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.

What Do Students Need to Know? World Languages or the Arts or Personal Finance?

In 2017, I was part of a ‘listening tour’ of voters in my rural, northern Michigan county. We asked our neighbors what their most pressing issues were—what things happening right now in the nation, or locally, worried them most. Our opening query: What keeps you up at night?

Surprisingly, this was a hard question for many people. Typically, after a half-minute of thinking out loud, they’d say that life was pretty good.

So we had follow-up questions to suggest potential avenues for concern. Are you worried about the economy? Political dysfunction? Immigration? Human rights? Education?

One evening, my partner and I were invited into the neat-as-a-pin home of an elderly gentleman, who clearly wanted to chat. He told us—first time we’d heard this–that education was his number one issue.

I asked if he’d been a teacher. No— he’d worked as a farmer, but was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather (he was in his 90s, according to our voter information file). And what was going on in the schools right now was an absolute travesty.

I was prepared to hear about the lack of discipline or new-fangled computer learnin’—but what was keeping this nice old gent up at night was curriculum. Did you know they’re not teaching woodshop or metal shop at the high school anymore?

He shook his head. They’re not showing kids how to work with their hands—to do household repairs, use tools, or put up a simple garage. He said he’d always handled his own home repairs, from wiring a ceiling fan to repairing a leaky toilet. He’d just installed a new dishwasher. And what about students who wanted to go into the trades? What good did Algebra do for boys like that?

(Hey. He was ninety-something. Cut him some slack.)

I thought of him when I learned that Michigan has just signed into law a bill requiring every HS student to take a half-credit class in Personal Finance, in order to graduate. The requirement begins with this year’s eighth grade class, giving schools time to figure out how to incorporate yet another new requirement into an already overstuffed schedule.

I’m all for inculcating a better understanding of how to manage money. Stories about predatory lending alone should make us all more knowledgeable about credit, budgeting, and setting healthy spending and earning goals, especially in young adults.

But I’m not exactly sure that a half-credit course in high school is the ideal setting for that learning. You could read and regurgitate lots of personal-finance content, at age 16, then promptly forget what you memorized, when the knowledge would actually be useful—say, when you got your first big-boy job. Like so much of what we ‘learned’ in secondary school, until you apply the knowledge, it’s more or less inert.

Here’s what bothers me most about adding curricular requirements: Folks are fond of talking about what should be taught in school, but haven’t a clue about the absolute fact that there are only so many slots in a typical secondary school schedule. At the moment, the (also-required) Michigan Merit Curriculum has control over nearly all those slots. What will this new course replace? Because something’s got to go.

Every teacher and school leader has been over this territory endlessly. And every Joe Citizen has a personal opinion about what students should be required to master before leaving school, from economics to penmanship.

Education thinkers tend to talk, at this point, about big-picture skills and perceptions—the development of judgment and discretion and analysis, via subject matter content. It’s the heart of teachers’ professional work.

The curricular canon has shifted since the early 20th century, when Logic, Rhetoric and Latin were considered essential competencies for the well-educated—proof that context matters, and values change over time.

It would be great to use this (and dozens of similar suggestions—like axing social studies and arts courses in favor of STEM) as a kickoff to a deep, statewide conversation on re-thinking credits, standardization and student choice.

It would be an ideal opportunity for discussing the purpose of public schooling. Should students study the natural world and the humanities? Or is moving toward a narrow, commercially-focused curriculum—a secularized prosperity gospel– our goal for students?

For legislators, the go-to in policy-making is concrete mandates: At the discretion of local school boards, the course could fulfill a half-credit in math, world language, or the arts. Currently, the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires four credits in math, two in a language other than English, and one in visual, performing, or applied arts. The Legislature also is considering a separate bill allowing computer programming to count for world language credit. Both measures have strong backing from business groups that say they’re interested in a more skilled workforce. 

Well, there you have it. Job training.

One wonders why fluency in another language, or artistic expression, is so devalued. Aren’t those also desirable skills in the 21st century world of work? As the old man we interviewed said, we no longer respect working with our hands.

Or our hearts, or our voices. The things that make us most human.

Lirty Dies or Wandering the Campaign Trail in ‘22

The Michigan primary is in three weeks, on August 2nd. This is the first pre-election summer I’ve ever been a candidate for anything, so I’m spending more time—what? Thinking politically? Dividing the world into red and blue, R and D? Despairing of the current climate?

Actually, what I’ve been thinking most about is lies. Untruths, mendacities, outright deceit, yada yada—and the party that uses them as bait.

The Capitol Steps –may they rest–a musical comedy group originated over 40 years ago, with a collection of congressional staffers who saw the humor potential in pretty much everything that went down in D.C., had a series of sketches called Lirty Dies.

Lirty Dies were merely phrases with the first letters exchanged—in Capitol Steps parlance, when you WHip their FLurds. A great political tradition: We’re not quite sure what we’re saying; you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing.  Think Herschel Walker.

The problem? Liars win.

This has always been true—plenty of obvious examples in recent history, from the deceptive Trump appointees on the Supreme Court who knew what settled law was, to that dude in Missouri who said that women who were ‘legitimately’ raped could shut that whole thing down.

But in 2022, alternative facts are the norm in every election, from the Big Lie about 2020 to my own small-potatoes campaign for County Commissioner.

