– Is the Demand for Equal Educational Opportunities to Ensure Economic Equality Justified?
On September 17, 2011, a small rebellion of several thousand people gathered on Wall Street in New York City to kick off the Occupy Wall Street movement. The grassroots movement quickly spread throughout hundreds of towns in the United States, spawning similar efforts across the world. The cause for the movement’s fast development is the accumulated dissatisfaction of people all around the globe with economic and social injustices. The movement is significant and unique in that it was initiated only by individuals who opposed corrupt multinational companies and the exploitative wealthy. It has expanded to over 100 cities in the United States and 1500 cities worldwide (“From Tahrir Square to Times Square”). The movement is said to have been inspired by the Arab Spring and European revolutions, and all it needed was a challenge from the journal Adbusters to bring it to life (Gelder 1). The gap between the wealthy and the poor has been growing as selfish businesses and corporations focus exclusively on their own interests, ignoring the repercussions of their activities that impact 99 percent of the population, resulting in economic disparities (Feller & Stone 1). The goal of the Occupy Wall Street movement was to strike out against the top 1% of society, which includes Wall Street banks, large companies, and others, who not only claim and accumulate riches at the cost of the other 99 percent, but also have “their way with our governments” (Gelder 1). Protesters claim that this 1% was bailed out by people’s taxes during the Great Recession, and that it is now celebrating its supremacy at the cost of the rest of the population by lavishing bonuses on CEOs (Gittins). Rich companies, according to OWS protestors, take advantage of students who are burdened by school debts and also restrict the employment market by outsourcing labor (occupywallst.org).
Figure 1: A young protester at the Occupy Texas State protest (occupytxstate.org)
The OWS movement brought the people’s attention to societal and economic inequalities deeply rooted in the society. As part of their demands to decrease these inequalities, the people command equal educational opportunities for the masses. They assert that economic inequalities are related to educational inequalities and that by providing equal educational opportunities and eliminating the self-interests of corporations and for-profit organizations from the educational system, this endeavor would be possible.
This raises the question whether such claims are justified. Is economic inequality connected to educational inequality, and has the educational system really suffered at the hands of big corporations and profit oriented individuals and organizations? In an attempt to answer these questions, the present paper asserts that the demands of the OWS movement for equal educational opportunities are absolutely justified. It is true that the educational system has suffered at the hands of big corporations and profit-oriented individuals and organizations, and that equal educational opportunities are vital for ensuring economic equality in society.
According to Goldstein and Chesky, educational improvement is “an economic imperative”. This is because when a nation does not work towards the improvement of its educational system, development of its teachers, and improvement of students achievements in national and international tests, it goes into a “downward economic spiral”, both at national and international levels (Goldstein and Chesky 1). Educational progress translates into economic progress of a nation. The OWS movement aims to achieve economic stability and equality, and for this, it demands reforms in the educational system for providing equal opportunities to all. The US is falling behind other countries in terms of its primary and secondary education (Snyder 2). Its education system has further been affected by the economic crises experienced in recent years. There is a direct relationship between education and economic stability. A poor educational system leads to a skills crisis, and students find it difficult to be employed because of the lack of necessary and appropriate training. While unemployment rates remain high, thousands of jobs remain vacant due to lack of skilled workers (Snyder 3). Therefore, a failing education system is a double edged sword, as it not only leads to high unemployment rates but also to lack of skilled workforce, thereby hampering economic progress of a nation. It is thus necessary to encourage more and more individuals to acquire education and training. However, the problem is not that there are no students, but that students who want to go for higher education cannot do so because of high tuition fees and other financial difficulties. In order to pay for their exorbitant tuition fees, students often take student loans that are beyond their paying capacity. According to data provided by the American Student Assistance Organization, a whopping 60% of undergraduate students, in the 2006-2007 academic-year alone, had borrowed money to fund their education (asa.org). The borrowing rates are high even among graduate students and minorities. As most students fail to pay off their loan amounts because of lack of jobs and due to low socioeconomic conditions, the default rates are rising steadily. High interest rates clubbed with hard economic times, further appended with lack of job opportunities, are leaving students under the burden of heavy debts and loans, leading to a steady rise in the number of loan defaulters (US Department of Education). Opportunities for higher education have thus become accessible only to the rich, while low and middle-income groups suffer under the dual burden of lack of education and lack of employment. Therefore, the demands by the OWS movement for equal educational opportunities and more affordable education is truly justified.
The next argument proposed here is that the educational system has indeed suffered at the hands of big corporations and for-profit organizations and individuals. According to Rooney, most students participating in the OWS movement and its sister movement – the Occupy Education movement, believe that –
The bankers, the UC Regents, the CSU Trustees, and the corporate politicians — are pushing through vicious fee hikes, layoffs, and budget cuts under the pretext of the financial crisis that they created and profited off of.
