System-Building to Blowing Up the System: Comparing Early 20th & 21st Century Educational Philanthropists
Oh, what a century can bring! Early 20th century philanthropists rained money for educational efforts of all sorts. They recognized the need for and possibilities of strong publicly supported school systems, for all Americans. Their response quickly focused attention and money on the problems of building administrative systems that would foster public education and extend it to ever more children and youth. However, the money came at a cost and these “scientific philanthropists” ([wikipop search=”Andrew Carnegie”]Carnegie[/wikipop] and [wikipop search=”John D. Rockefeller”]Rockefeller[/wikipop] the towering giants) have been derided by many analysts for their oppressive imposition of mandates that accompanied funding.1 However, despite sharing the concerns of these critics, I find myself doubly troubled by the early 21st century “venture philanthropists” (led by [wikipop search=”Bill Gates”]Gates[/wikipop], [wikipop search=”Eli Broad”]Broad[/wikipop], and [wikipop search=”Alice Walton”]Walton[/wikipop]) whose business efficiency ideas and stunning wealth toll a death knell for public education.2
Kenneth J. Saltman offers a damning indictment of these most recent “big givers” to educational efforts in his new book, The Gift of Education (2010). Saltman, through solid scholarship, illustrates how the social investments of these new foundations are principally designed to privatize public education. This is not a new claim but Saltman’s expose of the venture philanthropies is the richest to date and is a must-read for all Americans concerned about the privatizing of public space, particularly our public schools and our public systems of education in our nation.3
In the rest of the essay, my aim does not seek to explicate Saltman’s arguments nor does it attempt to salvage the reputation of the scientific philanthropists. It offers examples from the early 20th century to illustrate how we might learn from the past to revitalize rather than to ruin public education. What one can see, through a century of hindsight, is the emergence of an educational landscape that sought the inclusion of all American children and youth using the support of state resources. This educational landscape is precisely the target of the current cadre of extremely wealthy educational philanthropists.
Schools for whites and blacks in the South at the turn of the 20th century remained woefully under-resourced and mired in distressing disarray as functions of outmoded public sentiments and a ruined economy. A modicum of school system-building had been undertaken, mainly by socially conscious city and statehouse officials. But they attracted only minor attention and even less financial support. The Southern Education Board (SEB) sought radical alterations to the organization and management of public schooling throughout the region. Officially chartered in 1900 with major funding from John D. Rockefeller’s [wikipop]General Education Board[/wikipop] (GEB), the SEB charged itself with a major effort to improve public education funding. The SEB initiated a public relations campaign to educate southerners, especially white adult males, about the needs for and the benefits of higher taxation for schooling. By 1910, taxes had increased significantly across the region. Thus, with this monetary support, viable school systems became visible in almost all of the southern states. 4 Now, in the 21st century, many individuals claim that the times call for a rejection of the enthusiasm and the plans that built robust public schools. These individuals, mainly neoliberals, now believe that public revenue never will be sufficient for our nation to construct either the programs or the ethos for an American schooling for the 21st century and they offer an alternative for schools for these times: private funds and entrepreneurial managers largely unaccountable to the majority of voters. For example, a recent teacher salary re-negotiation in Washington, D.C. includes private funds to help pay for raises.5 Such a “fix” is illusory and profoundly deceptive. We need a new campaign to educate all of the need for enlarged public funding and keep schooling firmly in the public commons.
