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Let's get one thing out of the way. PBS's educational programming is the most successful distance-learning effort in history. Nothing else comes close. Every conservative should love it. But many of them don't. When a conservative starts hating on PBS, they're telling you why they're a conservative, and it's not because they hate government programs that don't work. It's because they hate government programs that do work.
Charles Blow's column today is a heartfelt defense of PBS from someone who is a more productive citizen today, one of the "makers" in Romney's heartless Randian formulation, because of it:
We were poor. My mother couldn’t afford day care, and I didn’t go to preschool. My great-uncle took care of me all day. I could watch one hour of television: PBS.When I was preparing for college and took the ACT, there were harder reading passages toward the back of the test. Many had scientific themes — themes we hadn’t covered at my tiny high school in my rural town. But I could follow the passages’ meanings because I had watched innumerable nature shows on PBS....
I don’t really expect Mitt Romney to understand the value of something like PBS to people, like me, who grew up in poor, rural areas and went to small schools. These are places with no museums or preschools or after-school educational programs. There wasn’t money for travel or to pay tutors.I honestly don’t know where I would be in the world without PBS.
If PBS's public funds were cut, it would be the poor rural stations like Blow's that went off the air. PBS is decentralized, and its programs are produced by individual stations in the cities rich enough to fund PBS with viewer contributions. Public TV programs are created by the PBS affiliates in New York and Boston and Philly, using the generosity of their affluent urban donors, and then licensed to stations in poorer, less populous areas, like Mississippi and North Dakota. The federal subsidy keeps the lights on in those poorer stations, on the principle that we're all one country. But if you cut the federal funds, it's the kids who need it most, generally in deep-red voting areas, who will lose it. Poor urban kids in blue-leaning cities will still get Big Bird, giving poor children in urban slums at least one educational advantage over poor kids in farm towns.
PBS is an equalizer. It gives poor kids with fewer resources (in their home or their school district) a fighting chance. It doesn't guarantee success, and it's not nearly enough to turn around our abysmal education rates in poor communities. It's still a mass-delivery distance-learning program, which builds in some basic limitations: no individual attention, no feedback, no reinforcement, no way to recapture kids' attention if it drifts, and no way to motivate the kids. PBS is not a substitute for school. It's a supplement: a golden opportunity for kids motivated enough to take advantage of it. But PBS does give those motivated kids a chance they would never have without it.
Mitt Romney should be wildly enthusiastic about PBS. It provides opportunity for enterprising, industrious kids. It gives them a chance to grow up to become more educated and productive citizens, net contributors to the national treasury like Charles Blow. It doesn't promise equality of outcomes, because no distance-learning project could, but it clearly provides equality of opportunity, giving poor and rural kids access to things that would otherwise be reserved for the affluent and citified. PBS, like that other great American institution, the public library, helps bright and hard-working kids rise to the top despite the major inequalities in education spending from school to school.
So why the critiques of PBS from some (albeit not all) on the right? It could be just antipathy to anything funded by the government, and a preference for the free market to provide a better service. And twenty years ago, Newt Gingrich was saying loudly that PBS was unnecessary because the new educational channels on cable (the Learning Channel, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel), would do PBS's job better than PBS. To this I say three words: Honey Boo Boo. It's painfully obvious now that free market competition between cable TV channels has forced them to compromise or simply abandon any educational mission. Meanwhile, PBS has continued turning out educational programming vastly superior to anything the commercial networks have managed. It's not even a contest.
So one reason that some conservatives might object to PBS is that it's nationally-televised proof that government does some things better than the private sector does. PBS puts together long blocks of top-notch educational programming for kids every day, hours of excellent shows in a row, and commercial television can't (or won't) produce even one half-hour of programming that can match any of those shows. Private-enterprise ideologues don't like PBS because its success shows them up. This is a case where free market competition can't compete.
And I'm afraid there is a slice of the right wing that doesn't like PBS because its not in sympathy with its goals. There are people whose real objection is that someone like Charles Blow, a poor black kid from an impoverished small town, grew up to be a columnist for the New York Times. Their objection isn't just how that happened, but that it happened at all.
Some people who talk about equality of opportunity mean it. For some it's a code phrase, and what they're really interested in is inequality of results. They don't want bright, hard-working kids to overcome disadvantages, because that would weaken the value of their own advantages. They want to widen the gap between the rich and poor, because they believe that the gap favors them. What's the point of paying for a house in the best possible school district, or of paying for special lessons or private schools, if public broadcasting is going to let some guttersnipe somewhere cut into your kid's hard-bought advantages? A few people who make this calculation make it cynically; most rationalize and disguise their motivations even from themselves, but they consistently act on those motivations. Those people object to public broadcasting, and to spending upon public education, because they believe it erodes their private advantages.
Mitt Romney's grandkids will do just fine without Big Bird. In fact, in a world without Big Bird, or a world where Big Bird couldn't reach many of the kids in the flyover states, Romney's grandkids and great-grandkids would do marginally better. They will never want for expensive educational resources or attention. But in a world without PBS, the little Romneys will have a few less bright upstarts from poor families equipped to compete with them. That's only a tiny advantage, but Romney and his people are all about marginal analysis, and they want every fraction of a percentage point that they can get. Every little bit helps, and if you view America as a zero-sum game, where we're in it together but what we're in is a struggle for limited resources, then it's in your interest to deny the poor even the littlest bit. It is not polite to express this opinion widely, because it is morally depraved, but the wealthiest Americans are allowed to act on it, and too many of them do.