A previous version of this article appeared in educational Horizons
Gary K Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University and Alison A. Clabaugh, Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Arcadia University
One evening a young Swedish woman accompanied her American fiancée to my Education Policy class. We were considering how American schools are influenced by the society that surrounds them. Wanting a foreign perspective, I asked our guest, “Since your arrival has anything about America surprised you?” She hesistantly replied, “Yes, I’m surprised that America is so savage.” She explained that she was surprised by America’s slums and poverty, by the enormous gap between rich and poor, by the tens of millions imprisoned, and most of all, by the staggering number of impoverished children and elderly. Then she added as a quiet afterthought, “There is nothing like this in Sweden.”
This incident came to mind when I recalled that Exxon gave Lee Raymond, its retiring CEO, a $400 million going away present. It included “…a pension, stock options and other perks, such as a $1 million consulting deal, two years of home security plus personal security, a car and driver, and use of a corporate jet for professional purposes.”[i] At about the same time that Raymond received this breathtaking largess, 20 million adults and 13 million children did not have access to enough food to meet their basic needs. And, according to the Census Bureau, at this time one in five, or fifteen million, US children were living at or below the poverty line. .
The inequality she noted got me thinking about a sad, but very well made, documentary concerning poverty and public schooling in Mississippi. LALEE”S KIN: the Legacy of Cotton depicts a desperately poor West Tallahatchie family’s daily struggle for existence; and the impoverished West Tallahatchie School District’s last ditch efforts to fend off a low test score induced state takeover.
LaLee — a great grandmother whose youth and middle age were used up laboring in the cotton fields — is raising three grand and great grand children. Stoop labor was all she ever knew before mechanization left her jobless. Now, thrown off the plantation and nearly illiterate because of a shamefully inadequate public education that met the needs of plantation owners rather than children, she lives in a trailer with no running water barely surviving on a pension of $545 a month.
“Granny” Stays Home
The three grand and great grand children attend the previously mentioned, under-funded, state-beleaguered West Tallahatchie School District that hasn’t enough of anything except misery. And while the Superintendent of the District is properly dismayed about the unfairness of state funding proceedures, “Granny,” one of the children living with LaLee, sits at home and in tears on the opening day of school. LaLee hasn’t been able to scrape together the money necessary to pay for “Granny’s” first day school supplies —pencils, paper, glue, scissors, tissues, and so forth. Humiliated and ashamed, “Granny” stays home.
One imagines that plenty of other Mississippi children were without school supplies, since nearly one in four of them live in poverty.[ii] One wonders if this is the sort of “problem” Trent Lott, LaLee’s Senator, was referring to when he commented that the US would have avoided “all these problems” if the foaming at-the-mouth segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected President in 1948.
Anyway, one thing is certain. This nation has the necessary resources to make sure every child in America has what they need in the way of school supplies. In fact we have the resources to do a lot more than that for children. Instead, greed, hypocrisy, indifference and misplaced priorities have left millions of kids exposed to what author Jonathan Kozol correctly calls “savage inequalities.”[iii] Then, to top it off, educators are blamed for the educational consequences.
An Obscene Comparison
Let’s get back to Lee Raymond and his $400 million retirement gift by comparing Raymond’s lot in life with that of LaLee. Raymond made $51.1 million the year before he retired. Assuming he worked a forty-hour week, that’s $17, 625 an hour.III This while LaLee and the kids were struggling to survive on $6,540 per year.
Let’s suppose Raymond decided to use some of his retirement package to insure that every one of the nation’s impoverished elementary school kids had first day school supplies. Say those supplies cost $25.00 per child. Twenty five percent of Mr. Raymond’s retirement package would outfit 4 million impoverished elementary school kids.[v] And that would still have left $300 million for Mr. Raymond just in case he hit a rough spot.
What They Deserve
Juxtaposing Raymond’s and LaLee’s situation illustrates how savagely unequal America really is. And remember, it is precisely because some Americans have far, far more than they need or deserve, that a total of 12 million children of all ages live below the federally established poverty line.[vi] How’s that for the richest nation on earth?
Unfortunately, all too many Americans foolishly buy into belief in the Protestant Ethic – that if you’re poor or at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole, you basically deserve to be there because you don’t or didn’t “work hard enough.”
