American Exceptionalism

W.J. Astore

Two images of American exceptionalism to mull over today. The first shows how exceptional the U.S. is with its military spending:

Of course, U.S. military spending is projected to rise in FY 2023 to $840 billion or so. Note how most of the countries that spend significant sums on their military are U.S. allies, such as Germany, the U.K., Japan, and South Korea. Russia is weakening due to its war with Ukraine, yet U.S. military spending continues to soar because of alleged threats from Russia and China.

The second image is a spoof sent by a friend, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if it did become the official seal of the Department of Education:

Jesus riding a dinosaur: Why not? We have serious museums for creationists in the U.S., where dinosaurs wear saddles and Adam and Eve are depicted as cavorting with creatures dating to the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras. I’m not sure how they all fit on Noah’s ark, but the Lord does work in mysterious ways.

Given the emphasis on gun rights, babies, and Jesus in America, perhaps the bald eagle isn’t our best national symbol. Perhaps it should be the Baby Jesus holding an assault rifle. It certainly would give new meaning to “love God” and “love thy neighbor.”

Going “Hard” in America’s Schools

Hardening Schools and Arming Teachers Is the Wrong Approach

BY WILLIAM J. ASTORE

Originally posted at TomDispatch.com.

American schools are soft, you say? I know what you mean. I taught college for 15 years, so I’ve dealt with my share of still-teenagers fresh out of high school. Many of them inspired me, but some had clearly earned high marks too easily and needed remedial help in math, English, or other subjects. School discipline had been too lax perhaps and standards too slack, because Johnny and Janey often couldn’t or wouldn’t read a book, though they sure could text, tweet, take selfies, and make videos.

Oh, wait a sec, that’s not what you meant by “soft,” is it? You meant soft as in “soft target” in the context of mass school shootings, the most recent being in Uvalde, Texas. Prominent Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz have highlighted the supposed softness of American schools, their vulnerability to shooters armed with military-style assault rifles and intent on mass murder.

That “softness” diagnosis leads to a seemingly logical quick fix: “harden” the schools, of course! Make them into “targets” too intimidating to approach thanks to, among other security measures, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof doors and windows, reinforced fences, armed guards, and even armed teachers.

Here’s the simple formula for it all: no more limpness, America, it’s time to get hard. Johnny and Janey may still find it challenging to read books or balance a checkbook (or even know what a checkbook is), but, hey, there must be an app for that, right? At least they’ll stay alive in our newly hardened schools. Or so we hope. There’s no app, after all, for reviving our kids after they’ve been shot and shredded by some assault-rifle-wielding maniac.

As a retired military officer and professor, and a former gun owner, the latest chapter in this country’s gun mania, the Republican urge to keep all those assault weapons circulating and still protect our children, strikes me not just all too strangely, but all too familiarly as well. Those voices calling for billions of dollars to “harden” schools reflect, of course, the imagery of a sexualized hyper-masculinity, but something else as well: a fetish for military-speak. In my service, the Air Force, we regularly spoke of “hardening” targets or “neutralizing” them.

In essence, politicians like Graham and Cruz seem way too eager to turn our schools into some combination of fortresses and bomb shelters, baby versions of the massive nuclear shelter I occupied in the 1980s during my first tour of duty in the Air Force (on which more in a moment). Button up and hunker down, America — not from the long-gone “red” enemy without, armed with nuclear missiles, but from the red-hot (as in murderously hateful) enemy within. These days, that increasingly means a school-age shooter or shooters armed with military-grade weaponry, usually acquired all too legally. Sound the klaxons! Lock and (especially) load! It’s time to go to DEFCON 1 (maximum military readiness, as in war) not in nuclear shelters but in America’s schools.

Speaking of my Cold War nuclear-bunker days in the 1980s, when I was stationed at Cheyenne Mountain, America’s command center for its nuclear defense in Colorado, a few things stood out then. Security guards, for one. Locking cipher doors, for another. Security ID badges. Razor wire. Video monitors. Blast doors. I was in the ultimate lockdown fortress. But tell me the truth: Is this truly what we want our schools to look like — pseudo-military bunkers for the (hot) war increasingly blazing in our society?

In fact, the whole “hardening” idea represents not a defense against, but a surrender to the notion of schools as potential sites of gun combat and mass death. To submit to such a scenario is, in the view of this retired military officer and educator, a thoroughly defeatist approach to both safety and education. It’s tantamount to admitting that violence and fear not only rule our lives but will continue to do so in ever more horrific ways and that the only solution is to go hard with even more “security” and even more guns. Hardening our schools implies hardening our hearts and minds, while we cede yet more power to security experts and police forces. And that may be precisely why so many authority figures so lustily advocate for the “hard” way. It is, in the end, the easy path to disaster.

