bit more elegantly: economics is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. Budgeting is the tool we use to implement what we think is important, but we shouldn’t let the process call the shots. We shouldn’t be victims of our financial situation – we have to suck it up and find a way to make the budgeting process express our values, not bend our values to fit the budgeting process.
Like our grandparents and great grandparents, people who lived through the Great Depression, we have a responsibility to make life for the next generation better than our own.
Besides, Americans never let circumstances limit their vision of the future – our vision of a better future is always put to work to change circumstances. Now is the time to remember that our real values are human, not economic, and, as the School Board goes forward to work within the constraints of our current economy, to remember that the economy was made for human beings – human beings were not made for the economy. We should resolve that our responsibilities will never be judged on the basis of convenience or efficiency – and that no kid from West Bend will ever be reduced to being just another brick in the wall.
I am, of course, completely at odds with the prevailing world view under which we are all reducible to our economic functions -- ironic, since it is exactly what Marx asserted. Maybe the Tea Party can be understood as a response to the alienation of labor rather than an affirmation of the alienation of labor. Hmm.
Nope... they affirm the beauty of their own alienation and call the rest of us "idealistic." Doubly ironic, that.