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.

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Tinkerbell Explains It All

I have a vague memory of being taken to a performance of Peter Pan when I was a child. Like almost everyone of a certain age, what sticks out the most is the scene where Tinkerbell is apparently dying, and we were exhorted to clap our hands to a near-insane pitch of enthusiasm until, accompanied by our childish squeals of delight, “Tink” revived—thanks to the sheer power of our collective belief.

The “Tinkerbell Effect” refers to the peculiar phenomenon of something seeming to exist only because we desperately wish to believe it is so—and I wonder whether this explains much about the country we live in today. We have chosen to believe in a host of lies and half-truths peddled by our financial, political, educational, and cultural elites—no matter how illogical and inexplicable they might be—and these falsehoods have survived because of our refusals to acknowledge any evidence they might not be true.

Therefore, we ignore increasingly urgent warnings regarding the dangers of our inflated stock markets and housing prices, educationally-deficient schools and colleges, overextended military, and staggering public debts. If we just clap our hands hard enough, we will be safe from any consequences of our greed, stupidity, hubris, and profligacy. Concerns that any—or all—of these problems are imperiling our nation’s future are regularly debunked by elected leaders and well-paid experts who soothingly assure us that all is well.

And we clap our hands like trained seals, content to believe the unbelievable. Stock market and housing bubbles are just fine. Diplomas based on content-free coursework guarantee our children are academically prepared to pursue their dreams. Endless wars have no effect on our military readiness. Functionally bankrupt governments will still be able to take care of our many needs and wants.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap

It is, of course, basic human nature to ignore bad news and actively distract ourselves with the trivial and sensational, so it makes perfect sense that vote-seeking politicians and smiling lobbyists can easily convince us the party will never end. Nonetheless, we need to peek up from our digital devices in order to discern the difference between what is truth and what is deception.

We will, unfortunately, need to find a way to solve our problems despite our empty pockets—and the refusal of so many to accept this fact. It is now (nearly) impossible to ignore our dire public sector fiscal problems, which have been compounded by several decades of resolutely refusing to live within our means. The expansive promises of politicians who claim to be able to protect us from all harm through the magic of ever-expanding government programs has become a self-destructive exercise in spending that has been sustained only by increasingly suspect guarantees security is just one more big tax increase away.

However, if you find any of these observations disturbing, upsetting, insulting, or contrary to your most cherished beliefs, that’s your prerogative. If you keep clapping, I’m certain everything will turn out just fine—somehow.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.

The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.

 

Education Blues

Listening to people discuss the state of public education in America today often reminds me of that old story of three blind men describing an elephant. One is holding an ear, another is holding a leg, and the last is holding the tail. Therefore, each has an entirely different idea of the elephant based on his limited “reality”.

Such is the case with so many of our assessments of public education today, and the realities described by all concerned many times boil down to naked economic and political self-interests that skew “reality” in one direction or another—and all are blind in their own wonderful ways.

Teachers and administrators working within traditional public schools see K-12 systems that are struggling against a tidal wave of societal dysfunction and doing a great job against all odds. This constituency both hates and discounts the dismal data provided by standardized testing, and they see test advocates as dupes and conspirators in a right-wing plot to defund public schools, destroy democracy, and turn our children onto compliant drones incapable of thinking of anything beyond the narrow interests of their cruel corporate and political masters Anything that even smells like an educational standard is immediately suspect because it might crush a child’s individuality and unique preciousness—and prompt unwelcome questions about academic outcomes. These individuals and their interest groups believe those who seek to highlight deficient educational results are simply partisan and wrong, and their pointed negativity also, by the way, might screw with a lot of paychecks—so cut it out!

Those outside of traditional public schools—particularly those pushing for charter schools and school vouchers—cannot believe that anyone would want to continue to pour money into public school systems that, if the numbers are to be believed, each year graduate vast numbers of young adults who can barely read, write, or perform the most basic arithmetic. They see public schools as entrenched and ossified failure factories that rob taxpayers today while producing generation after generation of illiterates who are fodder for tomorrow’s food stamp, public housing, and Medicaid programs—all of which will help to bankrupt our cities, states, and nation in the decades to come. To ignore problems with our public schools is, as far as they are concerned, a form of slow societal suicide. Give us your money, they shout, and we can definitely do a much better job educating your children than your local public schools.

As for the union bosses, think tank experts, education professors, and politicians lining up on one side or another, they are easy to both understand—and ignore. Their “expertise” is wholly a function of whatever will advance their careers. Whether they are sniffing for money, tenure, or votes, their motivations are obvious, deeply compromised, and unworthy of serious consideration—unless you are particularly partial to circular logic and pretentious posturing. If all of them were never heard from again, it would make not a bit of difference to intelligent discussions about improving the educations of our children.

