Individual Achievement and the Common Good


In educational policy and practice, as in a democratic society as a whole, balance is needed between these two goals and their corresponding measures of satisfaction: (1) the liberty and success of the individual and (2) the thriving of the whole (the community, state, and nation) including all its people.  I have added the phrase, “including all its people,” because the misuse of numbers can make “the whole” into something that does not truly include all its people.  Here’s a simplistic example.  Suppose I made a million dollars last year (dreamer!) and you made $20,000, and this year I make two million dollars and you, having lost your job, make nothing.  “We” (the group consisting of the two of us) are doing much better this year, even though financially you are doing terribly.  Our average income has soared.  Doesn’t knowing “we” are prospering make you feel better as the mortgage company forecloses on your house?

So, in a democracy, the whole must include all the people, not an average or sum in which the impoverishment and misery of many people is hidden behind the extreme prosperity of some.  Indicators of national economic success become lies if fewer and fewer people are being paid a living wage.  Remember that term, “living wage”?  These days we are reduced to arguing over the “minimum wage” as the ridiculously rich seek ever cheaper labor to exploit.  We are now told that 23% of children in the United States live in poverty, almost one in four.  We cannot rightly regard ourselves as a rich nation when so many of our children are poor, hidden statistically behind the vast wealth of a small minority of financially elite people.

In my previous post, “Public Education Is Not a Race,” I referred to Stefanie Fuhr’s article in Sojourners magazine, “Public Education for the Common Good,” and recommended it.  Fuhr drew from a contrast between (1) a democracy of desire and (2) a democracy of worth.  She cited as her source for this contrast Philip Phenix’s, Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum.

What is all this talk about “the common good”?  Don’t we send our children to school so that they, our children – “my child!” – can gain what they need for security and prosperity in life?  I want my child to “get ahead”!  Ahead of your child?  Well, nothing personal, but I have to look out for my own.  You look out for your own.  May the odds be always in our children’s favor (reference to the Hunger Games as a parable for our times).  And if the odds are not currently in my child’s favor, then I want options, I want choices, I want a charter school or a home schooling plan or whatever it takes to put the odds in my child’s favor.

As a parent, should I not look out for the well-being, security, and success of my own child?  Yes, I should, and sometimes that parental responsibility requires my making a choice for my child I may wish were not necessary.  In principle, I want the public school to thrive for the benefit of all the children, but if the public school is a disaster area for its children, then I may have to make a choice I don’t like for the sake of my own child.  This parental desperation is what the privatizers, stealers, and destroyers of public education are exploiting for profit.  On the parents’ part, it’s not always greed and selfishness but fear and love.  I’d like to rescue the whole system but cannot, and it’s now or never for rescuing my child.

Democracy should allow room for the individual to achieve satisfaction, to thrive in life.  I avoided the word “prosper,” even though it can be a synonym for thrive, because we equate prosperity with wealth (of money) which is really only one, very limited, kind of prosperity.  Room for the individual to thrive implies freedom for variation.  That is, the individual must be allowed, encouraged, and enabled to be an individual and to develop as an individual in his or her own particular ways.

But the individual is not an island.  Democracy is “we the people,” not just “I the individual.”  Balance is needed to keep “we the people” from becoming a faceless mass in which individual liberty is lost.  Balance is needed also to keep the individual from becoming autonomous, utterly self-centered, and heedless of the well-being of others and of the common good.  There is no “we” without “I.”  Neither is there any “I” without “we,” but we Americans seem to have trouble understanding and accepting that second truth, so thoroughly have we imagined life to be a competition in which some win while many lose.

To cover up the blatant selfishness of this competition model of life, we speak with some reverence of “equal opportunity,” which is fictitious in practice and irresponsible in theory.  That’s the Hunger Games.   There is no equal opportunity in the United States, and as long as life is seen and lived as a competition, there never will be.  There will, of course, continue to be people who don’t care to win by beating others, who just want to “live and let live,” who might be quite happy if all could thrive and achieve both security and satisfaction in life, but they are the losers in the competition whose peaceful hope is rendered fictitious by the machinations of the rich elite hellbent on taking as much of everything as they possibly can.  The spokesperson for the real players in the competition is J. K. Rowling’s Professor Quirrell in book one of her Harry Potter series: “A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil.  Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was.  There is no good or evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” (Philosopher’s Stone, 211)

Furh quotes Phenix as saying that the second type of democracy, the democracy of worth, “centers around devotion or loyalty to the good, the right, the true, the excellent.  Devotion is different from desire.  It is primarily other-regarding rather than self-interested.  It invites sacrifice and loyalty instead of conferring gratification.”  This is high-minded stuff, high enough that it may seem beyond reach realistically in any human society, especially one in which individual liberty to strive for personal success is so highly valued as in ours.  But public education is founded upon the balance between individual satisfaction and the common good of the whole people, the society.  We don’t have public education just for the huge collection of individuals (our children) and the satisfaction of those adults who happen to have children in school; we have public education for the benefit of the whole – “we the people,” the nation as well as for the smaller units of the whole, the state and the community.  Democracy depends upon the education of as many as possible of its people.  Public education is a cooperative undertaking, not a competition.  It’s done for the whole people as well as for the individual children, which is the reason we all pay for it and should all continue to pay for it.  Fuhr writes, “‘Race to the Top’ forces states to implement policies in which students, parents, and teachers compete with each other for school funding that focuses on collecting data instead of nurturing a learning environment that supports the common good.”

In my next post, I’ll consider what I regard as Stefanie Fuhr’s most vulnerable point which is also, I believe, her strongest point.  She concludes, “Our public school system is in need of a revolution that is guided by love.  Our children and future generations deserve our devotion to the notion that public education is a common good for all.”  Love?  Wow!  I can hear the laughter from the vultures circling over public education as the hyenas tear it apart.  Next time I’ll explain why I think she’s right, much more right than the hyenas or the vultures can comprehend.