Sunday, November 4, 2012

Kiss the Ring on the Invisible Hand, or, Philanthropy and Education

We live in a time when our two major parties have two basic views on how to help those in need. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party (mostly) believe that people are disadvantaged by their circumstances and through little or no fault of their own. They believe in having the government step in when people are disadvantaged in order to help those people, to some extent. This view is often called socialist. It is socialist, in that this view believes that the people should give money to the government, which we then trust the government to distribute fairly to those in need.

Mitt Romney and the Republican Party believe that people are disadvantaged because they didn't try hard enough. They believe that the government should not use the people's money to help those in need. Instead, they believe that the wealthy should help those in need by giving them money directly through philanthropy. This view is often called capitalist. It is capitalist, in that this view believes that capitalists (those with money) will have a moral conscience that counterbalances the inevitable inequities built in to the capitalist system of economy. Adam Smith believed this. He called this moral conscience an "invisible hand" that guides the capitalist (landlord) to have sympathy for the disadvantaged (tenant farmer). In my reading of Smith, the invisible hand was a metaphor for God. Not coincidentally, many of the most philantrhopic people are also Christians.

Now, you may be able to guess which side I espouse (even though I explained to a student the other day that I AM NOT a Democrat), but I wanted to write here about the extent to which our public education system today relies on the invisible hand. Our public education system is awash in donated money from foundations, such as the Gates, and from private individual donors. 

I myself have both donated money to schools and received donations for my students. I have asked for donations through the non-profit Donors Choose and for my school directly. Last year, a colleague (the author of this guest post) raised funds to help send students to Six Flags for their physics day. This year, I raised money to pay for my students' fees on the PSAT. I have also won three Donors Choose grants for books, books that my the schools I worked in could not (or, in one case, would not) pay for.

For my birthday, my in-laws gave me a gift certificate to spend some money on Donors Choose. I wanted to spend it in the Chicago Public Schools, and I had over 500 projects to choose from. Beginning last Christmas, I decided to ask my family members to donate to performing arts projects in the Chicago Public Schools. The arts funding in CPS is abysmal, and performing arts are a special passion of mine. So, how did I decide from among these 500 projects? Did I want to donate to a project of a friend? Of a school in my neighborhood? Did I want to donate to a school in another neighborhood that I know has an even higher rate of poverty than mine? Was I willing to donate to a charter school (I considered one charter school where I used to volunteer), or did it have to be a CPS school? 

I ultimately decided on the project that stood out to me the most. It is a great project, its deadline is fast approaching, it is in a truly high-poverty area, and it is for the performing arts. (If you have the means and can donate to this project, please do! It is a terrific project and I would love to see it funded.)

Of course, looking through the various grant applications depressed me in a variety of ways. First of all, so many of them are for basic resources, such as classroom books, paper and toner for printers, or technologies that are now common to most sufficiently-funded schools. There are literally hundreds of projects asking for books. This just shows me how unjust our school funding system is in this country and this state. 

Secondly, the vast majority of the projects were written by charter school teachers or by teachers at schools with affluent populations and strong parent-run Local School Councils. This shows me that Donors Choose is a resource that is known and used by younger teachers and those with greater degrees of social and cultural capital. This is yet another way in which disadvantaged schools are further disadvantaged. The colleague who solicited funds for Six Flags and I are both Ivy League graduates and we both attended private high schools. I am often amazed at how reluctant my other colleagues are to even seek donations for things we want for our school. When you create a fundraising proposal in CPS, there is a space to describe what you will be selling to raise funds (the "bake sale" model). There is no space to explain that you are simply soliciting donations (something our school accounts clerk called "begging"). When a CPS school with affluent parents needs a kindergarten aide because the district didn't give them one, the parents just pool their money together and buy one.

Thirdly and finally, all of this philanthropy makes me dreadfully uncomfortable. I am constantly hitting up my family and friends for donations for my students. They are very nice about it, but it's embarrassing and awkward. Worse yet, students are often required to write personalized thank-you notes to their donors. Donors Choose offers this as an option when you make a donation. I have had my students write thank-you notes, and their thank-yous are heartfelt and lovely. But the procedure strikes me as demeaning for students who, through no fault of their own, simply do not have the same things as students in wealthier communities.

I spoke recently to my friend and sometime mentor Lauren Berlant about it, and here's what she had to say: "Relations of patronage make me anxious. At Oberlin I was a named scholarship kid, and was very verbally and epistolarily grateful to my benefactors, without whom I could not have gone for one day. But if it had been demanded I would have been irritated." My students don't even express irritation. They take having to thank those with greater personal advantage as a matter of course. Worse, they believe that the rich people who give them money have earned and deserve their wealth. (I am a socialist, but I admit that wealth is partly earned. It is also largely the result of advantages with which we are born, and I don't mean IQ.)

Lauren also said: "The important thing is to be a resource for the people without resources. The question is whether we can separate being grateful from being abject and connect it to a sense of fairness and an analysis of how unarbitrary unfairness can be. But from what I can tell the kids who just experienced the
strike have a pretty good sense of inequality and who's served by it." This is true. The strike taught my students to be much more aware of inequality than they were previously.

Lauren finally said, regarding whether I should have my students write thank-you notes for the PSAT donations, "I think if you said, the donor would be happy to hear what happens to you, but also wants you to feel free to focus on doing something that matters with your lives." What a great sentiment. People who donate to schools care about kids--no one is denying that. And that means that they would like to know what happens to the kids in whom they have invested themselves personally. But we shouldn't force our students to kiss the ring, and I have to wonder about the motives of people who believe that they should have to.