But we know that hard work doesn’t always, or even usually, mean you can move up in our society. Many a person works very hard and never gets anywhere. Consider LaLee; her stoop labor in the cotton fields from dawn to dusk was, by any standard, hard work. But because of the color of her skin, the impoverished area where she lived, the wretched schools she attended, and so forth, the deck was stacked against her from day 1.
Because of this widespread belief in the Protestant ethic, however, the very rich often feel like they don’t “owe” anyone anything — they clawed their own way to the top, and they deserve all the wealth that comes their way.
One of the things they fail to realize (besides that they are being obscenely greedy, selfish, and short-sighted) is that increasingly everyone in this world is inter-connected with every other. That is why it might be unwise to ignore or exploit people who are down and out; because sooner or later there will come a bitter harvest. Gross inequality is like cancer – untreated its evil effects spread everywhere — evidence our present difficulties with illegal immigration from impoverished Mexico and Central America.
Moreover, given the undeniable connection between poverty and poor school achievement, even a member of Congress should understand that pervasive and profound inequality is what, directly or indirectly, causes millions of children to be “left behind.” Despite this, however, the very lawmakers who are now holding educators responsible for virtually every failure to learn, typically ignore children in need.
That’s not because these public officials are incapable of commitment. Most of them have never met a weapons system they didn’t love — particularly if it means jobs and corporate profits for their district. And that takes us to a major cause of America’s savagery, our militarism.
Ike’s Neglected Warning
In his 1961 farewell address to the nation President Dwight D. Eisenhower offered this famous but largely unheeded caution
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
Eisenhower’s fear has become our reality. Time and time again, when forced to choose between human welfare and vast quantities of preposterously expensive weapons, our politicians have chosen the weapons. The Trump administration is merely the latest iteration. In consequence, during the last half century the military-industrial complex’s “total influence — economic, political, even spiritual” —has distorted nearly every aspect of our society. In fact, our conspicuous indifference to suffering, even when it involves our nation’s children, plus our embarrassing eagerness to invest in, and employ deadly violence, causes us to be regarded as “savages” in much of the civilized world.
Nukes, Nukes and More Nukes
Consider our production of nuclear warheads. While millions of US children go without school supplies, not to mention adequate food or shelter, in 2016 our government possessed 4,600 of these horrific weapons. Yes, that’s right, nearly 5,000 of them! And President Trump promises to spend a lot more on their production.
What can we possibly do with this many of these doomsday weapons? Russia and China together don’t offer anything like that number of targets. In fact, there are fewer than 3,000 cities in the entire world that have a population exceeding 100,000; and many of these are in the US or nations friendly to us. [vii] What’s the plan? Make the rubble bounce three or four dozen times in hundreds of cities around the world?
Besides, if we use these weapons in any sizeable number, a residue of radioactive pollution will poison the earth for thousands of years to come.
Manufacturing absurd quantities of nuclear weapons has also resulted in the most appalling environmental mess in human history. Back in 1993, the Department of Energy estimated that the cost of cleaning up the unprecedented environmental damage caused by operating 113 nuclear weapons sites could run as high as one trillion dollars.[viii] And that’s just to clean up the mess left over in making the weapons. As of 2017 the effort continues, and is plagued by difficulties. For instance the U.S. Energy Department says its troubled attempt to cleanup a former nuclear weapons site in Washington state will cost an additional $4.5 billion, raising the project’s price tag to date to $16.8 billion.
Imagine what nearly $17 billion dollars could do for our nation’s impoverished children; or even to aid impoverished children the world over. And had we chosen to do that rather than build these weapons we would be utterly mad to use. Isn’t it possible that we would be more secure than we now are?
Toys for the Pentagon
The US also has been spending prodigious sums on non-nuclear high tech weapons — some of very dubious value given our present primitive adversaries. For instance, the Navy was planning on building a new multi-mission destroyer, the DD (X). It was designed to perform a wide range of missions, but at breath-taking cost. The estimated price of just one of these ships was $4.7 billion dollars. This led to a “cheaper” model that costs a mere $4.1 billion per copy.
