The Problem Of Right And Wrong

A signal feature of civilization is the eternaland eternally frustratingquest to distinguish right from wrong.  Standards of behavior have changed dramatically over time, and our search for moral clarity has led humanity in many different directions. Guidelines for a good life have come from many religions, cults, monarchs, autocrats, academics, poets, entertainers, politicians, authors, and relatively ordinary individualseach offering their own visions for organizing our governmental, social, and individual lives.  What all have in common is that they have tapped into our deeply felt human desire to embrace principles that elevate our intentions and actions above those whom we deem our enemies or inferiors.

Moreover, we have always needed those to whom we look for moral or ethical leadership to possessor at least be able to plausibly fakea purity of individual character that can inspire us to follow their example and teachings.  The truth of the matter is almost beside the point.  John F. Kennedy may have spent his adult life running around with his zipper hanging open, but he spoke well, dressed sharply, and could pilot a sailboat with his photogenic family smiling by his side.  

It obviously helped JFK that the press was happily complicit in hiding his peccadilloes from public view, but their willingness to do so was a function of their starry-eyed admiration for his easy charm.  He seemed to fit their vision of what a moral and inspiring leader should be, so they were content to engage in some willful blindness in the pursuit of what they perceived to be a greater good.  Those on the inside will always shield a personally compromised leader if they believe his or her purpose is pureand their own power and prerogatives are protected in the bargain.

Finally, it is beneficial to have the right enemies if you are to offer compelling moral leadership to the masses.  Having a great and good vision is important, but it is much easier for your followers or potential followers to offer their support if you can offer an apocalyptic alternative that will occur if your teachings are not followed.  Many centuries ago the Catholic Church was able to exercise domination over Europe because failure to obey meant Satan would arise and your immortal soul would be damned to hell fire for eternity.  Today the conviction that the Earth will spiral into unthinkable environmental catastrophe in only 12 years if draconian measures are not immediately taken to remake our daily lives and entire economic structure is driving the fervor of some for eating insects, living in yurts, and using composting toiletsthe enemy is our species and its crimes against our planet.

The obvious problem with seeking guidance and leadership in the quest for moral clarity is that heroes are not always clearly heroic and villains sometimes not overtly villainous.  It would be helpful if the enemies of humanity were legally required to live in secret lairs inside active volcanoes (evil assistant optional) or daily dress in black leather embossed with swastikas, but we have learned the hard way that truly terrible people can be superficially quite charming and engaging.  Conversely, some of the most heroic people in our history have been bland, awkward, or confrontational.  

Worse yet, it is extraordinarily difficult (if not impossible) to know for certain whether a given individual or action will in the long term serve the interests of good, evilor perhaps both.  For example, the scientists who created the atom bomb toward the end of World War II helped to end the actual combat more quickly; however, it was also the case that hundreds of thousands of people died horribly as a result and a nightmarish era of nuclear anxiety and paranoia warped world politics for many decades to come.  Were these scientists heroes, villains, or dupes?  We are still arguing the point, and the final answer eludes us to this very day.  Right and wrong are often maddeningly complex concepts with innumerable twists and turns.

Nonetheless, we are surprisingly comfortable with condemning the beliefs and actions of others with sometimes startling viciousness, and our inability to recognize the limitations inherent in our perspectives is an impediment to productive dialogue.  In addition, our predilection for rhetorical overkill and fallacious linkagesI just today read of a Presidential candidate equating being pro-life with racism and anti-Semitismrenders all involved less heroic despite their intense beliefs in the merits of their causes or ideas.

Although we have spent the past several decades insisting that our feelings are more important than hard, verifiable facts, relegating our emotions to the margins of our conversations might be the only way out of the quandary we find ourselves in today.  It would, of course, be foolish to forget that facts can be readily manipulated and twisted by those with a partisan purpose, but cool-headed inquiry based on data is less fraught with difficulties than determining who is the most angry, offended, or appalled by a given proposal or viewpoint.  

