Word is that President Trump intervened to grant his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a “top secret” security clearance. So what? That’s the president’s prerogative, and Kushner needs this clearance to perform all the magic he’s apparently capable of, such as reinventing government, negotiating with Mexico, solving the opioid epidemic, and bringing peace to the Middle East.
Top Secret security clearances are quite common in America: more than one million people have them, and at least another three million have secret/confidential ones. Of course, not all TS clearances are created equal. They all require background investigations, but some are “special,” and some are SCI, which stands for compartmentalized information. In other words, just because you have a TS clearance doesn’t mean you can access all TS information. You have to have “a need to know.” You have to be “read in” to certain programs. And some programs are so secret that only a few people have access to them.
One would assume Kushner needs access to top secret intelligence in his job as a “peace envoy” for the Middle East. Lacking such a clearance, Kushner would have to be fired, but as Trump’s son-in-law and as a special friend to the Israelis and Saudis, Jared is not about to be fired. Trump apparently lied about intervening to approve Jared’s clearance (“The president was equally forthright a month ago when he unequivocally denied that he intervened in any way to get a permanent security clearance for his son-in-law,” notes The Guardian), but Trump lies a lot. It’s a little like breathing for him.
What’s the real issue here? For me, as I wrote about back in 2015, it’s how the government uses classification schemes to keep secrets from us, the American people. Apparently, either we or they can’t handle the truth. To cite myself:
Our government uses security classification not so much to keep us safe, but to keep the national security state safe — safe from the eyes of the American people.
“A committee established by Congress, the Public Interest Declassification Board, warned in December that rampant over-classification is ‘imped[ing] informed government decisions and an informed public’ and, worse, ‘enabl[ing] corruption and malfeasance’. In one instance it documented, a government agency was found to be classifying one petabyte of new data every 18 months, the equivalent of 20m filing cabinets filled with text.”
Nowadays, seemingly everything is classified. And if it’s classified, if it’s secret, we can’t know about it. Because we can’t be trusted with it. That’s a fine idea for an autocracy or dictatorship, but not so fine for a democracy.
Government of the people, by the people, for the people? Impossible when nearly everything of any importance is classified.
America, Trump or Jared’s loose lips aren’t the problem. The problem is a government shrouded in secrecy.
Many years ago, I came across a brief (four-page) pamphlet of rules for seminarians while on vacation. I found it in an old book while doing research on Catholic reactions to science in the 19th century. The pamphlet refers to students at St. Charles College of the Petit Seminaire (minor seminary) of St. Sulpice. St. Charles opened in 1848 in Maryland but was largely destroyed by fire in 1911.
There’s no date on the pamphlet. I was researching in books mainly from the 1850s and 1860s, so perhaps this is the best estimate for when this pamphlet was printed. It’s a fragile and interesting piece of Catholic history, so I thought I’d post the text here for other researchers, and for people who might be curious about the rules Catholic seminarians were expected to follow when they left the seminary on “vacation.” The text below shows a life of discipline that didn’t end when the student left the seminary; indeed, in the “wilderness” of real life, seminarians were warned to be on their guard as well as on their best behavior.
Manner of Spending the Vacation for the Students of St. Charles’ College, Petit Séminaire of St. Sulpice.
Have a fixed hour of rising, never later than six o’clock; Morning Prayer; Meditation for a quarter of an hour at least, from some edifying book.
Mass, if possible, every day.
During the forenoon, the Little Hours of the Office of the Blessed Virgin.
An hour or two of serious Study, according to the advice of your director.
Read a Chapter of the New Testament before dinner, and make the Particular examen on the Virtue which you have proposed to yourself to acquire. Never be ashamed to say Grace before and after meals.
Vespers and Complins. Pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, if the Church is not too distant.
Recite Matins and Lauds either in the Church or whilst taking a walk; Beads; Spiritual Reading.