Three blind men…

Those who advocate for spending more money on public schools are sometimes correct that targeted dollars can help our children, but they fail to account for a pervasive tendency to pencil whip students through the grades regardless whether actual learning has taken place, and their refusal to confront systemic academic shortcomings identified by standardized testing cripples their credibility.

Opponents of charter schools and vouchers are correct that sometimes these don’t work as well as expected, and they typically shirk any responsibility for educating children with special needs, but one simple fact cannot be denied: growing numbers of students who have escaped from traditional public schools are now succeeding in college at far higher rates than those left behind.

Politicians and education “experts” are sometimes correct that what is educationally preferable might not always be possible, but their default settings of blaming families and society for all that ails our public schools neatly avoids any discussion of the roles teachers, administrators, and staff all play and in gaming the numbers to both mask deficiencies and keep their funding flowing.

Given the countless economic and social advantages inherent in our nation, it is simply unbelievable that we stand firmly astride the lower-middle tier of nations in terms of our educational achievement, and it is a perverse tribute to the peculiar power of low expectations, active deception, and willful blindness that so many parents are still content to each day send their children public schools that will rob them of their futures while frittering away mommy and daddy’s tax dollars.

In the final analysis, the only policies that have any hope of helping each child reach their potential are those that give maximum power to parents and the least possible power to education bureaucrats, many of whom have built their careers on that most well-worn of governmental activities—spinning bad news into good. However, the feverish buffing and shining of academic outcome data that range from the mediocre to the disastrous is now unable to conceal that sad fact that we are saddled with a nation full of public schools that many times manage to combine the highest possible costs with the weakest possible results.

What should we do? The only way forward is simple yet revolutionary: partner with the schools and not the systems. I know that the systems currently control the schools and act as gatekeepers, but to the greatest extent possible parents and concerned citizens must find ways to bypass and—if at all possible—ignore those who preoccupy themselves with “adminis-trivia”, battle against any changes that might threaten their sinecures, and refuse to recognize the legitimate educational needs of students because to do so might allow for frightening honesty regarding the shortcomings of our public schools.

This is a tall order that is going to create stress for all concerned, but some discomfort might be exactly what is needed at the moment. Pursuing reforms within the parameters of what will keep the educational bureaucracies happy has produced decade upon decade of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. For all the sound and fury surrounding the many widely-touted reforms to our public schools, shockingly little as actually changed—which is just what one expects when a broken system is asked to fix itself.

The revolution will, as all must, come from below—communities, parents, and students who are tired of being ignored, shortchanged, and shunted aside so that the paychecks can keep flowing to those who are screwing over so many of our children. Stop waiting for politicians and bureaucrats to change the future; they have not yet and never will. Unless those in the trenches are willing to march, boycott, and agitate, the brick walls of bureaucratic obfuscation and impenetrable jargon will continue to serve as obstacles to improving our children’s education—and “school choice” programs are the key to real changes.

Providing parents with the power to control where their child goes to school—public, private, or parochial—is truly the only viable way to ensure that progress is actually made because a system where the money follows the student will compel changes that are never going to happen as long as we stick to funding formulas where the student follows the money. As much as many dislike and distrust President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos, their push for expanded school vouchers might be our best—and perhaps last—hope for rescuing our children from public schools that promise much, provide little, and push back against any common sense notions of accountability. Watching the frenzied efforts in Washington to bury school choice, a single question should rise in the minds of anyone who cares about our children and our nation: What are they so afraid of?

Any educational reform that fails to maximize parental power over the shape and content of each child’s education has no hope of succeeding. I realize that parents can sometimes be pushy and are occasionally unreasonable, and it is certainly true that we cannot ever allow a loud clique of parents to hold sway over any school because we run the risk of privileging the few at the expense of the needs of the many. However, the changes that are needed in our public schools will not come from above because too many have vested economic and political interests in the dysfunctional status quo—and decade upon decade of failed reforms have amply demonstrated the futility of trying to “work within the system”. It’s just like gambling in Vegas; in the long run the “house” will always win.

Now is the time for our children to win, and this is long overdue….

Raining In Our Hearts

You Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live, Rock and Roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock, rock, Rock and Roll
The feeling is there body and soul….
School Days by Chuck Berry

I have found myself recently taking a deep dive back into the filmed musical performances of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and marveling at just what an amazing explosion of raw musical talent drove rock and roll in its earliest years. Moreover, the sheer energy with which these young men and women performed is an almost textbook example of the type of innocent exuberance we associate with those years—after we put on our rose-colored glasses.

Of course, we know those years were no more innocent than any other time in our history. Problems still existed behind those bright eyes and bouncy melodies. However, even knowing what we know today, listening to the opening riffs of Johnny B. Goode or Surfin’ U.S.A. will bring a smile to our faces, and we can still hear the joy those artists felt as they reached inside themselves to find new ways to reach us.

