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Octuplets are More Sexy than Education

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Message Adam Bessie

Before Nadya Suleman burst into our lives by having a litter of kids, I hadn't heard the word "octuplet" more than a few times, and probably a few of those times thought the person was talking about some sort of deep-sea octopus.  But for the last week, the ocuplet's have been annoyingly inescapable, their thick tentacles wrapping into seemingly every broadcast, blog, and even water-cooler conversation. 

The Suleman 8 have laid siege to the airwaves, which are overflowing with cries of outrage and moral indignation by self-proclaimed experts, everyday people, and of course, Dr. Phil, who has devoted two shows to discussing the "issue."  Some have gotten so mad that Suleman has even received death threats.  Everyone is outraged – how can one mother take care of not just 8, but 14 kids? 

What about the children?

During this same week, schools across the country are suffering unbelievable cuts – and this is no hyperbole. In Richmond, CA – just outside of San Francisco – 3 elementary schools were closed to save money, the students placed into other schools, ballooning the class-sizes.  As a result of these massive cuts to the schools, the teachers in Richmond – and all over the country – will become Nadya Suleman, forced to take care of and educate far more students than they'll be able to handle, causing a greatly diminished quality of education.  And atop this, schools from California to New Hampshire are considering other measures to save money, like cutting librarians, the arts and entire sports programs.  Even vocational education programs – which directly prepare students for the workplace – are on the chopping block.

And where's the outrage?  How has the fate of 8 kids become more important than that of a generation, who are now not being taken care of, whose academic, athletic, artistic and career opportunities are being sacrificed to balance our budget?

While many are outraged –  a thousand came to the Richmond school closing to protest – the anger about Suleman's irresponsibility seems so much more intense, so much more visceral, more personal, which is totally illogical, as her life has so very little bearing on us.  Even if we have to "foot the bill," this cost is infinitesimal in contrast to what we pay with a generation of underserved – and unserved – students.

Why are we not marching in the streets for better schools? Why have the airwaves not been besieged by outrage about these cuts?  Why is Dr. Phil not spending two episodes discussing how the students of public schools are being robbed, like Suleman's kids?

Perhaps education isn't sexy enough – it's not as perverse, as strange, not sensational enough to grasp the public's attention. "American culture is fixated on big events, and fretful when there's not one on the horizon," observes Steven Winn, a SF Chronicle columnist, and the octuplet's are the big event of the moment, an event that will no doubt dissipate into another pseudo-controversy, and another.   We need something new – a shot of adrenaline to keep us going, going, going.

And clearly, a crisis in education ain't giving us that sweet fix. Let's be honest:  education is a "stale" issue.  Recently, I asked my community college students to read a former student's essay about the major problems the Oakland public schools face, as a result of poor funding – some thought the essay was "boring" because it was so obvious.   "Everyone knows that Oakland schools are bad,"  one said, and thus, why should anyone take time to write – or read – an essay about their problems?  Perhaps, like this student, we have heard about school budget cuts and school closing for so long we have become desensitized to it.

The public schools are screwed up?

Really? What's new?

Indulge me in a modest proposal to fix American education's image problem:

We need the public to take education as personally as they take Nadya Sulman's reproductive habits. If we want to engage America's feverish imagination, if we want to be as passionate about kid's learning as octuplets, let's learn from Suleman, and hire a PR agent with the stimulus money to give it a make-over, to "sex it up" for an American audience. Sure, we could use the $106 billion for keeping schools open and reducing class sizes.  We could rehire librarians with this money, keep students playing hockey and painting portraits of watermelons.  We could make sure they have new textbooks, and that they're prepared to compete with an increasingly global economy. 

But that would be just a short-term solution, as the image problem would remain, with education less exciting than whatever other shiny ball bounces across the media.  And if education isn't exciting, if it's stale, if it's not personal, then when times get tough, it'll just get cut up again.

Our PR agent could make education that shiny bouncy ball.   She could develop a fancy website like Suleman has, filled with cute pictures of students stuffed into over crowded classrooms, five on the floor, one sitting on the heater, and three standing in the back. She could use her entertainment contacts to get on Dr. Phil, and he could interview one of these students, who has to hang out on the corner after school because she can't run track anymore.  Phil could make it a Kleenex moment and get people viscerally outraged enough to do something.  Then everyone would run back to the website, and click "DONATE." And every couple months –just as soon as the issue gets boring – our PR agent will find a new angle, a new way to keep the public's flitting attention focused on schools.  Perhaps a reality show called  Who Wants Funding?  where schools compete, and America votes off those they don't like?

Or we could stop chasing shiny bouncing balls and get down to the real business of raising the next generation the best we can.

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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)
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