Sunday, March 28, 2010

Schooling as if Democracy Matters

(cross-posted from the Journal of Educational Controversy blog)

The focus of our Winter 2008 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy was on the topic, “Schooling as if Democracy Matters.” In that issue, we raised the question about the ways we should teach the young about the foundations of our democracy and our collective identity in an age of the patriot act, NSA surveillance, extraordinary rendition, preemptive wars, enemy combatants -- all likely to involve violations of civil rights and liberties and a curtain of government secrecy? We asked, what story do we tell our young about who we are, who we have been, and who we are becoming?

I’d like to raise this same question in light of today’s events. In an interesting NY Times op-ed article, “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” Frank Rich talks about some of the underlying reasons for the rise in rage, venomous rhetoric, violence, and anxieties in today’s demonstrations against the recently adopted health care bill. Comparing the bill’s passage to earlier bills that shook the country – the Medicare Act of 1965 and the Social Security Act of 1935, Rich describes the rhetoric and the upheavals that these bills also caused. But the bill that comes closest to the type of vitriolic criticism that today’s bill is evoking, Rich argues, is the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.

This may sound like a strange claim given that the present Health Care bill actually contains many of the recommendations of the Republican Party, falling far short of the single payer system or public option plan that more liberal proponents advocated. Rather than a “government takeover,” it extends the free market’s involvement in health care. While there are legitimate arguments over health care entitlement, the type of reaction we are experiencing seems to be disproportionate. Rich argues that the health care bill is just a spark that is galvanizing anxieties at a deeper level.

He offers the following explanation for today’s rising tide of rage:

The health care bill is not the main source of this anger and never has been. It’s merely a handy excuse. The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled America in 1964.

In fact, the current surge of anger — and the accompanying rise in right-wing extremism — predates the entire health care debate. The first signs were the shrieks of “traitor” and “off with his head” at Palin rallies as Obama’s election became more likely in October 2008. Those passions have spiraled ever since — from Gov. Rick Perry’s kowtowing to secessionists at a Tea Party rally in Texas to the gratuitous brandishing of assault weapons at Obama health care rallies last summer to “You lie!” piercing the president’s address to Congress last fall like an ominous shot.

If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.

They can’t. Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress. The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded.
(The New York Times, March 27, 2010)

Rich notes that there were some responsible leaders of both parties who tried to put a lid on the resistance and violence that took place after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, unlike the silence coming from the lack of leadership among today’s political leaders, who often tend to exploit the anxieties instead.

Both the 1964 and 2010 bills have become the catalyst for shaking the nation’s core understanding of itself. And this leaves us with the question with which I began this post. What is the responsibility of our teachers and public intellectuals for addressing these deeper issues in the classrooms and in the public square. We hope to address these more profound questions in our summer 2011 issue of the journal on “The Education our Children Deserve.”

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