How very long ago that all seems….

Today we are perhaps a shade too jaded for our own good. Too self-aware. Too ironic. Too prematurely weary of life. More than once I’ve realized just how impossible it is too suggest that someone’s motives might be pure without being judged to be hopelessly naive.

Part of this problem is basic: many people in our society are damaged—and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Our cultural encouragement for addictions (take your pick!), sybaritic self-indulgence, and a lack of personal responsibility has destroyed more lives than The Black Plague. This has now dragged generation upon generation through horrific family dysfunction and breakdown, which has produced generations of teenagers whose default settings run the gamut from hot rage to cold disappointment. We sadly seem to now excel at producing prematurely burnt-out young men and women, which is not a prescription for a healthy and happy nation.

This all hit home for me some years ago when I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to a group of 9th graders. Aside from the obvious difficulty with working through history and language with which they were not at all familiar, another problem presented itself when we reached the scene with Juliet on the balcony and the love-struck Romeo in the garden below.

The reactions of my students—particularly the girls—to Romeo’s words of love and utter worship were both stark and harsh: Beware! I was, I will admit, a bit taken aback at first by the bitter worldliness and smug assurance of some of their comments:

“Oh, he’s just trying to get in her pants.”
“She’s an idiot if she believes that.”
“He’s got some moves!”
“All guys say stuff like than when they’re wanting some!”
“Just how stupid is this girl?”

The beauty of The Bard’s words of love were lost on these high school students, and I attempted to understand just why I was hearing these responses. I will always remember the chilling reality check that class period provided.

Many of the children in that classroom—and they were all children despite their all-too-mature understandings of human weakness and failure—were the products of home lives that, to be charitable, just plain sucked. Most had parents who were divorced or who had never married. Many had fathers who were largely absent. Some had mothers who were M.I.A. Others had bounced through foster care. A few had direct experiences with police officers or social workers entering their homes because of fights and abuse—and arrests had sometimes followed. “Home Sweet Home” they were not.

It was a litany of horrors until the bell rang, and I had to come back the next day and try to explain that, although it could perhaps be argued that Romeo and Juliet’s love was unhealthfully obsessive in the way that young love sometimes tends to be, it would be a mistake to presume that their emotions were anything other than genuine. If my students were willing to suspend some little portion of their stunning disbelief about the possibility of genuine love between two people, the play might be both intriguing and instructive.

I am not certain how effective of a Shakespeare salesman I actually was, but we made it through the play. Whether I managed to wear down just a little of the rough callous already covering too many of those young hearts, I cannot really say. I shuddered to imagine just how disillusioned and defeated so many of those youngsters would be by the time they hit sixteen. Where were the hopes and dreams that are supposed to be the touchstones of youth?

I wonder sometimes whether we have grown so accustomed to the damage inflicted upon our children that we have grown blind to it. We no longer notice the dreary and depressing—or scary and violent—music and films that fill their days and minds. We perversely celebrate piercing and tattoos as a form of self-expression and empowerment, which they may be for some, instead of recognizing it as simply the more socially acceptable form of “cutting” that it likely is for many. Are the cries resonating across our college campuses for safe spaces and trigger warnings actually desperate pleas for our colleges and universities to substitute for the protective parents that were terribly absent in far too many lives?

Every period in human history has its problems; these problems simply manifest themselves in a manner unique to their time period. Rock and Roll was itself a rebellion against mid-20th century cultural and social norms that many found stifling, and Elvis haunted the nightmares of many parents who were certain their children were going straight to hell in a handbasket. It is certain that every American generation has had its issues and somehow survived them.

However, there is a matter of degree that must be considered. I cannot really see the equivalency between teenagers screeching out their excitement at a Beatles concert and the violent element of the Juggalos exchanging tips for cooking Meth at Insane Clown Posse gatherings. Something has clearly changed, and continuing to blame the pharmaceutical industry, added sugar, Donald Trump, or plastic baby bottles for the skyrocketing diagnoses of depression and anxiety that now are typical among the young—and no longer quite so young—segments of our society is beginning to sound sillier by the day. Cruelty and coarseness now seem baked into virtually every aspect of our daily culture and conversations, and this didn’t happen just because we drank too many cans of Dr. Pepper when we were in middle school.

We often look for easy explanations to complex problems, but perhaps the answer for much that ails our souls and psyches is more obvious than we imagine: we need to address the voids within ourselves in order to begin the hard work of healing our families, communities, and our nation. Although we might desperately wish for some outside semi-parental force to swoop in and rescue us, this is something that we simply must do for ourselves if we want to avoid creating, enabling, or stupidly celebrating more pain in ourselves and others.

So Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll—please