Cross-posted at Education Week.
When the Trump administration released its “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” it was natural for professional educators to go right to the pages describing the proposed budget for the Department of Education. Some must have been relieved, for it proposed “only” a 13 percent cut for a cabinet department candidate Trump said he might abolish if he were elected. Others might have been horrified at the sweeping cuts to programs mostly designed to help poor and minority students. Some will observe that it is not really a 13 percent cut, but a significantly bigger cut, because the proposed budget includes a large new program to support parent choice of schools for their children, which must come out of the funds available after the 13 percent cut has been made.
But if you want an extended analysis of the proposed Department of Education budget, you might want to go here. In my view, what is most troubling about the implications of this budget for education in the United States is not just in the pages devoted to the Department of Education. What is most troubling is the budget as a whole and the spirit that animates it.
The question here is what, in fact, “makes America great.” The answer, in my view, lies in a story that goes back to Athens in the age of Pericles. What made 5th century B.C. Greece so remarkable was its exuberant, disciplined curiosity, its determination to ask questions about everything under the sun; to let reason guide the mind to answers that were then subject to reasoned discussion among people who might hold different views and embrace different values, but who chose to be guided not by authority or the brass rings of power or greed but by determined empiricism and reasoned argument. And with these fragile but immensely powerful tools, the ancient Greeks raised a candle in the darkness that has lit mankind’s progress ever since.
That long trail reached its full flower in the 18th century in the Scottish Enlightenment, just in time to provide the intellectual foundation the founding fathers of the United States stood on when they created our Constitution as well as an outlook that released the energy of the people who would come from all over the world to build this remarkable country. They had a very practical view of the sources of progress in human affairs. They saw advancement as depending on the unearthing of facts, facts determined by empirical research, not the authority of government or church. They believed that research could power all manner of practical advancement in every realm: social, political and physical. They believed that education could be used to put information derived from research into the hands of ordinary citizens and workers who would use it to create improvements in everything from government to farming, from weaving to social relations. For the Scots, education would empower ordinary people and research would fuel their inventiveness and industry. The hidden hand of a capitalist system would create wealth for all and the results of scientific investigation would provide wealth and comfort beyond anyone’s dreams. In an age of monarchs, it was a vision of a people made equal and free by access to education, in turn made powerful by the advancement and dissemination of scientific knowledge to a yeomanry who would take that knowledge and use it to improve the lives not just of the powerful and wealthy, but everyone.
I submit to you that no nation on earth put that vision to better use than the United States. The United States is, if any nation is, the true child of the Enlightenment. We are home to a large share of the world’s most distinguished universities. We pioneered free public education, first at the primary school level, and then at the secondary school level. We built the first system of mass higher education. We have long led the world in our commitment to research and development. We built free public libraries in communities large and small all over the country. Decade after decade, we have seen our schools and colleges and universities and research laboratories as our engine both of personal advancement and national advancement, too.
Over and over again, we have defeated those who have tried to muzzle those with whom they disagreed and we have defended those who were unpopular. Our reputation as a home for refugees of all sorts has made the United States a magnet for wave after wave of the many of the most brilliant thinkers on the planet. Above all, we have a long history of protecting those—whether in the press, in politics or in our educational institutions—who challenged authority, who brought forth new facts with which we had to contend and new ways of thinking about what those facts might mean. This is the essence of freedom and of intellectual, material and personal advancement. It is this yeasty brew that is the essence of who we are. It is the secret sauce of the United States of America.
But it is not the essence of what this budget is. Quite the contrary. This budget sneers at the public schools. It slashes research and development in almost every sphere. It removes rungs of the ladder of advancement for poor and minority students whose only hope is the hand held out to them by the programs that are slated for cuts. It further cuts an already meager job training budget. It would severely limit immigration of refugees.
I believe that any objective analyst of this budget would have to conclude that this budget was constructed by people who have consistently rejected every major premise on which the founding fathers constructed their image of our “city on a hill.” It will not “make America great again.” It will seal our country’s fate. If we become a country that rejects facts and analyses that do not support our political positions, sees research independently conducted and reviewed as dangerous, treats public education as only one—and one of the least desirable—ways to educate our children, makes it even harder than it is now for poor and minority children to get a college education, then, in my view, our days are numbered.
The optimism of the Enlightenment Scots turned out to be fully justified. Their commitment to unearthing the facts with scientific inquiry, following those facts where they led and then empowering their citizens to build a whole new society on those imperatives with a thoroughly democratic education and training system in an environment of tolerance and inclusivity provided the new American republic with its founding rationale. It has served us well
This is not a partisan attack on this administration. Over the years, a good number of very prominent Republicans have served as trustees and commission members of this organization and I have been proud to call many of them my friends. But all of them would have agreed with every word of what I just said about what makes this country great, about the need to find the facts and then to debate the facts in a reasoned way. They were all committed to the idea that no small part of our country’s greatness lies in our commitment to learning and to giving every American the opportunity to learn as much as possible. They were all proud of this country’s open door for talented and ambitious refugees of all religions and national backgrounds and they all saw the values of the Enlightenment as providing the glue that holds this country together and provides the engine for its growth and development.
The specific cuts made in this budget are in many cases alarming, but it is not the specific cuts that should worry us the most. It is the implication that this country is prepared to cast aside everything that has made it stand out in the community of nations, that has caused us to be seen as a beacon of hope and as an example to be emulated through the centuries. It was not military might that did that. Our military might came from industrial strength that was largely based on the technological leadership that, in turn, came from our enormous investment in research and learning.
Ironically, just as this administration proposes to slash research and development, cut national spending on education and job training and reduce immigration, the Chinese government is doing the opposite. The Chinese are hardly committed to Enlightenment political principles, but they are sparing no expense to recruit the world’s most accomplished researchers in the fields of computing and artificial intelligence, working night and day to become the world leader in advanced supercomputing and pouring resources into bio-engineering. Rather than lead the world in denying the role of humans in polluting the planet, they have been investing billions to become the world leader in environmental science and in technologies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels that the planet will need if it is to survive.
This budget is not an attack on education because it proposes to cut back or eliminate certain categorical programs. It is an attack on education because it is an attack on the core purposes of education itself in the world’s oldest democracy. I hope my Republican friends will join me in opposing this budget, not because their favorite programs are threatened but because they are true conservatives who believe in the principles on which this country was founded.