Fundamentally, education and the internet serve the same purposes. At best, both transfer knowledge. At least, both transmit information. And just now both are at risk from the same general quarter.

When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and set in motion the movement that eventually would lead to free universal education in the United States, he meant to serve the landed gentry and wound up bestowing a precious gift on all classes and races of the citizenry. And when J.C.R. Licklider of MIT wrote “On-Line Man Computer Communication” for the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in August of 1962, he envisioned social interaction via networked computers, but he could not possibly have imagined the phenomenon the internet eventually would become.

Jefferson wanted to help his fellow citizens as he perceived them, not the hoi polloi, but I think he might not have been dismayed had he known that state-sponsored education would eventually be available to all and sundry–at least in theory and at least for a while. It seems likely that the Defense Department, on the other hand, would have been less sanguine about the eventual application of Licklider’s vision.

Something there is that doesn’t love the wide transmission of information and knowledge. Elements in every society, it seems, find an ignorant army of the people more tractable. These repressive elements in government, as we’ve seen yet again in recent weeks, are often abetted by the corporate camp followers who are more than willing to perform any despicable act so long as they profit handsomely enough.

Visions of immense profit are at least part of what animate the nation’s telecommunications companies (telcos) as they develop strategies to partition the internet into broad boulevards for the well-to-do and rutted byways for the poor and middle class. And then there’s the scheme–pushed most infamously by Time Warner’s America Online–to place a “corporate tax” on eMail. That one is more banal, but probably less dangerous, owing to its ability to incite sheer outrage. (It could, in fact, be the ultimate revenge on AOL by those old Time Warner hands still smoldering over the indignity of being bought out once upon a time by Steve Case and his impudent internet crew.)

As our Front Page story explains, the nation’s telcos are considering moving to a tiered-service structure that would give priority to the network traffic of those web companies able to pay a premium. This would effectively eliminate the network neutrality that currently exists on the internet.

As the private-sector lobbyists like to say, “Corporations don’t pay taxes; their customers do.” The same will be true for those “corporate premiums” companies would pay for access to the fast lanes on the internet. Ultimately, schools, colleges, and consumers will be kicked to the curb, even as they swallow the higher costs passed along by the corporations. Such fast-lane fees also are apt to stifle start-ups and wanna-be competitors to the corporate elite–just a happy coincidence, I guess.

The AOL eMail-fee scheme is a spam-handed variation of the telco theme. AOL has announced it will charge bulk eMailers (including schools, colleges, charities, unions, associations, and civic groups) a fee to ensure delivery of their messages. (At press time, AOL–taking heavy fire for this announcement–was scrambling to modify its scheme as it affects non-profit organizations; the chances of success for these PR maneuvers, however, were still in doubt.)

Messages from those who can’t or won’t pay these fees will be subject to AOL filters that will block or at least retard the flow of those eMail messages. If you want to send spam–er, unsolicited corporate messages–just pay a fee, and AOL will cheerfully guarantee that your messages hit the targeted AOL members.

School leaders would do well to appreciate the connection between assaults on the integrity of the internet and the push to privatize education. Although emanating from separate locations, both strategies would arrive at the same result–namely, affording less access to information and knowledge for people like you and me, and for our children. (And if you suppose you’re well enough off not to have to worry much about what happens to those less fortunate, I’d suggest the odds actually are against you.)

In my business, some old-line publishers and even certain journalists have begun to grouse in recent years about the impact of the internet in general and of blogs in particular. Seems you no longer have to buy ink by the barrel or own a broadcast station to be heard anymore. What’s this country coming to? Well, the strategies of the AOLs and telcos–intended or not–could bring that trend of open access to a screeching halt.

Just in the nick of time, too, some would say. If people are well enough educated to have opinions of their own, and if they have access to the means for disseminating those opinions–why, the next thing you know, they’re liable to think they should be able to run the government.