Letter from a Teacher – “Ain’t We Got Fun?” by Jeannette Faber

As controversy swirls at the federal and state level, Connecticut educator Jeannette Faber challenges the status quo, writing;

One expectation that society/parents have of teachers is to help students “think outside of the box.” But what does this mean? It can mean a number of things, but as a veteran teacher, one way I try to help my students “think outside of the box” is by pushing them out if the “this or that” box.  Instead of “this or that,” it can be “this and that.” It seems paradoxical, but truth lies in paradox.

We also want our students to have a “first-rate intelligence.” American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

So, when it comes to solving our nation’s problems, maybe we need to step out of the “this or that” box and develop a “first-rate intelligence.”

Two major issues we as Americans care about, but are very polarized over, are health care and public education. Well, I have been a public school teacher for 21 years and am married to a physician who cares for a lot of Medicaid patients.

As a nation, we are trapped in the “this or that” binary when it comes to solving problems in these two sectors.

Capitalism OR socialism.  Compassion OR competition.

How do we step outside of these false choices and find better solutions?

I’d bet, like myself, that most Americans believe that capitalism is part of our national DNA. It is the force of our founding. It is captures and reflects the American spirit of individualism, entrepreneurship, and innovation.  But can capitalism left unchecked devolve to the point where the rich keep getting richer and the poor, poorer? And the middle class increasingly squeezed? Or out of reach? Our history tells us “Yes.” Our present economic reality also tells us “Yes.” The reality is that income inequality is now where it was at the time of the Gilded Age. This brings me back to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

My juniors read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It was originally published in 1922 in an American still economically divided from the Gilded Age, unknowingly headed just seven years later toward The Great Depression, and unaware that it would be another two decades before it would begin to build the great American middle class.  Since then, many forces have been at work over the last 30 years that are destroying that great middle class.

In chapter 5 of The Great Gatsby, when Gatsby is showing his mansion to Daisy for the first time, he asks Klipspringer to play the piano. He plays and sings that 1921 iconic song, “Ain’t we got fun?”

Ain’t we got fun?
Times are so bad and getting badder,
Still we have fun.
There’s nothing surer,
The rich get richer and the poor get laid off!

Here is the question: Can we be a nation that holds capitalism near and dear AND also decide to have education and heath insurance be not for profit? Maybe it could be called “capitalism with a conscience.”

Blue Cross/Blue Shield was founded in 1929, the year of The Crash. And it was founded as a non-profit. It became a for-profit company in 1994.

Public education was made compulsory through elementary school in 1918. The hope for education a century ago was that it would be the great equalizer. However, we spend more money on students from affluent communities and less on those from poor communities. And now, there are powerful corporate and billionaires forces, led by Betsy DeVos, that want to privatize public education. Do we really want corporations to profit for our children’s education?  As a teacher, there are no meaningful endeavors from which to profit in education unless one thinks that incessant standardized testing is meaningful.

School privatization would result in tax dollars being diverted from creating small classes, hiring excellent teachers, offering comprehensive resources, and many, many more areas proven to improve student learning.

The Affordable Care Act instilled the 80/20 rule limiting healthcare profits to 20%. Meanwhile, CEO’s of the major health insurance companies make tens of millions each year in salaries alone.

Married to a physician, the insurance and drug companies have a stranglehold on healthcare. And Medicare-for-all is not the answer as physicians and hospitals are paid so little by Medicare that they actually cannot afford to treat Medicaid patients. The ones who should be making the money in health care and in education are the health care workers and the educators. That is where there is value added. Does a CEO of an insurance company making over 20 million a year add value? Does a testing company making profits from standardized tests that cannot measure real learning add value?

So, once more, can’t we love capitalism and also agree that we should not seek to profit from health care insurance and education? If we outlaw profiteering in these two sectors, my bet is that it will increase the quality of public education and decrease the cost of health care.

But where we are now, and where we are head, just “ain’t fun.”