The Hard Way as the Easy Way Out

Though six of my college-teaching years were at a military academy, where I wore a uniform and my students saluted me as class began, it never occurred to me to carry a loaded gun (even concealed). For the remaining nine years, I taught at a conservative college in rural Pennsylvania where, you may be surprised to learn, guns were then forbidden on campus. But that, of course, was in another age. Only at the tail end of my college teaching career were lockable doors installed and voluntary lockdown drills instituted.

I never ran such a drill myself.

Why not? Because I refused to inject more fear into the minds of my students. In truth, given the unimaginably violent chaos of a school shooting, you’d almost automatically know what to do: lock the door(s) to try to keep the shooter out, call 911, and duck and cover (which will sound familiar to veterans of early Cold War era schooling). If cornered and as a last resort, perhaps you’d even rush the shooter. My students, who were young adults, could have plausibly done this. Children in the third and fourth grades, as in the Uvalde slaughter, have no such option.

That mass shooting took place at a hardened school with locking doors, one that ran lockdown and evacuation drills regularly, and had fences. And yet, of course, none of that, including 911 calls from the students, prevented mass death. Not even the presence of dozens of heavily armed police inside and outside the school mattered because the commander at the scene misread the situation and refused to act. Well-trained “good guys with guns” proved remarkably useless against the bad guy with a gun because the “good guys” backed off, waited, and then waited some more, more than an hour in all, an excruciating and unconscionable delay that cost lives.

But combat can be like that. It’s chaotic. It’s confusing. People freeze or act too quickly. It’s not hard to make bad decisions under deadly pressure. At Uvalde, the police disregarded standard operating procedure that directs the immediate engagement of the shooter until he’s “neutralized.” But we shouldn’t be surprised. Fear and uncertainty cloud the judgment even of all-too-hardened professionals, which should teach us something about the limitations of the hard option.

A related hardening measure that’s been proposed repeatedly, including by former President Trump, is to arm and train teachers to confront shooters. It’s a comforting fantasy, imagining teachers as Dirty Harry-like figures, blowing away bad guys with poise and precision. Sadly, it’s just that, a fantasy. Imagine teachers with guns, caught by surprise, panicking as their students are shot before their eyes. How likely are they to respond calmly with deadly accuracy against school shooter(s) who, the odds are, will outgun them? “Friendly fire” incidents happen all too frequently even in combat featuring highly trained and experienced soldiers. Armed teachers could end up accidentally shooting one or more of their students as they tried to engage the shooter(s). How could we possibly ask teachers to bear such a burden?

Let’s also think about the kind of teacher who wants to carry a weapon in a classroom. My brother was a security policeman in the Air Force, and he understands all too well the allure of weaponry to certain types of people. As he put it to me recently, “A gun is power. To some, even the psychologically relatively stable among us, carrying a gun is indeed like having a permanent hard-on. You have the power of life and death as well. It can be a pure ego-driven power trip, sexual, every time you get to pull the trigger. You give a guy a gun and strange things can happen.”

Think of your least favorite teacher in your K-12 experience, perhaps the one who intimidated you the most. Now, think of that very teacher “hardened” with a gun in class. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Arming Lady Liberty (to the Teeth)

Arming teachers is a measure of our collective confusion and desperation, though some politicians like Donald Trump are sure to continue to press for it. Again, if I’m an armed teacher, perhaps with a concealed 9mm pistol, I’d have virtually no chance against a shooter or shooters with AR-15s and body armor. Does that mean I need an AR-15 and body armor, too? Who needs an arms race with the Russians or Chinese when we can have one in every school in America?

What, then, of hardening schools? We’re back to locking security doors, reinforced fences around campus, cameras everywhere, metal detectors at each entrance, and of course more armed police (or “school resource officers,” known as SROs) in the hallways. We’re talking about untold scores of billions of dollars spent to turn every American school into a fortress/bunker, a place to hunker down and ride out a violent weapons-of-mass-destruction storm of our own making.

And mind you, of all the things we don’t know, one thing we do: this hunkering down, this fear will be indelibly etched into the minds of our kids as they navigate our ever more hardened, over-armed schools. It won’t be healthy, that’s for sure. In seeking to reduce and eliminate school shootings in America, we should be guided by the goal of not making matters worse for our children.

As horrific as they are, headline-grabbing school shootings are rare indeed compared to the number of schools across America. Indeed, given the violence of this society and the extreme violence we routinely export to other countries across the globe, it’s surprising we don’t have more school shootings. Their relative rarity should reassure us that all is not lost. Not yet, anyway.

I get it. We all want to feel safe and, above all, we want our kids to be safe. But buying them bulletproof backpacks or hardening their schools is the wrong approach. Besides, if we spend massively on school security, what’s to stop a shooter determined to kill children from going elsewhere to find them? It’s horrifyingly grim logic, but he’d likely go to a playground, or the movies, or a dance recital, or any other “soft” place where children might gather. And what then? I for one don’t want to live in fortress America, surrounded by armed and armored police and intrusive security gadgetry “for my protection.”

