Home > Uncategorized > Playing the Long Game in Public Education- Part One

Playing the Long Game in Public Education- Part One

July 16, 2017

Over the past couple of days I had the opportunity to hear two great presentations: one by Ken Burns who showed a preview of his forthcoming series on Vietnam to a full house of 900+ at Dartmouth College and one by Shaun King, who gave a challenging and insightful lecture on racism to a group of roughly 100 people at Thetford Academy. Both presentations reinforced the idea that events we are witnessing in real time fit into a flow of events whose import is often overlooked when they are occurring. Burns’ presentation emphasized the policy failures that led to the calamitous decision to ramp up our troops in Vietnam and sustain them despite evidence the war was un-winnable. These failures were the result of our failure to understand the context of the conflict, which was far more complicated than “communism vs. democracy”. King’s presentation was rooted in the notion that while we are making technological progress over time, we are NOT making progress as a human race. In the scheme of history, there is not an upward trajectory: there are ebbs and flows in terms of the well being of humanity. He suggests that we are in a “dip” right now in terms of our treatment of each other, and getting out of this “dip” will require a united and sustained effort.


I came away from those presentations convinced that while we are distracted by the flow of relatively trivial news stories, we are overlooking important policy decisions being made by those who control our government, decisions that will impact the future of our country as surely as the decisions made that led to our engagement in Vietnam and decisions that will not help us get out of the “dip” that is causing us to be at each others’ throats.

I was also reminded that our current economic condition is not an accident. It is the consequence of the long game being played by the corporate interests in our country, a long game that resulted in our current notions about the role of government and the primacy of shareholders. As noted in earlier posts on the economy and politics, we are where we are today because of a conscious decision by the business leaders to undo the social framework put in place by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the Depression.

Reclaim Democracy, a non-profit organization founded in 2001, has a wealth of information on the intentionally invisible efforts by corporations to undercut the effective function of governments. Among the documents they have in their archive is the Powell Memo. Here’s Reclaim Democracy’s overview of this document:

In 1971, Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Powell Memo did not become available to the public until long after his confirmation to the Court. It was leaked to Jack Anderson, a liberal syndicated columnist, who stirred interest in the document when he cited it as reason to doubt Powell’s legal objectivity. Anderson cautioned that Powell “might use his position on the Supreme Court to put his ideas into practice…in behalf of business interests.”

Though Powell’s memo was not the sole influence, the Chamber and corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.

Ronald Reagan’s “hand’s off business” philosophy combined with his message that “government is the problem” has led us to the point where the public appears to be softening its stance on vouchers, an idea that was until recently considered extreme.

In future posts I will examine some excerpts from the Powell Memorandum to illustrate how they serve as the basis for the policies that are in place today.

One point that I want to emphasize at the outset: the creation of this “…powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades” occurred during a time when our country was distracted by a scandal that unseated a President whose philosophy matched that of the corporations. If progressives want to restore the safety net for those born into poverty, want to reduce the investments our nation is making to engage in questionable wars abroad, and want to protect the environment instead of protecting and promoting our lifestyle, we need to develop a long game. Making billions was a unifying force for Lewis Powell and his colleagues. Creating a world where billions of people can live in peace should be a unifying force for the 99.9% who are not the beneficiaries of ideology behind the Powell memo.


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