Category Archives: Education / Youth

Policy, Politics And Reality

Paul Krugman condenses our current democratic dysfunction into one pithy paragraph.

In principle, voters should judge politicians by their actions; they should support politicians who pursue policies that help them, oppose politicians whose policies would hurt them. To do this, however, voters should have a reasonably good idea of what policy is doing.

Krugman is focused on economic policy, but his evaluation of what voters know–very little–is equally true of other policy domains. As he says, In a sensible world–i.e., one that worked as envisioned– voters would have both “a reasonably accurate picture of what’s happening” and a basic understanding of what aspects of our lives are actually under politicians’ control.

As he points out, in the world we inhabit, neither of these things is true. (This observation echoes a popular meme making the Facebook rounds, to the effect that it’s easy to believe in conspiracies when you have no idea how things really work.)

Krugman uses the current gloom over the economy as an example.

Start with the state of the economy. You might be tempted to assume that in a world in which getting and spending occupies a large part of everyone’s life, people would have a pretty good sense of how the economy is doing, even if they aren’t familiar with national income accounting. In reality, however, economic perceptions are largely shaped by media coverage — and, increasingly, by partisanship.

Indeed, the role of partisan skew has gotten so large recently that the Michigan Survey of Consumers, probably the most influential gauge of economic perceptions, highlighted it in its most recent data release; you might say that the Michigan Survey has warned us not to trust the Michigan Survey.

He has appended a chart illustrating the wide differences in consumer sentiment among self-identified Democrats and Republicans since 2019. The chart shows–among other things- that today’s Republicans  have a more negative assessment of economic conditions than they did in March 2009, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, a time when unemployment was at 8.7 percent and the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month.

Other data confirms Krugman’s point that people’s views on the economy reflect what partisan media and their own political preferences are telling them; they show “a huge divergence between what people say about the state of the economy, which is quite negative on average, and what they say about their own personal finances.”

Then there’s the grousing about Biden and the increase in gas prices, despite the fact that the rise is global and Presidents have virtually no control over them.

So we’re living in a nation with many voters who seem to have both a distorted view of the state of the economy and false beliefs about what aspects of the economy politicians can affect. How is democracy supposed to function well under these conditions?…

The fact remains that public perceptions have become extremely disconnected from reality — economics is just one example. It’s a real conundrum. And if you’re waiting for me to propose solutions, well, not today.

That disconnect from reality is an absolutely foreseeable consequence of our national inability to know who and what we can trust.

The constant drumbeat about “fake news,” the willingness of far too many elected officials to lie through their teeth–not to mention their unwillingness to call a lie a lie–aided and abetted by media outlets engaged in propaganda rather than news, are all bad enough.But they would be far less effective if the population at large was minimally knowledgable–if people knew the basic facts about America’s legal framework, the rudiments of economic theory and the difference between science and religion.

When people who are ignorant of  those basics are constantly told that the “legacy” news media is peddling falsehoods, that “others” are to be feared and their voices discounted, that the United States was founded as a “Christian Nation,” that scientific “theories” are  nothing more than wild-ass guesses, and much more–they are far more susceptible to conspiracy theories and disinformation. Some of those theories are so far out–space lasers, pedophiles in charge of the federal government and similar lunacies–that most relatively sane people will reject them, but others–the President is in charge of prices at the gas pump, or the economy is not as robust as it looks–are far more likely to take hold.

When we no longer have Walter Cronkite (or reasonable clones) to trust, all bets are off.


Let’s Talk About Public Education

The GOP has found a new wedge issue–attacking public education. It is apparently irrelevant that their attacks are based on imaginary issues (critical race theory) or the party’s longstanding anti-intellectualism (attacks on a book by critically-acclaimed author Toni Morrison). Both are, at their core, appeals to racism.

As I have previously posted–and as most readers of this blog know–critical race theory is not and never has been part of any elementary or high school curricula. For that matter, it hasn’t been part of college curricula, either–it is a relatively arcane area of legal research, pursued almost entirely by law professors. But like the attack on literature that portrays a side of American history that offends certain White parents, it isn’t intended to be accurate. It’s intended to activate racial grievance and distract from the actual problems facing America–problems for which the GOP offers no solutions.

