The New Arsenal of Democracy

Before the United States joined combat in World War Two, we supplied Britain with weapons and ammunition to fight Nazi Germany. Our role during that time was to be, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, the “arsenal of democracy.”

Protecting democracy with force has been a common theme in American history since the Revolution. Even our most unjust and imperial wars have been waged under the banner of democracy — keeping the world safe for it, or spreading it to new places. 

Democracy continues, despite its flaws and despite our missteps. Vigorous debates and heated elections continue. Activism around new ideas and in defense of justice continue — sometimes leading to change, but the passion of the people always tempered by a representative government and a system of checks and balances. 

There remains a serious threat to democracy in 2018. But it’s not an external threat. It’s not going to be solved by increased military spending. The threat is internal. It’s sitting in the White House.

Maybe I’m just a triggered snowflake overreacting to the Trump presidency, but here’s what I see.

Trump quite clearly knows nothing, and cares nothing, about democracy. He famously does not read. He doesn’t read books. He doesn’t even read his intelligence briefings.

He casually mentions things like taking away people’s property without due process. He is constantly praising dictators. His crowds chant for him to “lock up” his political opponent Hillary Clinton — and I’m not talking about the rough and tumble folks at his old political rallies. Sophisticated Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference chanted “lock her up”  last week, a year and a half after the 2016 election.

He has been hemorrhaging key staff since day one, because no one can withstand the whims of his chaos.

He’s got his (completely unqualified) children in vague positions of government power, even as they still operate private businesses. No one really knows how much his business interests conflate with his decisions as president.

All of this is worrisome. But why is it a threat to democracy?

Because too many Republicans have participated in reality-warping around this president, translating his ridiculous, incomprehensible language and behavior into palatable talking points for their constituents. Liberals are pissed off, so he must be doing something right.

If the FBI is investigating Trump, the FBI must be infiltrated by liberal bias — no matter that Robert Mueller is a Republican.

Trump has ignored the Russian cyber-attack on American democracy. Republicans have mostly ignored Trump’s ignoring of Russian threats.

Trump’s rhetoric has always bent toward authoritarianism. As chief executive, his disregard for democratic norms and his nakedly self-centered attitude can do serious damage, especially when not held in check by the Congress.

The GOP has become the party of Trump. That’s a serious problem, and I’m not the only one who feels that way.

This week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece called “The Chaos After Trump“, which argued that three factors are weakening our system of government: erosion of democratic norms; loss of confidence in our democratic system; and debasement of political conversations via social media.

Trump is the ringleader of these three destructive forces. Brooks finishes his column by saying, “Nothing is inevitable in life, but liberal democracy clearly ain’t going to automatically fix itself.”

So what can be done to remedy the situation?

The best short-term defense of democracy is voting for representatives who aren’t Trump lackeys. Even though I’m currently a registered Republican (I’ve been meaning to switch my registration to ‘Independent’ and write a blog titled Why I Used to Be a Republican), I tend to side with the argument of Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, who wrote recently that voters need to boycott Republicans in 2018.

The most definitive way to reject Trumpism is to reject the party he rode in on. Make conservatives re-group under a different banner.

The best long-term defense of democracy is to “arm and support” the population with a versatile civic education. We need to instill a deep respect for our founding documents, the norms and functions of democracy, and the values that underpin democracy in spite of its flaws

In the early Republic, education of future statesmen fell to the “Republican Mothers”, women who were educated for the primary purpose of training their male children in the traditions of democracy. We’ve evolved in terms of gender equality, but I’m afraid we have devolved in training the youth for future leadership.

Modern social studies curriculum is heavy on the sins of democracy, but light on its virtues. In my view as a social studies teacher, the long-held fears of the political left — an indoctrination of blind patriotism — has been inverted. The modern emphasis is not about the genius of the Constitution, or the balance of powers, or the functions and levers of citizens making an impact on policy. The emphasis is on the darkness: corruption, subjugation, imperialism. Yes, those things are part of our history, and continue today. But the balance has been tipped to a detrimental level. We’re more likely to produce an attitude of jadedness and helplessness than optimism and energetic civic participation.

