Amusing Ourselves into Educational Oblivion

A great new piece in the NY Times from Ezra Klein starts with Marshall McLuhan and his iconic quote: The medium is the message. Content—facts, analysis, opinion—is often secondary to the way it is presented.  McLuhan was prescient, of course—can you imagine what he would have made of Donald Trump?—but only in retrospect do we see just how deeply and comprehensively his remark has come to fruition.

Klein moves on to discuss my favorite education thinker—Neil Postman—and his terrific 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The publisher’s note is a succinct descriptor: a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment.

As it happens, education, religion, journalism and politics are the things I am most interested in, my personal passions. And I’ve seen all of them changing in alarming ways, to fit the attention spans and expectations of immediate gratification that technological change has shaped.

Americans, of course, think they are immune to this. Klein says:

Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use.

 I heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”

What struck me about Haidt’s comment is how rarely I hear anything structured that way. He’s arguing three things. First, that the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think. It is supercharging their need for approval of how they look and what they say and what they’re doing, making it both always available and never enough. Second, that it is the fault of the platform — that it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used. And third, that it’s bad. That even if many people use it and enjoy it and make it through the gantlet just fine, it’s still bad. It is a mold we should not want our children to pass through.

Bingo.

Why don’t we have the foresight to just say no to attractive technologies that are harmful to children’s—or even adults’—development and emotional well-being? They’re addictive. And remember what Frances Haugen told us about Facebook: They knew it was harmful to young women especially. But they buried that knowledge in pursuit of profit.

In an election season, candidates are seldom lauded for their creative policy ideas and expertise, let alone their character and integrity. Instead, we have Boots vs. Flip-Flops elections, like the Presidential contest in 2004 where a bona fide war hero was taken down by deceptive media, leaving the term ‘swiftboating’ behind, in the political lexicon.

Kind of makes you long for the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where folks took picnic baskets for refreshment, and each candidate spoke, uninterrupted, for a total of 90 minutes. Tens of thousands of people attended. And there were no sound bites, memes, re-runs or cable news analysis. The medium—each man, speaking his ideas—was the message.

Fast-forward to 2022, where the MI GOP nominee for Governor, one Tudor Dixon, was described by the co-chair of her party as a ‘younger, smarter and hotter’ version of the current Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. (Plus that Trump Seal of Approval, of course.)

Ms. Dixon seems to be the candidate Republicans thought had the best chance of winning: someone who looks a lot like the current governor, but is a relatively blank slate, having never held elected office. Clearly, this isn’t about making good public policy, or the kind of leadership we need. But it illustrates the degree to which the medium—and Dixon has a history in media–is more important than the message.  

Often, the most entertaining and outlandish candidate wins. Viewers routinely say that the loudest and most aggressive candidate on the debate stage ‘won,’ quality of arguments be damned. But– who wins in the 2022 midterm elections really matters.

If people in your household or family circle are heading back to school this month, what media-savvy Tudor Dixon says about public education matters, too: Among Dixon’s education priorities are requiring teachers to put all curriculum and teaching materials online for parents to review, banning transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, and criminalizing taking minors to drag shows

Much of this is education-media theatre, fed by stoking fear and anger, aimed toward winning elections. The terms and assertions dominating what should be policy discussions about how to shape a community asset—public education—have been, to put it politely, invented.

Fights at school board meetings and public arguments about cherished young adult novels are probably more entertaining than the pedestrian work of stretching public dollars and finding a special ed teacher in August. Boring meetings seldom draw camera crews, and don’t offer the possibility of a mic being stuck in your face.

But there is a role for order and rules and civil discourse. Every teacher in the country understands this.

The Politics of the Polka Fest Parade

I live in a wonderful small town in the ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten. Cedar sits squarely in the center of the Leelanau peninsula, settled a century and a half ago by Polish farmers, whose names are sprinkled across the landscape on businesses, farms and roads. Holy Rosary Catholic Church, established in 1883, is the conservative spiritual home to many of the residents.

