(Artvoice 18 May 2000)
Senator Schumer’s Marshall Plan
Senator Charles E. Schumer gave UB’s commencement address last Sunday morning. It’s the only commencement address I remember that was interrupted at least twenty times by applause.
He began by complimenting the graduates on their accomplishment and reminding them how rapidly their world is changing: “In 1993, when many of you were in high school, there were thirteen websites. That’s it. Thirteen. Today, seven years later, there are more than fourteen million websites. That is the speed with which technology and knowledge are changing the world. And it’s your world, not mine and not your parents.”
He encouraged them to take risks: “Don’t let fear of failure deter you from taking a chance, from reaching for your dream–particularly in this day and age. Go for it. By graduating from a tremendous school you’ve earned the right to take chances.” He ended his speech with a slightly updated version of Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” a poem about risk and balance.
Chuck (as he prefers to be called) Schumer is an enormously likeable guy. He has an ease and presence before huge audiences, so even if you’re in the back row you feel he’s talking to you and means it all. He’s visited this part of the state frequently since his election and he’s got a real sense of our specific qualities and problems. (Few local politicians, for example, are more conversant with and sensible about the Peace Bridge affair than he.) The beginning and ending of his speech, slightly expanded, could have formed the substance of a perfectly adequate commencement address, and the bulk of those I’ve heard have been just that.
But between that conventional beginning and conventional ending Schumer talked about his vision for education in America, and that was not the least bit conventional. The audience knew it: most of the interruptions for applause came during this part of his speech. This is what he said in that middle part:
...I’d like to mention a subject where America is taking a risk, but if we choose
poorly we may not so easily recover.
We are betting that our current education system is sufficient for this new, global,
competitive ideas-based world that we now live in. I fear it is not.
Looking out on this sea of gowns it is clear that our greatest resource is not the
minerals in our mines or the fertility of our soil, but the minds of our young
As Alan Greenspan said: Value is no longer added by moving things, but by
thinking things. That means the places in the world that generate the best ideas
will dominate our new century. And the best ideas will come from the best
educational system. . . .
There is no doubt that America is the most important economic nation in the
world. There is no doubt that we have the strongest military. There is no doubt
that when you look at the economic sectors which are going to lead the21st
century–computers, the internet, telecommunications, financial services,
entertainment, and trade–no country is better situated to take full advantage of
that economy than ours.
But we have one major problem–one major storm cloud–that threatens America’s
future. Our schools are simply not good enough. Yes, in some places the schools
are excellent, but in too many inner cities, suburbs, and farm towns–they are not.
And yet, as parents, as students, as graduates–we all know that if the next
generation is going to keep America on top–we have to do a much better job of
So when you look into the crystal ball to predict the future, it is irrefutable that our
national and economic security depends upon reforming and enhancing our
I am generally a fiscal moderate–I support a balanced budget–but I’ll say this: Our
major public investment must be to make our schools from K through college
better. We must embark on a Marshall Plan to make our schools the best in the
First, we have to make teaching an exalted profession that attracts top quality
young people. In this century a teacher should hold as high a place in our society
as a doctor did in the 20th century. But to choose teaching as a profession is to
sacrifice earning power. That’s why we have a shortage of 25,000 qualified math
and science teachers in America. That is why there are twice as many 50-year-old
teachers as there are 30-year-old teachers.
Because local property taxes are already too high, the federal government needs to
help. We should forgive student loans for any teacher who teaches at least five
years in the classroom. Those who choose to teach should be offered scholarships
to help defray the cost of an education degree, and with federal assistance we
should reward the best teachers with better pay.
Second, we need higher standards in our schools. Students should go to the next
grade because they learned, not because they aged. To lower the bar is a mistake.
If a student is having problems, then that student should be helped, but it is
unacceptable for students to be promoted if they are not learning.
Third, working with the private sector we should hook up every classroom to the
internet and teachers should be taught to teach on it. Every student should leave
high school completely computer literate.
Fourth, every deserving student should be able to afford college. We should make
tuition fully tax deductible because we know that without a college education it
will be very difficult to succeed and because we know that college is just too
expensive for people in the middle classes. A college degree is such an imperative
that the federal government shouldn’t take its cut while you are struggling to
provide what you know is right for your children.
I see 10,000 parents nodding their heads yes.[Actually, at that point, the parents
and their children were applauding enthusiastically. BJ.]
This decade has proven that America–with its free enterprise and democratic form
of government–is poised to lead the world into the next century.
But I am troubled when I read that other countries’ school systems are doing a
better job of educating their children than we are.
If America is to maintain its position at the top, our schools cannot be second best
or fifteenth best. Our schools have to be the best in the world.
We must begin to act now.
I'm pretty sure that all that jingoistic “best in the world” rhetoric is just the way politicians talk, not the way Chuck Schumer thinks. Nowadays, if you say “the best we can be” or “pursue excellence,” other politicians just assume you’re not a serious person. All these issues have to be cast into competitive global terms before those guys look you in the eye. It’s part of the silly residue of the Cold War. Schumer is pushing for quality and affordable education from kindergarten through graduate school because he thinks it’s important for us to have that, not because he thinks we’re in a footrace with some Evil Foreign Empire de Jour.
Several years ago President Clinton announced a plan to put thousands more police on the streets and enhance the salaries of thousands of others. Most of those new cops wouldn’t be needed a decade from now if we poured those same dollars into education, and we’d all be lots better off in the process. Why squander huge amounts of our national treasure trying to deal with the effects of a starved educational system when for far less money and with far more profit to everyone we could keep those ill-effects from ever occurring at all? New York spends more money on prison expansion than on college expansion. This is madness and Senator Schumer is voicing long overdue reason.
As I listened to Senator Schumer speaking in UB's Alumni Arena last Sunday I kept thinking about the GI Bill, which made college accessible to millions of American men and women who would otherwise never have been able to afford it, me among them. The GI Bill gave millions of us a shot at the American Dream.
The United States is the only major industrialized nation in which millions of poor and middle class citizens live in fear of inadequate education for their children and inadequate health care for their entire families because they do not have enough personal income to guarantee both. A country that can afford to pour billions into Star Wars research (yes, that dog still barks in the nation’s capital) to protect its citizens from foreigners with missiles and billions into new prisons to protect its citizens from one another surely can afford to guarantee its citizens the education and health care they need to survive and prevail in the modern world.
Schumer isn't talking about a giveaway; he's thinking investment. Invest in education now and reap the benefits forever. That's what the United States did with the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II: we spent billions of dollars rebuilding Europe's economy--Germany included--because the Roosevelt administration was convinced that our future welfare depended on a healthy and productive European economy. It turned out to be a wise investment indeed.
It’s just a matter of priorities. Last week at UB Chuck Schumer argued that we should put education first rather than last, that the real predators of the 21st century won’t be nefarious foreigners or domestic crooks, but rather ignorance and incompetence. He argued that we should fight that war before it is already lost. Good for him.
Charles E. Schumer was elected to the US Senate in 1998 after nine terms in the House representing the 9th Congressional District in Brooklyn and Queens. He was elected to the New York State Assembly at 23, one of the youngest members since Theodore Roosevelt. He serves on three key Senate committees: Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, the Judiciary, and Rules.
Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at UB.