Part of the problem is a lack of democracy or self-initiative in our schools. Teachers have little input into how education functions. They are at the mercy of administrators, who are pressured by demands of standardized tests, which are put into place by politicians who are largely disconnected from the realities of the classroom.

Our students have even less input, are shuffled through this top-down system by age group, year-by-year, and measured against each other — whoever best follows orders receives the highest rewards.

In the past month, we’re seeing both students and teachers walking out of schools. Students are protesting over safety issues, teachers are protesting low pay and terrible working conditions.

Upon reflection on the student activism in my two previous blog posts, my conclusion was that we need more freedom in schools to allow students to practice decision-making and taking self-initiative. Let the students practice democracy in their schools. 

But there’s also this: Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida is part of a school district that actively funds a variety of programs preparing students to participate in democracy. Their curriculum includes journalism and media, debate and extemporaneous speaking, drama and theatre, and civics. 

Armed with these skills and motivated by tragedy, the Parkland students are fearlessly advocating for change in the face of a deeply entrenched political stalemate.

This example allows me to imagine a new, positive direction in America.

Our priorities can be measured by levels of urgency, innovation, and funding. These factors have been severely lacking in American education, in contrast to the military responses we’ve seen in the past.

At the height of WWII, defense spending reached a peak of 41% of GDP. Our industrial economy worked overtime in the production of tanks, planes, bullets and bombs. After discovering atomic energy, the Manhattan Project commenced, rapidly spending billions to develop technology to destroy a city with a single bomb.

Urgency.

Our future well-being will not be won by military force, but with innovation and investment in education.

Experiments in Freedom

5-20-2013 protest school closures More than just a test score Sarah-ji

The high school student activists continued their march this week, appearing on a CNN town hall event, meeting with the President, and shepherding grassroots protests all over the nation, including two school walkouts in Arizona.

I continue to be inspired by this movement. More than anything, it’s causing me to further question the power dynamics at work in our schools.

Look at what’s going on. A random group of high school students — two weeks ago, they were being told what to read and turn in, and they had to ask permission to use the bathroom.

Two weeks ago, out of sheer boredom and a need for adventure or risk — anything different, really — teenagers were eating tide pods.

Now they’re fundraising, organizing, and mass-communicating. They are directing a movement that’s changing the national conversation and could potentially alter the entire political landscape.

What’s going on here?

They’ve got purpose. They’ve got autonomy. They’ve got responsibility.

Everyone in our society, and especially teachers or those in a position of power in education, should stop and think about the implications of this movement.

I want to reflect on two examples I’ve personally noticed.

A moment of freedom in class

The day after the shooting, I wanted to give my students space to talk and decompress and just chill with each other for a little bit. One day I gave them the option of making uplifting posters for our classroom with messages of love, belonging, and peace. Another day I invited them to write a short opinion piece about possible solutions to gun violence, email it to a PBS newscaster soliciting student input.

This is the scene I witnessed on Wednesday:

~Two students decided to write their opinion together. They spent the entire period discussing solutions, writing, looking up evidence to back up their opinion.

~One student decided to write it alone, interrupting himself only a few times to ask a question or chime in on a neighboring discussion.

~Five students got into a group and started discussing the differences between types of weapons, which is relevant in making any kind of ban. A wide-ranging and passionate discussion followed, which, by the end, had somehow morphed into a discussion about the differences between “sex” and “gender.”

~Two students decided to write a letter directly to the high schoolers in Florida. It was heartfelt and, in the words of one of the writers who seemed pleasantly surprised by the outcome, “poetic.”

~Four students sat together and seemed to be goofing around on Snapchat. Ordinarily I would have intervened, but on this day I let it slide. By the halfway point in the period, on their own volition, they started to write their opinions.

My takeaway: Students are perfectly capable of regulating themselves. They probably would get ten times as much from their education if they were allowed drastically more freedom and were not confined by the type, or even topic, of learning.

