Tamara Burke

Tamara Burke

If you can carry a pacemaker around in your chest, why not a small capsule of information?

In 1980, in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Harvard law professor Robert Fisher suggested nuclear launch codes, necessary to launching a bomb, should be placed into a capsule and embedded near the heart of a volunteer. 

Instead of a briefcase, the volunteer would carry a heavy knife with them everywhere the president went. To launch a nuclear missile the commander-in-chief would first have to personally kill that one person, gouging out their heart to retrieve the codes.

As you might imagine, when Fisher brought this to friends at the Pentagon they were less than enamored of the idea, arguing that having to carve out someone’s heart in the middle of the oval office might distort a president’s thinking.

Which, to Fisher, was exactly the point. Before killing thousands of people using a utilitarian argument that the loss of innocent lives is for the “greater good,” a leader should first be forced to “look at someone and realize what death is — what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet.”

Coincidentally, at about the same time, Timothy Bates, a professor of economics at the University of Vermont, published an (at the time radical) article outlining the lock-step development of the public school system with the needs of industry. Were he writing today I have no doubt he’d have something to say on the profit motive of the institutions involved in higher education, from the U.S. government profiting from inflated student loan interest rates to for-profit universities, sports programs and the effective delaying of young labor entering the job market while they pursue degrees sold as their ticket to future economic success, but which in fact doom them to a marginalized future fractured by debt and the outdated skill sets universities cling to.

However, whether or not your children take a path into a profitable future by training in the skilled trades, or toddle off into four (or more) years of happy immersion in scholastic endeavors, the issue of the moment is opening the schools they are in right now.

Let us begin by understanding, with clarity, that I don’t care about Our Children’s Development. Or more specifically, your children’s, if the best argument you can muster for opening the schools is a utilitarian one. To whit: we need the schools to open so we can all go back to work.

This was the entire point of Tim Bate’s piece, that schools exist to provide warehousing for children so their parents can report to factory doors (or restaurant floors, as the case may be) while learning the basic skills necessary to being good little employees: punctuality, responsibility and, to accept, without question, authority.

Along the way, if they’re indoctrinated with the idea that collective action is radical and wrong, capitalism is good, right and fair, and the United States is exceptional in every way and therefore perfect, so much the better.

The utilitarian argument fails in a pandemic when opening the schools so we can get a tourism-based economy up and running again requires ... tourists. And it is the movement of people that spreads this virus.

The virus also spreads in indoor, crowded facilities. The utilitarian argument, that schools need to open so parents can get back to work, fails on both fronts. The parents face a heightened risk of exposure and transmission through interaction with a traveling population, and their children face a heightened risk crowded together in facilities where an attempt at air exchange and sanitation can be made, but likely won’t be effective.

Moreover, the entire community faces a threat if this thing gets loose among the children, a threat that by far exceeds any potential loss of learning or social graces they might pick up during a conventional school year.

That I am firmly against the conventional approach to education under these circumstances does not mean I’m not in favor of students going to school.

For a model of schools that work under exceptional circumstances we need look no further than 18th century rural Vermont.

Vermont has made some singular contributions to the world, but one of our unsung, and arguably most laudable, was to write into our constitution, in 1777, a mandate to fund universal education, the first such mandate in the Colonies.

The job was done through village schools, what you know today as the one-room schoolhouse, and, if I may mention as an aside and with some pride, most schools enrolled an equal number of boys and girls.

It’s time to whip out that dog-eared copy of “Small is Beautiful” by E.F. Schumacher you packed away with your other college memorabilia and give it a quick review. Small is beautiful. Small is design as if people, not institutions, not systems, matter. And in this situation, small would allow students to return to classes.

There is sufficient infrastructure in Stowe, there is sufficient infrastructure in Vermont, to create one room schoolhouses where students can work with one or two adults to advance their academics. Clustering families of children from a small area, a road, a neighborhood, into one or two classrooms regardless of age minimizes exposure, creating a safer environment for students and teachers. Should the worst occur it allows for instant isolation of the smallest number of people possible, limiting the outbreak to a few, instead of spreading it out across the many.

It creates an environment where school becomes a novel adventure in historic reenactment, not a situation to be dreaded, but one to be cherished, the year we walked back time. It is a living opportunity for cooperation between students that doesn’t exist in a modern setting.

Argue that innocent lives don’t have value when laid against economic gains, convenience or the desire children have to experience school as it existed before a pandemic happened. As the President said “it is what it is.”

Then close your eyes. It is your hand on the carving knife. Your thrust to the heart. The blood spill is on your doorstep.

And your children will be walking over that mark for the rest of their lives. You won’t carry the guilt of an outbreak on your own. Your children will carry it too. Don’t give them that burden. There is no academic achievement worth that kind of sacrifice.

Especially when you know there was an alternative, written into the Vermont Constitution, over 240 years ago.

Tamara Burke and her family were longtime residents of Stowe, leaving the Garnache-Morrison Memorial Forest as a gift to the community. She and her husband, the sheep, and a riot of golden retrievers now call Craftsbury home. She continues to work in Stowe. Email letters to news@stowereporter.com.

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(1) comment


Interesting thinking.

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