Some are now convinced that logic is an oppressive tool of patriarchy and racism (Dont believe me? Look it up!).  However, it could be reasonably argued screeching at one another until our eardrums burst is an oppressively stupid method of resolving our disagreements that leads only to unending discord and misery.  

Numbers are not hateful.  Although some would certainly disagree, your bathroom scale is not discriminating against you when you check your weight in the morning. Standardized test scores might be influenced by a familys social-economic status, but that is not a reason for discontinuing the use them as one basic measure of K-12 academic outcomes.  Our spiraling national debt has many causes, but it cannot simply be dismissed as an irrelevant annoyance when contemplating governmental programs that will cost tens of trillions of dollars.

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Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall

The sardonic wit of the 20th century poet, critic, and author Dorothy Parker reveals a person with a keen awareness of the absurdity of her own life lived too close to the flame of fame—all while obsessively studying herself in the mirror.  To be noticed for your cleverness and celebrated for it can turn into a terrible trap because life is far more complex—and human emotion more transcendent—than what can be packed into a quip or witticism.  Although I have enjoyed the sharp edge of many of Ms. Parker’s writings, it is impossible for any reader to miss the desperate hope embedded within, that of someone who seems always to be searching herself for a tangible truth that she expects her unique way with words to reveal—only to be left grasping at air.  One of her most famous poems reeks of both her yearning and disappointment:

Resumé
 
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Intense self-awareness can lead to healthful self-examination but it many times curdles into a bitter and embittering brew of self-loathing and disdain directed at those whom we perceive as less sensitive than ourselves regarding the delicate pulsations of the universe.  Art, music, and and literature are full to the brim with exquisitely beautiful souls who are too tender to survive a world as brutish as our own.  We are to both admire and pity these individuals who are forced to survive on a cold and uncaring planet that fails to understand them.

The famous 1955 photograph of James Dean walking alone (except for, of course, the photographer) through a New York City rainstorm with his jacket collar turned up to ward off the chill of a cruel universe is perhaps the perfect visual representation of our afflicted and precious age.  A cigarette dangling from his lips, tragically alone, his shadow on the wet pavement perhaps the foreshadowing of his own sad death later that year, he is the man at once rejected, friendless, and misunderstood.  We are invited to observe his beautiful misery and seek virtue in the faux suffering of an international movie star.

Turning this alienation into art—preferably with music featuring an ominous minor piano key in the background—is now the dominant cultural output of our media-saturated modern world.  Merely creating beauty is for the birds; exposing private agony is now the modus operandi of our psychoanalytic pop culture.  Consequently, the confessional has been moved from the chapel to the public square (and onward now to social media) so that our exquisite personal torments can be shared by one and all, and much of what we now deem “art” is actually a just record of the artist wrestling with private demons inside a showcase window.

Confession can, of course, be good for the soul, and it is possible to learn valuable lessons by observing the struggles of others.  However, incessant wailing can quickly lose both its instructional and entertainment value.  The unrelenting dreariness of much of today’s cultural output is remarkable for its sour and single-minded focus upon tender souls and spirits destroyed by the troglodyte masses who are simply too stupid to understand the unique wonder of the enlightened few.  To find this self-absorbed and self-regarding nonsense uninteresting is apparently to be inadequately attuned to our current zeitgeist of love thyself and mock thy neighbors. “Wokeness” does not provide an excuse for the hatefulness directed at others by those who claim to be operating on a moral or ethical level higher than that of the rest of humanity.

The equation of much modern art and contemporary dialogue derived from its influence is simple: To be misunderstood is to be human, and to be an outsider is construed to be a sign of moral virtue or insight.  However, the problem with a world filled with wannabe Dorothy Parkers and carefully coiffed clones of James Deans is that although life can be art and art can be life, someone has to set an alarm, get up, get dressed, go to work, and get the job done for themselves and others—and not call in sick every time existential angst overwhelms them.  

