The Kind of Country We Want

Rude awakenings are useful. That is how we really learn. Nothing is what your thought it would be. Life slaps you in the face. What were you thinking? Snap out of it! You’re not going to be a famous jazz musician, or a brilliant baseball player, or write the great American novel, or be a movie star or the next Steve Jobs. Ambition and desire and hard work and the right attitude are necessary conditions to get there from here, but they are not sufficient conditions. Talent matters, and you’ve got that or you don’t. Accept that. Plan for what talent you actually have, if you can figure out what that is. If you cannot, then embrace being rather ordinary – it’s not so bad. Ordinary people can be happy too, once they know what’s what. Did life slap you in the face, again? There’s only one proper response. Thanks, I needed that. You did, actually. Don’t kid yourself.

Everyone has his or her own ever-expanding list of personal rude awakenings, some devastating – the loving spouse runs off with the neighbor – and some just irritating – the person on the other end of the line actually has no idea how to fix your computer. Okay, so be it. Note what you’ve just learned and move on. Make adjustments. Something else will come along soon enough to slap you in the face anyway. Practice making adjustments – it’s good for you. Severe idealism can kill you.

Young teachers know this, and there was that odd dispute in the faculty room back in the seventies, over what we were supposed to be doing. The department head was furious – you don’t let students rewrite badly done essays until they get it right, or at least make some sort of sense, and them the give them the highest grade they can finally manage. Wait, what’s wrong with that? Aren’t we supposed to be teaching the kids how to analyze what they read, and how to explain, clearly, what they’ve come up with – you know, how to decipher language and how to say what they think, coherently and convincingly? That’s when the department head exploded – no, no, no, the kid screwed up the first time so flunk his sorry ass. The kid had his chance. We’re not here to teach English. We’re here to teach CONSEQUENCES! What were you thinking? Snap out of it!

There wasn’t much to say to that, but it was a rude awaking, even if a minor one over a minor matter. So THAT was what teaching was about! Who knew?

Of course nothing changed. What had been a young teacher’s open policy became a quiet understanding with students who actually wanted to get it right – and as anyone who has taught high school English knows, well, there aren’t a lot of those. And then it was time to move on, to California, to a career in the real world. In large corporations, and particularly in systems work, no one thinks about such things, and after moving into management, and then into senior management, it became clear the issue is moot in that world. No one cuts anyone any slack, ever. Meet the numbers or get out. That unpleasant afternoon in the faculty room was long ago and long forgotten, until now. There was something else going on there, a larger dispute, that is being played out now in other ways. What we want kids to learn is what we think matters in this world, and the country is more divided than ever before about what matters. The issue had to come up again.

At the Washington Post’s WonkBlog, Christopher Ingraham points to all sorts of tables and charts in a Pew Research Center study that he says shows how dramatic our differences are:

Liberals and conservatives prioritize very different values when it comes to educating their kids: Liberals are much more likely to preach the value of tolerance, while conservatives emphasize religious faith. Among all political types, liberals stand out for their general indifference toward teaching obedience. On the other hand, they place a higher value on curiosity, creativity and empathy…

The differences underscore why the public school system in the United States, which for reasons of pure practicality requires something of a one-size-fits-all approach, is such a lightning rod for disagreement and controversy. Conservatives and liberals expect – and often demand – very different things from their children’s schools.

The charts are snazzy, and maybe there’s nothing new here, but things are heating up:

For the third straight day Wednesday hundreds of high school students walked out of their classrooms in suburban Denver in an act of civil disobedience to protest proposed curriculum changes that would curtail lessons about civil disobedience and other topics such as civil disorder.

The Jefferson County school district west of Denver has been embroiled in controversy for months following the election last year of a slate of conservative school board members who ran on the promise to overhaul teacher pay, emphasize charter schools and closely examine curriculum. Dustin Zvonek, the Colorado state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group affiliated with the Koch brothers, has praised the new board members for their agenda.

The Koch brothers do want to change the country and are working from the bottom up, at the local level, and this is about authority and order and consequences:

The protests were ignited by the recent suggestion by Julie Williams, one of the newly elected board members, that the teaching of advanced placement U.S. history in the district’s 17 high schools should be scrutinized to promote more “positive aspects” about the country and less discussion on “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

The proposal called for instruction in which “theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard for the law,” according to a district report.