Evening Prayers and Examination of Conscience. Retire to bed, as much as possible, at a fixed hour; and prepare the subject of meditation for the following day.
Receive the Sacraments as often as in the Seminary. Their assistance is much more needed in the world. Have the same zeal for communion as when in the Seminary.
On Sundays and Festivals assist in surplice with gravity and piety at the office of the Parish. If your services are required to serve Mass, do so in a pious and edifying manner. Do not speak in the sacristy without necessity; and then in a few words, and with a low voice.
Show great respect for your Parish Priest; great deference for his salutary admonitions; and entire willingness to assist him, should he require your services. Seek the society of Ecclesiastics.
What is to be Observed.
The Religious duties prescribed above, in the Daily and Weekly Exercises. Habitual recourse to the Blessed Virgin, as Special Protectress of the Vacation. Fidelity to the laws of the Church.
Towards the Neighbor.
Towards All—Charity; Condescension; Politeness.
Towards Parents—Docility; Forwardness to oblige them; the most affectionate Respect.
Towards Brothers, Sisters, and Relatives—Be among them as an angel of peace.
Towards Strangers—Discretion; Reserve; Circumspection with the young; Avoid too great familiarity. If you can, do something for the poor.
Modesty; Simplicity; Avoid every appearance of haughtiness. In moments of difficulty have recourse to God and to the Blessed Virgin. Keep a strict guard over yourself, especially in the company of persons of a different sex. Moderate your curiosity. Avoid noisy conversation, loud laughter, and every thing contrary to clerical modesty. Before setting out on a journey say the “Itinerarium.”
What is to be Avoided.
Be on your guard against Human Respect, and even sometimes against the improper counsels of your relatives. Hence you should show yourself from the beginning of the vacation to be such as God requires, and as you have promised to be.
Avoid Idleness, the source of temptation and dangerous to all, but particularly to youth. In the beginning and at the end of the vacation, abstain from serious studies; those days should be spent in exercises of piety.
Be not discouraged after a first fault. Should you neglect any of your duties, resolve to do better; and apply with new zeal to fulfill them. Should you be so unhappy as to fall into sin, go and confess immediately.
Avoid—with extreme caution—bad company, dangerous reading, worldly entertainments and parties in which one is exposed to see, hear, or do what might wound conscience.
Be resolute in refusing to be treated with better fare than is usual in the family, or with other attentions always out of place, which parents think themselves bound to show a son who is an ecclesiastic. Avoid spending some days at the home of a fellow seminarian, whose parents might be inconvenienced by your stay.
Avoid, as well as in private as in public, all vanity and worldliness in dress, gesture, gait or conversation.
Review these rules occasionally by way of spiritual reading.
Back in the 1970s, when I was in high school, smart aleck students used to joke about high school as “prison.” Nowadays, American schools have metal detectors, school police, even armed teachers. And let’s not forget reinforced doors and lockdown drills–just like real prisons! And all these guns and security devices and police presence is together touted as “the solution” to school violence.
I thought of this when I read this morning that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen students were murdered last February, is adding metal detectors to protect students. (Not that metal detectors would have kept out the former student/shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who murdered all those teenagers in cold blood.) Perhaps the school is doing this to reassure parents; or to deter copy-cats; or to preempt possible lawsuits in case of future attacks. Or maybe they really believe that having 3,200 students pass through metal detectors each and every morning is the cost of being “safe.”
One thing is certain: We’re raising our young people with a lockdown mentality. We’re teaching them the best way to be safe is to submit passively to metal detectors and other forms of security screening. We’re indoctrinating them with the idea that a guard with a gun is the very best form of security, and that even their teachers, charged with educating them, may be packing heat in the classroom — to keep them safe, naturally. (These teachers may even be making a few extra bucks after completing gun training.)
Who says American students aren’t learning anything in our schools? They’re learning every day they pass through a metal detector, or see heavily armed police in school corridors, or their teachers toting firearms. Every day they have to submit to lockdown drills, they’re learning.
