Early voting


Early voting began today in Georgia.  On Memorial Drive at Northern Avenue, the intersection near DeKalb County’s early voting site was crowded with people waving signs in support of various causes and candidates.  It was somehow reassuring to experience political expression in bright colors, held by anonymous neighbors, without having to endure more spoken words.  The harsh words of this campaign season – this seemingly endless campaign season – seem to have deadened part of my civic spirit.  I had always looked forward to election day as if it were a kind of autumn festival – a rite of passage into a fresh new chapter of the American experiment in self-government.  Not this year.  I just want to get it over with.

Typically, it is African Americans who take advantage of early voting more so than whites.  One could speculate as to the reasons for this.  Perhaps it is the coincidence of race and class, with working people less able to control their own schedules, and so more eager to vote at a time that is convenient for them.  But the reason I hear most often is that people of color are more aware of the history of disenfranchisement in this country.  They have far more experience than whites in being turned away from polling places.  Early voting at least could expose problems early on, before the day the votes are actually counted, when it would be too late to correct any errors.

I have never been afraid that I would be turned away from the polls.  And getting to the polling place has not been a problem.  Even when I started my work day as a teacher at 7:00 am and worked until after 6:00 pm, I didn’t have any real trouble finding time to vote.  But today I cast my ballot early for the first time in my life.  This year, there is no excited anticipation of election day.  I wish this brutal presidential campaign was over.

It is a shame that the presidential race always garners more attention than the many other issues decided in a typical November election.  Some of these issues are important.  This year, Georgia voters will get to decide whether to allow the state the power to take over schools that it deems to be “failing.”  The schools would fall under the governance of an unelected state board that might then turn over operations – and children’s fate – to for-profit companies based out of state.  But no one really knows.  The constitutional amendment on the ballot doesn’t spell out how the state would rescue these “failing” schools.  It only calls for granting the state the power to take over schools, seize tax money dedicated to supporting schools, and consequently terminate parents’ ability to control through locally elected school boards the schools in their communities.  Of all the ideas that have circulated over the years for improving schools, allowing parents less influence over what goes on in the classroom is the worst approach to education reform I think I have ever heard.[1]

Public participation in civic life is important.  So it is disheartening to hear so many people who plan to cast a ballot this year describe their act as a vote against somebody or against something.  Surely someone in public life has a vision, a plan for the future that can inspire optimism.

As I left the polling place this morning, I paused to chat with the volunteer who collected my ballot.  She told me that she had done election work for over 30 years.  And then she told me something I didn’t expect to hear.  This year, voter registration is up, and the largest increase has been among older first-time voters – Americans who were alive when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, but who only this year decided to register to vote.

Something is in the air.  A familiar rite of passage is upon us and a new chapter of the American experiment is beginning.  Are we ready to participate?


[1] http://www.legis.ga.gov/Legislation/20152016/152973.pdf

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Liberal and conservative – yesterday, today, and …

We may be at a crossroads in American history.  When I think about the troubled winds stirred by the 2016 presidential campaign, it certainly feels that way.  But the historian in me wants to hedge. Before making declarations about trends and changes in direction, it always feels safer to have a buffer of time that would allow for viewing from a broader perspective and for reflection on the meanings of things.  Fortunately, not everyone is so cautious.

The conservative New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently wrote that we are facing a political realignment within the next few years.  Each party is currently composed of a ruling elite that is invested in the establishment and a rank and file that feels betrayed by leaders and established institutions.  During the current election cycle, this divide is exemplified by the popular support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in opposition to the establishment forces backing Hillary Clinton and the traditional leadership of the Republican party.

“We don’t normally think that politics is divided along trust lines,” Brooks wrote.  “But this year we are seeing huge chasms depending on how much trust you feel towards your neighbors and your national institutions.”[1]

I don’t know if Brooks is right, but I do think we are due for a reshuffling of the political deck.  We have seen realignments several times in our nation’s history.  And for a very long time, I think the traditional labels of “liberal” and “conservative” have been misapplied to the major parties.  Maybe it is time to review the meanings of these designations in the context of a modern republic, and along the way realize that trust has always been an important factor in political alignment.

