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Rosenblum writes: "Lots of young people sparkle with brilliance, self-assured and curious about a world they'll have to un-fuckup. They are, however, the exception."

A classroom. (photo: Nicholas Fevelo/NY Daily News)
A classroom. (photo: Nicholas Fevelo/NY Daily News)


Not Tocqueville After All These Years

By Mort Rosenblum, Reader Supported News

12 September 18

 

ALABASH, North Carolina – It was no surprise that a roomful of adults turned to a 9-year-old to demystify the computerized kitchen range at our rented beach house near here. But it was flat-out eerie that she also could have corrected our Chinese grammar had we known any to correct.

At our first meeting, she froze me rigid with a patronizing sneer; I got her name wrong. Later, she warmed up with a friendly kid smile when I disgraced myself playing cacophonic harmonica backup to my nephew Jon’s guitar mastery. After that, we were buddies.

Little S., in a fancy school for smart kids, fits a pattern I’ve noticed in trying to make sense of the generational shifts I see in serial snapshots, like time-frame photography, when I come from abroad to teach journalism students and to probe into a foreign society I once knew well.

Lots of young people sparkle with brilliance, self-assured and curious about a world they’ll have to un-fuckup. They are, however, the exception. The United States has come a long way from its raw-boned frontier days when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his hoary tome, Democracy in America.

In 1835, the iconic French sociologist noted “a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”

Today, he would find many of those weak wanting to suppress the weaker, believing that raises their own level. And that reduces them to preferring inequality in servitude to a wealthy few, which squanders their freedoms and imperils democratic institutions.

In Calabash, an old-timey hardscrabble shrimp port, not all necks are red, but the politics are. Tom Frank’s incisive book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, resonates as loudly here as it does in impoverished Midwest states, the rural West, and urban pockets across the country.

Go figure. Guys apt to fire shotguns at cars that cut them off in traffic defend the right of banks and businesses to screw them at every turn. They’d rather die of treatable disease than let “socialism” taint their lives with universal health care, common to just about every democracy in the world.

The problem is education, and that is no accident. During the Reagan years, schools headed in two separate directions. Social-engineering plutocrats wanted smart young people who believe money is how you keep score – and a lot more credulous hewers and haulers who buy stuff.

Today, rather than trying to restore the balance, we have billionaire Betsy DeVos pushing to privatize the fast track, leaving public schools at the mercy of state legislatures that starve teachers, favor religious doctrine over science, ignore the outside world, and program kids not to question.

If you ask hardcore zealots why they like Trump, jaws tighten and brows furrow. The answer, if you get one, is that he says what he thinks and makes the world respect us. Or, he’s a successful businessman who will make us better off. These rock-solid beliefs impel them to the polls.

At the other extreme, on a stop in New York, I doubt anyone at the noisy table near me at The Ribbon on the Upper Westside likes Trump. But I’m guessing. The three young couples’ raucous banter was limited to their high-paying techie jobs, their newest toys, and who lusted after whom.

I knew they traveled because of the European restaurants they mispronounced. Yet none of these would-be masters of the universe seemed aware that countries they visit face existential crises because of quixotic policy from America’s Crazytown. People like them are less likely to vote.

It’s a tossup. Trump might be the shock treatment America needed. In November, sentient citizens might begin choosing leaders who understand nature – and human nature. You can’t drain swamps, which are a vital part of ecological balance, but you can prevent reptiles from taking them over.

The overriding question is whether the right-wing “libertarian” plan to make America ignorant has already achieved its goal. We’ll have an answer in November’s referendumb.

Assuming all is not lost – it likely isn’t – it seems past time to consider the après-Trump. As I bat this out, I keep hearing those Crosby, Stills and Nash lyrics from 1970: “Teach your children well.” That line resonated loudly with me back then after three years of reporting mayhem across Africa.

Notable differences aside, we might learn from so many post-colonial African states that started out with such promise: functioning democracies, balanced books, populations inured to hard work, and a history of old civilizations like Great Zimbabwe, the Kongo kingdoms, and the Mali Empire.

I repeatedly asked U.S. diplomats why education was missing from foreign aid. That, they invariably replied, was too long-term. America wanted to rent friends with big flashy “development” projects that entrenched corruption but bought U.N. votes to thwart the Soviet Union.