A life always looking inward tends to be one that features a lot of excuse-making and irresponsibility; staring out a rainy window while nursing an inner wound doesn’t pay the bills or advance one’s life.  Having to sometimes suck it up so as to not turn yourself (and everyone depending on you) into a victim may interfere with wistfully wallowing in the unfairness of it all, but the truth of the matter is that everyone has their problems—yours are simply not as unique as you might believe.  Except for the charmed few, most people have to slog along in order to fulfill their responsibilities to themselves or others, and there will be times that the world and the people in it will not readily conform to your wishes.  Not only is it unreasonable to believe this will be the case, it is also often the epitome of selfishness.  Those who expect everyone to run circles around their needs and wants conveniently forget that others have needs and wants that may be neglected while they are taking the time to brood, have a tantrum—or just check out.

I suspect that our modern celebration of ourselves contributes mightily to our current political and social polarization.  If the only values and viewpoints that are correct are your own, it is extraordinarily difficult—if not impossible—to understand why an idea other than yours is worthy of consideration.  If you are further encouraged to dismiss opinions other than your own because the very notion of considering an alternative to your beliefs exposes you to “hate speech” (cue the safe space full of therapy bunnies!), self-absorption is dangerously enhanced by self-righteousness, which makes respectful dialogue impossible.

The majority of Americans are desperate for thoughtful discussions that result in reasonable solutions to the many problems facing our country.  Unfortunately, our national dialogue is routinely hijacked by those who squelch and shame others because they honestly believe those who disagree with them are worthy of only scorn and sneering.  The opinions of the many consequently become captive to the misguided desire of some to promote a false harmony through either censorship imposed from without or encouraged to come from within.  The outcome encourages extremism born of frustration with being silenced, and this further poisons any possibility for the sometimes rocky consensus necessary for both governance and a civil, democratic society.

Mirrors are wonderful, and self-study and self-evaluation are normal and necessary components of the journey toward maturity and personal responsibility.  However, there comes a point where a line is crossed into a place that actually excludes life’s realities in the service of fantasy that walls one off from others.  A cocoon of self-interest and self-regard can be a comfortable spot for some, but it is profoundly damaging to families, friends, and institutions that are compelled to be subservient to a fundamentally immature need to be coddled and catered to.  We often discuss the need to tear down the walls that separate us, but we may also need to smash a few mirrors in order to put a stop to the self-veneration that too often blinds us.

We Are All Bill Buckner

Bill Buckner was an outstanding professional baseball player in the 1970s and 1980s, and many believe him to be worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  However, all his accomplishments on the field and in his life were eclipsed by a single incredibly horrible moment in his career, the ground ball that trickled between his legs at the end of Game 6 in the 1986 World Series.  His error allowed the Mets to complete an amazing comeback victory when the Red Sox were right on the cusp of winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, and the Red Sox lost the deciding Game 7 to the New York Mets, crushing their fans.

Mr. Buckner just recently passed away, and he tried valiantly to live down what might be the most infamous gaffe in baseball history for the remaining 33 years of his life.  To his credit, he bore the constant reminders of the shocking mistake with as much stoicism and grace as any human being likely could ever muster.  Thanks to the advent of the Internet and services such as YouTube since 1986, later generations have been able at their leisure to relive the most painful and humiliating moment of his sporting lifeagain and again and again.  How wonderful that must have been for him, his family, and his friends.

Given that so much of all of our lives is now available online for the edification and entertainment of the nosey and the nasty, questions about our personal privacy, the security of our data, and our increasingly shaky right to live away from the unblinking eye of pervasive surveillance become more pressing with each passing year.  Privacy and discretion are rapidly becoming artifacts as quaint as 19th century high-button shoes, and we now often know far more about strangers and near strangers than is perhaps either reasonable or healthful.  

Moreover, our predatory attitude toward anyone foolish enough to be a “public figure” is astoundingly cruel at times. I cannot even imagine what President Franklin Roosevelt, forced to use a wheelchair and leg braces due to polio from the 1920’s until his death, might have had to endure at the hands of his enemies in today’s mean meme world.  The media once understood human decency and consideration and so avoided photographing him in his wheelchair; this type of kindness now seems beyond all imagining.