In my State Senate district (MI 37th), for example, there are three candidates running on the Democratic ticket. Only one is actually a Democrat. The other two are both Republicans, active in their county parties–and sometime felons, by the way. One of them was quoted as saying, during his podcast on March 31, that the media was trying to destroy the “nuclear family,” with every commercial showing a “biracial mom and dad.” It’s pretty clear who the target audience is.

I’m not really clear on why they think this tactic—running in the party they loathe—will work. There are two actual Republicans running in the primary, so it’s not as if there was nobody to vote for. Just a chance to SPew up real political SCReech, I guess. (That was a Lirty Die.)

Meanwhile, in the Michigan Legislature, the Democrats (the minority party), having been falsely accused by their Republican opponents of being ‘groomers,’ decided to fight back:

As many Republicans push conspiracies about schoolchildren being “groomed” in public schools, a bill introduced by Democrats in the Michigan House that would create a legal pathway to prosecute people who “groom” minors in sexual abuse cases idles, untouched by the Republican majority. 

Partly this is because former (Republican) House Speaker Chatfield is under investigation for actually grooming a 15-yr old girl when he was her teacher at a Christian Academy founded by his father. But mostly, it’s just a ruby-red response to being called out and held accountable for Lirty Dies.

Two weeks ago, the four women running for the Democratic slot in my County Commission district (including me) held an open-air listening session at a local park.  We sent out postcards to likely primary voters to invite them. The weather was perfect, and we had live music and cookies.

The event was a great success—somewhere between 50 and 60 voters showed up, and for two hours, each of us was grilled (or encouraged) by friendly neighbors. People asked good questions about local issues—why our internet infrastructure is inadequate or worse, how to build and repurpose affordable housing, and so on.

The biggest issue is clean water. We live on a peninsula surrounded by Lake Michigan, so passing a mandatory septic ordinance, while the least sexy of issues, is critical.

Midway through the afternoon, an older gentleman and his wife showed up. I greeted him with an outstretched hand, as he passed a table with a fellow Dem collecting signatures for Promote the Vote.  Are they for or against mail-in ballots? He asked. For, I told him.

Mail-in ballots are how the 2020 election was stolen, he said. Oh oh.

I decided to just listen to his issues and concerns. He talked about responsible farming and compost, which seemed to be something we had in common. Then he asked me about my background. I told him I was a retired teacher.

And he proceeded to regurgitate incredible slander about public education, the crapola now floating above every local election: The teachers were teaching kids to hate being white. They were telling lies about history. They were teaching kids about perverted sex (he was embarrassed when he said this, looking down at the ground). There were dirty books, too.

Ironically, his seven children had all attended and graduated from the public school no more than a mile down the road. This is a school where I volunteered—before the pandemic—and that I thought was a good public school, a school that offered a lot of programming for a small district and had a solid staff.

I told him I had been in the classroom for nearly 35 years, then volunteered in three local districts in this county, and I did not believe that teachers routinely did those things. Any teacher who overstepped their bounds in the classroom could and should be called out. By parents—or by an administrator. But this was not the way public education (which is controlled by a locally elected board) worked.

Well, he said. This just started.

He was OK with the school when his kids were there—the teachers were pretty good, and he went to all the football games. But now, he said, teachers have started doing bad things all over the country.

What, specifically? Well, supporting the Blacks, he said. Against the police. Going against the Bible. He struggled to remember what he’d read—some letters, maybe? (No way was I going to fill in the acronym for him. He’d already soaked up too much falsehood.)

You should start volunteering again, he said. Things have really changed in the last couple of years.

I passed him on to another candidate, but he lingered in my mind. Not a bad guy. But he’d been lied to, and he trusted the liars. It was as simple as that.

Lirty Dies.

Voter Linda, chatting with the four candidates for Leelanau County Commission: Allison Zimpfer, Julie Kradel, Mary O’Neill and blog author Nancy Flanagan.

Are Christians to Blame for the Political Mess We Find Ourselves In?

Schoolkids were traditionally taught—at least I was—that the United States was founded because the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom, an escape from persecution. This incomplete and sanitized declaration dovetailed nicely into the development of formal American schooling and curricula in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was part of our national creation myth, positioning the original ancestors as men who braved the dangerous ocean journey in order to worship their God in the way they saw fit in this wild, free new land. (Plus their wives and children, of course. Who would naturally be worshipping in the same fashion, and following the laws the men devised.)

Nary a mention of their rapacious commercial interests, let alone the people who had already lived here for a thousand years.

Since the Pilgrims arrived—merely one group of colonizing settlers, albeit one that got lots of airtime in history class—waves of folks with different religious beliefs and heritage, born here/brought here/immigrated here, have shaped the trajectory and norms of livin’ in the U.S.A.  

Educators and civic leaders have adapted to changing mores over more than a century, lurching along and stepping in deep controversy over religious practice—well, all the time. (Think: Scopes Trial.)

Arguing over religious beliefs is our real national heritage. And the separation of church and state is the tool we use to distinguish what is appropriate at home but not at school. The new SCOTUS ruling that permits private (Christian) prayer on public school occasions as long as it’s not required, is another chunk out of that wall of separation. And any veteran teacher will tell you that bringing personal religious beliefs into the classroom is a recipe for disaster.

Contrary to Fox News commentary, good educators are not part of a century-long conspiracy to brainwash little kids about the moral framework of life in community. In my 30+ years in the classroom, most everyone skirted around explicitly talking about religion for fear of violating The Wall of Separation. In some classrooms—the aforementioned history class, for example—discussion of religion is inevitable. Music class, as well.  And literature. And science.

