Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Can "public" survive a (R)epublican attack?

(Reposted from Social Issues)

Every day now there is a news story about education that jerks me to attention. In my home state of Pennsylvania, the new governor announced a budget proposal that cut state funding for higher education by 52%. Funding for local public schools is projected to be significantly lower than last year, a move that will certainly prompt increases in local property taxes even as districts cut teaching positions. Other cost-saving measures are long past scraping flesh off bone. (And cuts for public schools are being proposed at the same time that a new voucher proposal is in the state legislature, a proposal that will further drain public school funding while enabling students to opt out of public schools in favor of parochial schools at taxpayer expense.)

I’ve already figured out what this is about, even as I work against the defunding of public educational opportunities. However, here’s a story I can’t quite figure out -- or maybe I just don’t believe it. The state legislature in Utah has passed a bill that requires schools to teach students that the United States is a compound constitutional republic. This is true and leads me to wonder what they have been teaching.

Apparently, the need for this legislative action is tied to fears (whose?) about indoctrination with respect to pure democracy and socialism. (We apparently have no fears about indoctrination with respect to free market mania or corporate control, both of which seem to me to be more immediate (and more concerning) dangers than either pure democracy or socialism.

As I understand a republican form of government, it can be captured as “majority rule, minority rights” administered by representatives of the people. While I suppose we might quibble about what it really is, I would argue it’s ultimately not a definition to be stipulated but a political stance to be negotiated. Yes, we have a compound constitutional republic, but what does that amount to? We elect representatives following constitutionally-framed procedures and those representatives decide what the majority wants and which minority rights must be honored. And that too is a constantly renegotiated political stance.

While the Founding Fathers (and what about those Founding Mothers anyway?) were pragmatic in their specification of a form of government that was not purely democratic (in both representation and attention to minority concerns), they clearly had democratic aspirations of the kind John Dewey articulated throughout his career. That is, they aspired to a “mode of associated living” marked by communicative competence. While I think it is ducky that students will learn that they live in a constitutional republic, I think it a shame – and an intellectual error -- that they will learn about democracy only as a threat to the American way of life, rather than as a vision that, while admittedly dangerous*, animated the American Revolution and much of American history since that time. (And do I need to mention that socialist and free market economies can exist in constitutional republics, and that more often, as in our case, a nation’s economy is mixed for pragmatic reasons?)

I have the sinking feeling that the defunding of public schools in Pennsylvania at the hands of one of a slew of newly-elected Republican governors is actually very much tied to this legislation in Utah. Both are part of an orchestrated plan to drive a stake through the very concept of “public,” to stipulate what should be negotiated anew with each new political season. Their private interests, their minority rights, are being written into the fabric of governmental and educational possibilities. This should command our attention.

* A nod to Winston Churchill who noted that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others that had been tried. He appreciated the dangers of “mob rule,” but also the vitality of political structures in which all had a stake.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Free speech, flabby thinking and multiculturalism

The Supreme Court has confirmed that the odious Westboro Baptist Church members may disturb military funerals in the name of free speech and folks in Orange County are screaming indignities, obscenities and blasphemies at Muslim American citizens as they enter a fundraiser for a women’s center. (Thanks to Salon for this video.) I have always considered myself a near-radical free speecher (believing that open discourse, even if testy, is better than hidden resentment –- and anyway “Sticks and stones …”) , but maybe I’m just not. Or maybe there are once unthinkable lines that have now been crossed.

Either way, I am rendered speechless. I have no idea what to say about this issue, these actions.

But I am not speechless about a claim made by Ed Royce, one of the (Republican) local politicians who spoke at the Orange County rally before the protest. In fact, I share his worry though not his view of the cause and implications of it.

Royce said that kids in American schools are being taught that “every idea is right, that no one should criticize any other position no matter how odious” and this, I fear, has a ring of truth to it. It is a stance I encounter among the highly intelligent, accomplished and caring undergraduate students at my prestigious university; it is a stance that l too often hear articulated by the teachers with whom I work; it is a stance I see in evidence among students in the local public schools I visit.

Royce blames it on “multiculturalism.” I think he and we have conflated flabby thinking and multiculturalism (or at least Royce and others have), making the oh-too-common error of confusing correlation with causality. Yes, we have multiculturalism (a good thing in that it simply is a human reality and also good in that it provides the difference that is the prompt for new thinking). And yes, there is flabby thinking. Flabby thinking is a failure to interrogate (freely but with respect) any other position until (so that) the community (of knowers and actors) can move toward an assessment of which claims are defensible (and therefore warranted) and which are not. There may be more than one position that we can live with, but this does not mean that “anything goes.”

Mr. Royce’s brand of flabby thinking can be detected in his automatic dichotomizing (my way or the highway, right or wrong, Christian or Muslim).

Educators should be about rooting out flabby thinking of all kinds. And, it seems, rooting out flabby thinking might also be the route to clarifying the value of multiculturalism. And maybe too, the demise of flabby thinking might replace the fear that underlay screaming at funerals and fundraisers with the kind of thoughtful confidence that makes dialogue possible and fruitful.

Fomenting a revolution? Who is?

Update on the situation at McCaskey East High School:

A few weeks ago, I commented on an effort at McCaskey East High School in Lancaster, PA to create supportive homerooms (basically advisory groups) for students of color -- and segregated by gender as well. Somehow the effort in this small Pennsylvania city found its way to CNN. (You may also remember Lancaster, PA as the place where surveillance cameras on the streets surrounding Franklin and Marshall College raised a bit of a national fuss.) You know the formula: CNN = big fuss = noisy school board meeting with "outraged" citizens = school board fails to support a thoughtful experiment on the part of the school administration and faculty. As CNN has later reported "School Scraps Race Specific Mentoring Program."

Typically, the reality is a little more complicated than CNN (or any other news outlet) reports. Based on conversations with folks in and out of the school, it appears that the mentoring opportunities were not "scrapped" so much as they were made open or optional.

What is worth noting is what is behind some of the opposition to this effort. Specifically, some white citizens reported worries about whether a segregated mentoring program might foment a "black power" vibe. I found myself wondering why exactly that would be bad and for whom? It reminded me of the time several women faculty at my previous institution were standing on a street corner on campus, talking as male members of the administration walked to lunch at the student center. It was pretty clear we were making them nervous just by being "huddled" together -- as they commented while walking by.

I suspect we were only talking about our children or our workload or perhaps (horrors!) the next women's studies faculty development meeting. But after seeing their reactions, we immediately started joking about “fomenting a revolution." So let's keep an eye on who's worried about who is gathering and for what purpose. It may be the worriers who are fomenting something.

(An excellent example of this phenomenon can be found on the mashup of Fox New video clips put together by TPM. These collected clips of the supposed “violence” of the Wisconsin protestors point clearly to the source of any violence being done. Check it out!)