For those who have forgotten — liberalism, as the word implies, is concerned with individual liberty, and is based in the work of the philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, and expressed in the political writings of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and others.  It encompasses a belief in human equality, natural rights including that of free expression, and a hostility to governmental and other authorities that threaten these values. Liberal ideas were the philosophical justification for the American Revolution and for the creation of a national government with limited powers.

Conservatism came into its own in part as a horrified reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution.  It respects established authorities and institutions, and encompasses a belief that the value of these institutions is proven by the fact that they have been tested by time and practice.  Conservatism favors gradual evolutionary change, and is hostile to change for the sake of change. American conservatives in the early days of the republic worked hard to strengthen the hand of our national government so it could establish a stable environment for economic growth.  It is worth noting that many of these conservatives were revolutionaries just a few years earlier, and saw no contradiction between opposition to a strong British government that ignored American interests and support for a strong federal government that protected our interests.  It was not the size or the power of government that mattered.  And in America, based as it is on liberal political ideas, even our authorities and institutions are steeped in respect for individual freedom.

In recent years, liberals have come to see that threats to liberty come not only from oppressive political systems, but also from corporate greed, and have sought to use representative governments to tame the harshest effects of unregulated capitalism.  In so doing, liberals have seemingly made a deal with the devil by empowering the very authority their forebears like Jefferson regarded with the greatest suspicion.

But by entrusting the democratic process to keep government the champion of liberty, liberals have assumed a significant risk, and deserve some responsibility for the misuses of the increased power of government.

For their part, conservatives have held to their allegiance to the establishment, but the object of this loyalty has shifted somewhat from church and state to the more abstract ideal of free market capitalism.  Of course, God and country always make a resounding comeback in times of war, and by maintaining a perpetual war on terror, Americans have created an opening for a coalition of social conservatives and high-rolling entrepreneurs.  In championing an unregulated economy, some conservatives have seized the rhetoric of liberty by claiming they stand for freedom from an oppressive government.

But free-market conservatives’ excessive concern about the destructive power that kings might have upon a free market tends to obscure the threat that enormous wealth poses to a republic.  A willful blindness to the misuse of power by rapacious wealth is in fact a betrayal of the ideal of the free market.

Modern liberals have adopted the view that ethnicity, gender, religion, and many other factors have conferred privilege on a few, while denying opportunities to many in this society.  As champions of liberty, they are enemies of the barriers to opportunity.

But in seeking legal authority to overturn the institutions of privilege, they create a risk of imposing a new hegemony, just at limiting as the old.

True to their core values, conservatives resist tinkering with the established social order, and view with hostility the idea that a tool such as affirmative action could ever render a more equitable state of affairs than private choice.

But in resisting mandated change, conservatives risk denying the existence of manifest injustices.  While liberals play with the fire of governmental power, conservatives endanger the cherished values of equality and rights enshrined in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Thus, in neither camp is the task of holding to principles a simple matter.  In acting on behalf of one form of liberty, one may put another at risk.

Obviously, labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” can be useful in many contexts, but not very helpful in others.  One of the many disappointments in contemporary political discourse is the excessive use of these labels in place of an open discussion of ideas.  One of the remarkable features of the current presidential race is that the candidates so consistently violate the preconceptions attached to these terms that they have been employed far less frequently than usual this year as blunt rhetorical objects.

Perhaps we do need a political realignment that is rooted in attitudes towards institutions and power.  We certainly need an honest discussion about what we expect and want from the leaders we choose.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/09/opinion/time-for-a-realignment.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fdavid-brooks&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=9&pgtype=collection&_r=0

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No debate on the importance of education in economic growth


Last week’s debate between presidential candidates began with an exchange about economic growth.  One candidate spoke about plans to “bring jobs back” to America through tax and trade reforms.  The other said that these policies are only part of the picture of a robust economy.  Neither of the candidates addressed the crucial role of education in economic health and progress.