There is widespread fury over the lack of equal educational opportunities for low and middle-income groups. While most of the protesters involved in the OWS movement contend against the lay-offs that resulted from the economic recession, most others are demonstrating anger over the use of “standardized testing practices” in schools, which according to them promote inequality (Rooney). According to most protesters who are teachers and students, high stakes tests in schools promote inequality and “only benefit the vendors” (Rooney).
Langberg and Pitts assert that public education in the US has “undergone a corporate coup”. They further argue that the public education has been undermined and manipulated to serve the interests of corporates. In their words, the public education system was hijacked back in the 1980s during the initiation of the Business Roundtable, after which, the education system became a bipartisan venture. Langberg and Pitts discuss several reasons for the infiltration of the American public education by corporates. The first reason is that if public systems are resource starved, it translates into lower taxes for the corporations and the rich. The second reason is that by lowering the standards of public education, it would be possible to maintain a “permanent underclass”, making it easier to obtain cheap labor. Thirdly, if public funds are diverted to for-profit charter school, private schools etc. it would result in increased profits for the corporates. The fourth reason given by Langberg and Pitts is that if a narrow curricula and high stakes testing are promoted in schools, it will be easier to develop the students into voters and consumers who can be easily controlled or manipulated. The fifth reason is that by blaming the incompetency of students, teachers, and parents for the low economic conditions and recession, it will be easier to distract them the poverty and inequality promoted by capitalism. Thus, higher education has been commercialized to suit corporate interests and public education has been undergoing market reforms that only aggravate economic inequalities. Langberg and Pitts support their claims by citing the current state of public education in North Carolina. They state that bankers and leaders of most corporations hold important positions in school boards and in other organizations that govern the educational system. For instance, a commercial banker, who was earlier an analyst at the Lehman Brothers, is currently a member of the North Carolina State Board of Education. They further provide innumerable other examples of the corporate domination of the public education system.
Mirroring this argument is that of Thomas, according to whom, “the trend for appointing CEOs to the top jobs is symptomatic of a declining commitment to public education and social justice”. According to him, corporates appointed as CEOs in the top jobs in public education rarely have any expertise or experience in the educational sector. As Thomas puts it, the corporate push to acquire public education reveals America’s failure in improving state education. The corporate public education system has suffered heavily because of corruption, bureaucracy, and regimentation (“You May Have Missed”). Education today represents a multi-million dollar industry driven by commercial and corporate interests. With businessmen managing the educational system of a nation, it is only natural that the education system would transform into a profit-seeking industry. This has spelt doom for those who seek higher education but have limited resources and cannot afford high tuition fees. The need for a more affordable education system can only be fulfilled if the corporate takeover of education is stalled and market-reforms in public education are ousted. Equal educational opportunities for all can result only when the profit seeking self-interests are eliminated.
It can thus be concluded that the demands of the OWS movement for equal educational opportunities are justified and that the educational system has indeed suffered at the hands of big corporations and profit-oriented individuals and organizations. The Occupy Wall Street movement argues that equal educational opportunities should be ensured for everyone because they are vital for ensuring economic equality in the society. Some of the protestors have even demanded that any outstanding student loans should be forgiven as a measure to improve the economy (Marquis). It is believed that if the student loans are forgiven, millions of students will have enough money to spend on other sectors of the economy. This would guarantee economic recovery as businesses begin to hire more individuals due to increase in consumer spending. It is asserted that instead of offering tax cuts to the rich and the wealthy, the student loans should be forgiven to ensure the prosperity of the middle class (Applebaum). Therefore, by removing the debts of millions of students, it would be possible to empower the economy and bring in economic equality. Although the reasoning of this demand is sound, it is practically impossible. Students cannot seek free education. However, affordable education and equal opportunities are basic human rights and these should be sought.
About 64% of the protestors on Wall Street were under 35 years of age and 15% were unemployed, while another 18% were under-employed (“The demographics of Occupy Wall Street”). A major chunk of the protesters of the OWS movement comprised of disgruntled students, and unemployed, underemployed or struggling individuals. The movement reflects Voltaire’s ideas on democracy, social justice, equality, and most importantly, the dangers of the concentration of power in the hands of a wealthy few. In the present context, corporations, bankers and wealthy politicians have amassed wealth and power at the expense of the people and have done little to reduce economic, social and educational opportunities. The economic inequalities and the disparity between the rich and the poor can only be eliminated through large-scale strategic reforms and non-profit oriented programs. Improving the educational system and making it affordable and accessible to students from all strata of the society and from all socio-economic backgrounds is now an indispensible requirement for ensuring economic stability and progression. While the provision of free higher education cannot be possible, the introduction of subsidized, free or alternative modes of education may be done. The corporate domination of educational institutions will have to be stopped and the marketization and commercialization of education will have to be eliminated. America is largely a capitalist economy and it is believed that this is one of the primary reasons for the corporatization of the education system. However, it is vital to do away with business-centric ideals in the educational system. This will not only ensure that all individuals will be able to afford better education but will also ensure that they get better jobs, thereby giving the economy an upward swing. The OWS movement’s demand for equal educational opportunities in order to achieve economic equality is therefore legitimate.
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