Socialism and education in the US: what it will take for everyone to be able to afford school
The US education system is radically unfair and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are sparking a conversation about alternatives
Last week’s Democratic debate was more of a brawl than a discourse. Seeing anti-billionaire candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren pitted against billionaire Michael Bloomberg made me consider the wealth disparity in America. The question that came out of the debate was: how ready is America ready for socialism?
I would not call either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren socialists, even if conservative Republicans are eager to paint them with that brush.
Ms Warren is more a pro-market leftist than a socialist. Born into poverty, she has fought hard all her life to reach the position she is in now. She calls herself a capitalist to the bones.
Brooklyn-born Mr Sanders on the other hand is a self-declared socialist who in 1985 travelled to Nicaragua to celebrate the Soviet-backed Sandinista government and four years later, to communist Cuba to laud the country’s free healthcare, education and housing.
He has recently toned down his rhetoric. He no longer idolises communist regimes but looks to progressive countries like Denmark and Sweden as examples of workable socialism – in particular their health and education policies. Both he and Ms Warren intend to fix America’s broken education system.
I have lived in socialist countries (France and the UK) most of my adult life. I have used state healthcare, given birth in a public hospital and my son went to a “sous-contrat” school in Paris that was subsidised by the French government.
A 1983 graduate recently told me, In my day, people’s parents were teachers or journalists or maybe lawyers – the average middle class. Now most parents are bankers
While there are problems with the French system – including often enforcing memorisation rather than creative thinking – it largely works. Most people in France use the state system rather than private schools, and universities are accessible to most if you get the grades.
No massive economic hurdles or crippling student loans prevent youngsters from attending – or staying – in tertiary education.
In comparison, Mr Sanders and Ms Warren have forced me to think about how radically unfair the US educational system is. In New York City, where I now live, private schools offering elite education cost about $50,000 (Dh183,660) a year. Students are rigorously prepared to enter the elite Ivy League universities – which then cost around $80,000. Nowhere is economic injustice more apparent than within the educational model.
To be fair, the wealthier the university the more financial aid it is able to give. Others can attend public universities – which have fewer resources. Ms Warren got financial aid and worked her way through law school. Mr Sanders went to the public Brooklyn College before transferring to the University of Chicago.
The New York City private school system has exploded since the financial boom of the 1980s, with competitive parents plotting their child’s high school from their day of birth. This is a new phenomenon. Prior to the money boom most people just went to school.
One 1983 graduate of Dalton, one of the best elite schools in New York, recently told me that it was very different three decades ago: “In my day, people’s parents were teachers or journalists or maybe lawyers – the average middle class. Now most parents are bankers.”
It is frustrating to think that a level of superior education is only available to elite students – either because they have money or are groomed to attend such schools. They are selected on account of their potential to be leaders.
In recent years, more students that fill the diversity quota are admitted. But even so, if you do not have a family that sets you on the Ivy track early on, you do not stand much of a chance. If your family struggled to pay rent, it is unlikely they are thinking of enrolling you in extra-curricular activities or pricey university preparation classes. It is precisely these students, who do not stand much of a chance, that we need to reach most. They are the ones left behind.
Earlier this week, I had a meeting with a dean from a large north-eastern American public university (a state school that offers lower tuition to local students). Her dilemma was how to keep low-income students enrolled for the full four years and help them pay off small debts. “Some of them have to drop out because they owe $200 in parking tickets or library fees,” she said. Some of them have to support families or work in order to pay for food or housing.
Everyone knows the value of education, whether it is educating girls in Afghanistan or countering violent extremism. But I often wonder guiltily – because even though he is on a full scholarship, my son goes to a private school and I teach at Yale University, an Ivy League school – how different American society would be if young low-income students were set on leadership paths early on. What if we could reach the kind of students that Elizabeth Warren grew up with in Oklahoma? What if they had the opportunities to take unpaid internships, overseas fellowships or get help securing their first job. It is not a secret that the Ivy League brand is pretty much an assurance that you graduate with a job offer in hand, and probably a high-paying one. Recruiters don’t visit the state universities; they want the best and the brightest.
This takes me back to Ms Warren and Mr Sanders. Ms Warren believes that “every kid in America should have the same access to a high-quality public education – no matter where they live, the colour of their skin or how much money their parents make.”
Mr Sanders believes we should “re-invest” in education, and use the first African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as an icon – his plan largely focuses on combating racism, free universal school meals and rebuilding schools.
So while I don’t think of either one of them as true, blue socialists, I do think what they are proposing in terms of education is radical and very much needed. They want to tear down the system and rebuild it. This may spell anarchy but without it, the elite who run America will continue to do so.
Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs
Updated: February 24, 2020 05:14 PM