Archive for August, 2012

The American Taliban – Part 4

Target – Public Education

The old Jesuit motto: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” is a bold statement, a boast in fact. Regardless of other considerations the statement expresses an absolute faith in education. And, is it not true that a child well schooled to the age of seven has probably developed habits of mind that make further education possible? All children with the help of responsible caring adults are capable of reaching or even exceeding their innate capacities. This process is the generally understood function of public education, its raison d’être. A population of capable citizens educated to the maximum of their abilities is the aim public education.

In practice, however, we find another story, one less optimistic, less idealistic, and becoming more Darwinian, venal, and draconian. The reasons for this have much to do with denial of the reality of unequal intellectual endowment and powerful forces seeking to privatize exploiting that inequality. It is very bad form to open a public discussion about unequal learning abilities and intellectual capacity. No parent wants to be or will tolerate being told – “ Your kid isn’t smart.” The reality of this denial results in diminished educational experiences for all students across the spectrum of natural abilities. Universal testing mania, deliberately ignoring this reality, pits all children across the intellectual spectrum against all others without regard for innate ability penalizing teachers and students alike.

Defensive teaching to a standardized test becomes inevitable and becomes teaching to the lowest common denominator. By definition no standardized test recognizes much less respects individual innate ability. It is about politics and money, nothing else. The cruelty of such facile schemes as “No Child Left Behind” leave all children behind because the premise of the program is false and empty of honest pedagogical reasoning. Standardized means just what it says, standard – a predetermined level of attainment across the spectrum of abilities. Just how is such a standard achieved by children who are not equal mentally and/or are from homes and neighborhoods where school learning is not a value? What is being compared to what is the question left unanswered.

None of the foregoing is intended to discredit the value of testing student achievement for pedagogical purposes but rather to point out its inappropriate application when used to assess and compare school populations locally, statewide, and nationally. The use of such testing is unquestionably unfair to the children as much as it is to teachers. In short there are no such creatures as “standard” children, “standard” classrooms, or “standard” teachers. To contend otherwise is an obvious sign of intellectual dishonesty at best or ulterior motives at worst. What if the NCLB, ABCDF and Race To The Top nonsense have strategic non-educational motives? But, let’s leave that question on the table for the moment and tackle a few related questions; we’ll come back to it shortly.

For the moment put yourself in the place of a classroom teacher with 20 perhaps 30 kids; a classroom of children with diverse intellectual capacity, attention spans, diet, and home life to mention only  a few of the variables. By the end of the semester you are expected to lead each child to a “standard” level of achievement regardless of those variables. You will be evaluated on the test scores these kids achieve. Your job and your pay are contingent upon good results. Does this sound like a good deal for you? For the kids? For the school? I don’t think so. In fact it is destructive as it stigmatizes and deprives children of their personal dignity and demonizes and punishes teachers for matters that are entirely out of their control. It puts teachers in the situation of a one-legged man in a butt kicking contest. Education is not a manufacturing production process and children are not products like refrigerators to be popped off the end of an assembly line. No one is standard.

Taking up the question posited earlier, why over the past several years have we witnessed this unrelenting assault on public education and public school teachers?

What’s up? –  Surprise!   –  It’s all about money, folks.

In the words of Rupert Murdoch: “When it comes to K–through–12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting to be transformed.” The American Taliban is on the march to privatize America’s public education (and everything else so far as that goes) by whatever means because they see it as a $500 billion market. It’s about money not children, it’s about profit not learning. It’s about private entities such as Wal-Mart, American Legislative Exchange Council, Laying The Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (read “Profit”). Murdoch, at another gathering of privatization crusaders, said, “ … we must approach education … willing to blow up what doesn’t work or gets in the way.” When the Bush administration foisted NCLB on the country, public schools became equivalent to Sadam Hussein’s WMD – manufactured facts and little if any truth. The assault continues today as children are being used as right-wing chew toys.  It is a war against the most cherished and valuable of public services and dedicated public servants – teachers and teaching the young. It is a clear and present thrteat to the American social contract of which public education is an essential part.

Sowing doubt and mistrust creates a sense that there are possibilities left untried or ignored. As Nicolas Sarkozy put it in another context: “This is how we create a gulf of incomprehension between the expert certain in his knowledge and the citizen whose experience of life is completely out of synch with the story told by the data. This gulf is dangerous because the citizens end up believing that they are being deceived. Nothing is more destructive of democracy.” Distrust and fear are the weapons the American Taliban are using against public education and truth.

