I met with a local principal today, part of a small listening campaign some of us in the shul are undertaking in order to understand the dynamics of what's happening to education on the local, grassroots level in our city these days. Within five minutes I was deeply impressed by her intensity and focus; and after forty-five minutes I was blown away by her commitment to all the children and their families in her school--those of exceptional academic aptitude and those on the special education spectrum who are being nurtured and trained to join the public work-force one day. Here was public education being employed for all the right reasons--learning, training and citizenship. Not in the shadows by any means but certainly heroic, unheralded, and profoundly inspiring.
At one point, in a candid moment, I learned about the teacher's ulcer and how the last time it acted up, how she didn't get herself to the hospital until a certain crisis at the school was averted. Ulcers are the kind of things that ought not to wait for treatment (though they usually do) and one could see from the look in her eyes that the principal was just that type. "I do what needs to be done and I take alot of pride in that," she said.
There's a lot of talk about the Mayor of our city slashing several thousand teaching positions from the City Budget this week. In states across the country, teachers jobs--not to mention salaries and benefits--are being cut at alarmingly high rates in order to avert a fiscal crisis that is sweeping the nation's statehouses. But as far as I can tell so far, only one state, California, is actually talking about raising taxes *and* cutting its budget in order to respond to its deficit.
I'm not an economist. Obviously. But nonetheless, I consider myself a pretty smart guy. And here's the thing: If I had to save money for a society, the LAST place I'd look to save would be in the public service sector which concerns itself with the intellectual and vocational training of that society's present and future population ("school-children.")
I really don't mean to be hyperbolic here. But allow me to ask: How debased have we become as a society that we are balancing our state budgets not by prioritizing our choices on the aspirational language of what a society ought to do in order to live out its values but rather by expending our energy denigrating some of the least expensive public servants with some of the highest ideals by insisting that they, and not those with the wealth and the means to be able to withstand tax increases, should make the greatest sacrifice?
Our priorities as a nation of purported ideals and our priorities as a society of human beings (George Costanza comes to mind here) are seriously out-of-whack.
Trip Gabriel sums it all up rather nicely in the New York Times. You can read it here.
Frankly, I don't understand (which is a facetious way of saying I actually do understand: America has gone nuts. And we've deeded the country to the rich, rewarded them for their bad behavior, and have lost any ability to justify why it is that we tax in the first place--namely, to pay for stuff that we agree as a society should be paid for.) How it is that the culture of ME ME ME has come to prevail with the strength and odor that it has is completely beyond my comprehension (except in my most cynical moments.) And no small source of shame in myself and my nation that not only have we fallen behind other nations in every major academic category in our schools but we are hurtling toward the bottom of the barrel in terms of raw investment in our educational system as well.
Natalie Portman studied science in college BLAH BLAH BLAH. The rich are fleecing the government; our values have been diluted; America is on the verge of becoming a big old boring mega-mall where everything is for sale, sold to you by workers whose once-fought-for-rights-to-bargain-collectively have evaporated beneath the hot lights of corporate lobbying. It should say something to us as a nation about our sad state of affairs that while this week our most famous Oscar winning Jew chose to denounce a harmless drunken idiot like John Galliano, our mega-celebrity flavor of the month should have decried the horrifying hatchet job being taken to teachers from Wisconsin to Ohio to New York City.
Here's what disgusts me: Picking on teachers and giving tax cuts to the rich.
Here's what inspires me: "Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch: The world endures only for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren. Not even for the building of the Temple are children to be deprived of their study of Torah. Resh Lakish said to Rabbi Judah the Patriarch: I have a tradition from my forebears that if there are no schoolchildren in a town, it is bound to be destroyed."
I wonder when we start to really worry. Because I'll be honest--I'm ready to really start worrying now.