Trump_&_Clinton.jpgOver the last 200 years, the United States became a world power in manufacturing, taking a leading role in the industrial revolution.  Over the last 50 years, information technology and other sectors of the service economy have risen to greater prominence as parts of the domestic economy.  Change brings both dislocation and new opportunities.  Some large American companies have become multinational, and have relocated not just jobs, but also financial resources to other countries.

American ingenuity is alive and well among the decision-makers at these companies as they maximize profits from existing resources and conditions. But their brilliance is in manipulating balance sheets while treating labor as a cost.  As long as there is a cheaper overseas alternative, the only way to force them to offer high-paying jobs in the United States is to find a way to penalize them with even higher costs elsewhere.

You have got to ask – is this a strategy that is in keeping with a free market?  Who will carry the weight of the increased costs imposed on business?  Will it be the decision-makers of the corporate world who take a cut in salary, or will it be the consumers who pay a higher price for goods and services?  More importantly, is this really the way to spur economic growth?

Real economic growth comes not from the board rooms and executive suites, but from the workshops and personal computers of Americans.  We need new ideas and grass-roots entrepreneurship.  We need a population that is creative and restless, and confident enough to take a calculated risk.

We need an educational system that encourages creativity and problem-solving skills.

But we have one that encourages conformity, that rewards rote memorization, that has little patience with creative thinking and no room for innovative problem-solving.  We have made revolutionary advances in methods for gathering and analyzing information, and instead of crafting a more individualized and nuanced approach to education, we have turned students into machines for producing data – usually in the form of answers to multiple-choice tests.  We are so concerned with comparing students with each other, comparing a school’s status this year with its statistics last year, comparing American test scores with the educational outcomes of other countries, that we have come to value only the numbers that lend themselves to easy comparison.  We focus on filling in the oval with a No. 2 pencil and completely miss the value of thinking outside the box.

The future of economic growth in the United States is not on an assembly line.  Why do we have an educational system that seems to treat young Americans as interchangeable parts?  Let’s have a debate about that.

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The blood sport of politics

It’s no fun having the flu.  This week, I hope you will accept a bit of recycled material from another blog I keep for random thoughts. It is several years old, but tragically, not at all out of date. Regular readers of this site know that whatever the topic, even if it is about politics or history, or the quirks of human behavior, I always manage to conclude with a call to reform education.  Not so with the following.  But feel free to draw your own conclusions.

(originally posted January 13, 2011)

Last weekend, a man named Jared Loughner shot 19 people  in Tuscon, Arizona parking lot, including a member of the U.S. Congress, Gabrielle Giffords, who was apparently the primary intended victim.  While we will probably never fully understand what went on that day in the desert, the compelling story of the incident includes many themes that ring in the American consciousness: violence, heroism, madness, and the innocence of childhood.  The story also has drawn the country once again into the swirling cesspool of political finger-pointing.  The combination of identifiable political viewpoints (in this case, anti-government extremism) and striking evidence of mental illness on the part of the shooter made it impossible to resist, I suppose.

The poisonous politics of objectifying and vilifying your enemies is the order of the day, and while blaming the folks who appear to be on the same side of the political spectrum as Jared Loughner has some cheap-shot appeal, sober minds will conclude that the act of a mad man is not representative of a political philosophy — not here in America.

But consider how this and similar stories are usually told.

Did you notice how Jared Loughner is crazy, Ted Kaczynski was delusional, Eric Rudolph was unbalanced, and Timothy McVeigh had no moral compass?  All of these guys had mental problems.  They identified their motives as ideological, but the public was excused from taking their ideas seriously because they had Fruit Loops in the cranium.  It turned out that the severity of their disease was proportional to the political need to punish them.

Thus, McVeigh was nuts, but not so much that he could avoid criminal responsibility for his acts, and he was executed.  Americans don’t shy away from executing the insane, we just don’t like to brag about it.  We also don’t mind ignoring mental incapacity when it comes to incarcerating notorious killers instead of treating their disease.  We tend to do what the level of public outrage demands.  But we don’t accept ideology as a plausible explanation for violence by Americans against Americans.