A society that has raised both voyeurism and public humiliation to a high art is likely neither the healthiest nor most functional.  Although it could be reasonably argued that some of the obsessive self-revelation of early 21st century life has exposed injustices and abuses long hidden from viewthe #MeToomovement and instances of police misconduct spring immediately to mindthe degradation of personal boundaries and our addiction to gawking at misery and mischief is much less laudable.  

Being able to Google a celebrity sex tape or view a cell phone video of someone passed out from a drug overdose is unlikely to promote either individual dignity or social justice.  Both the ready availability of this sort of this material and our evident interest in it and other scandalous and salacious fare speaks to our lack of respect and empathy for others.  

The fortunes made on trafficking in the unhappiness and mistakes of others is both sad and shameful.  In the old days, blackmailers used to extort money from their victims by threatening to reveal an indiscreet letter or photograph; today’s modern blackmailer simply starts a website and sells subscriptions to the scandal-hungry masses.  Although making a quick buck by hawking stolen selfies and videos of some embarrassing moment might be good old-fashioned capitalist initiative at its best, the wonder is that we both allow and actively support this ugliness.

Our deeply embedded schadenfreudeour dark desire to savor the unhappiness of othersis likely to blame for much of our willingness to click on a hateful comment or watch a pratfall from respectability, but we also must recognize that the modern monetization of misery has served to extinguish boundaries of propriety and restraint that we are worse off for having lost.  A society that ruthlessly extinguishes its heroes for profit also discards any possibility for higher purpose or self-sacrifice because every human thought and action is reduced to sad farce or laughable self-delusion.  Even worse, a single misjudgment or misstep now has to power, thanks to the endlessly amplified echo chamber of infotainment and social media, to erase all memory of an otherwise respectable life and transform one into either a devil or a buffoon.

It is terrible that Bill Buckners life and professional career will be remembered for a twisting little grounder that danced past his ankles, but this is the reality that we all now face every day.  Any person, anywhere, and at any time canin but a single unguarded or unthoughtful momenthave ones life become an object of derision or delight for the multitudes who are anxious to revel in the misfortunes of others.  Is it somehow hilarious to post videos of the overstressed, overexcited, or overwhelmed?  Are accidents humorous?  Should we be shocked that humans sometimes make thoroughly human mistakes that seem oddly sinister when removed from their proper context?

To ask these questions is, of course, to question the business model of much of our modern media environment.  To answer these questions we need to, of necessity, look within ourselves, study our own hearts, and examine our consumption of our often coarse and cruel culture today.  To presume that our current reality is either permanent or desirable is wrongheaded.  We have the power to choose the type of world we want to inhabit, and we can certainly find the will to wean ourselves off the drugs of choice today: scandal, sleaze, and stupidity.

 

The Great Schism

As far back as Sodom and Gomorrah in The Holy Bible, cities have been seen as centers of sin and degradation and were often presented in stark contrast to rural towns and areas, which were considered the wellspring of sobriety and piety. This duality has run through the history of civilization, and it has influenced every facet of the arts, politics, and social mores for every society.  Country life was pure and wholesome, the city was rife with immorality and greed, and each viewed the other with distrust and condescension. 

As with any stereotype, there is perhaps some truth buried there.  Cities are often a place where people flee to escape the shackles of traditional beliefs and morality in order to reinvent themselves free of constraint; rural areas are generally populated by those who are comfortable with the values bequeathed to them by their parents and grandparents and so are more suspicious of change for change’s sake.  However, this does not necessarily translate into the more insulting stereotypes of ignorant and bigoted rustics pitted against conniving and degenerate urbanites.  The truth is, of course, far more complex, and both good and bad individuals can be found both in the country and the city—neither has a monopoly on either decency or vice.

We are, however, today experiencing an unusually high degree of disconnect between our major cities, which are invariably controlled by Democrats, and rural areas, which are almost exclusively controlled by Republicans.  The great electoral prize for both sides are obviously suburban voters, who do not generally align as rigidly with either of our two major political parties.  The geographic entrenchment of both parties—Democrats in big cities and college towns with Republicans controlling virtually everywhere else—was a vivid and telling aspect of the electoral map in 2016, and these differences have seemed to only further hardened in the years since.  The mutual cultural and social disdain that urban and rural residents have historically directed at one another has now taken on an acutely political dimension that is further dividing our nation.

