Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part three–the last seventy years.

The aftermath of the Second World War found the United States in a new position in the world. Unquestionably, the nation was a superpower, no longer able to isolate itself from events happening on other continents. A second superpower, the Soviet Union, presented a different perspective on world politics and economics. The United States and its allies preferred democracy and capitalism; the Soviet Union and its allies held to totalitarianism and socialism, with the illusionary promise of communism down the road. Following a post-war recession, the economy of the United States flourished. New technology provided faster travel, faster communication, more information, more comforts and more luxuries, and new opportunities to explore the universe. New theories about education were tried in the schools. The ancient ideas of Socrates and Confucius—that people are good at heart and need merely to be taught how things work in the world—were applied to children in the classroom. By the end of the 1960s, authority was being widely questioned, countercultures were forming, and many Americans were eager for change.

Conspiracy theories also grew more common, and the Civil Rights movement was not immune to these theories. Some Americans—including J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI—saw the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement as elements of a Communist anti-American conspiracy. Conversely, I’ve met people who consider the Civil Rights movement as part of a white conspiracy to destroy black communities just as they were beginning to achieve some measure of success after decades of struggle and growth.

The goals of the Civil Rights movement were and are appropriate: to provide equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of culture or ethnic origin or of other inherent differences between individuals. The slave trade created inequity in the United States, and laws passed during the century after the end of slavery perpetuated that inequity. Confiscating and redistributing wealth was never going to make people equal; offering equal opportunity through education, assistance to the poor, and laws against discrimination were always the better path. Quotas in school enrollment and in hiring practices were controversial but were in some cases helpful to reduce cultural inequity. Desegregating schools to the point that students were bused from their homes and neighborhoods to distant school buildings was more controversial and less effective. Wealthier white families invested in private schools or moved to the suburbs. Many government programs instituted to combat poverty had negative effects—pulling apart families by granting more help to single mothers than to married parents, promoting students to higher grades while ignoring their failures to learn material usually required for promotion, and allowing some individuals and families to become dependent upon government funding rather than earned income. Some people took advantage of the system and its negative effects, while many others succeeded in spite of the system and its negative effects. Rhetoric of racism and deliberate discrimination was made socially unacceptable, and positive role models for blacks and other minorities were promoted in athletics, entertainment, and other fields.

Many activities of the Civil Rights movement were appropriate and beneficial: peaceful marches and protests, public speeches, sit-ins, and participation in political life all changed American society for the better. At times, though, the Civil Rights movement was used as an excuse for violence and destruction. From race riots in Birmingham, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, violent behavior has marred calls for justice and equality. The victims of that violence were often black business owners succeeding within the framework of capitalism rather than white capitalists deliberately continuing an unfair system. Indeed, at times it appeared that demonstrators were more interested in destroying the success of their fellow minority members than they were in building strong communities for themselves and for future generations in American cities.

It is not surprising that citizens protesting racial inequity and injustice would favor a new economic system to replace capitalism in the United States. But capitalism was never the cause of inequity and injustice. Socialism cannot keep its promises of better lives for all people or for most people. Socialism, as much as capitalism, would put power in the hands of decision-makers who might be honest and fair or who might be dishonest, prejudiced, and inclined to discriminate against minorities. Replacing capitalist investors with government bureaucrats cannot end injustice. Allowing the government to control prices, salaries, and decisions about production cannot make life fair for all people. Socialism consumes wealth, but capitalism creates wealth. Instead of redistributing wealth, socialism would distribute poverty; capitalism, on the other hand, offers a greater likelihood of increasing wealth for all citizens.

Historically, socialism has been tested and has failed. Over the years, people have fled socialist countries in search of freedom and opportunity. For the United States, winner of the Cold War, to strive thirty years later to adopt the failed policies of its defeated opponents would be laughable were the risks of such a change not so profound. For this reason, informed citizens need to continue defending and explaining capitalism, doing our best to keep what is working in America while continuing to improve whatever faults and mistakes we perceive in America. J.

Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part two–one hundred years of unequal freedom

In the 1840s, French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw difficulties the United States would face dealing with a population of Africans surrounded by a dominant culture of Europeans. De Tocqueville did not prophesy the Civil War, but he realized that slavery would end in North America. He warned that the African population would not be easily assimilated into the European culture of the United States, anticipating that conflict between the two populations was inevitable.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860, some southern states seceded and formed a Confederacy. Northern states answered Lincoln’s call to go to war to preserve the Union. The Confederate states seceded to preserve their practice of slavery, as their own documents from the time reveal. Northern states went to war, not to free the slaves, but to keep the country united; even Lincoln said that he would accept the continuing presence of slavery if it would keep the nation undivided. His Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves—only the slaves held in the rebellious Confederate states. Only the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution ended slavery in the entire country, and that amendment was not passed until after the Civil War had ended.

Although the purchase and sale of slaves had operated until capitalistic practices, southern plantation owners perpetuated an economy that predated the rise of capitalism. After the war, they attempted to continue a feudal economy, treating the freed slaves as serfs who lived on white-owned land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, leaving the white property owners in control of the political and social structure of the southern states. Northern reformers attempted to bring capitalism and equality to the south. They brought railroads, factories, and banks to the south. They established schools for black children and adults. They set up political systems that allowed black adults to vote, and some blacks were elected to positions in the local, county, and state governments. When this time of Reconstruction ended, the white power structure in the south reasserted their power. They instituted voting practices that kept black citizens away from the polls and prevented black candidates from being nominated. They reduced or eliminated black access to education. They used lynchings, race riots, and other crimes to terrorize the black population, keeping them under control of the same wealthy whites who had previously owned slaves.

National law, built upon the premise that all people are created equal and have certain human rights, allowed for the development of “separate but equal” benefits for white and black citizens. Schools were permitted to function, but taxes collected from white families funded schools for white children and taxes collected from black students funded schools for black children, perpetuating the poverty of black citizens and the predominance of white citizens. Businesses, medical care, and even train and bus transportation were segregated. Sometimes enforcement of the law bordered on the comic: a museum planation in Arkansas has preserved a doctor’s office which had separate entrances and separate waiting rooms for white and black patients but only a single room for treatment of all patients.

Many black workers traveled north, hoping for better opportunities in the big cities. Already those cities had traditions of separate neighborhoods for separate cultures—German, Swedish, Irish, Italian, Polish, and so on. Soon black neighborhoods were created, complete with black schools, black churches, and black businesses. Segregation, “separate but equal,” was as real in the north as it was in the south.

Would socialism have provided greater equality for white and black citizens at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century? Definitely not. Every step in that direction continued to separate white and black, giving greater benefits to the white. White labor unions, among other expectations, were intended to keep factories from replacing white workers with black workers. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided much more help to white workers and families than to black. One reason for the disparity was that local direction of government programs always fell into the hands of the same powerful families that had managed the economy before the war and after Reconstruction. They had no intention of offering true equality to their black neighbors under any economic theory.

During this “separate but equal” era, some American blacks found ways to succeed. Black labor unions were developed for industrial and for agricultural workers. Black businesses, following the principles of capitalism, brought services to black communities and wealth to black entrepreneurs in both north and south. Black banks, black insurance companies, and black social organizations grew. Black schools, including institutions of higher education, improved. Although many schools for blacks limited their education to vocational training, others offered broader education. Black writers and poets, black musicians, and black historians and philosophers all gained an audience among both black and white Americans.

During these years, the United States did not meet its high standards of “liberty and justice for all.” Life was unfair for black citizens, native Americans, and immigrants from Europe and Asia; poverty persisted among populations of every culture and nationality. Prejudice and discrimination were widely practiced against blacks, Chinese, eastern Europeans, Catholics, and Jews. Capitalism was not the problem; socialism would not have solved the divisions and inequalities of American society. But in the later half of the twentieth century, new ideas and new approaches would make greater efforts to provide Civil Rights to all citizens of the United States. J.

Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part one–the trans-Atlantic slave trade

Slavery has existed in the world since the earliest historical records were written. Some slaves were prisoners of war; others became slaves as punishments for crime or as a result of debts they could not repay. In most ancient civilizations, slaves had rights that were protected by law. Some slaves did agricultural work or household chores, but others held highly respectable positions—private tutors for children of the rich, managers of property, and financial advisors. Joseph, son of Jacob, was a slave in Egypt who managed his master’s property. The Roman philosopher Epictetus was also a slave.

Even before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, Africans were bought by Muslim traders and were sold in Arabia, India, and China. Even today descendants of African slaves live in China. But the tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was caused by sugar addiction. Crusaders first encountered cane sugar in western Asia. (Sugar cane is native to the Indonesian islands, but it had been sold and consumed in India, Persia, and Arabia for centuries.) Europeans had some natural sweeteners—honey and fruits—but the pure sweetness of cane sugar captivated European tastes. More than cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, the spice called “sugar” was in great demand as Europeans sought Asian spices from the silk roads. Italian investors tried to cultivate sugar cane on Mediterranean islands, but the climate was wrong and the crops failed.

In the 1400s, Portuguese explorers and traders began to look for short cuts in the silk roads, ways to obtain valued items such as gold and spices while bypassing some of the middle steps. (Taxes from governments and profits from merchants heighted the costs of Asian goods in Europe, so naturally western Europeans wanted to create and pursue any shortcuts they could find.) Traveling down the coast of Africa, the Portuguese found African civilizations eager to trade, and among the commodities offered by these Africans were slaves—prisoners captured from nearby tribes during disputes over land and wealth. At the same time, the Portuguese discovered islands off the coast of Africa that were uninhabited and were ideal for cultivating sugar cane. The Portuguese traded for African slaves and used them to grow and harvest sugar cane. When other explorers happened upon the Caribbean islands, they again found land ideal for sugar cane, and slaves purchased in Africa were transported across the ocean to labor in fields from Spanish Florida south to Portuguese Brazil. Slaves were soon introduced into British colonies north of Florida as well.

The plantations and haciendas established by Spain and Portugal in the New World were not capitalist ventures. They belonged to an economic philosophy now called mercantilism. In mercantilism, thinkers assume that the wealth in the world is limited and stagnant—one individual or nation can become richer only as another becomes poorer. Wealth from the New World—precious metals, crops (including sugar, cotton, coffee, rubber, and tobacco), animal furs, and fish—was transported to the Old World to enrich governments in Europe. Capitalists from Great Britain and the Netherlands did engage in the slave trade. Their ships traveled in a triangle: they traded with the Africans, selling European commodities and buying slaves; they sold slaves in the western hemisphere and bought New World wealth; they sold materials from the New World in European ports and gained European commodities. With each sale, they made a profit, much of which was distributed among investors.

But emerging capitalism in Great Britain and the Netherlands was accompanied by an abolition movement, an insistence that all people—even Africans and native Americans—possess human rights and should not be treated as property. The Industrial Revolution, created and funded by capitalism, replaced human labor with machinery, reducing the need to enslave human workers. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, followed by the United States the next year. All slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Compromises in the American government allowed slavery to persist in some states until the Civil War. Worldwide, slavery was not declared illegal in all countries until the 1960s.

Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans were introduced into the western hemisphere than Europeans. Sixteen million Africans (most of them sold by other Africans) were purchased in Africa and put in ships to be taken to the western hemisphere. Twelve million survived the trip and were sold as slaves. The death of four million Africans on those trading ships is one of the shameful facts about the slave trade—human beings were treated as an expendable commodity like any other crop. Treatment of slaves in the New World was a mixed package: some were treated with kindness and respect, but many were abused, tortured, and worked to death. Twenty-first century historians and moralists find it easy to condemn slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Dealing with the aftermath of those three hundred years is a different kettle of fish. J.

The freedom of free markets

Most human settlements are not self-sufficient. They produce some of the products that they use and need, but other raw materials and finished items must be brought from other places. Archaeological research into the earliest civilizations in Iraq, Egypt, and India reveal that materials and items were exchanged among those cultures. Trade has been part of human history for thousands of years.

