The Private and the Public in Education

Can we address the changing roles of our educational systems in society?
By Joseph Galasso

Once, when the sun was unassuming, the sky was silent, and only birds flew high, the air was of a slightly different shade of blue. Down on earth was found a breed of men who openly spoke about being their brothers’ keepers. Such are the thoughts that come to us as we wander around our current political landscape: “There once was a time when long-term ‘public’ investment was held in high esteem as a means of maintaining the future of ‘private’ democratic values.” This is the kind of language used today by writers like Louis Menand. For Menand, the landscape was populated by righteous men, private-sector types who answered a call to public service—for instance, liberal-minded Republican men of the Nelson Rockefeller type.

Then a catastrophic event took place. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a meteorite that wiped out an entire breed. For Reagan, public denoted government, and government was to be dismantled at all costs. Before Reagan, an even leveling of economic growth secured the middle-class family for generations. The final demise of this prosperity is the legacy of George W. Bush.

Genealogy of an Idea

Let’s reset the time back to the nineteenth century, when social contracts between the classes were discussed in ways reflecting a real attempt to improve the welfare of the less fortunate (and of the state). Social contracts would not only be philosophized but also be put in place as private aristocracies toppled across Europe. A new social fabric, involving a new symbiotic relationship between the rich and the working classes and new notions of how the private intermingled with the public, had to be discussed.

It was in this context that Alexis de Tocqueville came to study a slightly different version of democracy, American exceptionalism. What attracts me to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is the manner in which he contrasts Europe and America, with two very different workable concepts of (private) individualism and (public) self-interest. It should be of no surprise that we are still split over the import of these twin principles—they shape current polemics about the reaches of public government into the lives of private individuals—and over whether or not intervening actions benefit or infringe on individual rights in a democracy.

Almost a hundred years after Tocqueville, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote in his 1932 essay “Of Liberty” about these same core principles of private and public in the dark heart of the Great Depression: “In all parts of Europe, we are witnessing the birth of a new consciousness, a new nationality—for nations are not, as has been imagined, ‘data of nature’ but ‘results of conscious acts’. . . . Where such conscious acts of a few [our policy makers] would carry a disproportionate impact on the positive health of the many.” Croce spoke of this new conscious act as a private undertaking, with benefits for the public at large. For Croce, it would be only out of such “conscious acts” that the privileged few and the working and middle classes would forge a relationship in which the health of one side would become interwoven with the health of the other.

All involved with such an experiment knew that the relationship would hold only insofar as it could be seen as serving the interests of individuals of every class. When equilibrium was reached between the classes—when all held a certain stake in the growth of their particular investments in society—no rational person would venture to risk revolt. Revolutions are suppressed by the social stability of the middle class. Conversely, they are brought on by extraordinary grievances of the middle class. This axiom is Tocqueville’s lasting legacy.

Policy Shift

What is the nature of “conscious acts” today? What is currently happening on our university and college campuses and how does it spill onto our streets? College campuses serve as a good starting point for social reporting—they are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. Today, while students are being pepper-sprayed and people on the street are being beaten by baton, those at the top stare down from their glass towers.

It’s difficult to know how many at the top sympathize with what’s happening below—sure, the top 1 percent have their own stress points (the Madoffs of the world, too, have their problems, even before they get caught)—but when a certain proportion at the top completely loses touch with the middle class, the individual turns to extreme self-interest and greed and otherwise good people turn against the better interest of the community.

Let’s not forget the Hillary Clinton slogan, “It takes a village.” Used in connection with child raising, it can readily be applied to the health of a democracy. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren now has her own slogan: “No man has gotten rich by himself.” Indeed, it takes a village to become rich: an educated workforce (to produce goods), a public infrastructure (to move goods), and the purchasing power of a middle class (to consume goods).

In fact, if one were to add the long-term benefits of education and research and development that stem from the public and private university systems as well as the larger military apparatus (also a public entity), one would quickly see that these investments pay off. Whenever we cut education and R&D for short-term returns, we are chipping away at our future economic prosperity.

Under President Reagan, for the first time in the modern era, a massive shift in the distribution of wealth occurred. Education today is running a similar course. It is here that we see the early effects of a policy shift from public to private. The shift is driven from the top down: it is both political and philosophical, a general policy favoring the individual over the society. Public education—perhaps the easiest of social contracts to dismantle—becomes the first of many victims.

The Reagan legacy bears directly on what educators across the country face today. The Tea Party decries the notion that one citizen should be responsible for the welfare of another, arguing that societies should be organized in small groups of individuals who share common interests. It works something like this: if someone else’s issue doesn’t seem to affect me directly, then I should play no role in that issue nor should I be held responsible financially for any policies to address it. Such ideology is Emersonian in spirit, but gone are the days when isolationism suggested independence and enlightened self-interest.

We are all involved. We are all connected, and have been since the conception of an American middle class first brought the farmer, and then the blue-collar factory worker, into the American economic mainstream.

The Chicago teachers’ strike sounded an alarm. The teachers’ union was more threatened by attempts to privatize the public schools than by reductions in compensation (though the two are connected). The Chicago teachers simply had lost faith in policy makers who advocated for the replacement of the public with the private. While public schools have always been an essential part of the modern American tradition, the question remains: What will this tradition look like once it is gutted from the inside? What becomes of public education once charter schools and other private institutions become the norm? We are reminded again of the philosophy of enlightened self-interest: “Why should I, the taxpayer, be forced to pay for the education of my neighbor’s child when my kids are already grown?”