On the other hand, 19 men who went on a suicide mission in September 2001, and numerous other hapless suicide attempters who have been apprehended since have not been treated the same way in the press.  Despite clear indications of mental disease (for my money, desire to die is stronger evidence of insanity than desire to kill) these guys have been identified as cold-blooded actors in a terrorist conspiracy.  It was not insanity but ideology that made them want to kill, we are told.

But rather than attempting to understand the belief system that supposedly drove these people to violence, we are told that it is not worth the effort.  The men are perfectly rational, but their ideology is crazy because, after all, it revolves around mass murder.  If anyone suggests that people in other parts of the world might have a bone to pick with some U.S. policies, we are encouraged to brush it off as part of that looney and dangerous terrorist rhetoric.

This is all nonsense.  There are justifications for taking human life — accident, self-defense, mercy for the terminal and suffering — but people who claim to be motivated by some ideology to kill strangers are mentally ill.  Their actions neither vindicate nor invalidate their claimed belief system — they are not responsible proponents of any rationale they have for murder because, clearly, they are irrational.

What is more telling about all this is the people who line up on either side of the ideology in question.  Who uses these criminals’ actions to attack their political enemies?  Who calls for retribution?  Who expresses sympathy with their cause while condemning their methods?  Who expresses admiration for their actions, and their cause, while declining to act violently themselves?  Forget the crazy people.  What is the real motive of the rational people who step up to weigh in?  Instead of vilifying each other, why not use this as an opportunity to understand an opposing set of ideas or perceptions?

Terrorism is just the most flamboyant symptom of dissatisfaction felt to some degree by nearly everyone.  “My taxes are too high.”  “My religion is not respected.”  “My family is living under occupation.”  “I wake up every morning afraid I am going to die.”  Most Americans live on the mild end of this spectrum, but fear and feelings of powerlessness are tangible realities to most of us.  The fact that any of us lives in this condition is the business of all of us, whether or not we indulge in the luxury of ignoring it.

We need to learn to take these problems seriously, even if they are “not my problem.”  We need to hear each other’s real concerns and do what we can to reduce needless pain.  We need to stop focusing on crippling our enemies, and rediscover our shared humanity.

We may not be able to stop the murderous impulses of the insane, but we stand a good chance of reducing the insanity of day-to-day life.

But in this political climate, I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.


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Taking care in an unstable world

It was a tough weekend to be an innocent bystander.  Explosions in New York and New Jersey, a stabbing rampage in Minnesota, as well as the usual shootings that make up a Saturday night in the United States of America.

We live in frightening times.  We are becoming numb to the idea of mass killings, while clinging to a belief that guns are useful problem-solvers.  It is no wonder that in such a wealthy country, where there are so many opportunities for happiness, there is also so much violence.

Our first response to public violence is to ask if we can label it as an act of terrorism.  And unless we can find absolutely no connection between the suspect and some political or religious (but non-Christian) ideology, we seem to accept terrorism as a valid explanation.  Of course, there are exceptions.  A white self-identified Christian who goes on a killing spree must be mentally ill, we tell ourselves.

But I am not sure the difference in labeling is all that meaningful.  Whether or not a person has a well-defined guiding philosophy or agenda, whether or not a person states that his actions are at the behest of some group or in furtherance of some cause, the willingness to kill a lot of people and likely be killed in the process seems to me to be pretty good evidence of mental illness.

We Americans pride ourselves on our individuality; we pride ourselves on our ability to go it alone in the face of adversity.  We aren’t so good at helping each other – especially when it comes to questions of personal stability, feelings of safety, and fears of forces beyond our control.

For most of us, adolescence is a time of uncertainty and newly discovered fears.  The fortunate get by okay with the support of family and members of their community.  Most of us do not become mass murderers. … But then again, an awful lot of us enter adulthood unhappy and unstable, and this unhappiness and instability is triggered over and over as we go through life, resulting in broken families, abusive relationships, unproductive careers, and various anti-social and criminal behaviors.