Trade gives governments opportunities to raise money. Governments tax products that move, charging tolls for using roads and bridges and ports. Governments tax products when they are bought and sold. Governments place special taxes, called tariffs, upon products that come from other places. Tariffs accomplish more than offering income to governments. Tariffs sometimes discourage consumers from buying foreign products, encouraging them to buy the same products from local providers. Tariffs discourage the purchase of foreign products, even when local providers have no local substitute for the products in demand. Tariffs—and the threat of tariffs—can be used in negotiations between governments, even when the substance of those negotiations goes beyond trade and other economic considerations.

In the twentieth and twenty-first century, the United States government has inserted itself into trade arrangements and economic factors in several ways. Tariffs have been established on foreign goods to try to protect American jobs. Bans on export of certain items and technologies have been enforced to keep our Cold War enemies from gaining products that might help them defeat our nation. Assets of some nations and their citizens have been frozen and tourism to some countries has been curtailed to limit their economic success in efforts to change their governments’ policies. At the same time, trade agreements have made it easier for American products to be sold in other countries while products from those countries also were made available to customers in the United States.

Free trade benefits consumers, giving them more choices in the marketplace. Free trade benefits workers, giving more consumers access to their products. In the same way, free trade benefits corporations and the many investors who hold stock in those corporations. Free trade reduces strife between governments—until 2008 (when Russia invaded Georgia), there had never been a war or military confrontation between two nations that both had McDonald’s restaurants. To preserve free trade with its economic benefits, governments often will go to great efforts to resolve differences through diplomacy rather than through violence or threats of violence.

Yet free trade can cause problems for some participants. Sale of crops from one country in other countries can lower prices paid to farmers in those other countries. Underpaid factory workers in one country can produce products that are sold in other countries, reducing purchase of similar products in those other countries and possibly driving workers into unemployment. Aware of these risks, governments frequently work to create trade agreements that will benefit their own farmers and factory workers and also benefit their own consumers, seeking a balance between the competing needs of two groups which often overlap—auto workers who assemble cars, but who also want to buy the best car at the best price, no matter where it was made.

The chief concern is competition. But other factors deserve consideration. Laws in the United States provide workers with safe working environments and adequate wages while also prohibiting pollution of the air, land, and water. Countries lacking all those laws (or more permissive in their laws) can compete with the United States, producing products at a lower cost. Not only does this put American workers at risk of losing their jobs, but it also harms workers and residents in these other countries.

One new tariff might help to maintain the balance of keeping American workers at their jobs, providing affordable products to American consumers, and also helping the rest of the world’s consumers, workers, and residents. This tariff would require products—both agricultural and industrial—to pass an inspection established by the United States Congress. That inspection would ensure that work environments are safe, that workers are receiving an adequate wage, and that companies are not polluting the environment. A logo would be placed on the packaging of items that pass inspection; a tariff would be assessed on items that are not inspected or did not pass inspection. A higher, punitive, tariff would be assessed on any producer that used the logo without having passed inspection. Some American consumers would buy only products that have the “safe workplace” logo. Others might still seek the better bargain, but the tariff would bring the imported item more in line with American-made items in the competitive marketplace.

Free trade contributes to other freedoms. Governments still bear some responsibility to regulate trade for the good of consumers and also for the good of workers. A balance is not easy to achieve, but such a balance is desirable, and most of the world’s governments share an interest in finding that balance. J.

Silly groundhog

The legend of the groundhog comes from an old weather tradition attached to the holiday called Candlemas. If the day of Candlemas (February 2) begins bright and sunny, winter is only half-way done; but if Candlemas begins with clouds, winter is over and we can expect an early spring. Tales of the groundhog and his shadow perpetuate this tradition, and the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, has claimed the national groundhog for the United States—only because they said so first.

I have always held that each region of the country has its own groundhog and its own weather predictions. The region where I live began the Second of February with a cloudy sky, although the skies cleared and the sun broke through by midmorning. Although Punxsutawney’s groundhog forecast six more weeks of winter, our local groundhog would have said that winter was over—an ironic prediction, since we had very little winter weather the last several weeks before Groundhog Day. A few times the overnight temperature dipped below freezing and frost had to be cleaned off the car in the morning, but that was it for winter weather. In fact, this region had experienced no measurable snowfall for more than one thousand days—the fourth-longest “snow drought” for this region since people began keeping records of the weather.