In fact, learning about religion and its impact, positive and negative, on the history of the only world we have, is one of the central reasons to offer public education. But learning about religion is entirely separate from practicing religion, or proselytizing.

The message always needs to be: Religions have existed forever. Religions and sanctified beliefs have caused wars and genocide. Religion has the capacity for both great good and bad—and a whole lot of judging about which is which, and spurious reasons for grabbing power.  Nonetheless, wherever we find extended civilization, there are religious practices.

Lately, the Christians have seemed to be ascending, in terms of political power.   It may have something to do with existential uncertainty of life during the pandemic, or the former President using certain Christians for his own purposes. Or the spate of SCOTUS decisions dragging the nation backwards against social progress, led by a Catholic majority.

Adam Serwer: Given the unholy alliance between conservative politics and conservative Christianity, it is no surprise that right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court prefer to read theConstitution the way evangelicals read the scriptures. That is, selectively, and with a preference for American mores and jurisprudence of the nineteenth century. When men were men and all others were second-class citizens, if not property.

As Garrison Keillor said: Righteous indignation is the easy part of the Christian faith and the hard part is forgiveness.

I would add—‘and also having a sense of humor.’ I’ve seen a lot of social media talk smacking down Christians as a class, blaming them for cruel and regressive policy-making. I know Christianity’s failings better than many, but it seems like we have not outgrown the need for considered values, or the good that religious organizations, Christian and otherwise, have done, for centuries.

Freedom of religion, won at some cost in this nation, has allowed us to safely poke at literal and metaphorical sacred cows and speak freely about what we believe—and dismiss as foolishness. Respecting diverse religious beliefs is a very difficult thing, but if we can’t accept diversity of religious practices (or lack thereof), we are betraying the very story of our founding.

So maybe lighten up on the anti-Christian (or anti-any faith) talk? Or be careful whom you’re sweeping into the category of Harmful and Dangerous while letting other organized groups completely off the moral hook?

Robert Reich: G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.

In  The Ministry for the Future, an awesome book about possible futures (Kim Stanley Robinson), the chair of the Ministry and her trusted associate discuss this question:

What would it take to get the entire planet to commit to necessary sacrifices that could, once and for all, turn climate change and equitable civilization around, practices that would save us all? Mutual assured survival, even mutual thriving?

A new religion, her aide says. A newly conceived religion, based on environmental equity, justice and peace, adopted globally.

My friend Fred Bartels put it this way: God is a personalization of community.

Food for thought. Or prayer. Take your pick.

Do Parents Really Want Control Over What Students Learn?

What’s driving the screaming matches at local school board meetings—the ones where organized parent groups show up to have their say about everything from critical race theory to bulletproof doors?

There are a lot of overlapping factors: A nation that’s bitterly divided. The pandemic we’re still dealing with, and its impact on children. Racism, sexism and the fear of losing “rights.” Gun violence. The political upheaval resulting in an insurrection, which played out live, on national TV.

And, of course, money and support from outside sources and organizations, which perceive these ongoing crises as an opportunity to chip away at public education.

I’m no stranger to parent-led fireworks at Board meetings. I’ve witnessed verbal storms over sex education and teacher strikes and girls who wanted to lift weights with the wrestling team.

During my second year of teaching, in October, the School Board decided to lay off 20 teachers (including me) who signed annual contracts in the spring, because an August millage election had failed. They made cuts to programs across the board, and established a pay-to-play model for all HS sports. There was a huge board meeting that went on until the wee hours. And what were the parents upset about? Eliminating foreign languages—or elementary art and music?

No. It was about the football team.

One mom was outraged at being asked to fund her son’s final year on the team. “This is his time to shine! Teachers can always find another job—but my son has only one chance to play football in his senior year!” There were perhaps a hundred teachers at this meeting. You can imagine how that remark went down with them.

My point is this: when parents are angry enough to publicly spout off at a school board meeting, it’s seldom centered around informed disapproval of established curriculum, instruction or even assessments (unless someone has lied to them about what’s going on in their children’s classrooms). Even book banning—a chronic hotspot for school leaders—seldom flares up because a parent carefully read their child’s assigned book and was shocked into action.

What we’re seeing now is something else: an orchestrated and funded effort to demean public education and the people who work in public schools. It’s about power and control. It’s about ginning up fear, using dishonesty as a tool. As John Merrow notes:

Many of the adults who have been disrupting local school board meetings not only do not have children enrolled in those schools; they are classic outside agitators, perhaps even from neighboring states. 

The foundation of recent wrangling over control—parents’ rights, if you will—is thoroughly political and got a big boost when now-Governor Glenn Youngkin promised to strip culturally responsive instruction from schools in VA.

Parents have always had rights—including the right to see what their children are learning, access to instructional materials, the option of observing their child in his classroom, and the opportunity to talk to his teachers about any of these.

Teachers have the responsibility to know the curriculum well, to be able to tell parents why certain materials and teaching strategies were selected.  And—should parents be genuinely concerned about any of these things—the responsibility to justify the value of a particular technique or content, to adapt or offer alternatives.

That, in a nutshell, is good teaching–based on trusting relationships and understanding. Every veteran teacher and school leader reading this has had difficult conversations with parents about what and how their children are learning. It’s part of the job. Always has been.

