Two Terrible Ways Schools Rob Children Of Their Futures—And Make Money Doing So

I recently discussed with a colleague one of the oddities many of us continually encounter when teaching college students, and we both agreed this is one of the maddening truths of dealing with high school graduates today: They simply do not believe us when we explain that they will fail our courses if they neglect to pay attention and do the work we have assigned.  

However, the sheer incredulity that I sometimes encounter when I explain to a young adult that they have flunked is perfectly understandable to me.  We are often today dealing with students who were pencil-whipped through their high school courses, offered phony-baloney credit recovery for those classes where they did not even bother to attend, and were generally taught nothing in K-12 other than that there is no actual consequence for steadfast ignorance.  Therefore, why should they believe that their college teacher has no intention for passing them just because they are carbon-based life forms?  Was this ever the case during their 13 year plod through public schooling?  

Probably not.

K-12 education in America is typical of most entrenched government bureaucracies: There is no connection at all between pay and performance.  In fact, given that school funding is typically tied to nothing other than mere daily attendance, there is truly no incentive for anyone to bother with teaching and learning.  Your local public school will get their cash from local taxes, state funding, and federal grants whether students are studying Calculus or sleeping through a film on penguin reproduction.  Outcomes have no real place in American public education; the point is to keep students in a seat so the funding keeps rolling in.  If youve ever wondered why 35 years of education reform has resulted in negligible results while costing taxpayers a small fortune, this is a good place to begin your inquiry.

This peculiar quirk of how we fund K-12 education perhaps helps to explain at least some portion of the attraction to our latest American educational fad: Restorative Justicediscipline in our public schools.  

Despite any reliable research to demonstrate the efficacy of this punishment-light approach to school discipline, one that exchanges suspensions and expulsions of troublemakers with methods more akin to plain wishful thinking, Restorative Justice—“RJin todays lingohas taken hold across the nation.  Aside from promising that a more nurturing and sensitive approach is somehow better than dealing forcefully with those who disrupt classes, instill fear, and injure others, this method also puts money directly into the pockets of any district that adopts it because students who are expelled or suspended do not count as being in attendance, which means the money that follows them in the door will not be forthcoming.  Consequently, RJ can be a moneymaker disguised as compassionalthough the compassion seems to extend not at all to the victims of the bullies, stalkers, and abusers who now need not fear many (if any) consequences for causing physical and emotional harm to others.

Forgiveness does, of course, have a place in the classroom because young people always make mistakes, which is the reason we place them under the care and supervision of adults, and learning from mistakes is a necessary part of emotional maturation and development.  

Therefore, public schools have an obligation to model and teach the necessity of engaging in respectful behavior, obeying reasonable rulesand accepting the punishment that follows if respect is not offered and rules are not followed.  The alternative is to enable the most selfish attitudes and the rudest possible behavior among our young, which is going to further harm these children and adolescents as they proceed through life and discover just how many doors are closed to them due to learning from their public schools that lashing out has no consequence attached.  Educators who tacitly encourage misbehavior by failing to nip it in the bud are actively harming the young people in their care, and parents should be appalled at what is being taught—or not being taught—to their children through the Restorative Justice model of school discipline.

The same misguided compassion(not to mention the same yearning for the cash tied to school attendance) that informs our nations misbegotten embrace of Restorative Justice also animates the continued movement toward dramatically reducingor outright banninghomework in our nations public schools.  Setting aside for a moment the boon these practices provide for classroom teachers who will no longer need to deal with stacks of assignments to grade, policies that reduce or eliminate homework also keep many students coming to school because the stress of the academic workload is dramatically lessened.  Everyone may enjoy the opportunity to relax more and study less, but the negative impacts are rarely discussed.

Although some argue that any policy that keeps students in school is most definitely a good one, it must be pointed out that actual learning requires mastering the skills necessary to study andwork independently.  Moreover, the complex and time-intensive assignments that are necessary in middle and high school to enable students to learn the higher level academic skills they will need later in lifeparticularly if college is part of their life plansimply cannot be squished into the confines of the regular school day.  Homework is a critical adjunct to classroom instruction, and the failure to learn how study and work independently perhaps helps to explain why 30% of college freshman across our nation do not return for their sophomore yearsthey are simply unable to sustain the study habits necessary for classroom success.  