It appears that our regional groundhog stayed out for a while on his day and did not stick with the dawn forecast. Winter has arrived with a vengeance. The polar vortex (which would be a great name for a rock band) met moisture from the gulf, producing a layer of ice last Thursday, followed by many inches of snow yesterday and today. More snow is expected midweek. Travel is next to impossible, and most businesses are closed. This snow is like the snows of my childhood up north. But the state and city governments in this region invest little money in snow removal and road treatment. Most snows melt and disappear within twenty-four hours. This winter weather is expected to linger. We even need to leave the faucets dripping to keep the pipes from freezing, as our overnight and early morning low temperatures will be in the single digits and may even reach zero degrees Fahrenheit.

But, in this ever-changing world, snow days are not what they used to be. Rather than proclaiming the closing of schools, internet announcements are declaring that classes will be held only online. Students and teachers will remain at home, but the snow day will not be a holiday. School buildings will be closed, but classes will still be held. Younger children may not be aware of the change, but surely parents and (especially) teachers might resent the disappearance of an old friend—that unscheduled holiday of a snow day when classes are cancelled and young people go outside and frolic in the flakes.

Trusting the forecast, yesterday I dug into the corner of our shed and found our snow shovel. Dust and cobwebs were removed, and it stands by the front door, waiting to be used. The snow is still falling, so I will wait until afternoon before beginning the snow removal. That also was a game when I was young, clearing the path of snow, building a range of ephemeral mountains for imaginary explorers to conquer. Rejoicing in the beauty of snow and finding jollification in its presence helps one remain young at heart, I believe. Old Man Winter might make other people grouchy, but in my household he remains a welcome if a rare and brief guest. J.

Socialism, totalitarianism, and the Cold War

In the aftermath of the Great War (that is, World War I) came the Great Depression. These combined perils caused the citizens of several countries to surrender their individual rights to their governments, hoping in return to obtain economic security, national pride, and protection from hostile forces within and beyond their countries’ borders. In Russia, Lenin’s Bolsheviks became Stalin’s Communist Party. In Italy, the Fascist Party rose under Mussolini; in Germany, the Nazi Party rose under Hitler. All three parties exercised totalitarianism, government control of the population that restricted freedom and human rights, controlled communication, and punished citizens who disagreed with the government’s policies.

Earlier dictators may have wished for totalitarian control of their countries, but twentieth century technology opened avenues to government power that had not previously existed. Governments could exercise total control over the printed word of newspapers, magazines, and books. They could exercise total control over spoken word of radio broadcasts. They could monitor private communication between citizens that used the postal service or the telephone. Rapid communication made control of schools easier than earlier times. Teachers were required to spread government propaganda in their classrooms and to report to the government any dissent represented among their students or noticed in the families of their students.

Stalin’s government was openly socialist—the official name of the country was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Hitler and Mussolini did not advocate socialist economies. Meanwhile, the United States government, led by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, offered New Deal that increased government participation in the economy but did not directly threaten individual freedoms. Communication and education were not totally controlled by the government. Citizens were not arrested for openly disagreeing with government policies.

The Second World War defeated the Nazis and Fascists without overthrowing Stalin’s Communist Party. The Soviet Union was permitted to set up totalitarian governments and socialist economies in several nations, from Poland and East Germany to North Korea. Shortly thereafter, Mao’s Communist Party won control over most of China, establishing a government that was also totalitarian and socialist. The Cold War had begun. On one side of the Cold War stood totalitarian and socialist governments promising a Communist world when they had prevailed. On the other side stood democratic and capitalist governments promising a free world when they had prevailed. The rhetoric was more stark than the reality. Many allies of the United States maintained dictatorships rather than democracies, and some American allies in Europe experimented with socialist economies.

