On Education and Public Responsibility

Here in the Netherlands, people pay a lot of taxes. Accordingly, they are afforded opportunities to have education and healthcare without amassing tens of thousands of dollars in debt or going bankrupt.

So far, one of the most striking parts of my experience in Europe is the culture shock stemming from the continent's understanding of the role of community. It clashes quite strongly with the individualistic nature of society in the United States. Certainly I'm generalizing, but from the folks I have talked to so far here in Amsterdam, it seems that people understand the public benefits of funding transportation, education, and healthcare. All three, it seems, are viewed as essential to the greater good of everyone. It seems pretty straightforward, really, that a healthy, educated, and efficiently mobile society might be a productive one. In the US, we take a bit more skeptical a view of communal responsibility for education, healthcare, and transportation.

I wondered how long I would be here before I had my first uncomfortable conversation about US politics. It happened this evening while I was enjoying a delicious local beer at the hotel bar. I struck up a conversation with Simeon, the bartender, and I eventually got around to telling him that there was much about this city that I admired. One of those things was that people here value community and the common good as evidenced by their support, through taxes, of healthcare and education. We talked about his study of hospitality management in college and his relocation to Amsterdam from a less populated part of the country. His story sounded familiar, except that he had the opportunity to receive a solid education and be prepared for the workforce without mortgaging his future with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

Eventually, he confided that most people here think of current US politics as a cruel joke. When I told him I was in education, he explained that he, and most other Dutch people he knows, simply can't understand our problem in the US with school shootings. He wondered how Americans let our elected officials away with their "thoughts and prayers" rhetoric rather than real solutions. I told him that I was just as vexed as he about the issue.

Much like the question of who should fund education, it is worth thinking about who should prevent mass slaughter in US educational institutions. It seems to me, particularly given the way the US contrasts with most of the rest of the industrialized world, that a peoples who can't even prevent the slaughter of children in schools doesn't have a single clue where to begin in properly understanding the value of education to society. We are not good at talking about guns even as our children continue to be murdered in their classrooms. Spending time in Europe has allowed me to step back from the problem and view it for the absurdity that it is. What do we value in the United States? If we are to judge by the way we fund education and by the ways we refuse to take tangible action to protect our students from being slaughtered, it seems that we don't value education very much.

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