This article previously appeared in educational Horizons 84, 4 (Summer 2006)

Schooling and American Priorities

Gary K Clabaugh & Alison A. Clabaugh

edited 9/2/11

One evening a young Swedish woman accompanied her fiancée to my Foundations of Education 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 replied in apologetic tone, "Yes, I'm surprised that America is such a savage place."

Asked what she meant, the young lady politely explained that she was surprised by America's slums and poverty, by the enormous gap between rich and poor, by the tens of millions who have no health insurance, and most of all, by the millions of impoverished children and elderly. Then she added as a quiet afterthought, "There is nothing like this in Sweden."

Two Americas

This incident came to mind when I learned that Exxon has given Lee Raymond, its retiring CEO, a $400 million going away present. It includes "...a pension, stock options and other perks, such as a $1 million consulting deal, two years of home security plus his own 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 largess 20 million adults and 13 million children did not have access to enough food to meet their basic needs.[1] Plus, according to the Census Bureau, one in five, or fifteen million, US children were living at or below the poverty line.[2]

Such barely credible inequality 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 — heads the family. 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 designed to meet 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

Three grand and great grand children live with LaLee. They attend the previously mentioned, under-funded, state-beleaguered West Tallahatchie School District that hasn't enough of anything except misery.

While the Superintendent of the District frets about the unfairness of state funding proceedures, "Granny," one of the grand and great grand children living with LaLee, sits at home and in tears on the opening day of school. It seems 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 might be without school supplies too, 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 then 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 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.[iv] Meanwhile LaLee and the kids were struggling to survive on $6540 a year.

Suppose Raymond decided to use some of his retirement package to insure that the nation's impoverished elementary school kids all had first day school supplies. Let's say those supplies cost $25.00. Twenty five percent of Mr. Raymond's retirement package would outfit every one of the 4 million impoverished elementary school kids in the entire nation.[v] And that would still leave $300 million for Raymond just in case he needs it.

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 she lived in, 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 is unwise to ignore or exploit people who are down and out; 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. 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, our government has financed the construction of some 17,000 of these horrific weapons. Yes, that's right, 17,000 of them!

What can we possibly be planning to do with that 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 thousands 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.

Priming Doomsday

Manufacturing absurd quantities of nuclear weapons also has resulted in the most appalling environmental mess in human history. 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 in the first place. We're not counting the cost of the weapons themselves.

Imagine what one trillion dollars could do for our nation's children. Imagine what it could do to fight disease, rebuild our nation's crumbling infrastructure or even to aid impoverished children the world over. And had we chosen to do that rather than build weapons we would be mad to use, isn't it possible that it would have made us 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 adversaries. For instance, the Navy is building a new multi-mission destroyer, the DD (X). This ship is designed to perform a wide range of missions, but at breath-taking cost. The estimated price of just one of these ships is $4.7 billion dollars.

Are these ships worth such a colossal sum? Critics say that there isn't anything the DD (X) 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 blowing up our servicemen with homemade bombs? Remember too that the USS Cole was one of the most sophisticated destroyers in the Navy's inventory, yet is was successfully attacked and put out of action by an explosives laden speedboat manned by a handful of religious fanatics.

Considering how many powerful people have a stake in such weapons going forward, such concerns have little chance of stopping the DD (X) or other high tech weapons systems such as the $256 billion Joint Strike Fighter or the F-22 Raptor which will cost $4 billion a year. (America's fighter planes already enjoy unlimited air superiority and no challengers are on the horizon.) Imagine what $4 billion a year could do 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 lack armored vests, trucks and Humvees and the Secretary of Defense tells 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 $655 billion 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.

Suppose that $655 billion 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 not wiser.

And let's not forget President George W. Bush's "preemptive" invasion of Iraq. The cost of this "discretionary" adventure now stands at 2,500 dead, over 17,000 wounded and one third of a trillion dollars gone forever with the meter still ticking. Are we safer because of it? Most experts think we're now are 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 $320 billion to help the nation's 4 million poverty stricken elementary school-age children, for example, it would have meant $80,000 per child. A world of good could be accomplished with that kind of money and we all would be more secure.[ix]

The Connection

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. And they could live right down the street from you. 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 lady's remark about savagery was right on target. And, whether they know it or not, it is the nation's educators who struggle daily with the consequences. No child left behind? What hypocrisy!

Gary Clabaugh, Ed. D. is a Professor of Education at La Salle University

Ms. Alison Clabaugh is a Ph.D. candidate in Social Psychology at Temple University

[1] "Hunger in America." USDA 2000 estimate, Farmers and Hunters Feeding America,

[2] Ibid. Census Bureau figure.


[ii]Save The Children,

[iii] Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: children in America's schools, HarperCollins, New York, 1992.

[iv] Ibid.

[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,

[viii] Cleaning Up The Department of Energy's Nuclear Weapons Complex,

[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?