The “Communist” governments during the Cold War portrayed capitalists as a wealthy and powerful minority who crushed the majority of their fellow citizens, forcing them to work long hard hours for insufficient wages, forcing them to live in substandard housing with little medical care or hygiene, and denying them any real control of the political process that ran their lives. The “Free” governments during the Cold War portrayed communists as radical subversives, trying to overthrow the established order to take control, abolish religion, end all freedom, and enslave the entire world.

Democratic socialism and dictatorial capitalism were quietly ignored. Yet the stereotype of the “godless Communist,” as described by leaders in the “free world,” contained truth despite their exaggerations. During the decades of the Cold War, capitalist nations thrived while socialist nations struggled. As the standard of living rose in capitalist nations, so did individual freedoms. Dictatorships were replaced by democracies. Meanwhile, the totalitarian socialist governments regularly had to crush opposition with military force. People fled totalitarian socialist nations for free capitalist nations, forcing the former to build walls to contain their own people. Even China eventually chose to reestablish a capitalist economy, while remaining under control of a totalitarian government that still identified itself as the Communist Party.

Thirty years since the Cold War ended, its rhetoric and its reality continue to shape politics in the United States and around the world. American families who escaped totalitarian socialist governments in Poland, East Germany, China, Vietnam, and Cuba remain suspicious of politicians who speak well of socialism or who advocate greater government control of the American economy. Freedom, democracy, and capitalism remain linked in the minds of many people. Old pictures of capitalistic oppression, once fostered by the Soviet Union and its allies, are sometimes reiterated in political debate in the twenty-first century. Some American citizens, especially younger people born after the Cold War, sometimes forget why our side prevailed in that conflict. But advocates of socialism are rightly portrayed as isolated, huddling in the cold, bundled to resist reality while they continue to call for an economic system that has never worked.

Although democratic socialism exists as an option, it contains more threats to freedom than capitalism contains. Government control over prices and wages reduces freedom. Government decisions about which products to produce reduces freedom. As silly as it may seem, freedom to choose among dozens of brands of toothpaste or coffee or beer is far better than a single, mass-produced, government-controlled monopoly of toothpaste or coffee or beer. One free pair of shoes given each citizen once a year can never satisfy the human spirit as well as freedom to choose among many kinds of shoes, spending one’s own hard-earned money for the shoes one truly prefers.

The pendulum of politics swings to the left and then to the right. Free elections often reveal massive divisions of philosophy within a national population. True freedom allows both sides to state their case and invites voters to choose between them. Those who gain power cannot maintain their grasp indefinitely; the tighter they cling to power, the more it slips from between their fingers. Reversals happen, but the long course of history shows that freedom prevails over tyranny.  The future of America and of the world is bright, because free people will always work to remain free. J.

Education: right or privilege? (part two)

In the United States, educating children has been treated as necessary, delivering a right and not bestowing a privilege. Therefore, tax dollars are committed to operating public schools through the twelfth grade. Higher education at the college and university level, though, has been treated more as a privilege. Tuition and fees must be paid; not everyone expects to go to college in the United States.

In ancient times, teachers gathered a group of students or disciples and instructed them beyond the elementary levels. Jesus Christ had disciples, but so did John the Baptist and the Pharisees. For that matter, the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, and many others gathered adults to teach them more than the basics they could learn from their parents or from the local teachers.

In the Middle Ages, medieval churches began to run universities, places where adults could gather to be instructed by experts in various topics. Such education was grounded in Christian theology, but it was sorted into the trivium of communication skills—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—and the quadrivium of scientific skills—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The universities did not compete in football or basketball, but they did compete in theological and philosophic debate. The Reformation of the Church was sparked by this practice of scholarly debate.

Forty years after the United States Congress set aside land for public schools in each township, Congress voted to dedicate two townships in each territory and incipient state as “seminary lands.” (The terms “academy,” “college,” “seminary,” and “university” were often used interchangeably at that time—many such schools taught only at the high school level.) The major universities of various states evolved from that legislation. State governments later provided additional land for competing schools, which is why State universities also exist, as well as some with regional names such as “northern” and “eastern” colleges or universities. Students at these schools were expected to pay tuition and other fees, although scholarships were soon established to support deserving students who could not afford higher education.