The basic facts about the distribution and inequality of wealth we see in America are staggering. Neoliberals continue the Reagan legacy through their unabashed use of such empty terms as laissez-faire, private capital, and top down, and by accepting naive metaphors like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, which all magically lead to the American myth—the lone cowboy, American exceptionalism.

Private versus Public

Those of us who question that legacy see a very different landscape. Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, writes that the top 1 percent absorbed more than 42 percent of the gains in economic growth over the last thirty years and that the inequality gap has doubled over the last three decades. The top 10 percent now owns 70 percent of all American assets. The disproportionate distribution of wealth indicates that most of the population has seen very little improvement in standard of living over this period.

Before Reagan, when companies and their budgets grew, they grew in step with the middle and working classes. The thirty years prior to Reagan would see the top 1 percent of the population take in just over 20 percent of the country’s economic gains, with the top 10 percent owning roughly 35 percent of all American assets. We are all too familiar with embarrassing inequities of wealth these days: since 1980, the current state of our economy has seen productivity gains in excess of 80 percent, with the incomes of the top 1 percent increased by over 240 percent.

There are other aspects of the Reagan legacy worth noting. Taking a cursory glance back in time, sifting through layers of what had been built up by prior administrations—even by staunch Republican administrations that were, in domestic terms, “liberal-minded,” such as the Nixon administration—we see that what had been labeled under President Johnson as Great Society measures began to be dismantled under Reagan despite strong public support.

Of course, it may be the case that public opinion turned against government spending under President Carter and that Reagan was simply riding the wave of antigovernment sentiment. (Surveys indicating this shift were compiled in 1993 by George Edwards, curator for the Presidential Data Archive and director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University, under a program titled “Presidential Rhetoric.”)

The rate of total inflation by decade has seen modest increases of just over 121 percent in the decades since 1980. The Consumer Price Index has kept pace with purchasing power, so 1980s dollars have essentially doubled in 2012 dollars. Consumer Price Index inflation numbers, which include staples such as food, have essentially risen in lockstep with purchasing power (with the help of the easing inflation on goods from China). This leveling has protected the American as consumer. However, when we turn our attention to education, what we find is an extreme increase—to the extent that American university tuitions have increased by nearly 600 percent since 1980. What are we to make of such extreme inflation in the price of knowledge? It seems that rather than invest in long-term prosperity through the education of children across generations, we are more apt simply to go out to dinner and splurge. We indeed are cannibalizing our children. But we have been led to do so by policy.

And to those who wish to claim that such inflation is healthy since it is in keeping with Adam Smith’s notion of the invisible hand that leads to self-regulated open markets—the idea being that the private individual receiving the education should “foot the bill” since it is “only” the individual who will reap the benefits of the education—I would say that the notion of “reaping the benefits” is not well understood.

The myopic view that values the private over the public can survive only as long as the misperception persists that education is an individual rather than a wider social good. In the eyes of beleaguered individualists, the boom of the middle class after World War II did not correlate with the investments made in public higher education through, say, the GI Bill. This is simply not true. In fact, a strong case can be made that such long-term investments in education allowed the middle class to flourish. And both groups, the educated and the uneducated, rose together. Both sides of the educational divide similarly reaped the benefits. But such long-term investments go unexamined in executive boardrooms, at the PowerPoint presentations, and at the end-of-the-year bonus celebrations.

Sure, good governance must be enacted from above. But it can’t stop there. It must be not only informed by but also inherently linked to grassroots democracy. Once this link to good governance is severed, otherwise decent people with a clear social conscience begin to turn inward and become self-serving, opportunistic, and altogether detached from the society to which they belong. The narcissism of the 1 percent is what has spawned both the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement. When the connections between the top and the middle and working class are snapped, we all enter a free fall.

What is the nature of this instability? In socioeconomic terms (and this by no means makes an exhaustive list), we have witnessed union-busting measures, job-depleting outsourcing, unfettered globalization, and an increasingly mechanized workforce, all of which have led to the systematic dismantling of the American middle class. When these ingredients are combined with reverence for the individual and mistrust of collectivism, a dangerous mixture is indeed made—in the words of Keats, “The seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events.” To which I might add, “Seeds that sprout isolationism, nationalism, and fanaticism.”

Examining current attempts by management at American universities to override faculty unions, we see the new love affair with online education. Of course, such a model leads to outsourcing not only of the student but of the professor as well, not to mention the potential outsourcing of intellectual property rights associated with curricular development. Historically, without the traditional role unions have played in counterbalancing the illusions of management—as management lobbies hard for its side, so too must labor unions work for their side—there is every reason to believe that America would never have been able to form a viable middle class.

If nothing else, labor unions have forced the top 1 percent to be mindful of their base. Again, I recall Elizabeth Warren’s call for balance. Without labor unions and the checks and balances they impose, we would be a rich but lopsided banana republic.

We don’t have to look far for such models.


Joseph Galasso is on the faculty of both English and linguistics at California State University–Northridge. His research interests involve theoretical syntax and child language acquisition. His e-mail address is [email protected].


A longer version of this article is available at


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