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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Back To School

As Labor Day approaches parents and children across our country are preparing to return to school. For many this year, the prospect of going back to school is filled with apprehension—and not because it signals the end of summer fun. Schools have become a battle ground in both the figurative and literal sense, as governors, legislators and wannabes at both the state and federal level engage in intentional or misguided attempts to dictate how, when and what should be taught. And this confrontation pales alongside the palpable threat of deadly violence that has become an all-too-common occurrence. Apart from anything else, it seems we have taught the lessons of anger, hate, and prejudice to many of our children and none of it is something they learned in a classroom.

Some years ago, I heard the newly appointed Superintendent of a large and well-regarded school system speak in response to a question posed to a few dozen of his peers. This room full of educators were asked for their thoughts on the ideal high school curriculum for the future. One after another they offered observations about the need for improvements in math and science, areas where our country is chronically falling behind. Some spoke to the need for a better civic education—and with it an understanding of the political process and how governments are supposed to work in a democratic system. Still others spoke about the need to teach critical thinking so that our children could be better armed to navigate in a world in which opinion, misinformation, and misrepresentation have become the norm. When all had offered up their views the attendees turned to the one person who had yet to speak and asked what he thought. His reply caught everyone by surprise. “Tell me”, he said, “what kind of people we want them to be when they grow up, and then I can answer the question.”

It is exactly the right answer, but not what politicians and some parents and religious leaders want to hear. As these individuals weigh in on education—a subject for which they have little or more typically no training, I am reminded of something a childhood psychology professor of mine once observed: “Parenthood” he said “is the last of the unskilled occupations.” When it comes to education the same goes for politicians and preachers. In the Internet era, anyone with a Facebook account and Google has suddenly become an expert on every subject. One no longer needs a degree much less any specialized training to hold forth on vaccinations, masking, and medicine in general, and every other conceivable issue. All one needs is an opinion. There are plenty of equally ill-informed people who will tell you you’re right.

We have long regarded as sacred the rights and privileges of a parent and extend those rights even more to politicians who—even if they are not parents themselves, were once children and therefore believe themselves eminently qualified to speak about and pass laws dictating how we should educate our children. Having listened to many of these folks opine on the subject several things are apparent. First, it seems that there is a general disregard for the teaching profession overall—a sense that only people who could not succeed at anything else are drawn to this underpaid and thankless occupation. I’ve already noted the degree to which the subject of curriculum has become a newly minted political hot button—and there is an interesting parallel to the vaccination issue about which it seems so many have become newly sensitized or should I say radicalized. The fact that millions of baby boomers were fully vaccinated for just about every disease and never suffered the maladies being ascribed by the Facebook physicians has no bearing on the illogic of the anti-vaxxers. Likewise, boomers,and successive generations have managed to graduate and go on to lead productive lives despite the deep flaws in our education some people would have us believe.

The debate of course is not about the issues so often cited—the teaching of critical race theory, or library books that speak frankly about subjects such as gender or race. The dangerous ideas that radicalized parents and legislators are trying to suppress and rewrite are very clearly about telling any truth: about our history as a country; the myth of American exceptionalism, about America’s corporate colonialism and many other dishonorable moments in our past. These are important lessons our children need to learn, not as an indoctrination or orientation but for precisely the reason that Superintendent stated. We want our children to become responsible, thoughtful, independent adults, capable of hearing and looking for the truth, and making up their own minds. We also want them to learn the lessons of our past so that they may avoid the errors that led us to our deep divisions today. A great society does not flinch from the truth, it acknowledges its past and its present flaws and mistakes. The world we want for them is a safer, kinder and more forgiving one than we inherited. They will never have that by striking the truth from the schoolbooks and teaching them pablum and lies.

As for the beleaguered teachers and librarians—the very people we refuse to pay fairly and think so little of, they are same people self-appointed bright minds suggest we train and arm as a kind of educational militia. Apparently, our teachers and librarians aren’t smart or good enough to educate our kids but as unwilling inductees in an education police force we’ll be happy to have them as cannon fodder. Better that than reform our gun laws or address chronically under-funded mental health care. Rather than doing everything possible to attract and retain the best and brightest of people to teach our kids, all we want are warm bodies to babysit them. The state of Florida’s response to a teacher shortage is not to take a hard look at why sane individuals across the country are turning away from the profession in droves, but to attack them in the media and then license just about anyone who can walk, roll or drag themselves into a classroom. It is just another way politicians make it plain they have little regard for teachers –apparently no training is required at all, except maybe a concealed carry permit.

None of us get a pass on this subject, whether we have kids or grandkids in school or not. As that superintendent said, it is about what kind of people we want the next generation to be—ignorant, bigoted and hateful or smart, engaged people of integrity. The choice is ours and we make it by who we elect to school boards, state and federal legislative offices. I hope everyone will bear that in mind when it comes time to pull the lever.

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