Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Passing the Buck

This week we witnessed Steve Nass's Wisconsin Legislature hearing on the Center for Equal Opportunity's report on UW-Madison admissions, and the Walker administration's announcement that-- SURPRISE!--the state is cutting UW System's funding by an additional $65.7 million.

A common theme runs through the discourse and beliefs underlying both events: society's problems originate with and should be borne by individuals. Not policies or practices, politics or economies-- but your average, ordinary Joe and Josephine.

According to Roger Clegg of the CEO, the United States provides every child with an equal opportunity to succeed, a high-quality k-12 system, a testing system that is grounded in multicultural competencies and is thus unbiased, and equal access to the resources required to obtain college knowledge, file applications, and secure the necessary financing. Any difficulties in getting admitted, therefore, are the problems of individuals-- and society shouldn't bother addressing them.

According to Scott Walker and his administrators, the economic challenges the state faces stem at least partly from over-spending on individuals' college educations, and thus now is the time to pass the burden of payment onto individuals. Some UW alumni even appear to agree. After learning of Walker's cut, one such alum tweeted this:

UnitedCouncilUnited Council
in reply to @UnitedCouncil

@UnitedCouncil Time for the UW students to step up and offset these cuts. Just a $250 surcharge would offset the majority of the cuts.
Oct 19 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

This same person argued during discussion of the New Badger Partnership that UW-Madison students could, should, and would pay more for their college educations-- even as our economy tanked, parents were laid off, and unemployment rose (yes, even among college grads).

So here we are, faced with substantial rigorous, empirical evidence that inequalities in opportunities of all sorts are widespread, including in education, and yet still people are making arguments that these public issues are fundamentally private troubles.

What should you do when you are passed the buck? Told that your difficulty getting access to the American dream is nothing more than your own fault? Told that you are alone in holding responsibility for the opportunities offered to you? Told you just need to try a little harder, pay a little more, struggle a little longer?

First, recognize and empathize with the folks passing off the problems. They can't analyze data without filters that exclude any potential for systematic causes. Remember the words of C. Wright Mills: "When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual."

Second, note the real underlying problem-- the massive economic inequality which makes them pathologize others, and even makes them feel good while doing it. They are the real "little people," as Mills wrote, "estranged from community and society in a context of distrust and manipulation [and] alienated from work." You can't help but worry for them.

Third, keep focused and fighting to reform systems and organizations. Their efforts to demonize and individualize every single person will take far, far longer than our concerted efforts to change the spaces and places in which people live. (See, there's the Education Optimist!)

Finally, do not get frustrated and begin to believe them. Then you are truly alone in the world, and all hope really is lost.

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