Admittedly, in a country in which Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything but the most modest gun reforms (forget banning military-style weapons or even restricting their sale to people 21 and older), the hardening of schools is an easy target (so to speak). As gun enthusiasts like to say: don’t focus on the weapons, focus on the shooters.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people, right? As best we can, we must identify those crazed enough to want to murder innocent kids and get them the help they need before they start squeezing triggers. We should deny unstable people the ability to own and wield weapons of mass destruction — that is, assault rifles (and preferably simply ban such weaponry period). We must do everything possible to reform our blood-drenched society with all its weapons-porn. One thing is guaranteed, as a “solution” to the gun problem, adding more of them and other forms of “hardness” into an already deadly mix will only worsen matters.

Quick fixes are tempting, but school-hardening measures and even more “good guys with guns” aren’t the answer. If they were, those 19 children and two adults in Uvalde might still be alive. An exercise in over-the-top security, meanwhile, is guaranteed to do one thing — and that is, of course, starve schools of the funds they need to… well, teach our kids. You know, subjects like math and science and English and history. We’re trending toward graduating a generation of young people who may have trouble reading and writing and adding but will be experts at ducking and covering behind hardened backpacks.

Going hard isn’t the answer, America. Unless the “hard” you’re talking about is the hard I grew up with, meaning high academic standards instilled by demanding and dedicated teachers. If, however, we continue to harden and militarize everything, especially our schools and the mindsets of our children, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when this country becomes a bastion bristling with weapons, one where Lady Liberty has relinquished her torch and crown for an AR-15 and a ballistic helmet from the local armory.

And that’s not liberty — it’s madness.

Originally posted at TomDispatch.com.

Kamala Harris Is Lost in Space

W.J. Astore

Did you know Vice President Kamala Harris is Chairwoman of the National Space Council? I didn’t — until a friend notified me of a feel-good video featuring Harris and a few earnest and photogenic kids on YouTube. The kids were decidedly diverse: boys and girls, black and brown and white, but they all had something in common. No, it wasn’t their enthusiasm for space — it’s that they were all paid actors.

Here’s the link if you haven’t seen the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5PABXXdDwA

As my wife and I watched the video, my better half turned to me and said, “stagey” and “fake.”

I had to laugh as Kamala Harris tried to wow the kids about seeing craters on the moon. My goodness — on a clear night you can see craters with the naked eye. A decent pair of binoculars (I have 10×50 Tasco binoculars) will reveal plenty of gorgeous detail. You don’t exactly have to visit the Naval Observatory to see moon craters.

Even through my relatively cheap $200 camera, I can see plenty of detail. Here’s a photo I took of the moon, a handheld shot done quickly and inexpertly:

The Moon by me. Look at the craters!

I have some experience talking to real kids about astronomy. Elementary school kids can be fun. One class I talked to wanted to know all about UFOs. Another wiseguy kid asked about Uranus, pronouncing it “your anus,” of course. I smiled, quietly corrected his pronunciation, and answered his question. We both had a laugh.

Yet apparently Kamala Harris is not to be trusted talking to real kids who might go off-script. Perish the thought of a kid who might make a joke about Uranus. The horror! It doesn’t inspire confidence that she’s only a heartbeat away from the presidency, as the saying goes.

If and when the space aliens come for me, I know what I’m saying: Take me to your leader — mine is lost in space.

How to Teach, by Miss Jean Brodie

Miss Jean Brodie (center) and “her girls”

Richard Sahn

“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) starring Maggie Smith, who won the academy award for best actress that year, challenges, at least for a moment, pedagogical orthodoxy.  In this fictitious story Jean Brodie is a teacher in a private secondary school for girls in 1932 Edinburgh.  From the beginning it is obvious she is the most popular as well as the most controversial teacher in the school. The rigorously traditional head mistress regards Miss Brodie as a maverick who has consistently demonstrated that her methods over the years of her tenure are starkly incompatible with the goals and values of the school. Jean nurtures a romantic attraction to social, political, and military upheavals. In her classes she avoids talking about the political and moral ramifications of historical events, seeing them as obstacles to her view of history as drama. Showing her students projected slides of classical architectural structures and paintings to engage their capacity for aesthetic appreciation is also a major feature of Miss Brodie’s classes. Engaging her students’ emotions is more important to Jean than detailed historical facts. 

In first day of class for the new semester Miss Brodie describes an imaginary scene of a former lover dying on the battlefield in World War I. She seems to delight in exposing her girls (her students are “my girls”) to the emotional realities of war by providing them with the opportunity to romanticize death.  Listening to the description of the former lover’s death in battle one of her students bursts into tears. At that moment, the head mistress enters the classroom to see how the first day is going. She is perplexed by the student crying, declaring: “You shouldn’t cry during a history lesson.”          