The American Taliban – Part 3

If you wanted to undermine a representative democracy where would you start? Would you attack the electoral process or perhaps the system of public education? Would it suit your purposes to put a lot of people out of work and then play one faction off on another? Each strategy and each tactic has its effect and purpose; some deliver short term effect while others, being strategic, emphasize long term results. Over the past several weeks there have been fatal attacks on American troops by Taliban assassins dressed as Afghan military or actual members of that military. Besides killing Americans the obvious intent of this is to undermine the relationship between Americans and Afghans. The assaults are tactics to create a situation where no one knows whom they can trust, cooperation and morale are displaced by mistrust and suspicion and chaos ensues. Chaos is the strategic outcome intended by the Taliban.

The same strategies and tactics of sowing mistrust and suspicion are at work in the United States. Hirelings of the American Taliban working under the guise of dozens of Foundations and Institutes funded by wealthy individuals and their organizations feed a willing press with opinion pieces and press releases opposing policies and programs that reflect community and promote social cooperation. Public schools and teachers have been the softest of targets along with public transportation, and public health care. If you control a major television network you can hire unscrupulous correspondents and commentators to slant, and plant stories about the sitting president created whole-cloth for the purpose of calling into question his motives and methods and even his birthplace.

Trust and Truth are the main targets of the American Taliban. They know that very few members of the public have the time or inclination to verify what is being reported. Recently on the Fox right-wing entertainment channel, Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter, with a straight face, accused the sitting president of serious national security failings. The expectation of this theater being her’s and her sponsor’s belief that the public will not recall Miller’s role in the full-court press to invade Iraq when she published misleading information about Sadam Hussein’s nuclear activities fed to her by Vice-President Cheney who then cited her as his source. You might recall also that Miller was also involved in the scandal outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. After “resigning” her position at the Times, Miller’s apparent reward for her part in the shuck and jive was to land a talking head gig on Fox. Which calls to mind the cold war chestnut that there was no news in Pravda and no truth in Izvestia. With Fox it seems, neither truth nor news can be found there.

Another tactic being employed by the American Taliban to keep potentially non-conservatively inclined voters from casting ballots in the coming presidential election are voter file purges and voter photo ID requirements. The tactic is simple – if you cannot win the hearts and minds of people with your ideas, keep them from voting. In New Mexico clumsy efforts by the Secretary of State to implement a federal mandate have resulted in one State Representative’s wife being challenged and a high profile get-out-the-vote activist as well. It should also be noted that this purging process could have been undertaken a year ago but then last year wasn’t an election year was it? Sowing chaos is the tactic. In Pennsylvania where a  tough voter ID law is being challenged in court the state has admitted the number of fraudulent voting attempts has been virtually non-existent. The same scenario has been repeated everywhere the ID laws are being promoted and challenged. As to voter registration keep in mind there is no requirement in the US Constitution that requires a person to continually re-register once they reach the age of majority nor does it require them to vote. In the US voting is a birth-right not a privilege to be taken away like a lollypop from naughty non-voters. Voting is of course a responsibility which far too many fail to take seriously.

The Republican Party is now in a state of delirium over the choice of Vice-Presidential running mate to Willard Mitt Romney. Why the joy one must ask? Well the VP choice is a chap who made his reputation by vigorously undermining the American social contract. Paul Ryan, the Republican VP designate, has proposed among other things ending Social Security, he has written budget proposals that would, for all practical purposes end Medicare, end Food Stamps, and defund Planned Parenthood which provides basic health care for 1 in 5 American women. Paul Ryan, is not a military veteran (neither is Romney) but he is proposing to severely limit veterans health care to levels not seen since the 1930s. Ryan’s proposed tax plan would tax the wealthy less and the poor more. Ryan’s budget would cut $3.3 trillion from low-income programs, drop Medicare coverage for more than 14 million people along with eliminating 17% of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). Posing with animals he has shot and catfish he has caught with his bare hands, this little boy is a right-wing center-fold pinup.

One also has to ask why two boys who chose not to serve in the military also chose to make the announcement of Ryan as the VP choice using a US Navy ship festooned with red, white, and blue bunting sprinkled with stars and stripes as their stage. Much about the two candidates’ lack of character is revealed in the hypocrisy and pandering of their military charade  including their lack of common decency and respect for those who have served or are serving the country. Character does matter folks. “Character matters, we believe,” says James Davison Hunter in “The Death of Character”, “because without it, trust, justice, freedom, community, and stability are probably impossible.” The American Taliban has a political plan and chaos is their objective.