Martin Luther King becomes the bad guy. Anyone who has an issue with how things are is the bad guy. Teaching obedience matters, and of course the students were having none of it:

Since Monday, when 100 students walked out at Evergreen High School, the protests have continued to gather steam, fueled by social media. By Wednesday, there had been student walkouts at nine high schools with more planned for the rest of the week.

Katharine Turner, a 17-year-old senior at Chatfield High School, was one of hundreds who left classes to march down a busy street, many chanting the emerging slogan, “Don’t Make History a Mystery.”

“I want to someday teach history,” Katharine said Wednesday morning. “I believe students need to learn the facts – all of them.”

Ashlyn Maher, 16, another Chatfield senior, agreed. “Some of the greatest things in history happened because of civil disorder and protest.”

The Koch brothers would dispute that. There is the law. There is authority. Question those and there’s chaos. Recognize who is in charge. They’re your betters. That’s the general idea, and the Jefferson County school district has a mess on its hands. The Koch-sponsored board members are pissed off at the new national Advanced Placement history curriculum and saying things like this – “It has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing while simultaneously omitting the most basic structural and philosophical elements considered essential to the understanding of American history for generations” – and the College Board folks back in New Jersey are saying they’re just covering what they always covered, and the most basic structural and philosophical elements of our history don’t seem to include the notion that the Founding Fathers were evangelical fundamentalists who wanted a Christian theocracy. They didn’t even want obedience, or at least meek submission to what the guys at the top say is good for the little people who are foolish enough to think their issues are so damned important.

This won’t turn out well. In a way it’s like that dispute back in that faculty room back in the seventies. Is it important to learn who has the power, and to learn the severe consequences of not getting what they want right, the first time, or is it important to get it right eventually, working it out for yourself, and learn something along the way? Do that and those in authority will be quite uncomfortable, or angry. This is a dispute about who matters in this country.

The New York Times’ David Brooks, everyone’s favorite warm and “nice” conservative, tries to straighten things out for the little people:

We need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite – during the American Revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically.

The “people” are hopeless, you see. They want things, and do stuff to get what they want that only causes chaos. A responsible elite class is the only thing that makes a country work. Everyone knows this. That’s what the Colorado dispute is about, after all, although Brooks sensibly won’t touch that particular third rail. He simply has advice for the only people who matter:

Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.

Powerful people might follow a code of public spiritedness. That means restraining your partisan passions and parochial interests for the sake of domestic tranquility. Re-establish the lines between public service and private enrichment.

In short, keep a low profile, and donate a few bucks to a soup kitchen now and then. Perhaps he’s thinking of the guillotines in Paris in the late eighteen century. One can’t be too careful. No one needs that kind of rude awakening. Right now, the “masses” are being heard – the peasants are revolting, as the old joke goes – and that’s not good. So tone it down. A lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford will work wonders, and you can still keep all your power. Someone responsible has to run things, after all. We need our aristocracy.

At Salon, Jim Newell has some comments:

The “masses” will be fascinated to hear that they currently “directly wield” power. Who knew? It still sort of seems like elites run everything and “the masses” just stand by, watch and live by the decisions. Sure, we have charlatans who come around and pretend like they’re giving power to the masses by ginning up deluded strategies – that Cruz and other members of the Republican Party can shut down the government in order to extract the “peoples’ demands” via ransom. But “the masses” and that elite-consensus leadership still overrule all. The financial crisis came and went and the banking sector continues as it ever was, tailored by a few modest reforms unnoticeable to the naked eye. The president has just begun a years-long bombing campaign in Syria without receiving either direct authorization or a war declaration from Congress. If this is what the elites’ nightmare scenario of democracy giving way to mob rule looks like, then mob rule is pretty lame.

