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My son started college last week and a couple days prior, he and I were out and about running last-minute errands to get him ready for the move to the dorm. In between stops, the news on NPR came on the car radio, including a report from that day’s funeral for Michael Brown. An excerpt of Rev. Al Sharpton’s message was played and at one point we heard Sharpton say something to the effect that it says something about our society when local police forces can get decked out by the government with military grade equipment even as local public schools cannot get the funds they need to deliver top-flight education to every child.
That comment prompted my otherwise fairly quiet son to say out loud, “Game, set, and match.”
Sharpton’s comment reminds me of the bumper sticker many of us have seen (but that I first saw on my niece’s car years ago): “Won’t It Be a Great Day When Schools Have All They Need and the Military Has to Hold Bake Sales to Buy Tanks.”
There are lots of ways–scores of ways for all I know–by which to evaluate any given society’s values and priorities but the old adage “follow the money” works as well here as in many other areas of life. And if we follow the money in America, we know that so much money goes toward building military equipment that the government ends up with too much of the stuff. And so after 9/11, apparently, it began to offer local police departments tanks and other high tech warfare hardware on the odd chance that Al Qaeda would make an incursion into Nebraska or Missouri that would require the police to fight back with the weapons of war. Of course, Al Qaeda has not made such incursions anywhere on any level of society that is policed by regular cops. But you know how it goes when you have all this really cool gear lying around: what’s the sense of having it if you never use it? And so the equipment meant to fight Al Qaeda fights, instead, the very citizens of a place like Ferguson whose lives and wellbeing we supposedly want to protect from the threats of Al Qaeda (or ISIS or whomever).
And meanwhile Sharpton’s point remains: the schools of this country still need massive work, require significant infusions of capital, and require long-term commitments from politicians on all levels of government to give all students a sense of meaning and purpose in life even as they receive as top-flight an education as we can give them.
Ultimately this is not an either-or, nor would I want to frame it as such. In this fallen world–a world whose dangers and treacheries have been on such sickening display in the summer of 2014–a nation like the United States needs its military and though I may lament some of the amounts that get spent or some of the waste inherent in so many military projects, you won’t find me to be such a pacifist that I want the Pentagon dismantled and every dollar for military spending re-routed to something else. But we also need to take care of our children, including the education of them and the nurturing of them at every level of society, and on that score we fail too often as a society.
I am convinced we have the money to do this but do we see this as a value high enough to follow through and channel that money to where it needs to go? I have not always agreed with Al Sharpton but it is to a large extent indeed “game, set, and match” when the government proves itself capable of going through all the effort and expense needed to arm local police forces with the kind of equipment we saw rolled out in Ferguson but cannot consistently get its act together to reach out to all the children of this nation in building an education system second to none. Militarily we outstrip most every nation on earth. Educationally the U.S. loses out to Ireland, Germany, Russia, Finland, Poland, and about ten other countries on rankings of education achievement.
Or to put it another way: what does it profit a nation if it can blow away the whole world but has forfeited the minds and hearts of its children?