Would assigning and grading homework in K-12 have helped the millions of students who will abandon higher education this year? Would abandoning Restorative Justice discipline policies improve our schools and help our students?  I would argue that the answer is yes to both questions, but I am certain the Education professors will continue to publish academic papers suggesting otherwise.  Why is this the case?  Darned if I know, but at least their learned studies provide plenty of cover for school districts who care more about the cash tied to attendance than providing safe and academically sound classrooms for our nations children.

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Want Change? Stop Subsidizing Failure.

It seems to me that our nation currently faces three major continuing crises—deficient public education, opioid abuse with its resulting fatalities, and unaffordable healthcare—that are both true and far reaching.  Unlike so many other crises that affect only one segment of the population or which are dependent on highly questionable data for support, these three are beyond any question fundamental, destructive, and ongoing.  However, after years—or even decades—of diligent effort and literally trillions of dollars of spending collectively to solve them, perhaps it is now worth asking a single, rude question: Is there the very least possibility that government can ever solve any of these problems?

Our current destructive track toward national bankruptcy, which is forever fueled by our propensity for shoveling gobs of government cash at whatever the crisis du jour might be, begs the question of whether problems born of human greed, human stupidity, and human weakness can ever be solved by even the most well-intentioned and thoughtful application of taxpayer money.  Given that government can sometimes barely keep the snow shoveled on a sunny day, it could perhaps be the case that attempting to reconfigure the human spirit to eliminate human frailty is beyond the reach of even the most dedicated government official or employee.

Consider, for example, the many decades—and many trillions of dollars—that federal, state, and local governments have spent trying improve our nation’s mediocre public schools.  By any rational reckoning, we are no better off academically than we were back in 1983, when the “A Nation at Risk” report was issued.  The majority of America’s students still receive their diplomas despite obvious academic deficiencies that will hobble their progress in college and careers.

Seemingly the only clearly demonstrable improvement—albeit a depressing one—all these years of stupendously expensive “reforms” have produced is that our nation’s education bureaucracies have become much better at fudging the dismal numbers to provide the temporary illusion of progress.  The depressing string of test score, graduation, and grade scandals in so many cities and states—now being joined by increasing evidence of dereliction of duty regarding student discipline and safety—has exposed a great many of these supposedly miraculous “improvements” in America’s public schools as nothing more than spreadsheet legerdemain or active fraud.  

Taxpayers are, however, regularly reassured that their local school districts are just one more spending increase away from solving all of their problems because it somehow turns out—when it comes to public education, at least—that prior failures are a guarantee of future successes.  Why any rational person would approve one thin dime of additional funding for failing schools seems to make little sense at first glance, but it is necessary to keep in mind that student success is essentially tangential to the operations of our nation’s public education system.

Why do our schools never improve?  Simply put, everyone understands how the game is played, and the subpar status quo turns out to have many proponents.  Students know that their school system desperately wants to graduate them so that no uncomfortable questions are asked about their ignorance; therefore, it is perfectly possible to glide through the system with little or no effort involved—which is just fine with many children and adolescents.  Teachers know that pencil whipping students through the grades is easy, eliminates the fuss and inconvenience associated with actual education, and keeps the paychecks rolling right in.  School administrators want to point to big, shiny graduation numbers while assuring parents that their child’s terriblestandardized test scores are just a result of test anxiety or poorly designed assessments.  Local communities and their leaders love any good news about their schools that will help to escalate property values and are perfectly willing to accept the free day care that is obligingly provided.  Elected officials never tire of posing with smiling children—particularly if some sort of shiny trophy is being held up.  Contractors and labor unions enjoy building new schools and completing the steady stream of work that arises from basic facility maintenance.

Consequently, everybody wins in the short term, but the long term consequences are appalling.  However, given that our national zeitgeist is to live for today and not worry about tomorrow, our public school systems continue just as they are—and they will continue to be strikingly mediocre no matter how much money is spent to improve them.  A relatively small segment of high-powered parents will always make certain that their children are assigned to the subset of schools, teachers, and classes where some actual learning might take place, the broad middle spectrum of students will continue to float through classes that require a minimum of effort, and the troublemakers and the troubled are always hidden where they can do the least harm to themselves or others.  Meanwhile, everyone cheers at the football and basketball games, Prom is fun, and diplomas are eventually handed to the literate and illiterate alike—just another successful school year in America.  Smile for your photos, everyone!

