Careering Into Catastrophe

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Trump Plan To Merge Labor, Education Departments Could Undermine Them Both (Huffington Post via MSN)

As the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens in theatres, it’s important to revisit one of Mister Rogers’ most famous quotes, and my personal favourite of his: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” You’ve probably seen this quote in meme form on your social media feeds several times, and next to what he said about more people helping out than hurting others in times of tragedy, it may be the most important Mister Rogers quote for our time. Today, however, as the Trump Administration proposes merging the Department of Labor with the Department of Education, his quote about play being the work of childhood is taking on increased importance, and possibly not on a temporary basis.

The word “work” has a number of different meanings, and it’s important to keep the differences between these meanings in mind. When Mister Rogers spoke of play being the “work” of childhood, he was referring to “work” as something which requires a lot of effort to do. Especially for the kind of young children who were the primary audience for Mister Rogers’ television show, basic motor and mental skills can still be quite challenging, as they learn through play how to do things like ride tricycles, catch balls, and keep score in the games they play. These things can take a lot of effort, and young people should definitely be encouraged to put a lot of effort into things that are useful for them. In that sense of the word “work,” it’s hardly controversial to suggest that children should be encouraged to become diligent workers, both at school and at home.

However, “work” is also synonymous in the English language with the concept of a career: Employment at a job in order to provide for one’s self and the people one cares for, be they family or friends. Mister Rogers clearly did not mean this sense of the word “work” in his quote about play being the work of childhood. However, it has increasingly become the case over the past few decades that our schools have been moving away from the idea of “work” as teaching children to put a lot of effort into everything they do, and towards the idea of “work” as training children for jobs after their educational careers. I find it hard to believe that the people who have pushed for this change aren’t deliberately conflating the different definitions of “work” in their rhetoric, and the combining of the Departments of Education and Labor could well be the greatest victory for their cause that they could possibly conceive of.

Some of the ways in which corporations have been allowed to turn pre-collegiate education into their own free “job schools” have been obvious, particularly given corporate America’s penchant for branding by sticking their logos in every place they can think of. Beyond the more visible elements of corporate intrusion into American schools, though, curricula have been rewritten, and teachers and administrators have been hired, to move our schools away from the idea of helping young people develop as people, and towards inculcating them into believing they are cogs of an inevitable and unchangeable corporate machinery. Many authors, including Diane Ravitch, have written about this phenomenon in recent years, and the proponents of turning K-12 schooling into vocational training have been so successful at normalizing their philosophy that many of them no longer even try to hide exactly what it is they are hoping to do.

The merger of the Department of Education with the Department of Labor would be little more than the most visible sign, and most powerful tool, for these people to force their ideology on the rest of us. No longer would the idea of schools being a place to train young people for jobs be a subject of debate; it would be a given. The “work” of our children would no longer be learning to be diligent at what they do, whether playing a game or doing homework; children’s “work” would be the things that corporate America prizes most, so they can use those future adults to make more money.

We’ve already seen this as schools have been forced, through draconian budget cuts made by politicians who couldn’t care less about how children learn (or, perhaps more importantly, how they feel), to remove things like arts programmes and physical education, and other things that can’t be quantified by the hard numbers that corporate America loves to analyze, scrutinize and lionize. The overreliance on standardized testing not only demonstrates how the philosophies of corporate number-crunchers have infiltrated our educational system, but also highlights the misanthropic attitudes that arise from the prioritizing of profits over people; even grade school children are now regularly subjected to high-stakes testing that puts both their own futures, and the livelihoods of their already stressed-out teachers, on the line. Just as in the corporate world, failure of any size is not tolerated, and is easily turned into a cudgel with which to beat those who make mistakes into a pulp.

A significant part of the reason why young children need to play is because we humans learn through our mistakes. None of us won every game of kickball we played when we were younger, and none of us went through grade school without tripping on our feet at least once. Not only is the whole concept of “play” antithetical to the mission of corporate America and its infiltration of our schools — you can’t put hard numbers on happiness, and removing fun from young people’s lives indoctrinates them  into the environments of their soul-crushing jobs as adults — but the frivolity of play distracts young people from the idea that everything they do for their authority figures (their teachers and parents when they’re in school, their bosses when they’re older) must be serious, diligent and, above all, perfect.

We have already seen what these people have done, through the creation of an educational system parallel to our public schools that was designed to make the rich even richer, and benefit the fortunate at the expense of the less fortunate. The cries of “market-driven reforms” did not mean that every child got a better education; it meant that the many failures and abuses of “market-driven” schools were covered up or ignored or even denied, while the public schools that were essentially robbed to pay the salaries of the people running the other schools were decried as incompetent despite being set up to fail.

Those who think that this current administration and its conservative cronies are some kind of “last gasp” of a dying-out Baby Boomer generation are fooling themselves. The people who benefited from the demolition of public education were, by and large, taught to believe that their privilege is just part of “the natural order of things,” and also learned how to maintain and enlarge that privilege. Meanwhile, the less-fortunate people who never had access to a good education, who have spent their entire lives being victimized by all those around them, often lack the capacity to understand how they are being abused by this system, and are easily led to scapegoat others, no matter how irrationally, as the causes for their own suffering. The last couple of weeks of news stories from the southern border of this country has made that readily apparent.

Fred Rogers is no longer with us, and we are all the worse off for that. I would like to think that if he were here, he would be able to calmly and convincingly articulate the reasons why we need to make sure all our children are taken care of; the Mister Rogers demeanor may have been quiet and collected, but make no mistake about it: In his own way, Fred Rogers was fighting for the right of every child to have the opportunities to play and have fun and, above all else, be a child. That work now falls upon the rest of us, and it will unquestionably some of the hardest work that many of us ever do, but for the children today who need the ability to play — who deserve the ability to play — they deserve nothing less.

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