And there’s this:

Whatever “responsible elite” of lore that Brooks is channeling – the Kennedys, Roosevelts, whoever – may have felt that “privilege imposes duties,” but they hardly skimped on the luxuries. They all owned gilded “compounds.” They spent in line with their social class, at least partly to make sure that their social class was known. The upper class shouldn’t feel a need to dupe the middle, working and lower classes by pretending to be less wealthy than they are. Instead, if the upper classes want to feel “responsible” and altruistic, they should look to eliminate policies that favor them at the expense of the middle, working and lower classes. Civic-minded members of the responsible upper class, for example, should support the end of tax exemptions that allow them to reap windfall profits on the sales of their $4+ million homes.

And everyone should win the lottery. That’s not going to happen, and the economist Paul Krugman, also a New York Times columnist, adds this perspective:

Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.

This intellectual divide is most obvious when the subject is the persistence of poverty in a wealthy nation. Liberals focus on the stagnation of real wages and the disappearance of jobs offering middle-class incomes, as well as the constant insecurity that comes with not having reliable jobs or assets. For conservatives, however, it’s all about not trying hard enough. The House speaker, John Boehner, says that people have gotten the idea that they “really don’t have to work.” Mitt Romney chides lower-income Americans as being unwilling to “take personal responsibility.” Even as he declares that he really does care about the poor, Representative Paul Ryan attributes persistent poverty to lack of “productive habits.”

Let us, however, be fair: some conservatives are willing to censure the rich, too.

One of those would be Brooks, but Krugman is not impressed:

I’ve just reread a remarkable article titled “How top executives live,” originally published in Fortune in 1955 and reprinted a couple of years ago. It’s a portrait of America’s business elite two generations ago, and it turns out that the lives of an earlier generation’s elite were, indeed, far more restrained, more seemly if you like, than those of today’s Masters of the Universe.

“The executive’s home today,” the article tells us, “is likely to be unpretentious and relatively small – perhaps seven rooms and two and a half baths.” The top executive owns two cars and “gets along with one or two servants.” Life is restrained in other ways, too: “Extramarital relations in the top American business world are not important enough to discuss.” Actually, I’m sure there was plenty of hanky-panky, but people didn’t flaunt it. The elite of 1955 at least pretended to set a good example of responsible behavior.

But before you lament the decline in standards, there’s something you should know: In celebrating America’s sober, modest business elite, Fortune described this sobriety and modesty as something new. It contrasted the modest houses and motorboats of 1955 with the mansions and yachts of an earlier generation. And why had the elite moved away from the ostentation of the past? Because it could no longer afford to live that way. The large yacht, Fortune tells us “has foundered in the sea of progressive taxation.”

Reagan reversed that as best he could, and the second George Bush completed the job, and Brooks is full of shit:

Is there any chance that moral exhortations, appeals to set a better example, might induce the wealthy to stop showing off so much? No.

It’s not just that people who can afford to live large tend to do just that. As Thorstein Veblen told us long ago, in a highly unequal society the wealthy feel obliged to engage in “conspicuous consumption,” spending in highly visible ways to demonstrate their wealth. And modern social science confirms his insight. For example, researchers at the Federal Reserve have shown that people living in highly unequal neighborhoods are more likely to buy luxury cars than those living in more homogeneous settings. Pretty clearly, high inequality brings a perceived need to spend money in ways that signal status.

The point is that while chiding the rich for their vulgarity may not be as offensive as lecturing the poor on their moral failings, it’s just as futile. Human nature being what it is, it’s silly to expect humility from a highly privileged elite. So if you think our society needs more humility, you should support policies that would reduce the elite’s privileges.

If the elite owns the government, then that cannot happen. A new chart on the average income growth during post-recession expansions shows that. This time, for the first time, all the income growth went to the top one percent. Kevin Drum posts the chart and adds this:

The precise numbers (from Piketty and Saez) can always be argued with, but the basic trend is hard to deny. After the end of each recession, the well-off have pocketed an ever greater share of the income growth from the subsequent expansion. Unsurprisingly, there’s an especially big bump after 1975, but this is basically a secular trend that’s been showing a steady rise toward nosebleed territory for more than half a century. Welcome to the 21st century.

Jordan Weissmann adds this:

Through mid-century, when times were good economically, most of the benefits trickled down to the bottom 90 percent of households – then came the Reagan era and actual trickle-down economics. Suddenly, the benefits started sticking with the rich. Since 2001, the top 10 percent have enjoyed virtually all of the gains.