Two days on a bus with students

On Thursday I went on a field trip, an overnight trip to New Mexico to visit a few colleges.

The experience reminded me of how different the interactions can be with students outside the power structures of the classroom. All of a sudden, you see a different side of the students. The human side.

A teacher easily forgets that the classroom is an artificial and authoritarian power structure. You are in charge, the student is subordinate and must obey your orders out of threat of punishment. You dictate something of great importance — the grade, an official record that will help determine the future of this young person.

When you get to know a student outside of those walls, everything changes. A quiet student comes to life and starts cracking jokes. A defiant student starts to ask about your life. You learn that a student who struggled to concentrate in history class loves photography and has already started her own business.

My takeaway: We need to create more unstructured time within our educational institutions. We need to connect with each other on a more human level. Learning cannot be confined to what’s measured on a standardized test.

***

Some final thoughts.

Should these Florida students go back into their classrooms and take the rest of their required courses? Is it in their best interest — or in the best interest of the country — to have them spending their time, 8am – 3pm, taking direct instruction from teachers? Or spending their evenings doing math problems or writing five-paragraph essays?

They are learning infinitely more right now than they ever have in their institutional education. About accounting and budgeting. About functions and levers in government. About effective communication. You name it.

And now high school students across the country are following suit, organizing their own marches and walkouts. It’s beautiful.

What if all students were suddenly liberated to go explore their own interests and learn on their own terms?

What if our education system was designed around purpose, passion, and creativity?

Power, Politics, and Youth

When God’s call came to the prophet Jeremiah, he protested: “But God! I do not know how to speak. I am too young!”

God replied with encouragement: “Do not be afraid. Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.”

***

Righteous anger liken to Biblical prophets has been fueling the activity of high school students in Florida.

Their voices have emerged from the wilderness of hollow, hypocritical leadership we see from both Democrats and Republicans.

As Congress stumbles and fumbles, unable to pass a simple piece of legislation that the people want (like the Dream Act), as they pile on debt that young people will inherit, as they — well, let me just use the words of Parkland survivor Cameron Kaskey:

“We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around.”

If you didn’t see any of these students speaking over the weekend, or if you missed Emma Gonzalez’s rousing speech, you missed the arrival of the youngest and most authentic voices in politics.

They didn’t ask for this. They didn’t seek out the limelight. But they didn’t hesitate when tragedy put them on the national stage.

They’re speaking out and mobilizing. Since the shooting on February 14th, the students have organized themselves into groups and are planning marches and school walkouts. Among them have emerged compelling leaders and spokespersons — something missing from previous ‘hashtag’ movements we have seen.

Let’s put aside the gun control issue for a second. I know that’s the singular demand of this group right now — but to me there is a deeper and more important phenomenon at work.

So many of the mass shooters have had similar psychological profiles — disturbed, angry, depressed, troubled. Their resentment boiling for years before eventually getting the means and will to violently lash out.

When people talk about mental health, I’m always reminded of an important question asked by psychologist Abraham Maslow: What is actually “disordered,” the person or the environment? My first instinct is to look at the environment we have created, and question how it has impacted the emotional ecosystem.

Young people are largely disempowered. Yes, there are opportunities for leadership and decision-making, but these are small drops in an ocean of external pressures and requirements. Success is usually attained by way of compliance and submission. 

Some of those dynamics have always existed, but I think environments have become more structured and the external pressures have increased over time.

Young people who feel stressed, pressured, and powerless are going to react in different ways. Some schools have more supportive systems, some individuals have more supportive families. But everyone feels it.

Right now we are seeing students empowering themselves, and I think the effects could be huge. Not just potentially impacting policy, but inspiring young people across the country with a message. You are not helpless.

I know the adults will get nervous and politicians will try co-opting things for their own advantage. 

The young people will face challenges and make mistakes.

But they are already providing a sense of hope, belonging, and agency — the key ingredients missing from so many young lives.

What if Socrates Taught High School?

