Over the two decades that I have taught a course on Southern politics to UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduates, I have regularly assigned All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s celebrated novel published in 1946 and drawn from his observations of Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932. The assignment challenges students to think critically, beyond headlines and online chatter, about truth, power, ethics, and personal responsibility in public life.
In reflecting on President Trump’s inaugural address — especially on his broadside against American education — I returned to a scene from All the King’s Men that I spotlight for students. In it, Jack Burden, a newspaper columnist-turned-governor’s aide, gives advice on how to make a speech to Willie Stark, the Long-like politician who begins as an idealist and ends in power-grasping corruption.
In his first unsuccessful race for governor, Stark has a speech about tax reform, full of data, that fails to excite voters. Stark vents his frustration to Burden, who delivers this pungent rejoinder:
“Yeah,” I said, “I heard the speech. But they don’t give a damn about that. Hell, make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em think you’re their weak erring pal, or make ’em think you’re God-Almighty. Or make ’em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir ’em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more. Pinch ’em in the soft place. They aren’t alive, most of ’em, and haven’t been alive in twenty years. Hell, their wives have lost their teeth and their shape, and likker won’t set on their stomachs, and they don’t believe in God, so it’s up to you to give ’em something to stir ’em up and make ’em feel alive again. Just for half an hour. That’s what they come for. Tell ’em anything. But for Sweet Jesus’ sake don’t try to improve their minds.”
Burden’s advice drips with cynicism, but it’s also incisive. Through rhetoric that touches emotions and offers a vision, leaders can lift people up and build support for an agenda. And yet, the advice has a double-edge — a disrupter or would-be dictator can deploy rhetoric to inflame, to intensify anger, to divide.
The Trump inaugural address fell into the “make ’em mad…just stir ’em up’’ genre of rhetoric. He placed education along with inner-city poverty, rusted factories, crimes, and gangs in the “American carnage’’ that he said “stops right here.”
After saying that “Americans want great schools for their children,’’ the new president delivered a brief depiction of “an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”
That short, blunt passage defies simple fact-checking, in particular the notion that American schools deprive students of “all knowledge.’’ You may dismiss it as excessive hyperbole, but it certainly comes across as demeaning and demoralizing to the more than three million teachers and nearly 100,000 principals who show up daily for work in preK-12 schools.
The United States engages in a grand, daunting challenge of mass education in a continental democracy. Still, it does not have a single public education system. Rather, education is delivered to 50 million students through 13,500 school districts.
In such a sprawling human enterprise, you can hardly generalize; you can find examples of public schools of superb achievement and of debilitating inadequacy. Similarly, you find distinct disparities within the ranks of charter and private schools. Public-funded charter schools have expanded to 2.5 million students. Enrollment in private schools went up to 6.3 million students in 2001, but has declined slightly since then.
Were public schools “flush with cash,’’ there would not be so much concern and debate over the nation’s education future. The most recent analysis of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities lists 35 states, including North Carolina, with per-pupil expenditures, inflation-adjusted, below 2008 at the outset of the Great Recession. Money isn’t the only answer to improving schools, but cash is needed in North Carolina to pay teachers as professionals, to reinvigorate professional development, to enhance the corps of principals, to recruit teachers to rural districts, to expand preK.
On international tests, American students score roughly in the middle of the pack of nations — not good enough in the view of both public school administrators and supporters, and critics like Trump and his nominee for education secretary who tilt toward charter and private schools. Indeed, as knowledge expands, the economy alters jobs, and population shifts, schools that are better than ever face the challenge of continually striving to be good enough.
The Trump inaugural, generalizing about schools while placing them in the nation’s “carnage,’’ didn’t deal in nuance. The president’s stir-’em-up impulse does more to divide than to reach for resolutions in the great debate over education. All the King’s Men remains relevant as a cautionary tale.