It’s also one of the reasons many teachers pushed back against the Common Core: the standards didn’t fit the students they were teaching. Driving responsibility for determining standards, curriculum and assessment upwards means that teachers are left with explanation that they’re teaching something because it’s on the state test, even though it may be inappropriate or irrelevant for a particular child.

It’s not just parents who want to strip control from schools. From Education Week:

States have a limited amount of power over what materials teachers use in the classroom. A new report shows how some of them are trying—and succeeding—to wield influence anyway. In the majority of the country, districts operate under local control, meaning that school systems, or sometimes individual schools or teachers, have the ultimate authority in deciding what curriculum is taught.

That means that if states want to influence what teachers are using, they have to get creative about what levers to pull. A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests that some states have managed to do just that.

Look for the phrase ‘High-Quality Instructional Materials’ accompanied by some disdainful blah-blah about how clueless teachers design lessons based on what they see on Pinterest, so professional curriculum deciders need to step in and choose better materials. Well-paid deciders, naturally.

Earlier this year, Jennifer Berkshire found reason for hope:

I’ve spent the last few days talking to voters and candidates in New Hampshire who powered record turnout, resounding wins for public school advocates. One theme keeps coming up. Voters were REPELLED by the extremism of “parents’ rights” groups. This was a backlash to the backlash.

In the meantime, all the shoutin’ has left educators limp and discouraged. From Connecticut teacher Barth Keck:

Nationwide accusations of schools teaching “critical race theory” found their way into Connecticut despite any evidence of its existence or even any accurate explanation of what CRT really means from the critics. Superintendent Freeman “cited letters to the editor and social media posts regarding the school’s teaching and equity policies which imply that ‘parents shouldn’t be trusting the teachers and school administrators who are shaping the experience for their children in Guilford.’” 

I have not felt such pressure personally, aside from comments on social media from those calling me a “groomer” and “brainwasher” of children. Granted, I don’t know these people personally, and the only thing they know about me is that I’m a teacher. But that’s the point: Strategic political posturing has convinced scores of people that, rather than a noble and essential profession, teaching is an insidious endeavor whose primary purpose is to push a far-left agenda.

It’s not about the things parents already have a say in—their children’s learning.

It’s about raising a public ruckus.

The Strange Land Where We Find Ourselves Now

Ever read a book that resonates, for whatever reason, with the life you’re living—the things you’re thinking about, things that are happening in your world right now?

Munich (Robert Harris) is a fictionalized, but well-researched, account of the Munich Conference in September 1938, wherein a cluster of European leaders thought they had signed on to ‘peace in our time,’ when in fact Hitler had no such intention.

It’s one of those slow burn novels that starts out by introducing us to two very different worlds—the chin-up, upper-crust British government, trying desperately to avoid another devastating European war, and the collection of thugs and sycophants hanging around the Fuhrer who were willing to bulldoze anyone and anything to expand their own power.

I saw parallel after parallel, which made the book (published in 2018) chillingly real.

As political thriller, it’s a good read from a guy who’s written a ton of great political thrillers, many centered in Germany, in the 1930s and 40s. BUT–reading it now, as Putin is devastating Ukraine, because he seems to think he needs more space, and world leaders (elected and un-elected) are trying to stay out of war— is stunningly relevant.

One particularly galling former leader is trying to cozy up to Putin for political advantage, of course. We’re living in a world of thriller plots.

The only knowledge I had about Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the pre-war period, left over from History class, is that he was widely considered an ‘appeaser’ once World War II began, and his reputation hasn’t been burnished since.

The book is kinder to him, seeing him as a man of a different age, when one’s word was one’s honor. But the image of someone who believed in the power of diplomacy getting totally snookered by the depth of evil remains—powerfully—in mind.

Once the Munich Conference actually begins, every page in the book has a resonant sentence or paragraph, about power and the men who wield it.  Although the whole world now knows the spoiler—World War II and its horrors—the book had me thinking about alternate outcomes, about peace and how to reach it.

Also, of course, what could go wrong in our immediate future, in 2022.

A couple of nights ago, Rachel Maddow had one of my favorite truth-tellers on: Jane Mayer, whose latest piece on the Republican ‘slime machine’digs into the coordinated Lies People Tell to ruin the reputations of Biden’s nominees, the most visible example being the appalling hatchet job attempted on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Maddow precedes the Mayer interview with an illustrated commentary on Stalin, the cover-ups of his hideous crimes against his own people, and the propensity for Russian dictators to use accusations of–get this–pedophilia as an excuse to imprison or execute citizens who give them grief. The video is 20 minutes long, but worth the watch.

I finished the book, then opened Twitter to find my new hero, MI State Senator Mallory McMorrow, burning up the media world. State Senator Lana Theis (who represents the district where I used to live) started slinging around accusations of Democrats grooming and sexualizing children in her fund-raising materials, and McMorrow let go with five beautiful minutes of pure truth to power.

Accusing someone of the sexual abuse of children really is the worst thing one can say about another adult human. Scroll back to 2016, and the QAnon-inspired ‘Pizzagate’ where Hillary Clinton was accused of (yup) pedophilia.

There seems to be a pattern here. After all, it was Joseph Goebbels who said If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

More parallels. And the lying has infected our children, and our schools.

Jonathon Haidt, whose work I deeply admire, thinks that social media has been driving this:

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history… It’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.

I am aware of the irony of posting this blog—all about lies and social fragmentation—on social media. But maybe social media is our only recourse at the moment. Senator McMorrow has had over 10 million views of her video, and it’s been enthusiastically applauded on left-leaning media.

