Ten Things I Used to Think

I Used to Think was a writing and thinking prompt developed for students, part of the work done by Project Zero. Lately, we haven’t been all that interested in what students think, or how their thinking might change, given more information, dialogue and cogitation. Instead, we’ve been interested in raising their test scores by asking them to simply reproduce knowledge–or keeping them six feet apart and masked until they’re tested again.

The last four years have radically changed a lot of what I think. For example:

I used to think that choosing the right Secretary of Education was the first critical key to strengthening public education across the nation. I really enjoyed the game of proposing/comparing people who, from various perspectives, would be great Education Secretaries. My standard of excellence was always Richard Riley. Riley was Governor of South Carolina, where he did a great deal to recruit teachers of color and address poverty in public education, before being tapped by Bill Clinton as EdSec. He was not, however, an educator, and he presided over a time when education reform was considered a good thing.  But now—I am uninterested in digging up years-old board memberships and former jobs of prospective candidates for EdSec. I am not convinced that being a long-time educator is a prerequisite for success on the job. Experience in the political and policy realm really matters. I’m not even interested in writing a blog about it. Heresy, I know. But there it is.

I used to think that bipartisanship was a good thing, that moving government forward necessitated both collaboration and compromise. I thought policy creation was sausage-making—everyone gets to put in a little something. I thought having a broad range of opinion, from progressive to conservative, was how the country remained stable, and loyal, and patriotic.  But now, I agree with Rebecca Solnit: We shouldn’t meet criminals and Nazis halfway. (Read the link—it’s fantastic.)

I used to think that churches, in spite of their many flaws, were trustworthy organizations that, on balance, did good in their communities. But now, even though I work at a church that is a beacon of kindness and acceptance in a small town, I am horrified at how far astray from core, all-religions wisdom—the universal, do-unto-others stuff—that many Evangelical Christians have wandered. They say there are no atheists in foxholes—and we’re all living in a kind of viral foxhole these days—but I am heartily sick of driving around and seeing God’s Got This! signs in my neighbors’ yards. I think everyone—believers and non-believers, all creeds and traditions—needs to wear a mask, stay home, wash their hands, and stop pretending to be compassionate or ‘saving’ people.

I used to think that racism springs from acute flaws in human character—hatred, and ignorance, likely instilled early by family and community. But nowthanks to Ibram X. Kendi—I recognize that what has held deep-rooted racism in place in America for 400 years is not a continuous stream of benighted people, but policy. White people stole, platted out, and sold land that Indigenous people lived on, hunted and fished, for centuries: policy. Majority-White public schools have always had far more resources and advantages than the schools Black children attended—and policies that nominally have been established to increase equity have also increased segregation.  A country that was literally founded on diverse expression of thought has built its own caste system, through layers and layers of interwoven policy. The good news is that it’s possible to change policies.

I used to think that free and fair elections were the cornerstone of American democracy, and that most people saw election day as a kind of Norman Rockwell tableau, a cherished opportunity for everyman to have their say. I thought the peaceful transfer of power was inviolate. But now… I don’t even have to finish this one. Turn on the television.

I used to think that teachers, in spite of their lousy pay and lack of control over their own work, were regarded as community heroes and helpers. But now—there’s this. This. This. And thousands more. Today, I read an outrage-inducing piece claiming that yeah, teachers are getting sick and dying (isn’t everyone?) but there’s no way to prove they actually caught the coronavirus at school—so hey, everybody into the water. The negative repercussions on this entitled attitude—teachers are so selfish when it comes to their own health!—will last for decades.

I used to think that voluntary academic disciplinary standards were a useful way of organizing curriculum, and the occasional standardized test (say, three or four between kindergarten and graduation) didn’t hurt anyone, and provided some valuable baseline information. But now, I think that standardization, and the widespread belief that more data will improve public education, is pure folly, an illustration of the old saw that a man whose only tool is a hammer sees every problem as a nail. Rewritten: To a man with a computer, every problem looks like data.  

I used to think bootstrapping was a real thing, taking out loans to get a college degree would pay off in the end, and there was a future for deserving and ambitious students. But now, I believe we have outrun this concept of social mobility through more education, which may have once been true. If you’re rich, or your family is rich, those advantages will hold. If you’re trying to catch up economically, the odds are so seriously against you that your smarts, moxie and good character mean pretty much nothing.  The only possible hope (see above) is major policy change. 

I used to think that I was a pretty good music teacher–way above average, in fact. But now, watching music teachers struggle, every single day, with how to teach music online—and, incredibly, succeeding, I am humbled. Even more important, I’ve witnessed them forming communities on social media to help each other tackle these challenges and share resources and innovations. I’ve seen them have in-depth conversations about core pedagogical issues and the future of their profession. Humbled, I say. Seriously humbled.