Our national crisis of opioid abuse is yet the latest chapter of our never ending concerns over our human love of mood-altering substances.  Our country’s history has been one of drinking, smoking, injecting, swallowing, and snorting whatever we can lay our hands upon to blot out either the horrors—or the dreariness—of the day.  Grandma and grandpa were smoking weed in the park.  Your parents were doing Jell-O shots and raiding mom’s medicine cabinet.  Now it’s Fireball and Fentanyl.  Who knows what will be in vogue a few years from now?

Although it could certainly be argued that some of the drugs readily available today are a bit too powerful and dangerous for casual recreational ingestion, the bottom line is that 99% percent of use is strictly voluntary—although incredibly risky and demonstrably stupid.  Presuming that cutting off access to one drug or another is going to sober up our constantly buzzed nation is the same fallacy that led us to our misbegotten national experiment with Prohibition in the 1920’s and 30’s, which produced little but systemic corruption and deadly crime as a result.  

I would prefer that everyone stick to beer, but our nation’s drug and alcohol addled MacGyvers will always find some stronger substance to screw up their bodies and minds when the opportunity arises.  Those who want to use drugs and alcohol, will do so; those who do not, will not.  Spending time and money explaining the dangers of drugs and alcohol to both young and old alike has probably not changed a single mind—but it provides both the illusion of action and many paychecks to those who do the explaining.  However, all across our great nation, America is still drinking, smoking, injecting, swallowing, and snorting whatever is available—and this will continue as long as our planet spins around the sun.  

Addicts straighten out their lives, if they ever do, only when the damage to themselves or others becomes too obvious to ignore—or their minds and bodies simply can no longer take the unending abuse.  Until that day arrives, all the well-meaning government programs in the world won’t do much other than create a national infrastructure that, perversely enough, helps to ease the lives of addicts rather than forcing them to face the consequences of their behavior.  Is continuing to pour money into abundantly ineffectual drug and alcohol treatment programs a good idea?  Make your own decisions about that, all you overtaxed citizens out there.

Finally, watching our government leaders and their minions continue to botch up a mission as basic and important as ensuring that Americans can afford to go to a doctor for necessary medical care is rather like watching a YouTube video of a puppy endlessly chasing its tail—all that frenetic action produces no discernible result.  Anybody with the least brain in their heads realizes that medical device and equipment makers, pharmaceutical companies, and corporate hospital chains have conspired for many decades to raise costs to the stratosphere in order to generate ungodly profits.  Patients and their needs are a hindrance to the real mission—keeping the stock price soaring.  The only way that the overall cost of medical care will actually drop is if Medicare, Medicaid, patients, medical providers, and private insurers simply refuse to pay inflated charges and demand steep and permanent price cuts.

However, price discipline will never happen because it would cause the profits and stock prices of the medical profiteers to drop precipitously (and eliminate a lot of well-paying jobs besides!), which would send these businesses immediately scurrying—cash in hand—to our complicit and compliant government for protection from actual marketplace pressure.  After positioning themselves as champions of change in order to catch all the campaign contributions that are certain to follow, our nation’s elected leaders and their anonymous bureaucratic minions will spend many years—and election cycles—laboring to produce “reforms” that are a boon for the business of medicine but an unmitigated disaster for the economics of healthcare.  Money will get shuffled about, our taxes will be raised in order to pay for all our newly affordable healthcare(however much sense that makes) and the true cost of reforms, such as they are, will be masked by yet more crushing government debt to maintain a fundamentally uneconomical and unfair healthcare system.

Government will never solve these problems—education, drug abuse, and healthcare—but it will happily spend our nation and citizens into the poorhouse trying.  In the meanwhile, perhaps we need to provide a few reminders to those concerned.

Students need to remember that studying your school book instead of your cell phone is the only sure path to academic success.  Our nation’s opioid addicts need to learn—sometimes to their great discomfort—that the high live is no life at all.  All those government officials and consultants trying to “reform” healthcare—and enjoying the ease provided by our tax dollars while they do so—are welcome to continue to fiddle around endlessly while avoiding the ire of their corporate masters, but the fact will always remain that our opaque, decentralized, and bureaucratized healthcare system is a prescription for maximum expense with minimum results.

