I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, January 9, 2017

Teaching In the Age of Trump

Last week, Mrs. Jazzman and I decided to indulge one last time before we start our new years diets, and found ourselves in line for the best hot dogs north of the Bronx County line. As I waited for my turn at the condiments station (get the red relish), I overheard a conversation between a nice young woman working the counter and a nice young man working the grill.

To my best recollection, it went like this:
WOMAN: ... yes, he's crazy and disgusting, but I can't just vote on that. I have to vote on policy. 
MAN: Well, what did he say about policy that made you want to vote for him? 
WOMAN: Health care. Health care is a mess. 
MAN: But we have universal health care now. He wants to take that away. 
WOMAN: No, he wants everyone covered. But Obamacare isn't working. 
MAN: What's wrong with it? 
WOMAN: It's costing people a lot of money, and you don't get to choose your own plan, and everybody has to sign up for it. 
MAN: But that's the way universal health care works. Everyone has to be in it. It doesn't work unless everyone is in it. 
WOMAN: OK, but why does it have to cost so much then? I thought Obamacare was supposed to keep costs down...
And so on. It took all I had not to butt in and start flapping my mouth about things that I tell myself I have a better than average understanding of compared to the average person... but as every teacher knows, you usually learn more by letting a conversation spool out than by interjecting your precious personal opinion the first chance you get.

Let me start by saying I can't for the life of me understand why anyone would ever vote for Donald Trump. Even if you agree with him on everything, the man is clearly unfit for high office. That bus tape is more than enough to say the man should never have been allowed near the White House -- and that was only one of his many outrages.

There is also no doubt that some -- some -- of his supporters are really horrible people.

But this woman didn't seem horrible to me. She was having a respectful conversation with someone who disagreed with her -- and she had, in my opinion, some legitimate points. President Obama said you could keep your plan; he was wrong. Premiums have gone up, although they seem to be stabilizing. And while there's little doubt Obamacare has expanded coverage for many, a case remains to be made that other systems would be better.

Again: I don't claim any expertise here. My point is that even if you find Donald Trump to be repulsive, and some -- some -- of his followers to be deplorable, there is still a serious, legitimate debate to be had about policy with at least some of people who voted for him. And that number of people may be larger than we liberals want to admit.

But can we have that discussion, given how our political debates are currently waged?

I keep thinking about the news of Russia's interference in our election process (reminding myself that America has attempted to influence elections in other countries many times itself). Of course I don't want Putin mucking around in our elections. Of course we need to get to the bottom of the email hacking.

But as an educator, I'm more concerned by the thought that the American public can be so easily swayed by propaganda -- no matter the source.

The declassified intelligence report that was recently released, for example, goes into great detail about the influence of RT America TV, a "Kremlin-financed channel operated from within the United States," on the last election. The report takes RT to task for its coverage of Occupy Wall Street, fracking, police brutality, and the third-party presidential debates, suggesting that coverage of such issues is "fueling discontent."

Well, OK -- so what?

Is the American electorate so incapable of critical thinking it can't be exposed to this sort of opinion without bringing the entire system down? Is fracking something people are just supposed to accept? Did Occupy Wall Street not have a legitimate point? What about Black Lives Matter? Are they "fueling discontent" illegitimately when they protest against the police killing unarmed citizens?

I don't watch RT, so I can't say if their coverage had problems or not; I just find it very odd that our national intelligence leaders think it's somehow a threat to this country for its citizens to be exposed to criticism of our nation's actions and policies. They almost seem to be saying that the American public can't be trusted to make its own decisions about what is and is not relevant to our nation's discourse; that we are so easily swayed by the media that we can't even figure out what is and what is not in our own best interests -- and that's why foreign interference is so dangerous.

Are they right? Are we so incapable of critical thinking that a few leaked emails can turn an election?

One of the ongoing themes of this blog is that we ask far too much of our public schools. You can't expect K-12 education policy by itself to remedy the problems of inequality, chronic poverty, and racism. But that doesn't mean education doesn't play a part, and that we can and should work to improve our schools.

In the same way: I don't think K-12 education by itself can create citizens capable critical thought. Consumerism, screen culture, and a sad history of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia -- among other things -- will not be overcome solely through better public schooling.

But we, as public school educators, have got to start acknowledging that we have other obligations to our students aside from teaching the content laid out in our standards. Yes, it's important that children acquire skills to contribute to the economy; however, they also need to become critical thinkers if our democracy is ever going to work.

I'm very worried we are failing in this task. Again, this can't entirely fall on the schools... but what are we doing in the schools to make sure students are ready to participate in meaningful discussions about the issues? What are we doing to train good citizens?

Not everyone is like those two nice young people I eavesdropped on. But there are plenty of people who are ready to become engaged in the same way they are. I have to believe this; otherwise, let's just fold up the tents and go home, because democracy is otherwise pretty much doomed. At least some of us want to make this system work. At least some of us are up to the challenge. I have to believe this.

But do my students have the tools they need to act in ways that support themselves and their fellow citizens? Will they be able to navigate through the sea of noise that arises in a modern, open society? Can I help them gain those skills?

That's the gig. God help the country if we aren't up to this task...

ADDING: Once again, The Gospel According to St. George:



Deb said...

Obamacare is NOT "universal healthcare," not by a longshot. It's not even a step in that direction. It still divides people into those worthy and those unworthy of affordable health insurance (not healthcare). No system that requires any "qualification" beyond being an alive person is universal. There are a ZILLION qualfications for Obamacare. That young man was LYING LIKE HELL to that woman and she knew it. Trump is not the answer, but neither was Hillary. But seriously, it's out-and-out lies like this that did the Democrats in. Obamacare is not worth defending. It took my affordable insurance AWAY. I'm in a group that got completely screwed by it--older self-employed people in the expensive states who make just over the subsidy limit. I used to have a plan that cost $300/month, now I'm supposed to pay $1,200/month, which of course I can't, so for the first time in my life, in my mid-50s, I'm uninsured, and it's all because of Obamacare. Democrats gotta stop defending this program because it's deeply immoral to create healthcare winners and losers. Stop telling us we've got universal affordable health care now when we know darn well we don't.


Giuseppe said...

Great comments by Jersey Jazzman with which I can relate. Every other wealthy industrialized democracy has some form or version of universal health care, EXCEPT THE USA. In those other democracies, everyone is covered, no on goes bankrupt from medical costs and the drugs are as much as 50% cheaper than in the US. It's 2017 and we still do not have true universal healthcare in the richest economy on earth. Truman tried to enact a national healthcare system in the late 1940s but was defeated by the GOP and the AMA. It took a bully and monster like LBJ to get Medicare and Medicaid passed over the objections of the GOP, the AMA and guys like Ronald Reagan. Reagan falsely claimed that Medicare would lead to socialism and a loss of freedom. He LIED for his paymasters. The ACA was the best we could come up with given the powerful insurance companies' lobbying and the GOP; it's far from perfect but it did cover 20 million more people and is especially beneficial to the poorer Americans. Obama is no LBJ and did not have the guts to go with single payer or at least the public option. Now with Trump, we will go full throttle in the reverse direction. It will be worse, much worse.