Are these ships worth such a colossal sum? Critics say that there isn’t anything they can do that can’t be done far more cheaply by less sophisticated technology such as airplanes and fast patrol boats. Besides, of what use is such a weapon against the likes of the Iraqis or the Taliban who are regularly killing and maiming our servicemen with homemade bombs? Remember, the USS Cole, one of the most sophisticated destroyers in the Navy’s inventory, was successfully attacked and nearly sunk by an explosives laden motorboat manned by a handful of religious fanatics.
Considering how many powerful people have a stake in such high tech weapons systems such as the $256 billion Joint Strike Fighter or the F-22 Raptor, on which we wasted $62 billion before it was canceled due to cost concerns. (America’s fighter planes already enjoy unlimited air superiority and no challengers are on the horizon.) Imagine what $ 62 billion could have done for America’s impoverished kids. That’s what Ike was talking about when he warned of “the disastrous rise of misplaced power.”
Who Lobbies for “Granny?”
These and similarly dubious but gloriously expensive weapons systems are given the hard sell by a hoard of high-powered Washington lobbyists representing firms who stand to make tons of money manufacturing them. Moreover, they have the support of every lawmaker whose district might get a smell of the money. Meanwhile our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan lacked armored vests, trucks and Humvees for quite some time and the Secretary of Defense told them to make do.
While all of this is going on 12 million US children continue to live in poverty providing a perfect example of what President Eisenhower warned could happen — that the military-industrial complex would come to have “a disastrously misplaced influence” on our nation?
One War After Another
Consider the effect of the Vietnam War on America. Besides tearing us apart, it cost us the equivalent of about $1 trillion in today’s dollars. We lost anyway — beaten by determined men hauling supplies through the jungle on bicycles. All that money, all those shattered lives and those wounded bodies were an utter waste.
Now, suppose that $1 trillion thrown down the Vietnam rathole had instead been invested in strengthening our nation’s schools and helping kids who live in poverty? Wouldn’t that have been a better investment in the security of the nation? All the Vietnam War accomplished was to make us weaker, poorer and sadder — though apparently no wiser.
And let’s not forget President George W. Bush’s “preemptive” invasion of Iraq. The cost of this mad adventure now stands at about 4,500 dead, over 17,000 wounded and $2.4 trillion dollars that are gone forever. Are we safer because of it? No, ISIS was born of it and we’re less secure.
What it comes down to is that we depend too much on the power of fear and too little on the power of kindness. Had we invested that $2.4 trillion to help the nation’s 4 million poverty stricken elementary school-age children, a world of good could have been accomplished and we all would be more secure.[ix]
Perhaps you fail to see the connection between national security and helping the nation’s millions of neglected, unhappy, angry children. The likes of Al-Qaeda, Iran and North Korea sum up your security concerns. If so, consider what many kids without hope will be doing when they’re grown up. Besides, if doing the right thing still matters, no child should be without hope in the wealthiest nation on earth.
One could go on, but the point is clear. That young Swedish woman’s remark about America’s savagery was right on target. And the nation’s educators struggle daily with the consequences. No child left behind? No child will fail? What hypocrisy!
Gary Clabaugh, Ed. D. is a Emeritus Professor of Education at La Salle University
Ms. Alison Clabaugh, Ph.D. teaches Social Psychology at Temple University
 “Hunger in America.” USDA 2000 estimate, Farmers and Hunters Feeding America, http://www.fhfh.org/hunger.html
 Ibid. Census Bureau figure.
[ii]Save The Children, http://www.savethechildren.org/usa/usp_facts_figures.asp
[iii] Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: children in America’s schools, HarperCollins, New York, 1992.
[v] According to the Digest of Education Statistics, published by the National Center for Education Statistics, 33.7 million children were enrolled in US public schools in 2004.
[vi] Save The Children, op. cit.
[vii] World Cities Data Base, http://www-cger.nies.go.jp/grid-e/gridtxt/grid23.html
[viii] Cleaning Up The Department of Energy’s Nuclear Weapons Complex, http://ftp.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/49xx/doc4914/doc26-Part2.pd
[ix] To date the US has spent the equivalent of $12,307.69 per Iraqi citizen on the war. How’s that been working for us?