“Truth and beauty” is what Jean Brodie claims she is teaching her students. To challenge her students to appreciate the romantic qualities of even ghastly historical events seems to be a goal. But what she means by “truth” is not necessarily empirical facts. Beauty is truth, Miss Brodie adamantly believes. Even war is an aspect of “beauty” because people die heroically. It doesn’t matter what the reason or cause is as long as passionate feelings can be engaged in the presentation of the lesson.

At one point in the film Jean is called to the head mistress’s office to explain her teaching methods. The head mistress suspects—and rightly so—that Jean is not giving her students the standard information regarding the subject matter. Miss Brodie argues that the meaning of education comes from the Latin word “e-ducare” which means to lead out of.  Her job, she believes, is to elicit her students’ inherent love of learning.  She seeks to stimulate her students’ inherent capacity to see macro and micro events, especially of war, as an art form.  A scene on the battlefield in Spain is to be admired as one appreciates a Giotto painting.

Throughout the movie Jean keeps telling her students they are the “crème de la crème.”  When she asks Mary, a new student at the beginning of the semester what her interests are the student says she doesn’t have any.  Miss Brodie promptly tells her she will give her interests. Later in the school year that same student goes off to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War after Jean had told the class that one is not fully living until one is engaged in major social and political events, events which elicit passionate responses. The student drops out of school and join’s Franco’s fascist army. She gets killed before the school year is over. (Jean has obviously omitted discussing with her students the moral purpose of the war in the first place.)

So, what can educators learn from the character of Miss Jean Brodie? Jean’s teaching style—you have to see the movie to really appreciate it–surely leaves something to be desired. But Miss Brodie’s love of teaching itself and her desire to engage her students’ emotions in the learning process is to be taken seriously. After all, her students love and respect her highly, as almost every scene in the film demonstrates.  But Jean’s failure to acknowledge important facts in favor of the aesthetic and the romantic aspects of political events—Mussolini is a beautiful leader, she proclaims–is what brings her down. She is ultimately dismissed from her teaching post.

The film raises an important question in liberal arts education, both on secondary and post-secondary levels. Do teachers and professors need to engage students’ capacity to become emotional, even passionate, about the subject matter? Should the role of the educator be to provide students with interests, as Jean insists her purpose is, at the expense of factual information? Put simply, does the story of Miss Jean Brodie have something significant to offer educators despite Jean’s playing fast and loose with empirical reality?

For myself—I’ve been a professor of sociology for decades–the importance of emotive anecdotal examples throughout the teaching process when the subject matter pertains particularly to human behavior and socio-historical events can’t be overstated.  The teacher of social sciences and history as artist and poet is a very plausible mixture. At any rate I felt very much inspired by the Jean Brodie character.  She genuinely wanted to reach her students to inspire them to live passionately.

Yet, as the movie suggests, passions unguided by a sound moral compass may prove deadly.

Richard Sahn is a sociology professor who challenged and inspired his students to think differently in and out of the classroom for more than four decades.   

You Shouldn’t Need a College Degree

W.J. Astore

A friend sent along an article today with the eye-catching title “You shouldn’t need a college degree to have a decent life in America.” The author argued that Americans are too dependent on college for better opportunities and that a Swiss model of education based on vocational tracking had some lessons for us. Here’s the link: Karin Klein, LA Times, June 13th, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/insight/2021/06/13/You-shouldn-t-need-a-college-degree-to-have-a-decent-life-in-America/stories/202106130026

But what was most interesting to me was what the article left out. Firstly, my dad never finished high school, but he got an education in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the Army during World War II, then did factory work (again) until he got on the civil service as a firefighter. And that’s what was essential: a decent-paying job backed up by a strong union. My dad’s pay and benefits continued to increase throughout his career because of the firefighters’ union and its bargaining power. Yet nowhere in the article above are unions mentioned. In fact, in America today unions are often demonized as being against the interests of workers. Instead, we’re urged to trust in the uber-rich like Jeff Bezos to provide high-paying jobs with great benefits. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

My dad’s “education” included two years in the CCC, including time in Oregon fighting major forest fires. He never formally graduated from high school but loved philosophy and opera

Secondly, the article fails to mention anything about a living wage for these workers and their careers. There’s no mention of Joe Biden’s broken promise to pass a $15 federal minimum hourly wage (which really nowadays should be $20 an hour).  Without unions and without a living wage, how are all these high school graduates with vocations going to support themselves? Not all vocations pay that well, and some pay no more than $10 an hour and come without health care. Small wonder that so many Americans turn to college for some “insurance.”