There are obvious economic reasons why this divide has worsened in recent decades.  As cities have become ever more reliant on technology and finance jobs—manufacturing having been mostly driven out decades before—escalating real estate prices and their ripple effects on retail and services have created urban economic conditions that are extraordinarily (perhaps even dangerously) bifurcated.  At the top of the pyramid, we see wealthy and cosmopolitan urbanites who see themselves as citizens of a new internationalized economic order that allows them to generate enormous personal wealth.  Everyone else is left to scramble to scratch out a daily existence made enormously challenging by a cost structure that makes even paying for basic daily needs such as groceries a significant problem.  

Because of the extraordinary disconnect between the very rich and very poor that is now characteristic of city living, America’s urban areas are filling up with the homeless and the hopeless, and city streets are increasing being overrun with street encampments, rats, feces, and discarded needles, which unsurprisingly leads to louder and louder calls for government action to “solve” a problem that is largely attributable to highly restrictive zoning laws and wild real estate speculation, both tacitly if not openly encouraged by city leaders, that serve the needs of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Those who live in rural areas of the nation look at the obvious dysfunction of many of our nation’s big cities and the desire of big city politicians to keep raising taxes to pay for more services to deal with those dysfunctions—and are repelled.  The idea that some Republican politicians in Illinois are now floating to cast Democratic Chicago adrift like a plague victim in a lonely lifeboat is related to proposals in California to separate the major cities on the coast from the inland areas and the eternal dislike of so many New Yorkers for New York City and it’s seemingly parasitic ways.  Rural residents look at the crime, filth, and insane costs of city living (“$25 for a PB & J?  Seriously?”), want to stay as far away as possible—and believe government is too often held hostage to the greed, immorality, and corruption of big city politicians whosneer at their simpler and perhaps more sensible lives.

Given the choice between free spending urban Democrats who apparently have never met a tax or fee they didn’t like and rural Republican politicians who often view government as a necessary evil, it is hardly a surprise that so few of the “Deplorables” voted for Hillary Clinton, whom they saw as just another big government swamp creature, in the 2016 election.  However, looking at it from the perspective of urban voters who felt that Hillary Clinton’s loss was an outcome of the racism, sexism, and xenophobia indicative of “white frailty”, the election results only confirmed their worst stereotypes of the ignorant and bigoted country rubes parading around with their assault rifles, abusing their simpleton wives, denigrating their repressed daughters, and mocking those who are not white and Christian.

This mutual incomprehension is more comprehensible when you look at the manner in which politicians often actively work to divide us in order to solidify their own block of voters.  Only today I read of one Democrat in Congress calling Republican voters ignorant and a Republican in the Senate calling Democrats extremists.  Add to this the incessant cable news gabfests that seem to exist only to create a ready demand for Prozac and the unending bile of so many on social media and what remains of the legacy mainstream media, and we can more easily recognize why efforts to understand have been replaced with a desire to destroy.  

The urban/rural divide is also driving an electoral dynamic that is creating a great deal of ill will at the moment.  Given the enormous pluralities for Democrats in coastal big cities, we could continue to see Presidential elections where the popular and electoral college votes continue to diverge as they did in 2016.  Even if a Democrat can win 100% of the vote in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere and so win the popular vote, it may not result in national victory if the rest of the nation is turning into an inland ocean of Republican red. 

This may not be a concern in terms of purely local matters, but given the ferment concerning the larger national issues that continue to divide us—particularly immigration and abortion—it is leading to efforts in many state legislators to circumvent the electoral college by pledging those states’ electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote, which will have the net effect of disenfranchising the voters in those states if their statewide totals are at odds with the national ones.  Whether these bills will be able to survive the inevitable appeals up to the U.S. Supreme Court is almost beside the point.  These efforts are indicative of a complete lack of faith in our traditional democratic processes and a frightening disregard for the collective wisdom of our nation’s voters.  Of course, why would anyone have faith in the judgments of either “Deplorables” or “extremists” when it comes to choosing a President?  It seems many now feel the American election system must be rigged in order to generate the desired outcome, and this is further corroding an already strained relationship between elected officials and voters.