Someone has to tell the truth.  Someone has to pay attention.

The Heir and the Hillbilly

By now, you’ve probably seen Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance, author and candidate for Senate in Ohio, wondering why right-thinking dads don’t just ‘thrash’ teachers for inserting their personal ‘sex values’ into the minds of innocent children. We all know that Carlson is worse than a destructive ass–but ol’ J.D., the self-described hillbilly who rose from nothing, sat there nodding and grinning along with Tucker as he incited a little righteous violence against your children’s teachers.

Incident in the Teachers’ Lounge: A dozen teachers sit around a long plastic table, chatting and eating their packed lunches. A custodian enters the room, skirting the table, to grab a soda out of the refrigerator, then stands looking at the bulletin board, while taking long pulls on his drink. There’s a pause in the conversation, and he says: So. You guys think this is funny, huh?

He points to a piece of paper tacked to the board, an internet-distributed list of excerpts supposedly drawn from parents’ absence-excuse notes. Things like: Please excuse Sally. She was in bed with gramps.

There is silence, but the custodian isn’t finished. He says: This is what you do in here? Make fun of parents? He shakes his head and leaves the room. As soon as the door closes, teachers turn to each other and begin talking. What do you think they say? How do they feel?
——————–
I was reminded of this scenario from my own teachers’ lounge as I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. I was anticipating a good read—it was on all the “Best of 2016″ lists—but found the book shallow and insubstantial.

J.D. Vance grew up in a small town in southwestern Ohio in a working-class family. Aided significantly in a tough childhood by his ever-present, loving grandmother, and after a maturing stint in the Marines, he attended Ohio State, then got a law degree from Yale.

An impressive personal narrative—plaudits to Vance for his persistence—but hardly illustrative of the poor habits and prospects of an entire region of the country. Nor does Hillbilly Elegy illuminate any of the very real problems or crises, per the book’s title, facing working-class families in America today, beginning with the dangerous income gap between the haves and the have-nots that threatens the social order.

In fact, Vance is intermittently reproachful, blaming family members (mostly his mother) for being irresponsible and foolish, and chalking it up to their Scots-Irish heritage and growing up in Kentucky. He seems unaware of his own privilege—being a tall, nice-looking, intelligent white man in a country where those qualities are an enormous leg up, for example.

He describes his public school education as sub-par, with the exception of one demanding math teacher. The training and subsequent education benefits of a stretch in the military get short shrift. Ohio State? Easy peasy. It isn’t until Vance finds himself at cocktail parties where his admission to Yale seems to be paying off with high-level clerkships and job opportunities that he realizes he’s been handed a golden ticket, and he’s being watched to see if he can fit in.

Instead of reflecting on all that good fortune, however, he labels his family hillbillies, monetizing their salty speech, their blind loyalty to a particular funeral home, and their parochial weaknesses, as they struggle to survive in the most inequitable First-World nation on the planet.

In the post-war years, as millions of Baby Boomers became the first generation to attend college, class lines began to blur. It wasn’t until my Sociology 101 class that I realized my family was not “middle class,” but further down in the pecking order. It wasn’t until I read W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” that it occurred to me that moving up in the social order came with a cost to family relationships, and, sometimes, personal integrity. It wasn’t as easy as excelling in school and leaving your grubby antecedents behind—there were other important values besides “success.”

Here’s the question J.D. Vance avoids: Whose fault is it that more than 50 million Americans live in distressed communities, where nearly a quarter of residents lack a high school diploma?” Conversely, who is responsible for lifting themselves out of poverty? Is this a result of hard work and personal discipline only, “rising above” family characteristics—or do social supports, like public education, military training, and publicly funded scholarships also form the proverbial rising tide?

Most of the educators sitting in that teachers’ lounge were second- and third-generation college graduates. To them, the misspelled excuses were funny; their students were sometimes apples who fell near the poorly educated tree. Still, the custodian’s comment—You think this is funny?—found its mark. The post came down. Teachers responded with a mix of embarrassment and defensiveness.

A good public educator accepts all students, kids raised in hothouse homes with thousands of books and trips to the museum and kids who ate sugary cereal in front of the TV until their single mom unlocked the door at midnight. Kids across the spectrum benefit from public education.

J.D. Vance’s story is more about individual good luck than an analysis of a culture in crisis. I expect absolutely nothing from Tucker Carlson, but J.D. Vance ought to know better. He’d be a terrible senator.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’– it ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t free…

Remember free schools? They were all the rage, back in the day—long, long ago—when those folks protesting the error-filled ways of public education were hippie types, not scripted, Republican-funded moms with time on their hands.

Often educated in public schools themselves (where they learned to craft logical arguments and read great books), these lefty parents did not want Moonbeam’s schooling to consist of straight rows, workbooks and bells. They wanted the freedom to discuss Real Issues and pursue personal growth.

But as always, the times they are a-changin’.

In a brilliant essay in the NY Times, GWU Professor Elizabeth Anker describes how ‘freedom’ has morphed from the Bill of Rights model I learned about in one of those straight-rows public schools, to what she calls ‘ugly freedoms:’

Today, more and more laws, caucuses, rallies and hard-right movements use the language of freedom as a cudgel to erode democratic governance and civil rights; these laws expand the creep of authoritarianism. One Jan. 6 insurrectionist insisted, “I’m here for freedom,” when describing his participation in the attack on the Capitol. Mask mandate opponents have cited “health freedom,” even if their refusal to mask denies freedom of movement to immunocompromised people and makes communities more vulnerable to Covid.