Yet even in college they often don’t find the insurance they’re looking for. America’s collegiate system is often about funneling the maximum number of young adults to college while extracting as much money from them as they and their parents are able (or unable) to pay. What’s “higher” about higher education are often the bills and little else.

Look, I taught for nine years at a vocational college and I’m all for it. At a community college you can gain certificates and associate degrees without assuming a heavy load of student debt.  I agree we need more decent-paying vocational programs. For example, I had a student who trained as a heavy equipment operator.  He didn’t do that well in my class, but he didn’t much care.  As he told me, he was graduating to a job, probably in the fracking fields of Pennsylvania, where he’d soon be earning $75K-$85K a year, and this was circa 2010. Not bad pay at all for his chosen profession.

I’m all for vocational options that don’t require four-year (or longer) college degrees and lots of debt.  But let’s have strong unions and fair pay as well, else many of these vocational graduates will be screwed yet again by a system that deflates wages as much as possible so as to funnel more money to the richest.

Another subject the author fails to develop is how college has become the new high school for too many students.  I saw my share of students where I taught who needed remedial math and English because they didn’t learn the same in high school.  Partly this is because we underfund our schools, underpay our teachers, and often focus way too much on high school sports (football in Texas, anyone?).

I also wonder at times whether our system is designed to produce dead ends for students.  It’s one way you get more than a few eighteen-year-olds to enlist in the military. They’re often seeking educational benefits, vocational training, and sometimes those enlistment bonuses as well. Often those bonuses are tied directly to enlisting in the most dangerous military occupational specialties, like being a combat infantryman. The empire always needs fresh bodies.

In sum, I think it’s a great idea to open more opportunities to high school graduates in America. But while we do that, let’s do three other things: 1) Strengthen workers’ unions in America; 2) Raise the federal minimum wage to at least $15 an hour; 3) Improve high school education across the board through more educational funding. higher pay for teachers, and an ethos in America that values education as essential to active and informed participation in civic life.

Culture War!

W.J. Astore

I saw another article this weekend about culture war in America. Supposedly, America is deeply divided, and I’m not denying there are divisions. But when you ask Americans what they want, what’s surprising is how united we are, irrespective of party differences. For example, Americans favor a $15 minimum wage. We favor single-payer health care. We favor campaign finance reform that gets big money donors and corporations out of government. Yet our government, which is bought by those same donors, refuses to give Americans what we want. Division is what they give us instead, and even then it’s often a sham form of division.

What do I mean by “sham”? Well, our so-called divided government is strongly united in support of huge war budgets and endless war. Strongly united in support of Israel. Strongly in favor of, and obedient to, special interests and big money in politics. Strongly in favor of business as usual (with a stress on “business”), with sham elections every four years between the center-right Democrats and the increasingly unhinged-right Republicans. Sadly, when it comes to policy that impacts the working classes, there isn’t much difference between Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. They are unified in what they deny us.

It’s a war of the have-mores versus the haves and especially the have-nots, and the have-lots-more are winning. Why? Because they’ve bought the government too.

Of course, we do see examples of so-called culture war in the U.S. Consider in the realm of history the “battle” between the 1619 Project and the 1776ers. The 1619ers want to stress the many violent and tragic legacies of slavery to America’s history. (1619 was the first year an African slave was brought to the colonies.) The 1776ers want to stress the ideals of the American Revolution, the proud legacy of George Washington and other founders, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and so on.

What’s the solution to this “culture war” between the 1619ers and the 1776ers? I’m a historian, and I’ve taught U.S. history. The solution is easy. You teach both. America is a land of contradictions. Any U.S. historian worth her salt is going to talk about genocide and the Native Americans; is going to talk about the violent and bitter legacies of slavery; and is also going to talk about the ideals and idealism of the founders, however imperfectly they put them into practice, and the promise of the Constitution and the spirit of liberty. To ignore slavery while singing the praises of the founders would be as flawed and one-sided as focusing entirely on slavery without ever mentioning the proud achievements of those same founders.

America is a complex and contradictory place — and any historian is going to address those complexities and contradictions because that’s precisely what makes history interesting, fascinating, enthralling. Few students want to be comforted by feel-good history or assaulted by feel-bad history. They want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly, and historians should be able to teach the same. There’s simply no need for a culture war here over the content of history.

I said there’s no need, but that doesn’t mean a culture war isn’t wanted. Polemicists love culture wars, and so too do the already privileged and the powerful. For if we’re fighting each other, if we perceive we’re divided and simply can’t find common ground, we’ll forget we have so much in common, like our desire for a living wage, affordable health care, and politicians who’d actually represent us instead of the special interests.

Forget culture war. Let’s make war on those who keep us apart and who refuse to work for those so desperately in need.

Readers, what do you think?