Want change? Stop subsidizing failure. Start insisting on personal responsibility. Reduce expenses by firing the parasites that spend their time explaining away their waste of our nation’s wealth, health, and youth. We need no more study—we need results.

A Modest Proposal For Our Public Schools

We live in the age of “big ideas” regarding how we can improve K-12 education in America.

We need personalized learning. Flipped classrooms would help. Teachers and students need to practice mindfulness. We could use more classroom technology—or perhaps less. No child will be left behind. Every student will succeed. I anxiously await the Lake Woebegone Education Act of 2035, which will mandate that every child be certifiably above average.

Let’s face the hard truth right here and now: All these many, many decades of reforms later, real and lasting improvements in K-12 academic outcomes are hard to find, and much of the available evidence points to further systemic declines.

Standardized tests continue to show that huge numbers of students are failing to learn, but apparently we should pay no attention to these test scores because they are nothing but a “snapshot” that fails to capture the “whole child”. As a result, hordes of high school graduates will continue to enroll in college each year—yet be wholly unprepared for college work—and flunk out after a semester or two. This is, however, not a reflection of the work being done (or not being done) at your local public schools. These danged kids must be partying too much.

Local news media—which pretty much operate as transcription services these days—will continue to report that their public schools are doing a fine job because these local television stations and newspapers really have no alternative but to do so. To report honestly about deficient academic measures and outcomes runs the risk of angering homeowners who are worried about their property values and contractors who are equally worried that the latest school construction bond might not pass and hence screw them out of lovely, fat paychecks. Any national or governmental data on broader problems with our country’s public schools do not, of course, apply to the schools in your own community, which the local news media have assured you are doing an excellent job preparing your children for successful futures. The circular logic of it all is a wonder to behold.

However, if a child is willing to sit in a classroom—or anywhere inside the building—so that your local district can collect their daily apportionment of state tax dollars, all will be well. If a student doesn’t like to write, that child can complete an “alternative” assignment—draw something, perhaps? If a child flunks a test, there is no need for worry—the school will likely allow unlimited test retakes. Hate to take notes or study? A student need have no concerns about that—count on a “study guide” the day before the quiz that contains all the answers. If nothing else works, your child can always enroll in a “credit recovery” course where, after watching a few movies and jotting down some random thoughts, full course credit will be expeditiously granted.

There are, of course, still public schools where some standards are maintained—and more and more charter schools are opening to provide alternatives for frustrated parents and students—but the daily reality for many children and adolescents throughout the length and breadth of our nation is maximum busywork and minimum learning. These problems later wash up on the doorsteps of our nation’s beleaguered community colleges, which are expected to somehow remediate 13 empty years of schooling within the span of a single semester.

I have suggestion so radical that to speak it out loud almost tempts a bolt of lightning to strike: Start flunking students who cannot perform to a minimal level of competence, which should translate into skills that would give that student a 50/50 chance of earning a C in a first year college course.

This does not seem an unreasonably high standard to set, and it would both bring some much-needed rigor back into our nation’s public schools and provide some reward for hard work. Our current system of striving to pass any student who can fog a mirror has turned much of our core coursework into a joke and has convinced everyone—students and teachers alike—that caring about learning is a waste of time.

Our unrealistically high graduation rates would obviously dip were we to adopt this standard throughout our nation’s schools, but those who thereafter received a diploma would at least have some assurance they possessed a good portion of the skills necessary to succeed in college or job training—and would not be condemned to a life of nothing other than the most minimally skilled jobs.

As odd as it might be to say this to those many Americans who are unaware of the diploma mills that so many of our public schools have become, implementing and sticking to this standard would entail a shock to the system akin to violent revolution. Rather than just pencil-whipping students through the grades, it would involve actual teaching, assessment, learning, and the many stresses of hard and sustained work—with no guarantee of success—that were once common in our nation’s public schools. Those teachers and administrators who cannot adjust to this new reality would need to be pushed aside, the happy nonsense that consumes so much of the average school day would need to be discarded, and both students and parents would need to face up to the fact that failure is sometimes a necessary stop on the path to actual learning.