In many ways, Leelanau County—a spectacularly beautiful place, surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and marked by blooming orchards, massive sand dunes and rolling, wooded terrain—is a microcosm of American politics. A half-dozen charming resort towns, multi-million dollar lakeside homes, and more modest interior villages where family roots go deep. All of it built on land that was mostly ceded to the Tribes, in 1855, then promptly platted up and sold to white immigrants anyway.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians are still based here, and we’re home to a National Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes, dubbed The Most Beautiful Place in America.It’s a fantastic place to live—good schools, clean air and water, friendly people. Lots of snow.

But things are changing.

The population is growing older and richer and whiter, around the edges of the county, as wealthy folks from around the globe, looking to escape the ravages of climate change, snap up properties. We need another 600 affordable homes, both rented and owned, to support a plethora of service workers and young families who would like to share the beauty and opportunity. Internet services have been decades behind the rest of the world (although the current County Commission has recently made great strides). And keeping our lakes and shorelines clean should be Job #1—they are the lifeblood of the local economy.

If this is starting to sound like a political ad, that may be because I just got through a primary election, running for County Commissioner in my (mostly rural, heart-of-the-peninsula) district. I love it here, and think we could do a much better job of protecting our assets, bringing in young families, and building community.

I have loved living in Cedar since the first summer we moved here, and learned that the Big Deal Event in Cedar was the annual Polka Festival. We went our first Polkafest parade in 2011—and found it heartwarming. Vintage farm trucks, a dancing pierogi, accordion players on flatbeds and a group of friendly folks in the 60-ish demographic, carrying Vote Blue! signs.

Aha, I thought. Those are my people.

And it turned out that they were. I have been in the parade multiple times since, in election years, marching with Democratic candidates and stalwarts. Singin’ songs and carryin’ signs. The other side was there, too—we’d wave, and they’d wave back. It’s a friendly local parade, and we’re all neighbors.

There was no Polka Festival in 2020—postponed into oblivion, like so many things– and we missed it. There’s round-the-clock dancing in a big white tent, authentic Polish food in Styrofoam containers and a mass in Polish, at Holy Rosary. Not so much fun with a dangerous virus circulating.

Last year, with the Polkafest on again, the local Dems applied to send a marching unit, and were told that the Polkafest Parade was now apolitical—no campaigning, no partisanship. Just a community event.

The previous presidential election and the Big Lie made it a year like no other, of course, and the new rules made sense to me. With so many community traditions, 2021 was supposed to be a return to normal. A chance to have fun together. Let’s leave politics out of it. I was OK with that.

Except that the current County Commissioner (who’s held the seat almost 26 years, and will be my opponent, come November 8) was in the 2021 parade, riding an old red farm tractor with signs wired to its sides, suggesting we re-elect her. She was throwing out candy, too.

The Dems called the parade organizers, afterward, and asked what happened to the apolitical parade. We were told that the rules now stated that elected politicians were allowed, but by invitation only.

The day after last week’s Primary, I applied to field a polka band for the 2022 parade. I play in a number of local musical groups, including a community band, and knew I could assemble a handful of good musicians and Roll Out the Barrel.

I’d put an “Elect Nancy Flanagan” sign on the side of the truck. It wasn’t an original idea—I was in a small, truck-bed band in the nearby Leland Fourth of July parade, with political signs for a different candidate, and it was really fun.

The rejection came back immediately. No political units, except for (and the organizer made this sentence outsized and bold) “seated official representatives elected by the people, by invitation only”.

There was some back and forth—Did she want a list of seated, duly elected Democrats to invite? No—but in the end the polka band folks I’d recruited, after tossing around the idea of calling ourselves the ‘Step to the Left Polka Band,’ decided to opt out rather than go incognito or risk a public kerfuffle.

Yup. I realize it’s a pretty small slight, an early lesson in politics. Organizers can invite the side they want to be at their event, and turn the other folks away. Those with power win, those without lose. It’s how the game is played. Especially in 2022.

Yet I imagine newcomers to Leelanau County watching the parade, seeing 26-year County Commissioner riding on her tractor, thinking: Why didn’t the Democrats choose to be in this parade? Where is that woman who’s running against her?  

Or maybe they’ll be too busy looking for the dancing pierogi.