Socrates

Thought experiment.

Let’s say we reincarnated (or cloned) Socrates, brought him in to teach at an American high school.

Socrates shows up to class, sipping coffee, doesn’t know how to use the copy machine or the powerpoint, so just strikes up a conversation with his students. Learns about their 21st century world. Asks them questions to help them think more critically about their surroundings. Provokes insights, new ways of approaching modern issues. Students leave class each day inspired, curious, and excited for the next day’s conversation.

Let’s say an administrator shows up one day to evaluate Mr. Socrates. How would he be scored?

Inefficient use of instructional minutes. Classroom procedures need more structure. Objective not clearly stated or understood by students. Assessment methods are entirely absent.

After a year or two, drilled by technical professional development, Socrates finally learns how to teach effectively. He spends his summers writing out curriculum maps for the year, with specific learning objectives for each day. During the year he’s up late every night planning out his lessons minute by minute. He’s staying home all day Saturday grading his students’ writing assignments with a rubric, and entering grades in the grade book.

His evaluations have been stellar, but Socrates is burnt out. He’s always daydreaming about freeing himself from the grind of teaching.

Eventually he says, welp, I love education and stuff, but there’s really more to life than this. I’ve had enough.

His principal understands, is proud of his commitment to trying out the profession. He really did improve. Don’t worry, he will get a good reference when he applies for his next job.

Not everyone is cut out for the teaching life.

Teaching Social Studies in the Age of Trump

Classroom

The other day in U.S. history class we were reading about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in preparation for a class discussion on immigration.

The law is an example of a familiar trend. New populations enter the country, a result of American demand for labor and poor conditions abroad. We see a nativist backlash, which gets enacted into tougher immigration laws.

Teachers moderating such discussions in the classrooms of America in 2018 face a dilemma.

How much, if any, of your own views do you reveal? What do you say if a student asks directly for your views? What do you say if a student speaks harshly against Trump? What do you say if a student uses Trump’s method of personal attacks or generalizations?

How to teach social studies without being political is undoubtedly an old problem. This old problem takes on new weight in the Trump Era, where everyone is on edge and emotion fuels all public debates.

Politics in the classroom makes both sides a little skittish.

At the college level, conservatives get up in arms about liberal biases, and react by staging “free speech” rallies that have turned violent when protestors show up. UC Berkeley spent nearly $4 million in security at such events last year.

The outrage can be reversed. Recently in Arizona, liberals got up in arms about an allegedly biased economics class with links to the Koch brothers being taught in Tucson.

Ah, the power of education.

Good modern pedagogy tells me that we must start with with the endpoint. What’s the desired outcome? What’s the objective?

We want to develop critical, independent thinkers. No indoctrination. Let the kids learn to think for themselves.

There are a few different ways to approach this.

Option A: Balance. Present both sides. Don’t let the students know where you stand. Deflect any direct questions about viewpoints.

I think most teachers try to go with Option A. It’s the easiest needle to thread, and the least controversial.

Teachers fail at this when they don’t realize the depth of their own biases. They may only understand straw man arguments for the other side, and thus teach the weakest version of the side they disagree with, compared to the best evidence of their own stance. They might present one perspective with a different tone of voice, betraying their own opinions.

Another way you can get in trouble here is by showing news stories without critically evaluating every source. For example, teachers may show Fox News clips with a disclaimer, “this is right-wing media, boys and girls.” But then show Vox clips without a source disclaimer.

Especially in a polarized political climate, a social studies teacher needs to stay vigilant and self-aware in the face of competing rhetoric flooding the airwaves.

Option B: The Bait and Switch. Present one perspective strongly for an extended period, and then burst the bubble by showing certain flaws in that way of thinking.

This method keeps students guessing, and teaches them to think critically about even what their teachers say. It keeps them on their toes, as they should be if they want to stay critical thinkers beyond the walls of the classroom.

For example, in an economics class, you could drill the foundations capitalism until you’ve got a class full of students looking at market-based solutions to every problem. Then flip the script, drop some Bernie Sanders critiques, and leave them to make their minds up from there.

