National Public Education

Druids Dialogues IV: Public Education and the Media


The week was finally over.  Limato and Pedro sat with their Guinness as they recounted how last night someone set fire to the list of Regents scores posted outside the English office.

Pedro:  That’s one way to express your opinion of the test.

Limato: I guess he didn’t do all that well.

Pedro:  I’ll probably see him, or her, in next term’s remedial class.  I should check who likes to write about burning stuff.

Limato: Or just ask somebody.  They all know.

Bob and Tom join them.  Bob has something on his mind.

Bob:     Okay, I get all these logical arguments about the value of public programs, and the problems of private ones, but what I don’t get is how come I’m the only one?  If this is all so clear and simple, as it seems to me, why is it such a secret?  Why does absolutely everybody say the exact opposite; that only the moms and kids matter, not the general public?  There must be something wrong either with the way we’ve figured this out, or the way the world works.

Limato: That’s a no-brainer.  Since when was the world on the right path?

Tom:    But Bob’s right, there must be some reason why we never hear about this kind of argument.  All we ever get from the media is the most light-weight, even childish, points of view about public education problems.  Every silly complaint, every emotional or selfish thought is recorded and taken at face value.  The man on the street is put alongside the professor, the politician, and the teacher, all equally, until the only possible answer is that there is no answer.

Pedro:  True.  For all their talk about the value of “the public” and the need to “let the people decide,” you never hear the media actually favoring some collective action by that public.  They favor “the people” but only in the abstract; not when it comes to doing something that would benefit them.

Limato: Of course not; it’s not entertaining.  A public message?  Boring.  This is going to get people to listen?  Moms and kids are more interesting; like cat videos.

Pedro:  That’s true, but it can’t be the whole story.  I mean, the media actually does take a stand in favor of things like the right to choose your own school, or decide your school’s curriculum.  It’s not just entertainment they want.  They have a point of view, and it is not in favor of public, collective, action.

The group sits there, looking at their beers.

Bob:     (With a shrug) It’s not in their interest.  They don’t make any money backing collective action.

Limato: And I suppose they do backing the moms?

Bob:     Indirectly.  They make their money from ads, right?  Well, moms, and all individuals, buy things.  A collective group doesn’t.  A public group gets what it wants through collective, governmental, actions.  There’s no buying and selling of anything.  But ads won’t work unless there is buying and selling.  So it’s the private, market-based side of the ledger that the media is always going to favor, since that’s the side where their money is.  Radio stations and newspapers are private businesses, not public agencies.

Tom:    The government doesn’t advertise.

Pedro:  What people want for their children’s education is a very powerful force.  If we start solving that problem  through a public, governmental, solution, with no market involvement, the people who rely on that market, like those who sell advertising, will lose a huge amount of money.  So they want solutions based on individual, private, choices, not group action.

Limato: The point is to keep us wanting those private goods, whether we can afford them or not, since that is what drives the market economy, and the ads that go with it.  So that is what gets emphasized, logic be damned.

Bob:     And since when does a salesman worry about what you can or cannot afford?  It’s best to keep that a bit vague.  You want the big BMW, oh, that’s a good idea.  So we can’t expect the media to stress the fact that you can’t really afford that private-like education you keep harping about.  It’s better for the salesman that you don’t realize how much it really costs.

Pedro:  But we can’t be too hard on the media.  They have to make a buck somehow.  The real problem is that we have come to rely on them for virtually all our information on public education.  We turn to the New York Times and The Atlantic for the final word on the topic. We don’t have our own system of something like “information management,”  like the police do, or the hospitals.  You don’t see them letting the media say what is going on in their own operations.  They have a healthy respect for the power of the media to affect the success of what they do, so they keep it at arm’s length.

Tom:    They know that the media, and “public opinion,” can easily interfere with their success; like when there’s a rush to judgment concerning a crime or health problem.

Pedro:  That’s the attitude that’s missing in public education.  We don’t see how our own work, like equalizing success across the economic levels of our students, can be weakened by interference from uninformed public opinion, fostered by the media.  When was the last time a school administrator held a press conference to give his point of view on one of these issues, such as integration or testing?  Instead we just let the media interview us, alongside the uninformed views of the man-in-the-street.

Tom:    So the real question is not so much why the media gets it wrong, but why we don’t get it right.   It’s not really a media problem; it’s our problem.

Limato: How come each answer leads to another question?

Shrugs all around.


Peter Dodington

July 24, 2015