Freedom, Anker says, has been co-opted.

I can name dozens of other words that no longer clearly mean what they once did: Unconstitutional, for example. Anti-Fascism. Illegal. Forensic Audit. Critical Race Theory. Moms, for Liberty. Election integrity. You can justify putting any number of formerly well-understood terms in scare quotes, these days.

Language, over time, does—and should—morph, as societal norms and technological advances change the way people think and behave. That’s why those 1960s ads with doctors lighting up a Camel to ‘relax,’ are so hilarious.

But I really hate losing freedom, as a political and educational concept. I especially hate knowing that Republicans have weaponized something valuable and politically distinct, turned it into a well-funded, election-winning grievance.

Freedom is a complex idea. Freedom without responsibility is moral adolescence—a phenomenon we have seen played out endlessly during the pandemic, by anti-mask abusers, phony accusations of ‘tyranny’ and a focus on individual rights rather than the common good—during a public health crisis, no less.

As a music teacher, I wrestled with the concept of freedom every year, and shared those dilemmas with my students. Why is every composition on our required festival list written by a white man—can we break free of that?  In a largely white, largely Christian town, should we be representing all winter celebrations in our music, or just having the expected Christmas concert? What are the roots of the music my students are listening to—and is it my responsibility to help them dig into that history?

My career was all about the freedom to teach music in untraditional but deeper ways. And I was incredibly lucky. I never had to deal with rigid standards or statewide assessments, and seldom had parent complaints. I was, far more than other teachers, free to craft curriculum, performances, travel and materials to fit my students, few questions asked.

What I’m reading now is alarming—the heated School Board meetings, book banning, legislated gag orders and threats over what can/cannot be taught. If you only read the news, you might think that public educators have been so thoroughly intimidated that every bit of color and usefulness will be leached out of learning.

But I have doubts about the long-term impact of this astro-turf, give-me-liberty movement. I think raging against diversity and inclusion by silly law-making is destined to fail—especially when you look at recent CNN survey data:

While parental choice has become the subject of frequent political controversy, the CNN Poll found that most Americans reject the idea that the primary responsibility for what happens in the classroom belongs either to parents or to teachers and school officials. Majorities said both groups should have an equally important role in school-related decisions ranging from Covid-19 precautions to the way various school subjects are taught.

Only about one-fifth of Americans (19%) said parents should be the main decision-makers on mask policies, with 17% saying the same about virtual learning and 16% on teaching about racial issues. Just 7% thought parents should have final say over how to teach math. About 1 in 8 Americans, or 12%, said parents’ views should have the most sway over which library books are on the shelves and how American history is taught, while roughly twice as many said teachers and school officials should have more influence on those areas. Respondents split equally over how issues regarding race in America are taught, with 16% saying parents should have more say, 16% teachers and school officials, and 62% saying both should be equally important.

These are pretty small numbers, for a so-called movement. Glenn Youngkin may have ridden parent disapproval over school policy to a governorship, but I am far from convinced that there’s a voting majority in all states to swing elections based on book-banning, faux CRT hype and other curricular issues.

When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see this as another cycle of school-parent communication, where schools that listen to parents and work cooperatively with them for the good of all their students, are doing the best job of navigating a global pandemic and political warfare based on the Big Lie. Major challenges, indeed.

One of my former students sent me a note expressing her frustration over the screaming matches at the local school board meetings. I know these people, she said—they live in my neighborhood. And they’re not even parents of school-aged kids. For them, this is political gain. For me, this is about protecting my child.

One of the local Liberty Moms came to her door and asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about how your boys will vote, when they’re adults?’ Actually, she wasn’t concerned about that at all—they won’t be voting for many years, and there are a lot of math facts and swimming lessons and trips to the library that needed to happen first—safely. But there is no clearer example of just what her neighbor is really worried about.

It isn’t freedom. It never was freedom. It was about winning.

 Honesty in the Time of COVID

I tested positive for COVID last Monday. My husband (with whom I have been exchanging exhalations since 1975) tested positive at home three days earlier, but my rapid test was negative then. We did drive-thru PCR testing, got our mutually positive results in 23 hours, and less than an hour after that, even though I am 2000 miles away from home, I got a friendly call from my local health department.

We’re going to be fine, thanks, due to vaccinations and booster shots. But I have been thinking about social reluctance to share the fact that one has been infected. Back in 2020, isolated from everyone and wiping down groceries, I collected the most credible articles on SARS-CoV-2 I could find—dozens of them, with overlapping and sometimes conflicting information. One of them said that the coronavirus, uncontrolled, would eventually infect 60-70% of Americans and could kill as many as a million of us.

At the time, it was a horrifying prospect. A million deaths? Unthinkable. Tragic. Preventable. And this was before those trucks rolled out of the Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo.

I set out to be an Agent of Control, a rule-follower, a curve-flattener. It’s kind of the person I’ve been all my life: Bookish Goody Two-shoes. I was hooked on the nightly cable news—Outbreaks at meat-cutting plants in the Midwest! Crisis in NOLA! Refrigerated morgue trucks in New York City! (Those exclamation points are not sardonic, by the way.)