This isn’t a totally new story. But it is a vivid and visceral illustration of what we’ve basically known to be true for a while…

Ryan Cooper adds this:

Most staggering of all, during our current economic expansion, the bottom 90 percent is suffering declining incomes. Not only is the rising tide not lifting everyone equally, it’s actually submerging nine out of ten people.

And Andrew Sullivan adds this:

So it seems that the theory behind trickle-down economics has been empirically refuted: its impact has been overwhelmingly trickle-up. It is also quite clear by now that huge tax cuts do not remotely pay for themselves – and the recent experience in Kansas only adds a final coda to this. [See the previous discussion of that Kansas experiment.] And yet the GOP shows absolutely no sign of absorbing these facts, or having anything to say about the dangerous political instability of huge social and economic inequality and crippling debt that are their consequence.

This is why I have such a hard time with contemporary American conservatism. It is still incapable of moving on from Reagan, even as the world has changed beyond recognition.

It has? The Jefferson County school district west of Denver doesn’t think so. What kind of country do we want? There are those at the top, who are there for a reason. They know stuff, and you don’t, so don’t make waves, and don’t let the kids know about anyone who once made waves in the past. It might give them ideas. There’s authority, and consequences for those who question it. We have to teach our kids about consequences. That’s the main thing. We don’t want them to have ideas.

Isn’t that the same conversation from that faculty room back in the seventies? That was reason enough to leave teaching. Rude awakenings are useful. Ah, but in this case you can’t leave – sorry. The only option is to fight back. Cut someone some slack today, so they can grow and learn. It will drive those in authority crazy. It’ll be fun. That’s the kind of country we want.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Kind of Country We Want

  1. Rick says:

    “The protests were ignited by the recent suggestion by Julie Williams, one of the newly elected board members, that the teaching of advanced placement U.S. history in the district’s 17 high schools should be scrutinized to promote more ‘positive aspects’ about the country … ‘Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard for the law,’ according to a district report.”

    I’m tempted to say that teachers don’t teach “liberal” or “conservative” values — after all, as far as I can tell, I never was! — and that teaching “materials” shouldn’t “promote” anything, they should just “teach” — but now I’m not so sure that’s true.

    For example, I remember somehow picking up along the way, in all those years of my education in California and Connecticut and New York and Ohio, that Stephen Decatur’s famous toast, “My country, right or wrong!”, was wrong. Years ago, I mentioned this to two of my friends, both of whom had been educated in the conservative South, and they were shocked! They’d been taught that the phrase was the highest example of patriotism! Apparently whatever values that are taught Americans varies from region to region.

    So, who’s right? (As for the phrase itself, how could anyone in his right mind dispute my liberal argument, that someone espousing Decatur’s words would have to be a phony patriot, with no incentive to right the wrongs of his country? But never mind; that’s not really what I’m getting at.)

    To the larger question of whether educators should teach our kids, other than just the three R’s, the mutually-exclusive ideological values of right or left, maybe the answer is this:

    Just as we teach kids about Catholicism and Buddhism, not to be Catholics and Buddhists, maybe we should just teach them about the various political schools of thought, such as Conservatism and Liberalism, but not to be liberals and conservatives.

    Would that really satisfy those people in Colorado? I’d guess not, since they probably aren’t ready to admit that the idea of teaching the “essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system” isn’t universally held to be a good thing to do, and not just another cockeyed plan to indoctrinate children into becoming little Republicans — or that “patriotism” can’t be forced on people, it can only be learned by them, at their own pace, and the theory that it should be forced on little kids is just more right-wing pigshit.

    “The Koch brothers would dispute that. There is the law. There is authority. Question those and there’s chaos. Recognize who is in charge. They’re your betters.”

    Hey, that can’t be right!

    For example, Barack Obama is president: Don’t the Koch brothers recognize that he’s “in charge”? And in fact, as their leader, that he is their “better”? Also, Obamacare is the law! Don’t these guys have any respect for the law?

    Maybe someone should teach the Koch boys to just sit the hell down and stop encouraging all this “civil disorder” and “social strife”.


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