Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H. Kushlis

106 I saw the Gaultier exhibit at San Francisco’s De Young Museum last week.  Jean Paul Gaultier is one of the edgiest designers around although the exhibit is primly entitled “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier.”  The De Young is in one of this country’s edgiest cities.  The exhibit was crowded but not overbooked; the fashions on display dated from Gaultier’s earliest days – he was born in 1952 – to just a few years ago and almost all were designed for androgynist shows on the runway, not the street. (Photo of man's tartan suit by PHKushlis August 8, 2012)

 The talking mannequins were, for me at least, the highlights: their eyes blinked, rolled and winked and their lips moved in synch with their words.  These near androids were themselves worth the price of admission.  But then, I don’t have a Madonnaesque figure or personality, bras that resemble upside down ice cream cones make me uncomfortable and six inch heels – according to a recent Vogue article – are not just bad for the feet but also the back.  

I hadn’t been in California since 2008. 

Since then the Golden State has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and three of its cities went belly-up in the past month.  At least three more major ones – San Jose, Los Angeles and Fresno – are on the brink – or so I was told by people who know what they’re talking about.  Money is being moved from Peter to pay Paul and expenditures on quality of life items – like education, the arts and the roads disappear like Aladdin’s genie shrinking back into his lamp. 

Road beds are a disaster:  they remind me of Manila days when the only axel-safe vehicles were the Pajeros:  sturdy and high enough chassed SUVs to survive the city’s cavernous potholes during a typhoon.  

California prices, too, are off the charts.  Gas was $1.00 higher per gallon than in New Mexico.  Souvenir bottles of California wines were on sale for an average – or so it seemed – of $100 per bottle (not per case) at the Oakland International Airport where most flights service these United States.  Tickets to special museum exhibits approached New York’s MOMA and the facsimiles of Gaultier’s teddy bear were “on special” for $99 plus tax ruling out all but the affluent or the privileged.

Drive 80 miles to the east and the brown rolling hills give way to the Central Valley, this country’s most fertile farm land.  Irrigation ditches – or acequias as they’re called in the Sunshine State – transport the water from the Sierra-Nevadas to the valley's fields.  Water is the state’s real gold and the ill-effects of global warming play havoc with the precipitation and snow pack in the mountains.  Hence our food supply.

Centuries ago these trenches were a gift from Middle Eastern Arabs where water was also scarce.  Then they – bringing this innovative technological knowhow with them – dashed across North Africa and into Spain.  The Romans brought us roads; the Muslims brought us acequias. Both remain as indispensable as this century's information highway – courtesy of the US government.

Poor immigrant Mexican laborers provide California’s agriculture’s brawn – as they have for generations.  Likely they’re paid in cash and they don’t, in turn, pay taxes.  But without them, produce would rot on the ground – as happened in Georgia not so long ago when the state turned anti-immigrant – or not get planted in the first place. 

I spent the weekend in Stockton at a college reunion.  Alumni came from as far away as France and as near as a few blocks away.   Dave Brubeck Avenue has replaced College Way, more parts of the University of Pacific campus are now reserved for walkers and bikers. Buildings new to me including an alumni house have sprouted up where green lawns used to be.

Perhaps not so surprising since private educational institutions fill gaps where public universities can no longer meet the society’s growing needs.   In the 1960s California State Scholarships benefited both private and public colleges and their students throughout the state but they seem to be long gone. Replaced by – I'm not sure what.

Don’t get me wrong:  I profited from private higher education and I think there are places for both in healthy societies.  But I’ve been convinced for some time that this country needs to rethink its approaches to education – if it wants to compete on the global scene.

"No child left behind" is far from the answer.

First on my list would be to abolish for-profit “universities and colleges” or, at the very least, ban government funding and loans for students who attend them.  These institutions give private education a bad name.  I’d take that money and plough it into public community colleges to support technical and job-related training while putting far greater emphasis on improving K-12 education in and of itself.  Far too much university undergraduate education is remedial: and our approach is just not cost-effective for students, taxpayers or highly educated professors who should not be reduced to dumbing down their classes to meet the needs of the poorly educated.    

The government, however, should not have to do it alone.  It’s the corporations that profit the most from a trained labor force and business should be part of the financial mix. Maybe then, they wouldn’t be clamoring for increases in immigration or complaining so much about the size of this country’s welfare rolls if they too shared the burden and assumed some responsibility as well as reaped the benefits.

Teacher burn-out is high, class sizes are increasing even for the lowest grades, and the perennial problem of low pay, low status and poor teacher educational standards – the opposite of Finland – make the situation worse.  California is not alone – but I still remember when the state’s K-12 public education ranked number one in the country.  Now, thanks to the state’s anti-tax movement that began in the 1970s, it has sunk to 46. Or thereabouts.         

Raymond College, the college I attended, was part of the experimental colleges movement and like most others its’ shelf-life was limited, but I learned, that the school’s presence did improve academic quality on the main campus – part of the founders original intent – and it certainly educated a substantial number of high performing professionals in a variety of fields.  At that time, the college’s curriculum was challenging and like Gaultier – perched on the edge.

Yet what troubles me the most about California is its decades of dysfunctional government, polarized politics and too many selfish voters unwilling to understand that their welfare and wellbeing also depend upon others. This has undermined the state’s prosperity and indirectly America’s as well.  Sadly, it could have been so much more.