Shame on us
by Gilles d'Aymery

September 19, 1996

There are times when even a hearty sense of humor cannot thwart the vivid description of a despicable condition or an abominable situation; times when it is so repulsive, so offensive to human sensitivity, that even sarcasm or cynicism won't do.

Comes to mind the downing of the Pan Am and -- possibly -- TWA flights, the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City or of the World Trade Center in New York City, for instance. These are big, shocking events. We, as a society, are horrified and expect our law enforcement agencies to find the guilty parties and punish them severely. Others, such as the random shootings of kids by kids in our inner cities, are more diffuse and so repetitive that they somehow do not leave as strong a mark in our subconscious. They mostly are prime justifications for our elective officials to call for tougher measures, more cops, more jails, more and longer sentences against the perpetrators. And at the apex of horror, where the degree of abomination and odium is almost impossible to comprehend, and our responsibility is collective, we can think of the extermination of a people by another people; the Native Americans, the Jews and Gypsies during WWII and, more recently, the Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime, the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Bosnians... The list keeps growing.

But, how should we rate on this scale of abhorrence the conditions in which our ten million poorest kids live in our country, the kids in the inner cities and rural areas, white, black, brown, and all? How should we rate the education or lack thereof they receive because of our indifference, our greed, our social-Darwinian ideology? How can the so-called wealthiest country in the world treat its kids, its future, with such an asinine attitude? We already have the highest rate of child poverty in the entire industrialized world, only beaten perhaps by the former Soviet Union where, like in Russia, we have forced our savage capitalism upon them as an ultimate panacea. And still, we also have one of the highest rates of infant mortality...

Two nights ago, on KQED, the San Francisco PBS affiliate, broadcasted a documentary on education hosted by Bill Moyers. This program showed the contrast in quality of infrastructure and education among various schools in the state of Ohio; a state which, according to the host, is fairly representative of the entire country. The financial disparity between the schools was appalling. Expenses per pupil range from $3,000 to $12,000 (actually, in the nation, the range is closer to a 1 to 10 ratio- $2,000 for the poorest, up to $20,000 for the wealthiest). The contrast in the superstructure of the various schools was even more outrageous. One school's buildings had actually been closed by the State's competent authorities due to their conditions. A fetid squalor! They looked like a decrepit factory that might have been built in the 30's and abandoned ever since. The state would not use them even to shelter homeless people. Yet, the school board had obtained a waiver from the state to keep them open. The reason? Education money is raised through property and business taxes. In such poor districts, there are no businesses and the property value is so low that there is no or little tax revenue. They simply could not afford a new school. The kids lacked books, crayons, and the like; there was no computer in sight, no laboratory. There was nothing! Just buckets to collect rain water and kids of all backgrounds wandering in this putrid environment; just teachers struggling to keep a semblance of sanity...

Millions of kids are growing up in our country to a totally desperate situation. Their only fault is to have been born into poor districts, poor families. Many will find themselves jobless, in the streets, and at one time or another in jail.

Meantime, our moralizers on the Right want to do away with the Education Department and add more jails to lock up those future delinquents. And in their speeches, they keep repeating that the problem has little to do with money, though they fail to explain why the majority of our prison system comes from those schools and not from the suburban well-to-do districts. And our moralizers on the Left bury their heads in the sand like ostriches, knowing full well that the voters have turned stingy of late, and votes are what count.

According to an Ohio school district official it would take about six hundred million dollars to fix or replace the insalubrious school buildings in the entire state. And he mentioned that a football stadium had just been completed for the modest sum of seven hundred million dollars. We can see where our priorities lie!

Indeed, KQED scheduled this program at 9:30 PM, that is toward the end of prime-time coverage, just after ABC had finished broadcasting Monday Night Football. Yes, we have our priorities. We love football and its athletic prowess and we accept to have the lowest literacy rate in the industrialized world... Keep talking about values, keep talking!

Anything to add?

We are an indifferent society witnessing one of the most barbaric acts one could imagine: Brain extermination.

Shame on us.

Published September 19, 1996
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