Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Economic values the quickest route to killing education.

Saturday's column from March 20th, 2010.

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.



Kevin Scheunemann said...


Are you saying MPS is not a racist catastrophe?

The problem is lack of economic punishment for failure---for the people in charge of running the MPS system.

Why do you insist on continuing to punish the unlucky participants in the MPS socialist, and racist, education monopoly?

John Jost said...

In the same vein, I have wanted to say this for a while: could we possibly elevate the general discourse a little bit? These days, so much of the conversation seems to center on accumulating wealth.

Is that what life is about? Making a buck? Is that what we want to leave behind? Money? How about finding ways to reduce suffering and increase happiness? Wouldn't a legacy of happiness be worth much more?

Sursum corda, folks - let's lift up our hearts.

Meghan said...

John Jost,

I completely agree. There is often too much focus on quantity, and not enough on quality. I dislike the attitude of "Get out, get a job, work till you retire, and go die in a Florida condominium."

To quote one of my favourite authors, "Make a life, not a living."

Free Lunch said...


Please explain how MPS is racist.

DanBack said...

Free Lunch,

Belling didn't get that far yesterday, so you will have to give Kevin a minute to get back to you on that.

Kevin Scheunemann said...

Free Lunch,

A socialist education monopoly that fails to graduate 59% of its students, mainly African American students, is in one word: racist.

It's wrong to sentence these kids to the socialist education monopoly that is failing them 59% of the time.

That's how MPS is racist.

Should I have used "sugarcoating" and excuses like the MPS apologists have been doing for 3 decades?

Free Lunch said...


Do you really not understand that you did not show that MPS is racist? Would you like to try again?

Kevin Scheunemann said...

Free Lunch,

So what do you call a 59% failure rate of the socialist education monopoly in an area where the majority of the students are African American?

(I look forward to your apology and defense for the structural socialist racism.)

Anonymous said...

Again Kevin your reasoning and logic are just not sound. First of all what does it mean that a school district is racist? A school district is an organization of people. Is a racist district one in which the superintendent is racist or does it require more people than just one? Does it also need a racist board president? Maybe the super and a majority of the board. What about principals and teachers? How many have to be racist?

Secondly, there are a whole host of factors that impact graduation rates that have nothing to do with racism. To single out racism as the single cause is simplistic and irresponsible as it doesn't bother to look into other problems or solutions.

Think about the argument further if it is pulled apart: 1.) Low graduation rates are a sign of racism in a district composed primarly of ethnic minorities. 2.) MPS graduation rates are low.
Therefore, MPS is a racist district.

Where is the problem with this argument? It is not the conclusion, as MPS may very well be a racist district, however that is defined. The problem is the premise. Low graduation rates do not necessarily mean a district is racist. Is a district with a low graduation rate and predominately comprised of white students racist? The premise has to be sound for the argument to be sound. If you could point to some research that would suggest a causal relationship between graduation rates in predominately African-American schools and racism then your argument would be stronger.

Free Lunch said...


You made no effort to provide an argument, sound reasoning or evidence to support your claim. I have no reason to defend a school district that has such bad outcomes, but I have no reason to accept your unsubstantiated claim that it is racism of the district.

Should I claim, without any supporting evidence, that this is just a result of the racism of those who engaged in white flight from Milwaukee and that it is all the fault of people who live in the suburbs? Of course not.

The failures we see are complex and simplistic answers from anyone do no favors to the victims of the failure. If you are interested in helping, stop repeating the mindless talking points of the right-wing.

DanBack said...

Don't waste your time guys. Kevin just makes shit up as he goes along, as it suits him.

Kevin Scheunemann said...

All the reactions here is why a 41% HS graduation rate for MPS is allowed to florish.

A failing socialist education monolpoly continues to hurt MPS kids because when the public is "accountable" and responsible for something, no one is accountable, thus the inherent problem with socialism...a lack of responsibility and accountability.

This is the legacy of socialism in practice...social alienation...members of society do not fell responsible to educate the child because "its the government's responsibility".

Free Lunch said...

Thanks for repeating your old, empty rhetoric, Kevin. It's nice to see that you aren't remotely interested in doing anything to help.

Kevin Scheunemann said...

Free Lunch,

I am helping.

I advocate market based, competitive education solutions.

I favor abolishing the socialist education monopoly.

What do you offer?

More of the same failed MPS system policies, disproportionately oppressing minorities?

Mpeterson said...

The problem with MPS is the hints of capitalism that keep creeping into education.

Kevin Scheunemann said...


Please explain that one...

You are implying MPS needs less competition to hold it accountable?

Have you been channeling Rod Serling over spring break?

Distance Relative said...

how can you possibly not see that white-flight to the suburbs and it's inherent gutting of public education funds via the State Congress, and not see that as rascism?

You know,I wish I could taste the numbness in your mouth, but all i can taste is bitterness.

Kevin Scheunemann said...


So your solution is: pour more money into a failing system?

Rewarding failure...

It worked so well with GM.

(Private schools are graduating 90%+ of their students for 50% of the annual cost of MPS per pupil spending in many cases.)

Anonymous said...

Being a parent who has experienced first hand having a child in a private parochial school that had to be moved to the public school I can tell you one HUGE reason private school graduation rate is much higher than a public school. Anyone the private school does not want/cannot educate is sent to the public school. The public school MUST take these children & educate them.

Private schools have few children with learning disabilities. They have few, if any, children with autism. They have few children with severe handicaps.

In addition, parents who send their children to private school are often in a higher economic bracket and have a better social network/support than families of students who drop out of public inner-city schools.

It would be interesting to see some statistics on how many students who drop out have a parent in prison.. on drugs, is absent, etc.. When my child transitioned from a parochial school to the public school there were MANY more children being raised by single parents.. and who had much less of a social network to help raise those children.

One has to look at the big picture.. is it racist? or is it a symptom of poverty? education levels of the parents? What about family structure? etc.. etc..