Wealth gap, disregard for education destroy democracy

A magpie in the snow. 

Today, I am celebrating writing my 250th article for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. I started these contributions in 2008 with my first article titled “Mother and Father in one,” talking about shrimp. In the same year I also started the Kodiak Ocean Science Discovery Program to connect students and teachers with the local community of marine scientists with the goal to improve ocean literacy. It was a conscious decision that I could no longer view myself only as a student of life and life sciences, but had to double as a teacher for the sake of becoming part of the changes I wanted to see in the world in which I was raising my child. I still “do science,” but I shifted my life’s work to education.

What is science and what is education? If you google the terms, science is defined as the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experimentation. Education is defined as receiving or giving systematic instruction, or also as an “enlightening experience.” I like the latter definition; it has an air of growth rather than the notion of the student being some sort of receptacle to be filled with something. 

I started to wonder if education is a purely human concept or where in nature it has its origins. There are many examples where parent animals perform a task while their offspring are watching, then the young imitate what they saw their parents do. It is debatable if that can be considered teaching. However, with orca whales there are examples of groups where young whales are taught a skill, like beaching themselves and wriggling back into the water, which they have to master before the skill is applied to hunt. One or more adults are nearby when the young whales practice this and sometimes help the young get back off the beach by body splashing a wave over them. This requires planning and forethought on behalf of the teacher and compliance without immediate reward on the side of the student. Whales educate their young to become successful team players in their social structure.

As parents and adults, we think of the education of our children as the means through which they acquire the skills and knowledge to be successful in the world. However, more and more parents discover that while school seems stressful and challenging, and students learn more than we ever did in school, many of them are not prepared to transition into the adult world. Whenever we identify something as a problem, we look for causes and throw blame: The kids are spoiled, the parents aren’t doing their job, the education system is broken, the teachers are doing too much or too little. I think that it is just really difficult for a young person today to see where they are needed and valued in our society. I think that as a society, we do not actually value education. When politicians get away with ignoring the warnings of scientists and accusing them of manipulating data, it shows a disregard for education and a breakdown of ethics.

How many of us go to the trouble of looking at the educational background of our political candidates? Less than half of American graduate students achieve a college degree of any sort, and less than 2% of the American population holds a Ph.D. degree. This is not a measure of drive or intelligence but increasingly a question of money. How many of us can afford to send our kids to college? Some young people take college loans and start their adult life with more debt than I have ever paid off in my lifetime, pressuring them to into the highest paying jobs for the rest of their lives, whether they like it or not. For a young person uncertain of their passion, this can easily become a trap — no wonder many of our brightest students hesitate to make that jump into cold reality.

How about our teachers? If you are a teacher and reading this, let me express to you my sincere gratitude and respect for the work you do with our children every day. I know that on an individual level there are those students who thank you, those parents who appreciate your work, perhaps even a supportive administration. The problem is that our society as a whole does not value teachers as a highly respected asset. Education is cut and shortchanged at a time when the country needs a change to avoid a major recession. That is not a good combination: At times of economic need, countries need a highly educated population to make the changes necessary to avoid collapse. The two countries with the best-educated citizens are South Korea and Finland. Third place goes to Israel, while the U.S. lingers in 6th place with huge disparity between regions and school districts. In Finland, being a teacher is a prestigious occupation, and schools implement many aspects of newer studies about how young minds work. These improvements take money. 

For years, we have been told that there is no money in federal, state and community coffers. While some of this is due to spending that some of us may disagree with, there is a statistic that puts the world into a new perspective: Today, 95% of the world’s population hold less than 30% of its wealth. In other words, the top 5% have over two-thirds of all the money. According to the Washington Post, in 2016 the 400 richest Americans owned more money than the bottom 150 million! That kind of situation locks up money and takes it out of the cycle where it is used by people. No wonder we are scrambling to fund everything from road maintenance to fire fighting and schools. With a political system where only the candidates with the most money have a chance at proceeding, the rich get to influence who we can vote for. This system works best when the majority of the population is not too well educated or politically informed. Amazingly, it is best for the very rich who influence the political powers, when few people vote. Think about it.

This snowy winter has driven a lot of birds to hang out in my backyard, waiting for a feeding, which I have used as an opportunity to study and observe social behavior. The biggest crow gets first pick, but has to drive all others away. If all the food is in one place, only the crow with the power gets to eat while the others sit around watching or being chased away. If the food is spread out, the big crow can only defend one pile, while the other birds then fight over the other piles. And while all the birds are busy chasing each other, there is even room for magpies to dart in and steal a few bites. When the bigger pieces are gone the crows take off and the thrushes come in.

The same game now plays out between the magpies ruling the food piles and the thrushes darting in for smaller bites. It reminds me of national politics: When the food or money is distributed into more piles, everyone succeeds in getting a few bites, but in the current situation, a few big crows are hoarding all the treasure and the smaller birds are going hungry. If the thrushes had a vote, would they use it to ask me to make more piles, to distribute the food better for the sake of every bird in the amazing diversity of our world? If they did not use their vote, would you think of them as intelligent and enlightened, or would they deserve their fate of being the underdogs of bird society?

(1) comment


Thank you so much for writing your column. I look forward to it and find your topics and observations thought provoking.

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