I don’t have a smart aleck observation here. Just a sad one: that old joke about school as prison isn’t even worth a teenager’s smirk anymore.
I got involved in a brief discussion on Facebook about privatizing the U.S. postal service. Briefly, those in favor of privatization argued that the post office is inefficient and costly, and that exposing it to market forces through privatization will result in much improved efficiency at lower cost to the American taxpayer.
First of all, if you’re looking for a wasteful government agency to privatize, why not start with the department of defense, which spends roughly $750 billion a year, and which has never passed an audit? Leaving that aside, the privatization enthusiasts assume that “market forces” will necessarily generate improvements in efficiency and improved service. But what if it just monetizes everything, leading to higher prices and poorer service?
Furthermore, why should “efficiency” be the primary goal for a public service? Many small communities and villages rely heavily on local post offices. Under an “efficient” and private system, these local post offices are likely to be closed or consolidated in the name of efficiency, with prices rising for poor and rural communities. Those steps may be “efficient” to private owners, but they won’t be beneficial to all the people who just want mail and related services (and maybe a place to chat with neighbors).
Service to the public should be the primary goal of a public service, not “efficiency.” Sure, efficiency is a good thing, but so too is affordability, convenience, trustworthiness, courteousness, and so on. When you elevate efficiency as the goal above all others, and measure that by metrics based on money, you are inevitably going to compromise important aspects of public service.
Consider the state of public education. When you privatize it, new metrics come in, driven by profit. Private (charter) schools, for example, pursue better students and reject marginal ones as they attempt to maximize test scores so as to justify their approach and ranking. Public schools have to take all students, the good and the bad, the affluent and the disadvantaged, and thus their ratings are often lower.
There’s a myth afoot in our land that government is always wasteful and inefficient, and that unions are always costly and greedy. Our postal service employs roughly 213,000 people, fellow Americans who work hard and who, when they retire, have earned a pension and benefits. Why are so many people so eager to attack public postal workers as well as public schoolteachers?
In my 55 years of living in America, I’ve been well served by a public post office and well educated by public schools. I see no compelling reason to privatize public services just because someone thinks a corporation driven by profit can do it more efficiently.
People think that corporations driven by the profit motive will inevitably produce a better system with improved service. While profit can be made by providing superior service, it can also be made by providing shoddy service or even no service at all, especially in a market resembling a monopoly, or one where corporations are protected by powerful interests.
To recap: public service and efficiency are not identical. Nor should we think of ourselves merely as consumers of a product, whether that product is mail service or education. We need to think of ourselves as citizens, and the post office as composed of citizens like us providing a public service for us, a service where “efficiency” is only one driver, and not the most important one.
A final, perhaps obvious, point: often those who argue for privatization are also those with the most to gain, financially, from it. A lot of people are making money from charter schools, for example. It’s not “efficiency” that’s the driver here: it’s the chance to make a buck, and despite what Gordon Gekko said, greed isn’t always good and right, especially when public service is involved.
So, the Trump Administration wants to merge the Department of Education with Labor. What a surprise. According to Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, “They’re [Education and Labor] doing the same thing. Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?”
I saw this push for education as workforce development when I was a professor of history in Pennsylvania. Education was largely reduced to vocational training, in partnership with business and industry. My classes in history (including the social history of technology) were essentially “filler” classes, and indeed I had a student tell me he might see me again if he needed another “filler” class. I wasn’t angry; I was amused at how perceptive and honest the student was.
Of course, America will always have the Ivy League. Education as training for a job won’t really drive the curriculum at Yale or Harvard or Princeton. You can still get a decent liberal arts education in America, assuming you have money. But if you don’t, it’s off to “workforce training” for you.