Public school teachers must be feeling whiplashed. This latest assault comes on the heels of persistent efforts to kneecap or destroy public education–most prominently, the voucher programs that encourage parents to use tax dollars to send their children to schools that promise the “proper” sort of indoctrination.  (It’s tempting to suggest that the outraged parents attacking school board members over these ginned-up accusations take advantage of those vouchers and send their little darlings to schools imparting their preferred versions of reality.)

I’ve written extensively about those voucher programs, and their role in segregating Americans on the basis of race and religion, and I don’t intend to repeat those arguments here. I can only hope that this latest attack on education and the dedicated teachers who provide it encourages a widespread backlash. In the past, when enough teachers have gotten sufficiently pissed off, they’ve made a difference.

That said, if America is going to be stuck with these programs that use tax dollars to fund private and religious schools, I think we should follow the lead of the Netherlands, which does fund both private and public schools–and that closely regulates all schools it funds. My son who lives in Amsterdam recently shared with me a government description of that regulatory framework.

According to the government document, the Dutch education system is “unique in the world.” Under article 23 of its Constitution, the state provides equal funding for both public-authority and private schools. To be eligible for government funding, schools must meet the statutory requirements on minimum pupil numbers and classroom hours, among other things.

Public-authority schools are open to all pupils and teachers. Their teaching is not based on a particular religion or belief. Publicly run schools are set up by the local authorities, and pursuant to article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, local authorities must ensure there are sufficient publicly run schools in their municipality. If there are not enough schools locally, they are obliged to provide access to public schools elsewhere.

Some of the more interesting provisions of the Dutch framework include:

Government authorities (usually the municipality) are responsible for the budget and educational quality of public-authority schools. Municipalities are also tasked with supervision.

Private schools are established and run by private individuals, usually parents. The usual procedure is to set up a foundation with the intention of establishing a school based on religious or ideological principles, such as a Protestant or Muslim school. Private schools of this kind may use teaching materials that underpin their foundational principles.

A private school based on religious or ideological principles may require its teaching staff and pupils to subscribe to the beliefs of that denomination or ideology. For instance, a Protestant school may insist that its staff are committed Protestants. And a Roman Catholic school may forbid pupils to wear Islamic headscarves.

However, a school in this category may only impose these rules if they are necessary to fulfil its principles. The requirements may not be discriminatory and the school must apply its policy consistently.

Private schools do not have the right to dismiss teachers because they are gay, nor may they refuse to take on pupils or staff on these grounds.

Basically, every school bears primary responsibility for the quality of its teaching. The Education Inspectorate is responsible for monitoring the quality of education at publicly run and private schools. Every year it presents an Education Report to the Minister of Education, Culture and Science. The minister then sends the report to parliament.

In the Netherlands, in other words, receipt of tax dollars requires accountability. Public or private, schools may not discriminate, even on religious grounds, and the quality of their secular instruction is subject to oversight.

Somehow, I doubt that the uninformed and angry parents who want their schools to impart a Whitewashed history would embrace a similar regulatory framework.


Back To Basics

Yesterday, I posted about Wang Huning, the behind-the-scenes Chinese public intellectual whose philosophy is evidently immensely influential in that country, and whose six-month visit to the U.S. triggered his disenchantment with Enlightenment rationalism/liberalism.

Wang reportedly came to believe that culture is a vital component of political stability–that  a society’s “software,” by which he means culture, values, and attitudes, shapes political destiny as much or more as the “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions) most of us consider far more influential.

Since I read only the article to which I linked, I don’t know whether Wang ever addressed the extent to which hardware–especially economic systems–influences and shapes or distorts culture. In the U.S., for example, sociological research tells us that capitalism has strengthened America’s cultural emphasis on individualism.

Be that as it may, Wang’s impressions of America, and the conclusions he drew from his observations, underscore one of the enduring questions of political philosophy: what is government for? What are the tasks that must be done collectively–through government–and what tasks are properly left to the private and voluntary sectors?

I don’t think it is an over-simplification to suggest that American Right-wingers agree with Wang in one crucial respect: the importance of culture and tradition. (In their case, the supreme importance of their culture and tradition.) The Right thus believes that it is government’s job to protect their culture–a culture which gives social dominance to White Christian males and facilitates a dog-eat-dog form of market capitalism.