After World War II, the federal government helped veterans to take part in higher education by the G.I. Bill. Soon, other programs were developed, including Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans. Unfortunately, every time the government provided financial assistance to help more students, colleges and universities absorbed the wealth by increasing costs, so that the price of higher education rose much faster than the rate of inflation. At the same time, many more careers required at least a college diploma and often an advanced degree as well. In the nineteenth century, many physicians and lawyers and other professionals were self-taught or were mentored by practicing professionals. This path to a career is almost impossible for most Americans today.

The rising cost of higher education, paired with the increasing necessity of college education for many careers, has required many students to borrow money, loans that must be repaid once they have graduated or left college. These loans often make it difficult for young adults to accomplish the steps expected from people of their age—to find homes of their own, to marry and begin a family, to contribute to churches and charities and to the alumni funds of their schools. Some economists worry that a massive default on student loans could damage the American and world economies even more than the Recession of 2007, which was caused by a similar collapse in the housing industry.

Some American politicians want to make college education free for all Americans. A few even want to pay off the loans accrued by recent college graduates. The first problem with this approach is the source of the money to cover these costs. The United States government has already added massively to its debt with stimulus checks to counter the economic costs of the virus crisis and its quarantines. The second problem is the risk that schools will increase their costs even more as more money becomes available to them through government programs. Costs spiraling upwards have been a problem for fifty years; increased funding will not end the spiral. The third problem is that students unprepared for college will be enrolled. Colleges already struggle to meet the needs of students whose twelve grades of public education did not give them skills needed to succeed in college. Paying for every high school graduate to attend college can only increase that problem.

The federal government should continue Pell Grants and other programs that assist competent students from poor families to receive higher education. At the same time, the government should reward institutions of higher education that cut costs rather than throwing money at all the colleges and universities. Schools that take deliberate steps to lower education costs should be first in line for government research grants and other programs that offer money to higher education. Likewise, students who go into debt preparing for careers that benefit the general population deserve more help reducing or eliminating their debt than their classmates. Health professionals—especially those who treat low-income patients—deserve debt reduction and elimination. So do teachers, social workers, and other professionals in lower-paying jobs that benefit the community. Some programs that meet this description already exist. They should be improved and also better focused.

A liberal arts higher education exposes students to many facets of life—the fine arts, history, science, foreign languages, and the like. These classes are required in high school, and that should continue. Colleges and universities also should continue to provide these classes for all students. But many high school graduates (and even those who do not finish high school) are qualified for vocations that are necessary for their communities and that can provide an income comparable to those available to college graduates. We need plumbers, electricians, carpenters, car repair experts, hair specialists, cooks, and bakers. More encouragement and support can be given to students preparing for these professions, rather than expecting every young American to enroll in college and have the government pay their bills.

If higher education were purely a privilege, then only wealthy students could go to college. Effort must continue to find ways of educating young men and women from poorer families who possess strong academic skills. The cost of higher education has been artificially raised in the United States over the past fifty years; this trend needs to be reversed rather than continued. Promising free college for all is the wrong answer. Better solutions are available. J.

Education: right or privilege? (part one)

(This post continues a series of posts about socialism. I thank this week’s ice storm for making the writing of this post possible by canceling a day of work without cutting off electricity to the home.)

In the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress affirmed that all human beings have three God-given rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Less than a decade later, the new government treated the education of children as a right. In 1785, Congress declared that in all the territories and incipient states of the USA, the sixteenth section of every township would be reserved for a school. A township is a thirty-six square mile piece of land, six miles wide and six miles long. A section of a township is one square mile. The sixteenth section would be near the middle of the township, guaranteeing that every family in the territory or state would live within four miles of a school.

Of course, a school does not need an entire square mile. Congress intended for portions of the land to be sold to raise money to erect a school building, supply it with educational materials, and begin to pay the salary of a teacher. In some places, this plan worked as Congress intended. In others, school board members sold the property and pocketed the profit. Sooner or later, most schools needed additional funding to remain open. Some townships established a tax to support their schools; many others required a fee to be paid by the families of students. In addition to instructing students of varying ages, teachers were also required to maintain schoolhouses, from lighting the stove early in the morning to cleaning the classrooms at the end of the day. They were generally expected to gather fees from the families, which they would often accept as farm produce or volunteer labor when families could not afford to pay directly for their children’s education.