When I was still teaching, I used to argue that my history classes were especially valuable to students at the college where I taught since they might be the only college-level course in history that they’d ever experience. I’d argue that plumbers and welders and nurses needed to know history too. Why? Because they’re not just aspiring plumbers and welders and nurses — they’re American citizens, and the health of our democracy is based on a well-informed and broadly educated citizenry.
The Trump Administration doesn’t want such a citizenry. Their vision of education is not about creative and critical thinking, and it certainly isn’t about challenging authority. Rather, it’s about job training, workforce development, preparing people for a lifetime of labor — and supine obedience.
Well, as our “stable genius” president said, “I love the poorly educated.” Under this latest proposal, he’s putting his “love” into practice.
An Addendum: When you treat education as a business, as administrators have been doing in higher ed, is it any surprise when education is reduced to a feeder and filler for labor, for business and industry, for the workforce? As a professor, I had plenty of experience with administrators who sold education as a commodity, who talked about students as “customers” and professors as “providers” of a product. One high-level administrator insisted that we professors meet our students “at their point of need.” Another big push when I was a professor was on retention. Keep those students in college! If only to keep enrollment up and the tuition dollars flowing.
We have reduced education to a business and classes to commodities, so why not combine education with labor? It makes perfect sense … and supports perfectly authoritarian rule.
Five years ago, I remember talking about lockdown drills (or “active shooter drills”) with colleagues at Penn College. Such drills were voluntary. Basically, the drill involved locking the classroom door, moving students to the back of the classroom, and having them hunker down, away from windows, while keeping silent so as to avoid detection by a shooter roaming the halls.
I was against these drills. I thought they added to the fear, and I chose not to do them. But maybe I would do them today.
After one shooting massacre (I can’t recall if it was Virginia Tech in 2007 or Sandy Hook in 2012), locks were added to the classroom doors. In theory, if I heard gunshots, I or one of my students could jump up and lock the door before a shooter got in. But what if a determined shooter shot the lock out?
What a world we Americans live in. Locked classrooms, lockdown drills for active shooters, and now the proposal to turn teachers into so many Harry Callahans (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) and our schools into “hardened” targets by arming teachers with pistols. Perhaps we should keep an AR-15 in each classroom (alongside the fire extinguisher), with a sign that reads, “In case of emergency, break glass – then lock and load.”
President Trump has argued that select teachers be armed – following the NRA’s theory that a good man with a gun is the best insurance against a bad man with a gun. It’s a crazy idea, but we live in a crazy country. Among the worst parts of Trump’s proposal was his stingy suggestion that armed and trained teachers might earn “a little bit” of a bonus. How generous of our brave commander-in-chief.
Think about that for a moment. There is an active shooter (or shooters) in a school, armed with military-style assault weapons and perhaps protected by body armor. Young people are running and screaming, bullets are flying, and in this bloody chaos, we place our faith in a teacher, perhaps armed with a 9mm pistol, thoroughly trained in shooting under combat conditions, willing to risk it all “for a little bit of a bonus.”
It’s a powerful fantasy: the cold bold Harry Callahan-like teacher, taking aim with his or her pistol and blowing away school intruders with perfect head shots. And that’s exactly what it is: a fantasy. As Belle Chesler, a teacher, put it at TomDispatch.com, “We are not warriors, we are teachers. We are not heroes, we are teachers.”
It’s one thing to shoot at paper targets on a gun range; it’s another thing entirely to fire accurately in combat when you’re outgunned and someone is firing back at you. What if, during the chaos of shooting, a teacher accidentally shoots a few students? So-called friendly fire incidents happen frequently in combat, despite the most careful troop training.
If you want more security guards in America’s schools, hire them. Don’t try to turn teachers into cheap cut-rate guards. Yet “a little bit of a bonus” for armed teachers is the best idea our stingy billionaire of a president can come up with.
As we saw in Parkland, Florida, even armed and trained deputies may hesitate before confronting a heavily-armed shooter. How is your average teacher going to react? At least we know Trump will rush in, heel spurs and all, whether he’s armed or unarmed, to save the day. Or so he says.