What can schools do to help?  Quite a lot, I would say.  Public schools see more than 90% of our young population pass through their doors.  What better place to help them to establish good patterns of mental health?

But when President Obama last March issued a memorandum calling for the creation of a Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disorder Parity Task Force, he included the heads of many federal agencies – Treasury, Defense, Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services, and others – but he did not include any educators among the members.  Why on Earth not?[1]

A recent study stated that in a given year, one in five children living in the United States shows symptoms of a mental disorder.  But most won’t get the help they need.  Let’s face it, public schools can’t get the funding they need for facilities and instruction.  Mental health resources are simply not seen as a priority, and there are not nearly enough professionals with specialized training in mental health and social issues working in a school setting.[2]

Americans need to take notice of what is going wrong.  We need to take care of ourselves better, and we can begin by taking better care of our children.


[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/03/29/presidential-memorandum-mental-health-and-substance-use-disorder-parity

[2] http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/31/464727159/mental-health-in-schools-a-hidden-crisis-affecting-millions-of-students?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20160831

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What I learned in P.E.

It was really the last place I expected to learn a profound lesson about success in school.  When I was young, I didn’t particularly love P.E. class.  I liked recess – getting to take a break from the routine of sitting still on a plastic seat with an attached laminate desktop, getting out in the fresh air, getting a chance to talk with friends.  The playground was the only place I got to see some of my friends who were in other classes.  But as recess gave way over the years to physical education, with structured games and instruction and tests – yes, they finally polluted the glorious recess of my youth with more standardized tests – P.E. class lost all its attraction for me.

It might have been different if I liked playing team sports.  But my preference was always for individual physical activities – biking, hiking, swimming.  I competed, but only took the challenge seriously when I competed against myself.  If there was something physical I enjoyed doing, I wanted to be able to do it better, and for a longer period of time, and so that I could enjoy it even more.  My yardstick was always my own pleasure, and if others could help me, I paid attention.  Otherwise, I didn’t have any interest in comparing performance.

Academic classes were different.  I wasn’t concerned with class rank or attention for doing well in school, but I seemed to have some natural talent, I enjoyed learning, and I recognized two great advantages to being student who made good grades.

For one thing, I believed, and saw plenty of evidence to back this up in my own community, that doing well and going far in school opened more options in life.  I wanted to have a lot of freedom in what I chose to do with myself after I was finished with schooling, and I took it on faith that academic success would buy me that kind of freedom.

But more immediately, I saw that being a “good student” while I was in school meant that life was going to be easier in the short term.  I didn’t need any recognition, but I did like being left alone to do my own work.  “Struggling” students either have to deal with adults hanging over their shoulders or worse yet, have to deal with being labeled as not very good at the only job they have ever had.

And so when I got into teaching as a profession, I brought with me this bias.  Academic classes were to be taken seriously; P.E. was fluff, and only tangentially related to the real business of education.

But almost immediately, I learned how wrong I had been.

You see, my sister grew up with a somewhat different attitude about team sports, played on a series of successful soccer teams as a teenager, and realized after a few years of trying different career paths that her passion was for fitness education.  She began a remarkable career as a physical education teacher for middle and elementary students, and a coach for varsity sports.  At one point, she would become the first female athletic director for a high school sports program in the history of the state of Georgia.

One of the first steps I took towards becoming a teacher was to spend time with her, observing her classes, discussing values in education, and working on creating an understanding of the dynamics of a group of energetic young learners.  During this same period, I also made some observations and had discussions with the academic teachers of these same students.

I was struck by how insightfully my sister seemed to read each of her students’ personalities, how well she knew their communication styles, how accurately she could access their ability to learn and so adjust her instructional style to address their needs directly.

Their teachers in academic classes were without exception intelligent, perceptive, and caring educators.  But they seemed to be operating from severely limited information.  They knew how good their students were in academic subjects.  They knew whether or not their students had trouble sitting still in class, or how they behaved in the line for the cafeteria.  But their understanding of students’ personalities was limited by the very narrow range of behaviors they expected the children to perform.