I used to think putting up a Christmas tree before Thanksgiving was sacrilege, part of the ugly, metastasizing commercialization that has spoiled a once-simple holiday.  But now—this year—I think that, in this season of kindling light against darkness, any cultural or religious tradition that brings joy is spot on, and the sooner, the better.

4 Comments

  1. With the disclaimer that I’m not a believing or practicing Christian myself, if the openly socialist Sermon on the Mount sums up the teachings of Jesus, it seems like the vast majority of so-called Christians are not actually Christians at all. They don’t follow the teachings of Christ, don’t believe in the teachings of Christ, don’t even appear to know what the teachings of Christ are, if (sorry for the unbeliever disclaimer) there was such a being as Christ. My husband, who’s a non-religious but very culturally Jewish Jew, says of HIS heritage, “If you say you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew,” and I guess that holds for Christians too, but Jeez, so to speak.

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    1. Yup. That’s pretty much what I think, too–a lot of modern Christians are the ultimate Pharisees and don’t know it–and I identify as a Christian. Although for the last four years, I’ve said ‘liberal Christian’ if anyone asked. A lot of what I think and believe about Christianity comes from Reza Aslan’s ‘Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ where he describes Jesus as a genuine historic figure, a failed revolutionary who was accused of sedition, then crucified. The man of peace stuff came after he died and his followers invented a religion around caring for the poor, following the golden rule and the importance of faith, with the promise of eternal life, using Jesus as martyred figurehead.

      Except for the eternal life bit (who knows? but I understand why people hedge their bets), I’m down with most of what Jesus supposedly said (and don’t even care to quibble whether he actually said something like it, or his followers crafted their own interpretation, centuries later). Like all books of wisdom, the Bible is filled with archaic information, nonsense, little morality tales and some randomly scattered gems on good, moral ways to live your life.

      My parents were devout (and judgmental) Christians, so perhaps I am just culturally or habitually Christian. But I can tell you this: In my adult life, I have belonged to four different Christian denominations and been a paid music director/accompanist at six different churches. I know lots of stalwart Christians, including clergy. If you ask them what they believe about heaven, sin, rituals and dogma, or theology, lots of them will tell you they’re agnostic, or don’t believe the creeds recited every week–but they like going to church. They like the ceremony and the mystery, the singing and the sharing, and belonging to a community that aims to do good. That nugget of goodness has been corrupted.

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  2. Re the Department of Education (Federal). I remember when that department did not exist … it was not that long ago. If you sum up all of the actions of that department since its inception, I think you will find it is a detriment to education. The best thing to happen would be to eliminate this office and function. The Attorney-Generals office can monitor compliance with federal laws, etc.

    Re the demonization of teachers. This is part of the privatizer’s playbook. If you want to privatize a government function, you cannot have it staffed with well-liked, self-sacrificing neighbors. So, postmen “go postal,” teachers are pigs at the public trough. And unions are in league with the devil.

    I have never been a big fan of churches. While many do a great deal of good, so do Elk’s Clubs. There never is a cost-benefit analysis involved. No examination of opportunity costs. No serious examination of church budgets (In the minds of most, the money given to charity are charitable donations, but charity is a very small amount of any church’s expenses.

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    1. Hi Steve–thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      I also remember when the ED did not exist, and being excited about the prospect of an Education Dept and Secretary, then crestfallen when Republicans selected people like Bill Bennett and Margaret Spellings. I think the bigger question is not whether we need an ED, but the proper role of federal intervention in public education. I used to be a big proponent of local control. Then I talked to public school teachers in Mississippi who told me what local control looks like there–and I understood that the US government’s role in education centers around equity and upholding fair treatment under the law, when states and local jurisdictions are unwilling. If nothing else, Betsy DeVos has proven that an activist EdSec can have a huge impact on public education. We will need a strong person at the helm there simply to identify and undo damage. To assign that to the DOJ right now would be to underestimate the power of public education to make this a better nation.

      Re: demonization of teachers. This is a long-standing tension– I spent 30 years working in a middle-class district that was home to a lot of middle managers at the Big Three, all of whom saw unions as greedy and low-class. I wish I had a dollar for every time an engineer dad told me it was a shame that a talented, professional teacher like me was forced to be part of a union. I would have sworn that those professional parents would want their kids safe at home during a pandemic, and would defend any teacher’s right to protect their health. That has turned out to be untrue–the R/D division, and parental convenience have revealed that teachers are considered interchangeable and replaceable (neither of which is true). I think resentment of teachers’ demands to (I can’t believe I’m typing this) save their own lives is a new level of disrespect and selfishness.

      I would support rescinding tax (or, actually, no-tax) benefits for religious organizations. And I am a fan of churches, in general. (Long discussion of that, in the comments, above.)

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