Our other option is, of course, to continue to chase every educational fad that comes along, make excuses, and keep right on cheating many, many eighteen year olds of their futures while giving them nothing but an utterly false sense of their own competencies. A renewed commitment to teaching and learning seems an obvious choice to make, but one should never underestimate the corrosive powers of the inertia, laziness, petty politics, and bureaucratic timidity that are the hallmarks of American public education today.

Can We Do Anything To Reduce Gun Deaths?

Back on December 30th of 2012, after the Newtown school shooting, I published a commentary in my local newspaper, The News-Gazette, regarding gun violence, and you can find the full text in my blog archive on this website. I have excerpted a portion of my thoughts at that time below:

Inevitably, each time another group of innocents are massacred, we talk about gun control—and we have yet another opportunity to shout at one another across the political, social, and regional divides that have riven our nation for too long. 
On one side, we hear the perfectly reasonable argument that erecting barriers to gun and ammunition purchases will make it more difficult for anyone to walk into schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, and houses of worship to slaughter and maim those whose only crime is to present a target of opportunity. On the other side we have the equally reasonable argument that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who cannot understand why restrictions should be placed upon them because of the actions of the very few; many times these solid citizens land in the extremist arms of the NRA, regardless of the nuances of their beliefs about gun ownership, simply because they have no one else defending their interests.
The end result is predictable. After much hooting and hollering, our various levels of government will pass laws that make few happy and protect virtually no one.

If we put more restrictions on legal gun ownership and ammunition sales, we will create yet more expensive bureaucracies that will devote scarce resources to the task of closely monitoring the activities of those who are least likely to commit a crime with a gun. If we increase the penalties for gun-related crime, we will add more time in jail onto the sentences of those who are least likely to be deterred by the presence of a new law and give them a little more time behind bars to lift weights and become further estranged from mainstream society. If we restrict the domestic manufacture of guns and ammunition, many jobs will move to other countries, and those who are willing to import weapons into the United States—by means both legal and illegal—will become stupendously wealthy thanks to dirt cheap overseas labor and high domestic demand
.
And if government officials should seek to confiscate the hundreds of millions of weapons now in the hands of our citizens, I have only one comment to make: good luck with that.

I continued that particular commentary by discussing the need for better access to mental health care because those who commit these heinous mass shootings are simply stark raving mad—and should have long ago been confined to a secure residential treatment unit.

Now, in light of the terrible mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida by a former student, I would like to revisit this topic and, given that I am no longer restricted by a newspaper’s word limit, expand a bit regarding how our nation should respond to this problem.

Although mass shootings are certainly horrible and terrifying, they account for roughly 2% of gun deaths each year; in comparison, suicides account for about 60% of the approximately 33,000 gun deaths in the United States each year. Neither mass shootings nor suicides are, of course, acceptable or normal events, but it is easy to see how the intense media attention to a much smaller number of deaths resulting from mass shootings has skewed our perceptions and public policy discussions. Far more lives would be saved if, for example, we developed comprehensive national programs to identify and assist those at risk of committing suicide.

Nonetheless, mass shootings create far more fear and concern, particularly when children or adolescents are targeted in schools and public places. A crazed person with a gun is every parent’s worst nightmare, and we quite naturally expect solutions that will protect all from harm.

Demanding that certain types of firearms be prohibited is a common reflex. The never ending clamor to ban assault weapons, which are actually only semi-automatic rifles that sport certain cosmetic features that endow a more military appearance, is a popular but ultimately misguided response. A pump action shotgun can do far more damage in many cases, and certain types of ammunition can render a semi-automatic handgun equally as deadly as either a rifle or a shotgun.

A recent article in The New York Times confirmed that roughly 173 people have been killed in mass shootings committed with the much maligned AR-15 since 2007, which works out to roughly 10 deaths per year. This is very sad, but far more people die each year by slipping in their bathtubs. Will banning this particular weapon actually save that many lives, or has media-driven panic displaced logical thought regarding the reality of this issue?

By the same token, a more comprehensive and reliable national system of background checks may stop some who plan to use firearms to attack others, but this solution is limited by the plain fact that black markets will always spring up to supply that which government seeks to prohibit—and anyone who is criminal or crazy enough to want a gun with which to kill can simply resort to theft or subterfuge to obtain what they want. Sane and law-abiding people follow the rules; crooks and cuckoos do not.