The result was inevitable. Dictators diverted billions to European properties and foreign bank accounts. They educated military officers and a political elite to suppress populations that were taught just enough to keep societies functioning as, to use Trump’s term, shitholes.

The Congo, at independence in 1960, had six university graduates. Belgian colonial schools had taught a lot about Belgium and simple skills to equip low-level civil servants. Imagine how many brilliant minds were wasted in a vast nation of incalculable mineral wealth and rich farmland.

Closer to the point, look at Finland today. Its middling schools became the world’s best when all education was made public. Rich and poor kids alike learn to think, to ask questions, to use their imaginations, and to understand global realities beyond their own line of sight. America, in contrast, ranks 51st worldwide in literacy.

The United States, far more complex than Finland, needs fast tracks for prodigies like 9-year-old S. But it also needs a higher common denominator for public schools, with motivated teachers and world maps on the wall, where kids learn that skin tone and bank balances are not what count.

In much of the world, universities are free – or close to it. In America, combined student debt is around $1.5 trillion. Corporations have just given back about that same amount to investors in stock buybacks and dividends.

A little intellectual curiosity and analysis blows all to hell a demagogue’s empty braggadocio. Macro numbers mislead. As Paul Krugman notes, if Jeff Bezos walks into a bar, the average income of the joint shoots up by several billion dollars. But you’ve still got to pay for your own beer.

One in three Americans have $5,000 or less socked away for retirement. The Waltons (a different breed from the TV family that scraped by in a little house on the prairie) just pocketed another $11 billion. Or was it $15 billion? They got rich from hard-pressed families struggling to make ends meet.

To improve education, American needs a president, a Congress, state legislators, and local school supervisors who get their priorities straight. The problem isn’t cost. For starters, we might stop blowing up schools in Afghanistan and build more classrooms around Calabash.

(For a look at how American teachers fare these days, here is a sampling.)

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Mort Rosenblum has reported from seven continents as Associated Press special correspondent, edited the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and written 14 books on subjects ranging from global geopolitics to chocolate. He now runs MortReport.org.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

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+12 # mashiguo 2018-09-12 15:22
"To improve education, American needs a president, a Congress, state legislators, and local school supervisors who get their priorities straight. "

To improve education the first thing that has to happen is giving it over to federal support and control. Local education leads to division along ideological and financial lines that are inconsistent with a) education and b) assimilation into a unified people.

There is precious little of current American society that can profitably be salvaged.
 
 
0 # Floridatexan 2018-09-13 18:03
I disagree. Education is local. The Federal government doesn't need to run it.
 
 
0 # lfeuille 2018-09-13 18:42
Maybe post-Trump. Not now. Betsy Devos will not be the savior of American education.
 
 
+3 # BetaTheta 2018-09-12 21:44
We are awash in false myths of what America once was, and of what it should be. Much of that revolves around the acquisition of wealth, not knowledge.
 
 
0 # janie1893 2018-09-13 00:34
If Donald Trump is an indication of the worth of the American education system, perhaps it is time to toss out the current system in total and start from scratch.
 
 
+3 # NAVYVET 2018-09-13 18:07
He didn't go to PUBLIC schools!!
 
 
+3 # NAVYVET 2018-09-13 18:13
Drumpf is a product of expensive private education. We ALMOST got rid of private schools about a hundred seventy-five years ago when SCOTUS came close to outlawing private schools, including religious. It just didn't quite make it, although Sweden has abolished private education, one of its progressive successes.
 
 
+1 # lfeuille 2018-09-13 18:44
Trump had a purely private education.
 
 
+4 # NAVYVET 2018-09-13 07:15
I recently asked my granddaughter via email--she lives across the country in Calif--what subjects she was now taking in 10th grade, and her outside activities since her medal-winning sports career & 8 years of classical piano have taken a back seat.