As the first cases emerged in my rather remote rural county, that same health department (which has been, IMHO, a sterling example of competent public service) released only the sketchiest of information about where and how people were getting sick—fully HIPAA compliant.

Most of what I knew about who had come down with the virus came from personal relationships and gossip. There were cases all around me, per HD statistics, in my rural zip code, but I didn’t know who—and the first ugly anti-mask scuffles had cropped up in front of the grocery mart at the only gas station in town. It’s also the only place to get liquor, so it’s pretty much the town square.

I have a friend whose father died of COVID in the summer of 2020. He was very elderly (and old-school stubborn, refusing to mask or let her shop for him). My friend was his primary caregiver for the last decades of his life; when he died, she included the fact that he’d died of COVID in the newspaper obituary.

Doing so set off a family firestorm. Her older siblings were furious—how he died was nobody’s business! He had lived in this area all his life—why shame him? Just say that he went to be with his Lord and Savior, yada yada.

I don’t get that.

At that point, we had already experienced the rolling failures of the Trump administration—the obfuscation and misinformation, the easily refuted faux-optimistic proclamations, the refusal to mask, the scarf lady’s cringing when Trump suggested that bleach might do the trick, if hydroxychloroquine didn’t.

People who caught COVID-19 hadn’t done anything shameful. They’d been unlucky (and, in his case, vulnerable and a little reckless), but they weren’t bad people. Ironically, his church was the county-wide nexus for local anti-masking protests.

Nothing about catching the virus, it seems to me, needs to be secret. What we know about who is getting sick, and how—and even who died from the coronavirus—is public health information, plain and simple. Not private or classified. And certainly not shameful. Do we look back, 100 years later, on the mostly young and healthy victims of the 1918 flu pandemic as anything other than unfortunate?

It’s this cognitive dissonance that intrigues me. What kind of people deny the very real existence of a deadly virus, willingly endangering others? Why wasn’t the emergence of the pandemic a 9/11 moment, a chance for us all to pull together as other nations did? Letting everyone know when you were infected, and when you were cleared—so they could help you, and you could help them, later? How did ‘I’ll pray for you’ morph into ‘pretend you’re not sick?’

Friends teach in a building where over half of the children were absent for several days running in November. Interviewed for the local news, the superintendent claimed that yes, indeed, there were over two hundred children out sick. However, their (here it comes) ‘research’ showed that almost none of the students who were ill contracted it at school, even though there was no mask mandate. This is a patently ridiculous statement, but people seemed to accept it.

I realize that thousands of articles and blogs have been written about America, Selfish Nation—and worse. In spite of President Biden’s attempts to be a good global citizen, our problems are now spilling over borders:

When you live next to a junkie, you can expect something flaming to land in your backyard eventually. America is a political-anger junkie; the trucker convoy is something flaming that has landed in our backyard. 

I just finished There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century by Fiona Hill. (Read this book. Right now.) Hill deftly ties our national response to the corona virus to something much greater than mere mismanagement—many nations have veered from good to unhelpful decisions and policies while anxiously dealing with a brand-new virus. But in the home of the brave:

Trump played personal and polarizing politics, rather than made policy. Not only the livelihoods but the lives of Americans were at stake. We needed to get our house, America, in order, not just fixate on which man was in the ‘people’s house.’

National unity and purpose, facing a common enemy, have been sacrificed in order for one side to ‘win.’ It’s demoralizing.

I’m hoping my follow-up test tomorrow will be negative. And I’m sharing the news—I got COVID, somewhere—because I want my cautious, civic-minded friends to know that being triple-jabbed means that a positive test isn’t necessarily scary. It hasn’t been fun, being sick, but knowing I wasn’t going to die, thanks to science, and that my local public health officials were tracking me helped immensely.

We’ll get through this together. Maybe.

How ‘Transparent’ is Your School?

The first time I was called on the carpet by a parent for something I taught was in my first year of teaching. In the 1970s. The fact that I remember it so clearly, decades later, is significant.

Here’s what happened: I was teaching my sixth grade general music classes about song parodies. We didn’t fret much, in those days, about standards, benchmarks or learning goals, but I actually had some.

I wanted my students to understand how one tune could carry multiple sets of lyrics—that they were two separate things, and the character and tempo of the tune should match the words, ideally. The tunes, written on the board (this was in the days of pre-lined music chalkboards), would illustrate new rhythmic figures. And writing their own words would be an exercise in creativity for the students.

This was before Weird Al, but I encouraged them to use popular songs, and adapt the words. They worked in little teams, then shared what they’d come up with. A group of boys used the Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, substituting Santa for Maxwell (it was December). Of course, the class thought this was hilarious: Bang, bang, Santa’s silver hammer came down on her head… (and made sure she was dead).

I can’t remember, exactly, how I responded to the boys’ warbling this song. But the next afternoon, I was called to the principal’s office. A mother had called, all upset about what I was teaching my sixth graders—something about Santa being a killer? Surely, that couldn’t be right. Could it?

I explained.

Do you want me to handle this? he asked. (Props to him.) He thought it would be better for me to talk to the mom but was willing to run interference. I’d been a music teacher for all of four months, and it was tempting to avoid that conversation, but I told him I’d call her back tomorrow.

Which was good. It gave me an evening to run through the gamut of emotions. Defensiveness. (I didn’t know what the boys were going to sing!) Scorn. (Shouldn’t a sixth grader be a little tougher? Even with a helicopter mom?) Fear. (What if the mom took this higher than the principal—could I be formally reprimanded? Did she have friends on the school board?)

