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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Le Fin

In the very early days of the world wide web, as it was called, someone circulated a snarky link to a website with the catchphrase: The End of the Internet. Clicking on the link sent you to a stark white page with the words Le Fin centered on it, French for The End. At the time, it was mildly amusing. It reminded me of a conference I attended regarding the so-called Information Superhighway, yet another pseudonym for the Internet. The purpose of the conference, attended by a number of non-profit organizations, was to ensure that public service access to the Internet would not be impeded by regulation or commercial ownership. One attorney, demonstrating a complete lack of understanding about the subject went so far as to suggest that what was needed were reserved ‘lanes’ on this highway. It was not a metaphor. Learned counsel actually wanted the FCC to set aside 25% of the bandwidth of the Internet for public service use. Earnest discussion ensued until a colleague of mine who could stand no more of this nonsense asked what 25% of infinite amounted to.

Sometimes our use of glib catchphrases and constructs get in the way of real understanding. The danger is that large numbers of people think they know what something means, form an opinion about it, pro or con, based on their misunderstanding and spread their fears, opposition or endorsement never pausing to bother with the facts. There is a lot of that going around these days. Consider the subject of Critical Race Theory or CRT, a subject much bandied about by politicians seeking to find fault with our educators and in a larger frame making a case for parental control over every aspect of schooling. Not long ago a woman came to my door asking for my signature on a form to add her as a candidate for our local school board election. I did not know her and don’t sign petitions frequently; certainly not when it is for some thing or some one I know nothing about. I conveyed this and asked about her platform. She began by telling me in no uncertain terms that she was violently opposed to CRT, and sex education, and believed that many books being taught in our schools should be banned. Before she went any further I asked what CRT was. Her reply, “look it up”.

This woman clearly did not know what CRT was but she knew she was against it, just like sex education and those un-named books she wanted banned. And while she was at it, she went on to say, parents should have ultimate say over everything taught in our schools. Having been a teacher and run a school very early in my career, the thought of parental oversight of our educational system is both terrifying and laughable. One of my child psychology professors put it this way: “Parenthood”, he said, “is the last of the unskilled occupations”. Now this does not necessarily mean parents are incompetent, ignorant, or incapable, but it does remind us all that we received no training beyond our experience as children on how to be a parent—much less an arbiter of what should or shouldn’t be taught in our schools. Such is the cynical politicization of everything in our lives these days that the idea of politicians and parents determining curriculum, teaching methods and educational policy has gained currency. In my state a newly elected Governor has set up a special hotline to report the teaching of unspecified divisive subjects, and some legislators have proposed placing cameras in classrooms so parents can observe every minute of instruction throughout the day. Given every other burden today’s teachers must bear it is hard to imagine anyone wishing to make a career in education with the result we may soon be adding them to the ranks of nurses, doctors, and flight attendants who are retiring or leaving their profession for something saner and less abusive.

It is tempting to draw parallels to the McCarthy era, where every American was encouraged to become a Red spotter, to spy on their neighbors and friends and report suspected communists in every profession. Heaven only knows how many innocent lives were ruined during that ignoble period in our political life or how many more will be victims of our current form of McCarthyism. Now I want to be clear, I am not advocating for or against CRT though I do believe our approach to the history of our country is simplistic at best, littered with omissions and self-serving prevarications. But that is a different and much larger discussion about the teaching of critical thinking—which may itself be the next to fall prey to those who stand to benefit from ignorance and carefully packaged propaganda. What I am saying is that anytime a subject is stricken from the curriculum there should be a darn good, pedagogically sound reason for doing so and parents are not able to make those decisions unilaterally, even if it were feasible. Parent groups are like juries, put twelve of them in a room and you are guaranteed a mistrial.

We are encouraged by politicians to inveigh against all manner of wrongs, harms, policies and regulations. A wholesale war against violations of our freedoms is underway, one that is prepared to sacrifice human welfare and the common good for the illusion of individual rights. I say illusion not because individual rights are unimportant—they are an essential element of our form of government, but never at the price of violating the rights and freedoms of others. Our system of law, our democracy is based on a constantly evolving and finely tested balance between these two forces. In this contest bright lines are not always visible and contradictions abound. Those who oppose abortion place the rights of an unborn foetus over those of its parents even to the point of stripping a person of their individual right to decide matters of their own health and body. Those same individuals protest that wearing a mask or taking a vaccine is a violation of their right to decide what they will put in or on their body. Regardless of where you stand on this issue it is apparent that parental, bodily and health related rights are subject to the same contentions between public good and private rights that characterize our political divide.

As long as we accept politically defined euphemisms and over simplifications as substitutes for genuine understanding, and ally ourselves for or against policies, institutions, rules or regulations based on our ignorance we are subject to manipulation and abdication of our very real rights in a democratic society. The key to democracy is an informed electorate, abandon that and indeed it is Le Fin.

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