The education of children has always begun in the family. Young children learned to walk and to talk by imitating their elders. In agricultural families, children began working with the crops as soon as they were mobile. Children learned crafts from their parents; in some cases, they would become apprentices to another craftworker in the community. Wealthy families hired or purchased private tutors for their children.

Over time, religious communities began to establish schools for their children. They learned to read and write by studying religious texts. They were taught songs and stories of their religious heritage. Martin Luther was among the first to suggest that governments should support such schools for the benefit of the community. Immigrants to the western hemisphere often established schools along with their congregations—this was especially true of Lutheran and Catholic settlements. In many cases, a group of Lutherans would build a school first and worship there on Sundays until they had raised sufficient money to build a proper church.

Meanwhile, as rural areas benefited from the establishment of a school in every township, American cities often entrusted their children to private academies. No academic standards had yet been set; any man or woman could open a school and call himself or herself a teacher. Sometimes men taught school for a few years while they completed their preparation to work as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. Larger schools had faculties and accepted boarders from the countryside and from other towns. After the Civil War, many educators came to the southern states to begin schools for African-American children. At the same time, though, attitudes about educating children began to be more specific and more focused.

American thinkers perceived the value of public education to maintain and preserve a uniquely American culture. As immigrants flowed into the New World from many diverse nations and cultures, their children were gathered into schools and taught to speak and read and write in English. They learned to be good citizens of the United States. Instead of Bible stories, they were instructed about Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, and the Founding Fathers. They learned to revere George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; later generations were also taught about Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. American attitudes included patriotism, respect for hard work, and the value of the individual. Tax dollars, usually from property taxes, supported education, so no family was required to pay fees. Private education continued among some religious communities. Still, the “melting pot” of American education fell short in some areas. Many communities used the tax dollars of white families to fund schools for white children while they used the tax dollars of black families to fund schools for black children. Therefore, even when the black children outnumbered the white children, the white children benefited from far better resources in their schools.

Around the middle of the twentieth century, public education in the United States was reevaluated. “Separate but equal” schools were disallowed, and classrooms began to be desegregated, often with children bused into other areas to balance the school bodies racially. In response, many families moved to the suburbs or put their children in private schools. At the same time, new theories about education changed life in the classroom. Baby boomers struggled to understand “New Math.” History and geography were replaced with “Social Studies.” New grading scales replaced the traditional A, B, C, D, and F. Formerly heroic figures like Washington and Lincoln were revealed to have had flaws and shortcomings. Schools began to offer mandatory classes on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, and on sexual education. Bible readings and prayers were disallowed. Teachers fought for and obtained the right to train students in controversial theories such as Darwinian evolution.

Some families responded to changing school environments by withdrawing their children in favor of private schools or home schooling. A few parents sought positions on school boards in an effort to preserve education as they remembered it. But, at the same time, the federal government became more involved in the education of children, establishing standards to be met by every school in the country, and encouraging testing to ensure that all children were learning the same skills. Earlier schools in the United States saw their goal as rescuing the children of immigrants from their families and making them Americans. Now schools in the United States saw their goal as rescuing children from their families to free them from unfavorable attitudes such as racial prejudice, religious intolerance, and unscientific attitudes toward the world.

Because tax dollars are collected from all property owners to provide public education for all children in a community, public education in the United States sometimes is presented as a successful experiment in socialism. Freedom to choose private schools or home schooling diminishes the argument that American public education is a successful socialist enterprise. Private schools and home schooling are privileges that many families cannot afford. Arguably, though, their existence offers competition to public schools, competition which forces the public schools to maintain higher quality than they might offer otherwise. Many other political factors enter into this discussion, including school choice, charter schools, and discipline problems in the schools. Americans remain largely in favor of education for children as a right, not a privilege. But many questions remain about the best way to teach children and the best reasons to do so. J.