Savvy Advice From My Cousin Vinny about an Education Worth Having

When I was 18, I thought I’d be an aeronautical engineer in the Air Force.  I went to an engineering school and majored in mechanical engineering, but I also did a big project on the military-industrial complex and minored in U.S. history.  Turns out that I did do engineering in the Air Force, specifically software testing and project management, but I soon moved into history and got an MA and D.Phil. focusing on science and technology.  Meanwhile, forty years later I still find myself writing about the military-industrial complex.  My “broader” education helped me to move away from engineering into fields that over time interested me more.

College is (or should be) about a lot more than earning a specialized degree and then cashing in.  In retrospect, half of my college experience was about living on my own and with roommates, growing up, and making friends.  Maturing.

You rarely know what your career arc will be.  What you want at 18 years of age may not be what you want at 22 or 32.  A broader education can give you the tools to branch out and pursue exciting opportunities as they come along.  All these things were on my mind as I read the following stimulating article by my longtime friend, M. Davout.  W.J. Astore

Even in The Matrix, there’s more to life than code.

An Education Worth Having

M. Davout

My son, who aspires to be a successful software developer and entrepreneur, applied to colleges this year and is finally getting word back from the universities to which he applied. The school he preferred, a prestigious state institution focused on technical fields, rejected him and the disappointment (particularly, and perhaps even more, for his parents) was great. As other rejections came in from universities that were, in retrospect, obvious longshots for my son, I felt the need to reach out to an older cousin who recently retired after a long and successful career working in technical support, sales, and then in upper management in a globally-dominant company that sells both computer hardware and software.   

As a native-born kid in the suburbs, I always looked on my cousin with admiration for how, coming to the country at the age of ten without any English, he was able to navigate the tough immigrant neighborhood of Boston’s North End and managed, through determination and hard work, to get an education at a local technical college and, afterwards, a well-paying job at a computer hardware company. Over his long employment there, he rose in the corporate ranks, while continuing to advance his technical education during nights and weekends. But there was also, I should admit, some condescension—as a native-born speaker benefitting from the well-funded public schools of the suburbs, I was able eventually to get into an elite liberal arts university whose education I considered superior to the narrow technical one that my cousin presumably had.     

When I reached out to my cousin for advice about my son I expected full-throated support for a path that was practical, realistic, and single-mindedly attentive to what the marketplace promised in the way of lucrative careers. In other words, as a smug liberal arts professor, I expected my cousin to conform to my preconceptions about the values and character of business people. What I got (as demonstrated in my cousin’s replies pasted in below) was something different, a demonstration that the values of broadmindedness can flourish in many different places including the business world and that a liberal arts college professor can be as narrow-minded as they come.    

I conveyed to my cousin that my son loved to code, was very focused on privacy software development as a career, and had ambitions to make a lot of money, to which he answered: “Yes, youth always thinks that way. As you know he needs a base education so that he can do that. Focusing on security software is fine, but he needs general computer understanding, hardware and software, along with marketing and business.”

I mentioned that over the last year, my son had more than once questioned why he has to spend four years in college if he already knows what he wants to do and has developed coding skills. My cousin responded: “He thinks he might have, but I assure you he has not. If he has the skills, school should help bring them further out.”

Ordinarily, I would insist on my son going to college. However, a software development friend had mentioned that his nephew successfully attended a software coding academy, which teaches coding skills over a two to three month intensive (9-5 each weekday) schedule. Tuition is $12-14K but the graduates leave with excellent prospects to start in the field at $70+K. I thought this might be something for my son. My cousin, the computer business guy, expressed skepticism: “Which academies in particular do you have in mind? As you know he should have a rounded education, especially in computers, there are many facets, focusing on just one thing might get boring, and it limits his personality.”

When I mentioned that my software friend had said that one can make a good salary without a college degree (though management jobs did usually require a BS or BA) and that half of the developers working at his companies don’t have college degrees, my cousin responded: “Yes, but the game is long term, Tino might think this is what he wants now, but only with a broader experience can he then be sure. At the end of the day, he should have the biggest say, if he is excited about coding academy, maybe he should try it. But remind him that being rounded is better than just one super skill. He might like coding now, but who knows in the future.”

In his long and successful career in business, my cousin had acquired a respect for broader education that was based, unlike my own, on the experience of working with diverse people in complex and evolving organizations, operating in-country and overseas, responding to the varying demands of customers and bosses, staying abreast of technological developments and political changes, all the while pursuing lifelong learning. I realize now that I sold him short and am grateful for his teaching me how I can better convey to my son that a broader education will serve him well not only in business but in life.

The Tyranny of Low Expectations

Of the people, by the people, for the people

W.J. Astore

We often hear the USA is the richest, most powerful, most advanced, nation in the world. We also hear much talk about freedom and democracy in America, and how exceptional our country is. Given all these riches, all this power, and all this freedom, shouldn’t we have high expectations about what our government is able to accomplish for us?