The Left–which, in America these days, includes pretty much anything and anyone to the left of radical Right-wing Republicanism–sees the job of government very differently. For most of us, the ideal government is boring; it is (or should be) almost entirely concerned with building and maintaining the physical and social infrastructure that underlies and enables genuine human liberty–which we define as the ability to pursue one’s personal life goals. So we want government to attend to the public safety, build and maintain the structures that allow us to travel, communicate and collaborate, and–ideally–provide a social safety net sufficient to prevent poverty and a degree of inequality that endangers social stability.

What we label the American Left today includes a very wide a swath of opinion, so it is inevitable that there will be many “intra-Left” arguments about what that infrastructure should look like, how robust it should be, and how government should go about funding and maintaining it. But virtually everyone on the Left would define the role of government in terms that are utterly incompatible with those of the radical Right.

These incompatible views of what government is for have led to incommensurate demands on government.

In today’s America, the Left (pretty much across the broad spectrum of Left-of-Fascism opinion and despite disputes about how to achieve these goals) wants roads and bridges repaired, healthcare access expanded,   and voting rights protected. It also wants the wealthy to pay taxes at the higher rates that were historically imposed.  Today’s (far more unified) Right wants school history courses censored and trans students ostracized, women’s reproductive liberties curtailed, voting made more difficult for minorities, and White Christian privilege protected. it also wants taxes further reduced, especially on corporations and the rich.

The Bill of Rights, as I have repeatedly noted, is a list of things that government is forbidden to do;  the nation’s Founders did not believe that government’s job included protection of a particular worldview, religion or status.

Wang’s belief in the importance of culture isn’t wrong. But cultures develop over time; they are the result of numerous factors that interact to influence social mores, attitudes and values. In the U.S.,over time, the culture has been heavily influenced by the values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and by the other aspirations built into our constituent documents.

Most Americans have been “acculturated” to see government’s role as a provider of infrastructure (however narrowly or broadly defined)–not as a protector of privilege, which is what today’s Right demands in its breathtakingly radical effort to remake both American law and culture.

There’s a reason the Right wants to censor and distort the teaching of accurate history. Those who control the historical narrative control the culture–and the country.

The Real “Red Scare”

I’m old enough to remember when the “Red Scare” referred to American concerns over the influence of Communism and the power of the USSR.

Today,  I would submit that the term is once again useful, but because it addresses a very different source of threat: red states and the lunatics who’ve been elected by their voters. Here in very red Indiana, for example, we have our Attorney General, Todd Rokita, who recently launched an investigation of Valparaiso University and  the Confucius Institute for…no kidding…promoting Communist propaganda.

Now, I know that there is a spirited debate about Rokita among the people who follow our local politics. His “defenders” attribute his anti-constitutional forays into culture war to his obvious and overweening ambition, rather than mental illness. They see his bizarre positions as strategies intended to play to the increasingly loony GOP base while keeping his name in the news. (He’s already booked himself on Newsmax to discuss his investigation,” an outlet likely to be more supportive than others  that have covered this clown show, although In his frantic desire for any attention, Rokita, like Trump, apparently doesn’t care if coverage is positive or negative as long as they spell his name right.)

The attorney general’s office declined to tell IndyStar what specific evidence it has supporting the insinuation that Beijing is attempting to brainwash Hoosiers through the Valparaiso University-Confucius Institute relationship, which partially relies on funds from the Chinese government. “We are not able to comment on the specifics of an ongoing investigation,” a spokesperson said.

“The societal and political cost of the Chinese Communist Party infiltrating our universities and K-12 education institutes to indoctrinate our students is incalculable,” the spokesperson said, when asked how much this investigation will cost taxpayers in Indiana. “Comparatively, the cost of our investigation is minimal, but will depend upon the details of the investigation.

Yeah, comparatively…

Some 100 American colleges host Confucius Institutes; IUPUI (where I taught) has had one for several years, although given its lack of prominence on campus, most students have probably never heard of it. It’s one of a wide range of campus organizations intended to introduce students to a diverse set of global cultures. Valparaiso University’s Confucius Institute was founded in 2008 and its website says it “aims at helping Northwest Indiana citizens learn about China and its people and culture and study the Chinese language, and promoting cultural, particularly music, exchange between the US and China.”