Most people, even when armed, will not rush toward the sound of gunfire. We tend instinctively to freeze, to take cover, or to run. It takes a combination of training, willpower, and courage to rush toward danger, often strengthened by teamwork and inspired by one or more leaders who set the example. The problem is not as simple as “give a teacher a gun, and he or she will blow the bad guy away.”
In a country awash in weapons, there are no easy answers. One model is to turn our schools into fortresses, complete with surveillance cameras and panic buttons and smoke ejectors in hallways, as in this “safe” school in Indiana. Trump’s model is to arm select teachers for a tiny bonus. Limited efforts at gun control, such as raising the age to purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21, are like putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. One thing is certain: better law enforcement is crucial, e.g. there were many warnings about the Parkland shooter that were dismissed or ignored.
Again, there are no easy answers. And so Lockdown America is now our reality.
Update (3/9/18): In the wake of the Parkland shootings, Florida legislators have approved guns for teachers in the classroom, as well as more spending on school security. Assault weapons, however, are not to be banned. So the solution to bad men with guns is indeed good men with guns, according to Florida. The NRA wins again.
How long before a teacher, teacher’s aide, or coach with a gun accidentally or intentionally hurts a student with a gun? How long before the inevitable lawsuits result from this, the multi-million dollar settlements? Will school districts be required to carry expensive insurance against gun shootings by educators? Are taxpayers ready to pony up a lot more money to cover the costs of insurance premiums and lawsuits?
When I was still teaching college, I’d tell my students that a major goal of their education was developing a bullshit meter. This BS meter, I said, would help them to discriminate between fact and fiction, between informed views and misinformed ones, between respectable opinions and disreputable propaganda. Become critical thinkers, I told them. And that included being critical of my teaching, for every professor has biases and makes choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to stress and what to elide.
Critical thinking skills are what is being elided and excluded in much of education today. This is obviously convenient to those in power, for they do not wish to be questioned. In the name of economic competitiveness, of teaching job skills, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), students are encouraged to focus on getting ahead, on making a high salary after graduation, the better to repay student loans and contribute back to the college as alumni. On their web sites and marketing brochures, colleges often feature prominently how much their students can be expected to make in salary after graduation. The almighty dollar sign: It’s the key metric of success.
A narrow utilitarianism, based on money, has come to define education. Much like war, education is becoming just another racket (think here of Trump University!). Eight years ago, when I was still teaching away in the classroom, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com. I’ve decided to share it here today, because I don’t think much has changed since 2009. Indeed, education in America has only worsened as Donald Trump and Company have taken a hatchet to educational funding. But stupid is as stupid does. (Then again, Trump isn’t so stupid; as he himself enthused after the Nevada caucuses in 2016, “I love the poorly educated!” Yes, hmm, yes.)
Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don’t perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.
Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today’s so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today’s collapsing job market.
Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life — 20 years’ service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level — I’m convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It’s simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)
And here’s one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job — if it’s merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods — you’ve effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.
Three Myths of Higher Ed
Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.
Today’s college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn “degrees that work” (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They’re being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They’re being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to “keep current” is to “stay competitive in the global marketplace.” (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won’t be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)
And here’s a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.
One “bonus” from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or “assess,” as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).
A third pervasive myth — one that’s found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education — is: If it’s not quantifiable, it’s not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?
Three Realities of Higher Ed
What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system’s technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls — thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.
Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don’t know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don’t know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires,” and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.
Perhaps I’m biased because I teach history, but here’s a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.
We don’t have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history — not when they never learned them to begin with.
Donning New Sunglasses
One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That’s a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.
It’s a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country’s direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself — and so your own limits and those of your country as well.
To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous — kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive “B” movie They Live (1988). In Piper’s case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.
Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds — a struggle against accepting the world as it’s being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.