"Education is not primarily an industry and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research." -- Wendell Berry
On the day The King's Speech garnered 12 Academy Award nominations, the President's speech was generally considered a winner. The pundits will parse it for days to come, of course, and the political discord, visibly set aside for the evening as many Democrats and Republicans sat side by side in the House chamber, will return soon enough.
But I suspect that very few on either side of the aisle will find fault with President Obama's remarks about education. He cited some sobering statistics: a 25 percent dropout rate in American high schools; an alarming decline in math and science proficiencies; ninth place in the industrialized world for the percentage of Americans with college degrees.
These numbers are troubling to people of all political persuasions because of the causal link Americans assume between education and market economies. Our left-leaning President could have been channeling any conservative economist in his passionate plea to improve our education system for the sake of capitalism. For the argument that we need to transform our schools is not that we might create a thoughtful, responsible citizenry or nurture persons of depth and breadth of knowledge with a lifelong love of learning, but that we might beat the Chinese in developing the latest innovations in technology, industry, energy, and so on. The very fact that the preferred metaphor (and actual instrument for measuring teacher quality and student achievement) is "Race to the Top," reveals that learning is almost universally conceived of as a competition.
In this age of globalization in which education is about "accessing information" rather than, say, immersion in local knowledges or discovering how poetry humanizes us, the goal of this competition, the prize at the end of the race, is economic dominance. We need to address our appalling dropout rates so that America can continue to be competitive in a global economy. That we couch this competitive drive in the language of "what's best for our kids" shows how unintentionally sinister the whole enterprise has become.
At the end of the day -- and at the end of a rhetorically powerful speech -- we're left wondering how to imagine other ways of articulating what it means to educate our children so that they might learn, as Wendell Berry has said, "to put their lives in order." Not for the sake of keeping America competitive or realizing the American dream -- that is, not for the sake of profit or power or possessions -- but that they might bring a range of skills and judgments to bear on the lifelong work of creating and sustaining genuine community.
Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.