The American Taliban – Part 2

The intent of this series of essays is to demonstrate the American social contract is under attack, who is behind it and what their motives are. There are many actors in the drama and very many schemes, all of which are directed at undermining what has been the American social contract and the beliefs which underlie that contract. The first essay of the series was a general overview of the many ways and the many influences, from politicians to religious leaders to billionaires, all with an agenda undermining the social arrangements and expectations that have been quintessentially American since the Declaration of Independence and have reflected the hopes and aspirations of civilized people throughout history.

We are, in the United States, at a turning point in the history of our politics and social organization. Wealth and the power it buys are in the hands of a few who use their wealth to control media and the propaganda money buys. Among the general public a culture of “me-first,” “whatever-it-takes,” celebrity worship, mindless and often violent entertainment are all standard fare and easily play into the hands of the media manipulators. Observed from a dispassionate distance, we appear a civilization rapidly becoming decadent and clearly in decline. Truth has become a fungible commodity and is generally absent from public debate, absent even in courtrooms controlled by insurance conglomerates and their lawyer lackeys.

In politics one has to ask what kind of moral leadership could possibly be expected from an individual who made his fortune putting people out of work. Or another who has never done real work. Voting has devolved into an exercise in which voters must decide who among the candidates is the lesser evil. It has become, it would seem, more materially and politically rewarding to be pragmatic than honorable, to take or not take a position calculated on the basis of whether or not it offends the fewest potential voters; in other words, not principled but expedient. Whatever it takes becomes the order of the day, the moral and ethical standard. What sort of social leadership can be expected from a candidate whose wife refers to the American public as ”you people”? Could we expect empathy, feeling with you, mutual respect, shared sacrifice? We the people have become an inconvenient but necessary rabble.

We must ask ourselves how this country can sustain itself politically when wallowing in blatant corruption at levels that would embarrass even a banana republic. Even political movements have become a parody as, for example, Tea Party activists in Founding Father costumes act out their frustrations by attacking immigrants in a country founded by immigrants or cheering when assured an impoverished uninsured person could die from illness without public health care. It is important to note here that the role of immigrants isn’t the same as that of the Wall Street Banksters who caused the economic collapse that resulted in foreclosures and loss of middle-class savings. Then we have labor leaders turning against their rank-and-file, thwarting elections when the results don’t meet their expectations, and union members voting for an anti-labor candidate.

The list of embraced contradictions and self-defeating behavior ascends the scale of incredulity as people vote and agitate against their own best interests, against members of their own social class. This last brings to mind the current speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, declaring there are no social classes in the U.S. Oh, really? Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning Columbia University economist puts it this way, saying, in fact we do have a tiered society where, “While there may be underlying economic forces at play, politics have shaped the market, and shaped it in ways that advantage the top at the expense of the rest.” Why isn’t the Tea Party beating its drums on Wall Street?

The political landscape across the country is infested with phony “Foundations” and “Institutes,” bought and paid for by millionaires and billionaires using these tax-exempt front organizations to propagandize local and national issues. The American Legislative Exchange Council is the corporate sponsored mother-ship for many of these organizations. ALEC sponsors week-end “seminars” for legislators and their guests at fancy seaside resorts where they get to play golf and meet and mingle with corporate money-bags and lobbyists. Enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court and its Citizens United decision, front organizations give large sums of money to influence elections, governors and legislators. In New Mexico we have one of these entities that has over the past year opposed, among other things, mass transit, art in public places and public education. In each instance the alternative proposed was privatization.

We are descending a slippery slope with a rent-seeking “whatever-works-for-you” fantasy mentality. Politicians, playing fast and loose with the truth, make a big thing of “sharing your values” as they woo voters but say nothing about personal character, the sense of right and wrong, and the truth-telling which constitute an individual’s character and which cannot be substituted for  with wholesale community values. Values have nothing to do with personal character because truth and integrity, the foundation stones of character, issue first and foremost from individuals and thus require personal conviction and commitment. It is not an overstatement to say that when truth, integrity and personal character are undermined, so too is the civilized society. James Davison Hunter in “The Death of Character” states it bluntly: “ Character matters, we believe, because without it, trust, justice, freedom, community, and stability are probably impossible.” There can be no such thing as community in a “me-first” world populated and obsessed with morally empty “personalities.”


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