Similar to other southern schools at the turn of the 20th century, public universities in the South remained mainly marginal institutions. In particular, the study of education at these sites was all but non-existent. In 1905, the GEB funded a Professor of Secondary Education at the University of Virginia. By 1910, each southern state’s flagship university had accepted money for such a position. This professor was no ivory tower resident. He (and they were all men) were charged principally with being an educational circuit-rider, taking the message of high school necessity to all reaches of their state. In addition, these men led the establishment of state school accreditation programs to assist in school standardization and credentialing for a new economy. 6 Strikingly, the heirs to these men’s efforts as public school pied-pipers are vigorously targeted by today’s venture philanthropists. Substantial improvement of teacher education and administrator preparation programs must be undertaken.7 However, 21st century givers’ proposals to blow up the academy recklessly disregard the successes of the early 20th century philanthropists in tandem with local school officials and, increasingly, put our school children’s futures in jeopardy.8
Lastly, essential to realize is that educators drove policy for the scientific philanthropists. This circumstance is far different from that of today, in which education policy must fit the narrow confines of the givers’ own business expertise. 9 We must regain a pattern of policy-making that privileges practice. For historical illustration, I employ a man I’ve been tracking through the archives for more than a decade: [wikipop search=”Jackson T. Davis”]Jackson Davis[/wikipop] (no relation). Davis became the first GEB-funded State Agent for Negro Education in 1910, after a long decade of philanthropic inaction over the schooling of African American children and youth. Although his official purview was the commonwealth of Virginia, New York City-based GEB officials relied on his professional education and in-the-field experience. Two events can illuminate the GEB’s acceptance of Davis as a policy leader. Shortly after assuming his position, Davis joined representatives of a handful of philanthropies at a conference on African American education at GEB headquarters. Other attendants listened carefully to his practical ideas, accepted them, and, as a result, they importantly influenced the next decade of philanthropic engagement with African American schools and their communities. And after becoming the Director of the GEB’s State Agent Program in 1920, leading men in each of the southern states that he had personally recruited, Davis undertook an effort to bring official accreditation to African American schools. Accomplished in 1932, this Davis-led reform illustrates the sort of practical policy-making sorely needed today. 10 Unfortunately, 21st century venture philanthropists are guiding education policy from the top, using their business expertise to greatly narrow policy options. These “tinkerers toward utopia” should step aside and allow educators with the professional education and in-the-field experience, like Jackson Davis, to take the lead in education policy-making.11
Individuals from the era of scientific philanthropy, like most charitable givers, made grievous missteps as well as bold strides. These men of the early 20th century, despite myriad faults, endeavored to strengthen public education. Their school system-building surely needs shoring. As well, educators and citizens alike must resist the privatization that 21st century venture philanthropists provide. Our public schools must stay public institutions, supported by public funds, responsible to the public.
- See, for examples, James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987) and William H. Watkins, The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954 (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001). [↩]
- Kenneth J. Saltman, The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy (New York: Palgrave, 2010). [↩]
- For another examination of privatizing efforts, see Patricia Hill Collins, Another Kind of Public Education: Race, the Media, Schools, and Democratic Possibilities (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009). [↩]
- This historical information on the SEB is drawn from the SEB Records finding aid at the University of North Carolina. http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/s/Southern_Education_Board.html I have written more expansively about the GEB’s “stimulation of southern education in the following. Matthew D. Davis, “Stimulation, Sustenance, and Subversion: The General Education Board and Southern U.S. Public Education,” Journal of Educational Administration and History 38, 3 (2006): 313-322. [↩]
- Bill Turque. “D.C. schools, teachers union reach tentative deal,” washingtonpost.com, 04/07/2010 [↩]
- Davis, “Stimulation, Sustenance, and Subversion.” [↩]
- See, for example, David F. Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. Labaree is a strong critic of all education school activities but writes from a position within the structure, one who wants it to survive. [↩]
- Blowing up the academy is an exaggeration of the venture philanthropists’ efforts. However, Saltman (2010) narrates the well-funded efforts to have nothing to do with university-based programs in teacher education and educational leadership. [↩]
- As Saltman (2010, 113) asserts, “Gates, Broad, Walton, and the other venture philanthropists largely surround themselves with like-minded advisers and personalities who embrace the basic assumptions and general direction of the foundations.” [↩]
- Matthew D. Davis, “‛Attuned to the Art of the Possible:’ The GEB’s Jackson Davis,” American Educational History Journal 31, 2 (2004): 124-128; “Curriculum Leadership for the Jim Crow South: The General Education Board between the Two World Wars,” Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue 8, 2 (2006): 145-152; and “Lessons from the Past: Three Modest Suggestions toward Reform of Schooling for the Poor,” International Journal of Educational Reform 16, 3 (2007): 248-259. [↩]
- The quotation is borrowed from David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996). [↩]
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