Yet I’ve run across the opposite of this. I’ve come to think of it as the tyranny of low expectations. I see it most often when I criticize Joe Biden and the Democrats. I’m told that I expect too much, that Joe is doing his best but that his power is limited as president, and that I should wait patiently for party insiders to move the Biden administration ever so slightly toward the left. And if I keep criticizing Joe and Company, I’m dismissed as an unreasonable leftist who’s helping Trump and his followers, so the effect of my criticism is bizarrely equated to far-right Trumpism.

Here are a few items that I believe the richest, most powerful, most advanced nation in the world should do for its citizens in the cause of greater freedom and democracy:

  1. A living wage of at least $15 an hour for workers.
  2. Affordable single-payer health care for all.
  3. A firm commitment to ending child poverty.
  4. A firm commitment to affordable housing for all.
  5. A firm commitment to affordable education and major reductions in student debt.
  6. A Covid aid package dedicated to helping workers and small businesses.
  7. A government that is transparent to the people and accountable to them rather than one cloaked in secrecy and open for business only to the rich.

These items seem reasonable to me. They don’t seem “left” or “right.” They’re not too much to expect from the richest, most powerful, nation, the one that boasts of its exceptional freedom and its strong commitment to democracy.

The money is there. A trillion dollars a year is spent in the name of national defense. Trillions have been spent to bailout Wall Street and to wage wasteful wars overseas. Why is the money always there for Wall Street and wars and weapons but it’s rarely if ever there for workers and students and children?

Why do we persist in setting our expectations so low for “our” government, whether the POTUS of the moment is Trump or Biden or someone allegedly more competent and focused on “ordinary folk,” like Obama?

Warning to ideological warriors: This is not about Trump, or Biden, or your particular party allegiance. This is about creating a government that actually listens and responds to the needs of everyone, but especially to the weakest among us, those needing the most help in their pursuit of happiness.

Too simplistic? Too idealistic? I don’t think so. Not once we overthrow the tyranny of low expectations.

Somewhere I’ve read about a government of the people, by the people, for the people. We had better find it or reinvigorate it before it perishes from the earth.

Patriotic History Is An Oxymoron

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle Trump’s call for “patriotic” U.S. history. If normal history is “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” think of Trump’s history as all good and with none of the bad and ugly. It would make for a boring movie, and for boring history as well. Of course, this argument over “patriotic” history is yet another front in Trump’s Kulturkamp, or culture war, in America.

Yet isn’t ironic that Trump, who says he seeks to celebrate America’s greatness, ran in 2016 as a declinist candidate? “Make America Great Again” was his motto: the again suggesting an America that had to be put right, which apparently Trump has done, since his 2020 motto is “Keep America Great.”

A lot of historians will be spilling much ink in the coming decades on Trump and his administration. I have a feeling most of it will not be judged as “patriotic” by Trump’s standard.

Nuking History (from TomDispatch)

There goes our history

Aggravating such essential collective madness in this moment (and the president’s fiery and furious fascination with such weaponry) is Trump’s recent cynical call for what might be thought of as the nuking of our history: the installation of a truly “patriotic” education in our schools (in other words, a history that would obliterate everything but his version of American greatness). That would, of course, include not just the legacy of slavery and other dark chapters in our past, but our continued willingness to build weaponry that has the instant capacity to end it all in a matter of hours.

As a history professor, I can tell you that such a version of our past would be totally antithetical to sound learning in this or any world. History must, by definition, be critical of the world we’ve created. It must be tough-minded and grapple with our actions (and inactions), crimes and all, if we are ever to grow morally stronger as a country or a people.

History that only focuses on the supposedly good bits, however defined, is like your annoying friend’s Facebook page — the one that shows photo after photo of smiling faces, gourmet meals, exclusive parties, puppies, ice cream, and rainbows, that features a flurry of status updates reducible to “I’m having the time of my life.” We know perfectly well, of course, that no one’s life is really like that — and neither is any country’s history.

History should, of course, be about understanding ourselves as we really are, our strengths and weaknesses, triumphs, tragedies, and transgressions. It would even have to include an honest accounting of how this country got one Donald J. Trump, a failed casino owner and celebrity pitchman, as president at a moment when most of its leaders were still claiming that it was the most exceptional country in the history of the universe. I’ll give you a hint: we got him because he represented a side of America that was indeed exceptional, just not in any way that was ever morally just or democratically sound.

Jingoistic history says, “My country, right or wrong, but my country.” Trump wants to push this a goosestep further to “My country and my leader, always right.” That’s fascism, not “patriotic” history, and we need to recognize that and reject it.

Read the rest of my article for TomDispatch here.

