Semiotics for All!

Linda Martín Alcoff Jan 21, 2013

Linda Martín Alcoff
Department of Education

It is obvious today that the first act of any responsible secretary of education in this country should be to abolish all private education. Democracy, which is what we say we are, and in fact what we say we lead the world in, requires an informed citizenry with a highly developed capacity to discern well-argued, data-laden, eloquently structured bullshit. We cannot have a country in which only some of the citizenry, i.e. those who can afford to attend Brown University and major in semiotics, are capable of discerning bullshit while the rest can be led to believe that fiscal cliffs can be averted by tax evasions for the rich. In fact, this situation is exactly backward: the students at Brown University (an institution I attended, by the way, and thus can affectionately lambaste) have vested interests inclining them to overlook bullshit in too many cases, while those who could never afford Brown have both the direct interest and the greatest need to analyze bullshit.

My first task as secretary of Education will therefore be to mandate public education for all, a move that will motivate middle class parents to address our educational challenges with all the zeal they put into writing their children’s college application essays. And it might even result in getting us some copying machines that work up at CUNY.

This is not as pie-in-the-sky as some may think. Before the enforced impoverishment programs of neo-liberal governments, many countries, not just European ones, had free public educational institutions at all levels without private competition. The trade-off was that not all students were able to attend, and merit-based entry favored upper classes.Clearly a democracy requires universal education, not a pyramid scheme where the poor and working classes learn only rudimentary skills.

The point of universal education is not uplift of the suffering masses from their unenlightened state, but improvement of our country’s knowledge base. Not until the G.I. Bill, civil rights laws, and affirmative action began to democratize our educational system did scholars begin exploring racism in medical history, gender disparities in wage levels, or the concept of a social history tracking the lives of ordinary people. Educating everybody would shake things up in regard to what we think we know.

Twenty years ago Toni Morrison said, “Is this country willing to sabotage its cities and school systems if they’re occupied mostly by black people? It seems so.” Tax-free private schools that ensure peonage for those parents and students who take on enormous debts to afford them sabotage the lives of our brightest, most ambitious poor of all colors.

I say, storm the gates, open up the admissions offices, pull the ivy off the walls if we have to, but for God’s sake, let’s make public education excellent, universal, and unchallenged. Semiotics for all!

Linda Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York (CUNY) and the current president of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division. She attended Brown as a fully funded graduate student, sorely impressed by the superior vocabulary of her students.

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