By the end of 1999, 75.5 million people out of a total population of 275 million were involved directly in providing and receiving what has come to be called education. And an unknown number of millions indirectly. About 67 million were enrolled in schools and colleges (38 million in K-8, 14 million insecondary schools, 15 million in colleges,) 4 million employed as teachers or college faculty (2 million elementary; 2 million secondary and college combined), and 4.5 million in some other school capacity. In other words, the primary organizing discipline of about 29 percent of the entire U.S. population consists of obedience to the routines and requests of an abstract social machine called School. And that's only so far. According to the U.S. Department of Education, these figures are expected to grow substantially through the first decade of the new century. Could Hegel himself have foreseen such an end to history, the planet as a universal schoolhouse where nothing much is learned?
At the top of this feeding chain are so-called public colleges. As Valhalla was the reward where Vikings killed in battle got to drink, fight, and fornicate in an endlessly regenerating loop, so public colleges are a lifetime of comfort and security for those systems people who play ball skillfully or belong to some political family with a record of playing ball.
If public colleges functioned in meritocractic ways as their supporters allege and as I suspect the general public believes they do, we would expect the economy of public schooling at this level to reflect with reasonable sensitivity what was happening in the total public economy. Spending on public colleges should be a litmus test of how much respect is being accorded the democratic will at any given time. With that in mind try this garment on for size: Tuition at public colleges over the last fourteen years has increased three times as fast as household income, and more than three times faster than the rate of inflation, according to the General Accounting Office. What pressure could possibly squeeze ordinary people to pay such outlandish costs, incurring debt burdens which enslave them and their children for many years to come?
How, you might ask, at the very instant the inherent value of these degrees is being challenged, at the very instant business magazines are predicting permanent radical downsizing of the middle-management force in private and public employment — the very slots public colleges license graduates to occupy, and at the very instant in time when the purchasing power of middle-class American incomes is worth less than it was thirty years ago and appears to be in a long-term continuing downtrend, how in light of these things have public college teachers been able to double their incomes (in real dollars) in the past fourteen years and public college administrators raise their own share of the take 131 percent?
I'm asking how, not why. Greed is too common a characteristic of human nature to be very interesting. How was this done? Who allowed it? Not any "free market," I can tell you. We're talking about several million individuals who've managed to make their leisured and secure lives even more so at the same time their product is questioned and the work their attention supposedly qualifies students for is shipped overseas for labor cost advantages. It seems obvious to me that the whole lot of these collegiate time-servers lacks sufficient clout to treat themselves so well. Their favored treatment is, then, a gift. But from where, and why? Only from an investigation of the politics of schooling might come an adequate answer. So let's begin to look under a few rocks together.