This approach is delicate. It takes organization and discipline. Like Option A, it requires the ability (and willingness) to teach the strengths of both sides of the argument.

Option C: Mr. Devil’s Advocate. Challenge every point of view.

Sometimes, when I sense my whole class coalescing around one point of view, I put on the “devil’s advocate” hat and pretend I believe the opposite to challenge the prevailing opinions. Sometimes I win converts, sometimes I just make them come up with better arguments.

This option works best if used sparingly. To encourage sharing and discussion, usually it’s better to invite and nurture each point of view. If someone contradicts a known fact, you can go with, I see where you’re coming from, but have you ever considered…

Always best to let the students challenge each other and you play he role of balanced moderator.

Can teachers share their own opinions? Ever?

I do think it’s OK for a teacher to share an opinion, as long as they clarify the evidence that forms the basis for the opinion, and concede a possible rebuttal…You know, I tend to be more of a protectionist because of X and Y, but Jacob made a great argument when he said A and B…

A good rule of thumb is to keep students in the dark to your political views. But in the example above, the teacher is modeling healthy, constructive discourse. If a teacher shares an opinion within the context of an open and critical learning environment, no big deal.

When Trump says something that would land a student in detention, I think it’s OK to call a spade a spade. If a student repeats it, send them to detention.

Teaching is an art form. There’s no standard way to stay neutral on controversial issues. The worst thing a teacher can do in this atmosphere is avoid the discussion altogether. The youth will soon inherit our democracy. If they are left alone to observe political dialogue happening online, God help us.

Podcast Episode: Who’s to Blame for the Shutdown?

Apologies to my email subscribers for the broken link last week. I had been writing a post about Trump’s buffoonery, and how it has not only infected most of the Republican party, but has also caused a downward spiral in our national discourse.

What started out as a measured, reflective piece turned into an emotional diatribe after the government shut down over DACA. Trump’s buffoonery was no longer an analytical matter for me — it was a direct obstacle preventing a policy I care deeply about, and it unleashed some ugly nativist rhetoric and manipulative arguments.

Needless to say, I deleted the post after calming down a bit. Emotional diatribes have their time and place — and perhaps now is the time — but my anger threw me off the original point of the blog post, and left me dissatisfied with the final product.

Linked (and streaming) below is the podcast we recorded this week. In the second half of the episode, you can listen to me explain my views on the Trump situation as it relates to DACA and the shutdown. In the first half, my dad explains why the Senate filibuster rule may be the true culprit of congressional dysfunction.

A Dose of Awareness

“Disarmed, everybody has to be disarmed.”

Anthony De Mello rejected as foolish the effort people make to change. It was the effort part that got to him, the idea of trying to change.

The psychologist and Jesuit priest saw too much effort, not enough awareness.

People trying to change into different versions of themselves for the sake of others. People wanting to hear more compliments. People trying to feel less judgement from what they imagine other people must be thinking.

We’re programmed, De Mello would say, and we need to be disarmed.

The only way to actually change is to increase self-awareness. Know thyself. Without judgement.

“The fact of the matter is that you’re neither O.K. or not O.K. You may fit the current mood or trend or fashion! Does that mean you’ve become O.K.? Does your O.K.-ness depend on that? You’re not O.K. and you’re not not O.K. … you’re you.”

It’s not even a matter of practicing awareness. “Resolving” to be more aware would defeat the point. Because you would try to do this or that, forget to do it, and then it’s self-judgement all over again. Frustration of trying to be a new different version of yourself, and failing.

It’s not something you do, it’s just a way of being. Noticing thoughts, feelings, desires.

“Cut out all of the O.K. stuff and the not- O.K. stuff; cut out all the judgements and simply observe, watch. You’ll make great discoveries. These discoveries will change you. You won’t have to make the slightest effort, believe me.”

It’s about solving the problem of you, which isn’t really a problem at all.

“Until then, we’re going to get nowhere.”