In English class, even if the teacher knew that a kid was good with spatial relationships, there was little opportunity to use this information productively.  In Math class, knowing that a kid is a natural leader, or a talented musician, or a skilled communicator was unlikely to affect a teacher’s instruction.

In P.E. class, all of these strengths could be brought to bear in building a strong team, or in making sure a cooperative activity worked.  And by working with others who possessed different skills, each student could learn how they might improve their own performance within the group as well as discover areas in which they might want to become stronger.

The more fluid, constructivist environment of the P.E. class – if deftly handled by a great teacher – is an outstanding place to learn about students’ strengths and personalities. More importantly, it is far more reflective of the real world environment students will encounter after their years in school are concluded.

And life after school is what is really important here, isn’t it?  Beyond basic knowledge of mathematical concepts, conventions of verbal communication, principles of science and civics, most of the information we need to succeed in life is specific to the situation we are in.  Adaptability is the key.  It is far more important to be able to learn what we need, and to work with others than it is to have a past record of success.

The education establishment in the United States must take a close look at the real world, and work backwards to construct a better model for teaching the next generation.  The information is there.  We need insight, vision, and the will to make some changes.


This article calls for improvements in teaching “soft skills” such as communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.  Tellingly, the headline refers to these skills as “the basics.”     http://www.cnbc.com/id/101012437

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Labor days

On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a federal holiday.  Six days later, he ordered 12,000 federal troops to break the massive railway strike that originated in the company town of Pullman, Illinois.

The United States government has always had an uneasy relationship with organized labor.  Our Labor Day was deliberately placed at the end of the summer, and not where it is situated in much of the rest of the world, on the 1st day of May.  There is a good reason for that.  In the late 1800s, May Day evoked in the minds of many Americans the memory of a tragic event that represented a connection between unions and violence.

In the early days of the industrial revolution, working people were coming to terms with the idea that the value of their work was no longer directly related to its productive outcome, but that it was instead a commodity that would be bought at the lowest market price.

On May 1, 1886, a massive and peaceful protest began in Chicago as workers demonstrated for better pay and working conditions.  Four days into the demonstration, a terrorist detonated a bomb in Haymarket Square.  Seven policemen were killed.  Police responded by firing into the crowd, killing four and wounding dozens more civilians. In the aftermath, prosecutors convicted eight “anarchists” of conspiracy.  Seven were sentenced to death.

In many other countries, May 1 was designated International Workers’ Day in honor of the victims in Haymarket Square.  In the United States, it was a different story.

Despite little evidence or logical reason that labor advocates would attack their own rally, and despite the lack of evidence that any of the defendants had actually thrown the bomb, the public seemed to come away from this sad episode with the conclusion that organized labor equated to violence. It would be years and a Great Depression before the public would adopt a more favorable attitude towards unions.

In the 1930s, the federal government adopted the view that unions could be players in a competitive, capitalist marketplace for productive resources.  Beginning with New Deal legislation such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, unions were given legal status to negotiate terms for the labor of their members.  Wages rose, working conditions improved, factory production increased, Americans were able to support a middle class lifestyle by working an assembly line.

The American economy has changed since the high water mark for labor unions – also the peak of the American manufacturing economy – in the mid-20th century.  Thanks to inflation and spiraling consumerism, the wages required to sustain a middle class lifestyle exceed the resources many American companies are willing to pay for labor – especially given the availability of other options overseas.  To most Americans, Labor Day has no connection to the struggles of labor unions to establish a decent standard of living for workers.

But it’s hard to argue that a paid holiday doesn’t improve one’s quality of life.  One day of bread and circuses, then it’s right back to work.


A popular but inaccurate engraving depicting the Haymarket affair from Harper’s Weekly in 1886


For another reflection on Labor Day, labor, and its relationship to education see https://jmarcuspatton.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/show-your-work/

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