Proposals to ban the sale and manufacture of high-capacity ammunition clips and bump stocks, which can turn some semi-automatic weapons into ones capable of continuous fire—until their ammunition clips are exhausted after a few seconds—also crash into the issue of encouraging black market sales that will be impossible to either regulate or halt entirely.

Moreover, none of the gun control ideas that resurface every time a mass shooting happens adequately address the plain fact that the vast majority of gun owners are reasonable individuals who take the responsibilities inherent in possessing a firearm quite seriously and derive great personal satisfaction and security from exercising their 2nd Amendment rights.

So what are we to do?

I suggest that we stop chasing the chimera of gun control as a solution. I believe we should instead re-examine our understandable emotional responses and investigate targeted interventions designed to address different facets of the problem of firearm-related deaths and injuries.

More and better-funded crisis hotlines could be a good start to reducing the startling number of gun suicides. In addition, we need more programs in schools, workplaces, and places of worship to help identify and help those who are considering self-harm. We also need to develop resources to address the epidemic of crushing loneliness that afflicts our society. If we can help rebuild the frayed social connections that leave so many without someone to turn to for support and basic human interaction, we can perhaps begin to make a dent in the misery that makes so many believe that the only way to relieve their pain is to put a gun to their heads.

In addition, we need to reconsider a half century of progressive dogma that has expanded the “rights” of the mentally ill. Making it infinitely more difficult to commit those who pose a danger to themselves or others to mental hospitals, allowing those who could be helped by medication to refuse to take it, and leaving law enforcement virtually powerless to deal with threatening behaviors until those threats become actual harm to others that results in arrest is beyond foolish—these are criminally negligent abdications of our duty to protect our neighbors and communities. We must have both the tools and the power to save our citizens from the violently (or potentially violent) mentally ill—unless we want to keep reading the same horrible headlines again and again and again.

Finally, we need to reconsider to the level of violence in so much of our mass entertainment today. Exposure to the cruelty and outright sadism baked into so many television shows and movies is not healthy for anyone—but these constant violent images and ideas only serve to stoke the twisted fantasies of those who are emotionally unstable.

If you have any doubt that our standards have changed dramatically over the past fifty years or so, I encourage you to visit YouTube and watch a few episodes of the television series, Wild Wild West. This program was cancelled despite high audience ratings in 1969 because it was considered far too violent for a broadcast audience. Those who watch it now and compare it to our daily entertainment diet of death and dysfunction will find it as quaint as a doily in grandma’s front parlor. Our societal standards have dropped rather dramatically—and we are surprisingly blind to the corrosive effects that are evident wherever we look. It is unintentionally hilarious to remember that back in the 1950’s the U.S. Congress was busy crusading against the corrupting influence of comic books upon our children. What would those elected officials from our nation’s past think of our nation’s “entertainment” today?

I would be remiss regarding this issue were I not to address President Trump’s idea of arming trained and carefully selected teachers, administrators, and staff, who will respond immediately to active shooters inside of a school building. Although some rural schools have already taken this step because of the prohibitively long time it would take law enforcement to respond in an emergency, my belief is that this is not a policy we should implement on a national basis at this time.

I can easily imagine that students would be overly distracted by the knowledge that some in the building are armed. The inevitable guessing games regarding who it might be carrying a gun—for the identities of those who are armed would obviously need to be kept secret to protect them from becoming the first victims of an actual school shooter—could be more than distracting. Moreover, it is not too difficult to conjure up scenarios where accidents, neglect, or poor judgements could result in tragedy. Although—as we have recently learned from the tragic inaction of law enforcement in Parkland, FL—the professionals sometimes behave unprofessionally, we are still likely better off allowing local police and deputies to respond to a shooting at a school.

We have many challenges ahead of us regarding the plague of gun violence that afflicts our nation, and I hope we can work through them—reasonably, thoughtfully, and with a minimum of rancor. I would prefer that, rather than policymaking by sound bite, we convene a bi-partisan task force to evaluate all the potential solutions and make thoughtful recommendations. That which is done in haste and confusion can waste valuable time, finite resources, and have a great many unintended consequences. We owe it to ourselves and our country’s future to get it right this time.