Watching reporters after the shock of the 2016 election fan out into the middle of the nation like 19th century explorers off to investigate some exotic foreign land, it was hard not to wince at their incredulity when they came face to face with perfectly decent people who own a gun but have no plans to shoot up a school, believe homosexuality to be a sin but would still love their son or daughter regardless, praise their neighbors but insist they reside here legally, and would rather raise a child with Down Syndrome than “murder” a baby with an abortion.  By the same token, it hurt to listen to harrumphing pundits explain the problems caused of “low information” (read: stupid) Americans who voted for fear and hatred by pulling the lever for Donald Trump and other Republicans rather than encouraging their viewers to respect the election outcome, analyze the pros and cons of differing viewpoints, and thereafter work to find common ground in order to solve our nation’s problems.

City and country may never see eye to eye, and we have seen other great historical movements—the crusade to pass Prohibition a century ago springs immediately to mind—that have pitted our rural and urban areas against one another in a battle for the soul of our nation.  However, this disconnect, this great schism between the two, is at least one of the factors driving our terrible political polarization today, and the continuing geographic self-selection by urban Democrats and rural Republicans is a significant factor in making it even worse.  

Perhaps like a terrible fever this battle between brothers and sisters will break and subside into a more generalized moderation of thought and action, but I am not counting on this any time soon unless we consciously work to dial down the inflammatory rhetoric and uncompromising attitudes in all regions of our nation.

Time To Rescue Our Young Adults?

The crisis afflicting young adults in America today is a well-documented phenomenon that statistics sometimes seem inadequate to document.  Rising rates of drug and alcohol use, STD’s, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thought and action cannot in and of themselves adequately describe the desperate state of those who should now be living the most exciting years of their lives—not gulping pizza and Prozac while blearily staring at their phones.

Many commentaries have been written to attempt to explain this generational problem that affects many—but certainly not all—young American adults.  Explanations run the course from poor parenting that is (depending on the writer) either neglectful or overly involved, prevalent racism, rampant sexism, toxic masculinity, violence, intrusive technology, or even Donald Trump.  Although young adults can be negatively affected by these factors and many more too numerous to count, the systemic problems seem to suggest a more global explanation is needed.

How broad based are the problems affecting those who are just starting their life journey—and often crashing and burning?  According to a 2017 Pentagon study, only 29% percent of young adults who are eligible to join the military actually qualify; the other 71% are disqualified because they are obese, have no high school diploma, or already have compiled a criminal record. The American Psychological Associations Journal of Abnormal Psychology reports that in the past 10 to 12 years, the number of 18-25 year olds reporting symptoms indicative of major depression increased 63%, and serious psychological distress and suicide-related thoughts or actions rose by 70%.  A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Labor found that Millennials, who today are 18 to 34 years old, make 43 percent less than what Gen Xers made in 1995 when they were under 35 years old.  “Don’t be a fool, stay in school”?  The average young adult now accrues over $33,000 in student loan debt, and roughly 4 of 10 will never actually complete the degree they seek.

When all is said and done, maybe firing up a doobie and binge watching Game of Thrones with a bag of Cheetos isn’t such a bad idea, but the question now is what can we do get our troubled young people back on track.  I have three proposals:

Stop medicating our young instead of helping them

The rise in the number children who are growing up with the handy help of a doctor’s prescription pad is startling—in the extreme. Data from the IQVia Total Patient Tracker Database for 2017 shows that well over 15 million children and adolescents were receiving psychiatric medication for diagnoses ranging from ADHD to anxiety during just that year alone.  Given that these are powerful mind and mood altering drugs being pumped into immature and developing brains—and researchers have long been aware of the unpredictable (and largely unstudied) dangers posed to young minds by these drugs—our extraordinary reliance on substituting pills for patient and consistent adult protection and guidance is simply beyond belief.  