Education in America: Of Hungry Wolves and Docile Sheep

download2

W.J. Astore

I was educated in public schools by dedicated teachers in the pre-digital age.  My teachers read books to me and had me read books.  I learned math, partly by rote, but also through friendly student competitions.  Science I learned by doing, like chemistry with Bunsen burners and test tubes.  I had classes in art and music, and even though I had little talent in drawing or playing an instrument, I still learned to appreciate both subjects.  My high school was big and diverse, so I took electives in courses I really enjoyed, like science fiction, photography, even a course in aquariology, in which I built my own aquarium.  And I must say I’m glad there wasn’t the distraction of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and similar social media sites to torment me; video games, meanwhile, were in my day still crude, so I spent more time outside, playing tennis, riding my bike, hanging with friends, being in the world and nature (fishing was a favorite pursuit).

When I was a teen, we learned a lot about history and civics and the humanities.  We spent time in the library, researching and writing.  I took a debate course and learned how to construct an argument and speak before an audience.  When I graduated from high school, I felt like I had a solid grounding: that I knew enough to make educated choices; that I could participate as a citizen by voting intelligently when I was eighteen.

Something has happened to education in America.  You can see it in the big trends that are being hyped, including STEM, vocational training, computers and online courses, and privatization (charter schools).  What suffers from these trends is the humanities, the arts, unionized teachers, critical and creative thinking skills, and, most especially, civics and ethics.

STEM is all about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  My BS is in mechanical engineering and I love science and math, so I’m sympathetic to STEM classes.  The problem is how STEM is justified – it’s usually couched in terms of keeping America competitive vis-à-vis other nations.  STEM is seen as a driver for economic success and growth, a servant of industry, innovation, and profit.  It’s not usually sold as developing critical thinking skills, even though STEM classes do help to develop such skills.

From STEM we turn to vocational training.  Many students seek a career, of course, and not all students wish to go to a four-year college, or to college period.  But once again vocational training is mainly justified as a feeder to business and industry.  It’s often reduced to education as training for labor, where the primary goal is to learn to earn.  It may produce decent plumbers and welders and electricians and the like, but also ones who are indoctrinated to accept the system as it is.

In The Baffler, Tarence Ray has an article, “Hollowed Out: Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia.”  Ray critiques ARC (the Appalachian Regional Commission) in the following passage that resonated with my own experiences teaching at a vocational college:

“The ARC [in the late 1960s and early ‘70s] also placed a lot of emphasis on career and vocational education.  This appealed to President Nixon, who was desperate to counteract the student activism of antiwar and environmental groups.  ‘Vocational education is more politically neutral,’ one White House aide put it.  But it was also advantageous for the multinational corporations who controlled Appalachia’s coal resources and most of its institutions of power–the goal was to create a workforce that was skilled but also obedient.  An education in the humanities emphasizes critical thinking, which might lead to political consciousness, a risk that the ARC could not afford to take.” [emphasis added]

My dad liked the historical saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  A vocational education sounds good, especially to those in power.  Doubtless young people need marketable skills.  The shame of it all is that the final “product” of vocational colleges–skilled graduates who are “workforce-ready”–is by design a limited one—an obedient one.  America needs active and informed citizens as well, and they need to have the skills and mindset to question their bosses, their so-called betters, because if they lack such a mindset, nothing will change for the better in our society.

Along with STEM and vocational training is an emphasis on computers and online courses.  Nowadays most school administrators would rather fund computers and networked classrooms than raise pay for teachers.  In fact, online courses are advertised as a way to replace teachers, or at least to reduce the number of full-time teachers needed on staff.  But I question whether one can learn sociology or art or philosophy or ethics by taking an online course.  And I remain skeptical of big “investments” in computers, SMART boards, and the like.  They may have their place, but they’re no substitute for education that’s truly student-centered, and one that’s focused on civics and ethics, right and wrong.

The final trend we’re seeing is privatization, as with charter schools.  The (false) narrative here is that teachers in unions are overpaid, unaccountable, and otherwise inflexible or incompetent.  Somehow the magical free market will solve this.  If only one could get rid of unions while privatizing everything, all will be well in America’s schools.  Private corporations, driven by profit and “efficiency,” will somehow produce a better product, a word I choose deliberately, for they see education as a product.  And while some charter schools have been innovative and effective, many others have failed, mainly because education isn’t education when it’s reduced to a “deliverable” – a commodity driven by and reduced to money.

At a time when the United States desperately needs critical and creative thinkers educated in the arts and humanities as well as STEM and vocational subjects, our schools and especially our legislators are rejecting their duty to serve democratic ideals, choosing instead to embrace business, industry, economic competitiveness, and obedience, all in service of the bottom line measured in dollars and cents.  Now more than ever, America needs young people who are engaged civically and ethically, who value more than money and materialism.  Yet many of our schools are pursuing a much different agenda.

Is it because hungry wolves prefer docile sheep?