Change Can Be Painful

I have been mulling over the concerning level of distress that now seems to infect so many of our personal and national conversations. Donald Trump is, to be certain, at the root of some of this because he refuses—or is simply unable—to finesse much of anything. President Trump finds the rawest possible nerve to rub at the most inopportune possible time—and keeps right on rubbing it no matter how loud the howls. I will agree with those who argue that he is an irritant; this is not much of a mystery.

It is, however, just as true that a great many problems we have tried desperately to ignore for decades are now impossible to avoid—and Donald Trump is many times simply the blunt instrument for our reckoning with unpleasant realities.

We are enslaved by public and private debt, the cost of medical care is outrageous, our public schools are failing many children, higher education is amazingly costly and often captive to ideological battles, homelessness and hunger haunt many, families and communities are fragmented, and there is a fairly pervasive sense that our governmental structures have devolved into self-serving parasites that pay little attention to the needs of those whom they claim to serve. All of this frustration and rage erupted last November, and our nation opted for chemotherapy over continued palliative care—hence at least some of the pain we are today experiencing. Aggressive treatment of our maladies is a shock to a system long accustomed to soothing platitudes and bland reassurance.

Now we have steep tax cuts and pointed discussions about reducing our expansive—and expensive—government structures. Tough questions are being asked about how to remake our healthcare and health insurance systems to reduce cost. Charter schools and school choice plans are corroding the public education monopoly. Higher education is suddenly having to justify both its mission and its stupendous cost. Public aid programs of all types are asking for much more responsibility from recipients. Zoning and tax policies that artificially inflate housing costs are under attack. People are pushing back against experts and policy makers who promote punitive and half-baked ideas regarding what is best for us.

As for government and government officials, they are disliked, distrusted, and disrespected by the vast majority of Americans—many of whom are now approaching a state approximating open rebellion. This is not surprising because our long national experiment with expanding government to provide endless freebies fueled by reckless borrowing has now crashed into the inevitable arithmetic of profligacy—eventually you run out of money. Avoiding real-life financial decisions by charging the spiraling costs of government programs rife with waste and inefficiency to future generations of taxpayers—who are now stuck with the tab—was loads of fun for elected officials who could keep handing out goodies without the political inconvenience of raising taxes to pay for them, but the incredibly large check for that stupendous party has now been dropped in our laps. Tough and divisive discussions are certainly ahead.

There is, in addition, a certain degree of anger generated by the very act of finally facing up to our problems. I find a good many of our recent hot-button debates concerning education, immigration, economic policy, and national defense seem animated by intense frustration over being forced to make hard decisions rather than being allowed to obliviously cling to questionable narratives and notions—heedless of cost or consequence.

After decade upon decade of waiting for improvements in hidebound public schools, parents are now demanding alternatives for their children. After abdicating control of our borders and endlessly extending the stays of those offered “temporary” refuge in America, enacting reasonable and long overdue immigration policy changes is a shock for a great many. Shrinking government and unshackling businesses from inane regulations seems very frightening to those who have grown comfortable with stultifying statist ideologies. Pushing back against terrorist groups and rogue states has terrified those who have forever counseled appeasement. At every turn, definitive and firm action has raised the hackles of those invested in bureaucratic inertia and willful ignorance.

It is clearly painful for some to have to abandon the familiar failures and pursue a new path. However, watching new charter schools succeed where others had failed, immigration laws and procedures being thoroughly debated and—President Trump’s alleged comments about “sh*thole countries” notwithstanding—vastly improved, business activity rising and unemployment shrinking while the stock market booms, and ISIS crushed at the same time North Korea is finally being forced to the bargaining table, it is increasingly difficult not to recognize that the time for a clean break with the failed ideologies of the past is right now. Bewailing successes that conflict with stale orthodoxy seems sillier by the day, and if we can stop imagining crises and instead work cooperatively to implement yet more fresh creative thinking regarding the issues facing our nation, we can likely achieve wonders.

Abandoning shibboleths is scary, adopting unfamiliar ideas is stressful, and accepting the necessity for change is upsetting. Nonetheless, we need to step out of our comfort zones and recognize that which is familiar may not be either helpful or good, and all the protests and complaints will not diminish the need for a thorough re-evaluation of ideas and philosophies that many have held dear for a very long time. We might not always be pleased—or even comfortable—with the decisions that are made as a result, but many times we—as a nation—will be better off.