The next day I called her back and essentially fell on my sword. I explained what I was trying to teach, and how the lesson got away from me. I skipped the defensiveness, scorn and fear. She explained that her daughter still believed in Santa Claus and came home devastated and sobbing when those awful boys thought it was funny for Santa—the real Santa—to be so unfairly portrayed. She talked about Santa as the embodiment of fun and joy and childhood.

I did some private eye-rolling, but I apologized, and promised to have a chat with the class the next time I saw them and enlighten them about inappropriate lyrics. She said she felt much better after speaking to me. And—here’s the important part—I had three more children from that family in the music program over the years, with good relationships all around.

When I told the principal about our conversation, he pointed out that sixth grade, the first year of middle school, is scary for sheltering parents. They fear their children’s maturation, often wanting one more year of childhood, to stop the adolescence train from its inevitable arrival. He complimented me on handling it professionally.  (He really was a great principal.)

Since that day, I’ve had hundreds of difficult conversations with parents. But very few of them were about what I was teaching—the learning goals, teaching materials, class discussions and curriculum. For more than a dozen years, I took more than 100 8th graders on overnight trips—to see musicals and orchestras, to play a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There were risks in that—but also great rewards.

I also wove what you might call controversial topics into my lessons. The ethical dilemmas of downloading ‘free’ music in the days of Napster, for example (when I knew full well that there was illicit downloading going on in many of their homes). The Black roots of American popular music, and our shameful treatment of some of our most influential artists, including theft of their genius. I did a mock trial around sexism in rock music.

My school was 98% white and very middle class, with lots of stay-at-home moms, in a ruby red county. I was able to do this because I built up trust in the community over time. I told parents, at Back to School night in September, what I was planning and why—the broad outlines, anyway.

I say all this not to congratulate myself on being a model, DEI-friendly teacher. I’m telling you that most of what is happening at school board meetings right now, and all of the proposed legislation to insert parent surveillance into instruction, comes from a very different source than helicopter parenting. It’s a gross political calculation, with ugly threats and outright falsehoods upping the ante.

It springs from defensiveness and scorn—I’m entitled to have control over my children’s beliefs, not some left-wing, bottom of the barrel teacher’s BS! But mostly, it’s about fear. That fear was nurtured in concert with four years of terror over and lies about losing political power–plus racial, sexual and xenophobic animus.

And now we have stupid laws, like the GOP bill popping up in near-identical form in states with Republican-dominated legislatures.The language demands ‘transparency’ around several things:

  • Curriculum approved by the district for each school operated by the district. 
  • Each class offered to pupils of the district as part of the curriculum.
  •  A list of each certificated teacher or other individual authorized under state law to teach in this state who is charged with implementing the curriculum.

I cannot imagine any public school district in the United States that couldn’t provide that information in about 20 minutes, unless they were operating in utter chaos, in which case they have bigger problems than answering parents’ (legitimate) questions about what their kids are learning.

Here’s where it gets a little dicey—and insulting. The law also mandates the sharing of:

  • Textbooks, literature, research projects, writing assignments and field trips that are part of the curriculum. 
  • Extracurricular activities being implemented during designated school hours or under the authority of the school.

And there’s a walloping big threat tucked in:

  • School districts that don’t comply would lose 5 percent of state funding.

Teachers all over the country have been exclaiming how just how nuts this ultimatum is. Good teachers identify student needs and base their lesson plans on what logically comes next, for the kids in front of them. And often, a great lesson opportunity, something not in the formal curriculum, emerges unexpectedly. Teachers know this as the teachable moment.

Here’s an example of that: I was teaching a 7th grade math class and we had just finished a unit on ratios and percentages. We did pages of calculation, and had a culminating test, but I wasn’t convinced the students knew the utility of ratios and percentages in adult life. I was reading the Sunday Detroit Free Press and there was a four-page feature article on changing housing prices and mortgage rates, with lots of tables and graphs. Eureka.

This was before the days when students had their own devices, so I copied and pasted parts of the article into a packet, and we dug into the costs and financing of homes. The first thing that happened was the shock of a bunch of 12 year-olds learning that their homes probably cost more than $100K, which seemed like a fortune to them. We calculated down payments for the homes they chose from pictures in the article, and monthly payments using different mortgage rates. It was actually fun.

It was basic math, the kind of thing parents always say that they want: practical finance. Would they still say that, today? Would there be a parent who found a lesson like this intrusive, giving students information about the comparative value of homes in disparate neighborhoods—or predatory lending? And would they be able to shut this lesson down, for all the students?

Needing to pre-approve every single thing—not just books–that teachers use in instruction would be extraordinarily clumsy. It would suppress creativity, but innovative lessons around current conditions and events now feel dangerous to some parents (check the link for just who those parents are).

The ‘extracurricular’ reference likely refers to clubs and activities where there is less oversight— like the drama club, school newspaper, or the Gay-Straight Alliance, things that make school rewarding, even bearable, for many students.

Here’s the key thing, though. It is exceptionally difficult to predict or control what gets said and done in schools, even with an ironclad curriculum, because the school staff aren’t the only ones talking. The kids are talking, too. My lesson on song parodies didn’t go awry because of anything I did or said. And ask any kindergarten teacher how much they hear about what goes on in their students’ homes.

There’s lots of transparency in schools—they’re among the most transparent and accountable public institutions on the planet. And that’s a good thing.