She replied: "This year I'm taking Chem Honors, Phys Ed, Principles of Engineering, English 2, US History, Mandarin, and Integrated Math 3 STEM/Pre Calc. I'm also doing a lot more clubs. Mostly it's for volunteering. I'm doing SOS which interacts with and raises money for students with disabilities. HH, a club that helps animals. Help4Her aids homeless women get clean sanitary products. MUN (Model United Nations) is a club where we do simulations of the United Nations systems. CSF is a club for students who only get A's or B's and we do volunteering. NCLA is a leadership club. And I'm doing Red Cross classes, learning CPR for free."

All of that made me envious! I admitted that back in the 50s my only activism was trying to stop Joe McCarthy and his -ism. Our high school didn't require a foreign language, I wanted to take extra science & math so I got no languages till college. I'm proud of her & awed by Mandarin since she's already fluent in Korean & Spanish--thanks to her Korean mom and grade school.

After a long alarming nosedive caused by Proposition 13, it's good to see that the public schools in Cal may be pulling out of it. Or maybe only those in Silicon Valley, where my son and dau-in-law live and work.
 
 
+5 # futhark 2018-09-13 08:08
Simon Winchester, in his book "The Men Who United The States" concerning the development of transportation and communication technology in the United States frankly concludes that none of the improvements we now enjoy and which contribute to our common prosperity would have been possible without a concerted effort of organization and support at the federal level.

However, we must be careful to avoid misguided programs like "No Child Left Behind" that are used chiefly to beat schools and teachers around the head and ears for "under-performi ng". A positive vision with emphasis on common goals and an inclusive spirit, enjoying widespread support could make a real difference.
 
 
0 # HenryS1 2018-09-13 08:55
Wow, a great, prereptive article, and a string of intelligent comments without any trolls.

Kind of hopeful experience, reading this so far!
 
 
+7 # sirimada 2018-09-13 09:43
In considering the status of schools, infrastructure, etc. it is also useful to remember that in the '50s, when the interstate system was being built for example, the tax rate on the highest earners was in the 70-90 percent range, I believe. Raising taxes these days is a non-starter. And also remember that our vaunted wars in the middle east are being paid for on credit from the Chinese and others - Americans were never asked to pay for these wars (and none have been won since 1945 despite the trillions spent on the DOD!)!
 
 
+3 # margpark 2018-09-13 14:53
Tennessee is struggling with tests. The statewide test is computer based and their servers keep dieing. Meanwhile I keep commenting that teaching children to take tests is not the same as educating them. I am 81. When I was in school I took an achievement test very spring. That was it for tests from above. Other than that teachers made up their own tests. The achievement test was to tell the teachers what we had actually learned over the past school year. I enjoyed taking it and having a day away from classes. Didn't count on my grade point score at all. Teachers were not in trouble if someone scored low. Although I imagine if an entire class failed to learn anything that teacher would be observed closely the next year.
 
 
0 # economagic 2018-09-13 20:02
Yes, all of that. My first year in my newly adopted state of North Carolina I worked with a group calling itself the "Fair Testing Coalition" in a successful effort to roll back at least part of a draconian testing law passed the previous year. This was a decade before the takeover by the anti-education Tea Party vandals. Our motto was "Testing Is Not Teaching," and I think I still have the big lapel button. That December our work was made moot by the disastrous "No Child's Behind Left" law, co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy among others who should have known better.

A couple of years before I retired, a friend gave me a shirt with the slogan, "Those who can, TEACH. Those who can't make laws about teaching." I taught at the community college level, in this state possibly even more regimented and underpaid than K-12. My DH and the dean were both "retired" US Army supply chain colonels, and neither of them had any business in an educational institution. One was given a Peter Principle promotion after I retired, and after 5-6 years of documented complaints from senior faculty.

I still get comments and knowing grins on the shirt.

"STEM" is my native language, and I don't regret it a bit, though I still hope to fill in some humanities gaps in retirement. It was interesting and fun, and it paid my rent in various ways for 50 years. But T & E are sub-ordinate to the humanities, and S & M would be better taught as part of the humanities, as was once the case.
 
 
0 # DongiC 2018-09-14 17:32
Nice thread. Informative, insightful and no trolls in sight. I was a teacher for about 40 years. It was rather hard but rewarding and kind of fun. I taught in New York state so I was well paid. Union and all that. Nice retirement plan too. Taught American History and Psychology to Juniors and seniors. My favorite phrase is Solidarity Forever.
 

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