Daily Planet, 1/2014

My last column on this page was about American exceptionalism: how we aren’t necessarily. This column is about American exceptionalism: one way we still are, so far.

The one thread that runs through American history from Jamestown to now is Opportunity. America has always been the “Land of Opportunity,” a special place for people who have had the courage to start over.

My people came from Ireland and scratched out a living in southwest Georgia. Other Irish lived in big-city slums or went underground in coal and copper mines.   Life was an outrage for all of them – but better than Ireland. They persevered. They were free, after all; they weren’t being humiliated and starved by the English.   America gave them opportunity, and they took advantage of it. My great-great-grandfather learned to farm, and his sons started businesses. My father graduated from Georgia Tech.

So it is today. We offer economic opportunity to immigrants far beyond anything in their home countries. Doctors retrain as nurses to qualify for jobs here.

America – the Land of Opportunity for the immigrant.

For the immigrant. Hmmm. What about for our own people? Is America the Land of Opportunity for my grandchildren? Yes, it is, but….

But not as it once was. We all know people in WNC who grew up poor in remote hollows, who now are successful in trades and professions. Most of these people I know, if not all, say they’re where they are because of public schools – first grade through high school and even state universities and community colleges.

Education. That’s why I wrote “exceptional, so far” above. America as the Land of Opportunity – for our own people– is teetering.

It’s my habit to encourage young people I see working in places like Ingles. I ask what their future plans are. More and more of them now say they can’t afford to continue beyond high school.   Some are discouraged; some see the military as default. The ever-rising cost of higher education has priced them out.

And then we hear from Raleigh about budget cuts to education at all levels, pre-school to university. For whatever reasons – ideology (government must spend less) or ideology (public schools are “socialist”) or greed (for-profit schools spend big for lobbyists) – Republicans in the General Assembly are dismantling North Carolina’s great legacy of state-funded education. And in so doing, they’re limiting our children’s future opportunity.

As we look around the developed world, the tight-fisted North Carolina approach is the exception. In most advanced countries, education through university is free to all, some even including graduate study.

These countries do this through taxation.   North Carolina Republicans would rather have low taxes than a well-educated population.

We can’t have both low taxes and quality universal education. Children of the well-educated will be well-educated. In recent generations, the door has been open to everybody. Now we’re heading for a day when Opportunity knocks only at doors of the elite.