Pharmaceutical companies have misused the inherent trust of the public for the medical profession to convince tens of millions of parents to turn their children into guinea pigs for the most amazing uncontrolled experiment with mind-altering drugs in the history of humanity.  The long term consequences for the children unwillingly enrolled in this stupendously lucrative drug trial are unknown, but it does not take much imagination to guess at the catastrophic—and perhaps permanent—effects powerful psychoactive drugs can have on the fragile chemistry of young minds as they develop into young adulthood.

It might be just a little more difficult to grow up healthy and happy after a childhood and adolescence spent as a lab rat for Big Pharma.  Are we, sad to say, sending chemically damaged brains careening into the many challenges of young adulthood—and do we need to immediately stop doing this?

Accept the fact—finally—that our current system of public education is beyond repair

John Wayne is often erroneously credited with stating the obvious: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.”  The academic outcomes of our K-12 public education system, the deficiencies of which have been chronicled with mind numbing regularity for many decades, have been impervious to reform because our schools are paycheck, contract, and pension machines—and lots of people are making buck on mediocrity.  Ensconced behind an impervious wall of legislation and regulation designed to ensure that the adults are well served, public schools provide daycare, food, recreation, and places for students, staff, and faculty to charge their cell phones.  We should expect much, much more.  

Although some students certainly still succeed and pockets of educational excellence still exist in our public schools, the students who most need their schools to provide a hand up—those who are poor, those who are minority, and those who have difficult lives—are often ruthlessly shoved down after being shunted into Special Education or remedial classes where their chances of catching up with their peers academically are vanishingly small.  A typical arc after receiving a worthless high school diploma is an unsuccessful semester or two at college followed by a lifetime that is severely circumscribed by the academic deficiencies that were never addressed.  To fail so many students is a national scandal, and to continue to blame students and their families for these failures is nothing other than sublime cruelty.

As part of a commentary posted on December 13 of 2015 on my blog (andrewmwilk.com), I wrote the following concerning what I thought would be the most effective way to improve Illinois’ public schools:

“I believe our best course of action is to actively explore ways to convert our states entire education system to school vouchers and thereby allow parents and students to choose any school—public, private, or religious—anywhere they want to attend. Student funding would, as is currently allowed to some degree in half the states in our nation, follow the student instead of being handed to local school districts, and the continued funding of that student in that particular school should be designed to be contingent on both their [standardized test] scores and school grades.

In other words, we would flip the responsibility for success more toward the student by making a very direct bargain the centerpiece of this reform: if you like the school you are attending and want to remain there as a student, you had better pay attention in class and do your homework.”

I still believe it is the best course of action for Illinois—and I believe the same is true for every school in our nation—but I am not counting on it happening any time soon.  As long as the National Education Association has a single dollar left in its bank account to use to bribe legislators (in the form of campaign contributions), we will continue on just as we have for decades regarding education reform—all talk and little or no action.

Refocus our attention

There are plenty of engaging and urgent concerns affecting every square inch of our planets flora and fauna, but perhaps we need to lift our eyes and focus more of our outrage and concern on a much broader canvas of human behavior and human pain.  To continue to note the struggles experienced by many young adults but not make addressing them a top national priority seems a short-sighted and self-destructive course of action that will harm individuals and families, weaken our economy, place our national security at risk, and destroy the fabric of our democracy and civic life.

It is astounding that so many Americans are more likely to respond to the struggles of a distressed tree or injured dog than those of a overwhelmed young mother or traumatized young man, but perhaps it is simple human nature to prefer issues that avoid human messiness or contradictions and so seem more easily managed and solved.  The task of rescuing our troubled young adults is an enormous undertaking.  Even the most cursory examination and discussion of the catastrophe afflicting so many of them reveals that the problems are both complex and multi-faceted.  

However, with all due respect to the problems experienced by whales, wild flowers, and wildebeests, it might be time to concentrate our energies on assisting a huge segment of our own human population that is in deep distress right now and in need of our help and understandingbefore it is too late.