But what if Rokita’s paranoia–or pandering– was actually based in fact? What if these Institutes actually were “promoting” a communist philosophy? (Obviously, in Indiana they aren’t doing that very well.) The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would protect that activity–something you would like to believe an Attorney General would know. After all, Rokita went to law school and somehow graduated; he also took an oath of office requiring him to pledge allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, which you would like to assume he’d read.

If the government actually had the authority to seek and destroy “propaganda,” sometime in the future a Democrat holding office could launch a similar “investigation” of Fox News or Newsmax…Even a non-lawyer can see the problem.

So why, exactly, is our embarrassing buffoon of an A.G. wasting the resources of his office on an “investigation” of propaganda that he couldn’t shut down even if it existed somewhere other than in his fevered imagination? Here’s a clue: Toward the end of the linked story, it notes that Rokita has also been referring to COVID as the “Chinese virus.”

In order to appeal to the current GOP base, you must whip up fear. Fear of “the other.” Fear of “uppity women” getting control of their own bodies. Fear of scary Black people and that evil Critical Race Theory. Fear of (an undefined) “socialism.” Fear of those Chinese “commies.”

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter whether Rokita is as loony as he seems (a la Marjorie Taylor Greene et al), or just pursuing what he considers to be a savvy strategy of appealing to uninformed and loony voters. He’s a prime example of everything that’s wrong with contemporary American politics.

He is “the Red Scare.”


The Way We Never Were

One of my favorite books is The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz. I don’t usually re-read books, but I have twice made an exception for this one, and I still dip into it now and then. Coontz is a faculty member at Evergreen State College, where she teaches history and family studies and directs research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. 

In The Way We Never Were, Coontz uses history to deconstruct many of the myths we Americans tell ourselves. She takes on the belief, for example, that “we always stood on our own two feet” by enumerating the multiple ways in which government programs have long provided structures enabling individual effort. Addressing the fond belief that teenagers didn’t have sex outside of marriage before our degenerate times, she provides statistics on the number of “shotgun” marriages at the turn of the former century. And so forth. As an introduction to the book notes,

Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary, a man’s home has never been his castle, the ‘male breadwinner marriage’ is the least traditional family in history, and rape and sexual assault were far higher in the 1970s than they are today. 

The basic focus of the book was displayed in the subtitle: “American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”

Today, nostalgia for the way we never were has become a primary dividing line between people who live in the real world (and who are, these days, disproportionately Democrats) and angry defenders of a society that never existed (these days, disproportionately Republicans.) That is especially the case with Southerners’ defense of the Lost Cause.

As a recent article from the Atlantic put it,

For so many Americans, “history isn’t the story of what happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as a eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”

In “The War on Nostalgia,” published online today and on the cover of The Atlantic’s June issue, staff writer Clint Smith writes about the myth of the Lost Cause, which attempts to recast the Confederacy “as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people.” Traveling around the country, Smith visits sites that are grappling—or refusing to grapple—with America’s history of slavery, and considers what it would take for all Americans to reckon with the past.

I grew up in small-town America in the 1950s, and have subsequently been astonished by efforts to portray those years as somehow “golden.” Granted, if you were a Protestant White Male, things were pretty good–if you were female, or Black, or Catholic, or (as I was,  one of very few Jews in a very small town), not so much. In college, when I went (briefly) to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill still had separate restrooms and drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites, and I still remember the large billboard announcing to anyone who could read the planned construction of a “restricted” subdivision (i.e., no Jews or Blacks would be permitted to buy there.)

We can see the power of nostalgia in the current, intense resistance to efforts to teach accurate history. Educators and historians are only now coming to terms with the way American history has been white-washed (or perhaps I should spell that White-washed). I took a number of history classes, but I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until two years ago. If the Trail of Tears was taught in any of those classes, I missed it.

Nostalgia can be a comforting way to remember many things: my babies’ first words, a stranger’s kindness at a particularly difficult time, a classroom epiphany, a love affair… There is nothing wrong with a nostalgia based upon actual events, even when we recall those events somewhat selectively– with  their “rough edges” removed, so to speak.

But nostalgia for a mythological American past–for the “way we never were”–is pernicious; it’s a refusal to learn from experience, and a way to defend what is frequently indefensible. 

It’s an indulgence we can’t afford.