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.


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?

What if Socrates Taught High School?


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.

My Educational Philosophy


The following is a reflection I wrote for a professional development class. Figured I might as well hit two birds with one stone and post it on a blog.

On when I knew I wanted to be a teacher

I first knew I might become a teacher when I was working as a teacher assistant in college. Grading papers, getting asked by peers whether I was teacher, it felt cool. When grading papers was my only responsibility, it seemed kind of fun. Now I hate it. Later on, when I started coaching basketball, I got fired up on education and working with young people.

On my early experiences as a teacher

The summer before my first year I was preparing to teach by trying to write out all of my lecture notes. I had no idea what it meant to be a teacher or what it would be like. The first two weeks were a disaster. Vivid memories of bombing a 70 minute class, sweating and nervous. It was overwhelming. It wasn’t until the following year when I really felt comfortable in calling myself a “real” teacher.

On the problem of educational inequity 

I believe educational inequality exists partly because we try to force a one-size-fits-all approach onto the entire system. Students have different needs, different desires and different perspectives on the world. We give everyone in the state the same standardized test and declare half the state “above average” and the other half “below average.”

The differences in educational attainment across society are pretty much lined up to socioeconomic differences. The problem of poverty is multifaceted and has numerous effects. Our education system is unmoved by these differences. The same approach is supposed to work for everyone (and perhaps this is the noble goal of public education).

Problem is that it’s harder to instill “behavior management” in a low-income classroom (behavior management being the necessary vehicle to instill a standardized education). Therefore teachers get frustrated and leave more often. Thus, the students don’t trust their teachers and are less likely to develop bonds, feel safe, take risks, and grow.

Money and resources are problems. But declaring this monolithic thing “education” and forcing it on different types of people…there are always going to be inequalities.

My theory of learning

I think real learning happens when a person finds it personally meaningful. Day after day, students are forced to complete mindless assignments that don’t have any importance on their lives, and probably never will. When I was growing up, I completed all my assignments because I had to, and developed a compulsive need to “get it done.” Most of the time I didn’t think twice about what I was doing. I rushed through to get it done at the last minute and moved on to the next thing. It wasn’t until college that I found something academic I wanted to learn (because it became personally meaningful). So I learned it. Then I taught that subject and learned twice as much about it.

How this affects students in school

Students don’t care about 90% of what they’re told to do in school. As a result, they are going to forget 90% of what they’re supposedly learning in school. They’ll retain some basic skills, no doubt. But really, they are trapped in a coercive system where they must follow the orders of adults and complete a bunch of paperwork to graduate. Best case scenario, someone gets fired up on a certain subject area — maybe it’s math, maybe it’s science, maybe it’s English or an elective — and are inspired to pursue it more on their own. That, and the relationships, are what ends up mattering in our schools. Everything else is just a game played for upward social mobility.

On teaching successfully 

If a student leaves my class inspired to work with the subject matter on their own, I have succeeded, because I have presented or articulated the material in a way that personally connected to the student. In my economics class, I can be successful if a student puts lessons into action in the real world. I just talked to two former students, one has already started a 401k because he learned the power of compound interest, the other one bought a cheap used car instead of a new one, to avoid a car payment. In both of those cases, the lessons made an impact because the material mattered to their lives.

That’s easy with lessons on personal finance taught to seniors in high school. How do you do the same thing with algebra? With reading novels? With chemistry? My own solution is that students should have some control over what they learn. If you force a student to read something they don’t want to read, most of the time they end up copying someone else’s answers. Or failing. You can be as inspirational as you want, you’re not going to find 32 kids in a class who all want to learn the same thing at the same time. Even if you can convince them all to do the work, it won’t matter if they don’t care. Because they won’t retain, or be able to apply, any of the material. For every example of a student who’s saving for retirement at age 19, there’s another one who got an ‘A’ on the personal finance test and then bought an iPhone X on credit.

You can encourage and you can inspire and you can facilitate another person’s learning. You can’t create a pre-packaged “curriculum” and force it into everyone’s head.

My approach to teaching

I suppose the most important thing that a teacher can do is make their subject matter relevant to the lives of the students. That’s my approach. Try to sell it, make it meaningful, and provide opportunities to explore and learn and grow within the subject matter. In history, that’s thinking critically about social events and making arguments. My job is to gather material, prepare activities and provide feedback and encouragement as they develop those skills.

In terms of behavior management I try to create a safe place for people to pursue that learning. You can never force someone to care or put in their full effort — but you can keep them from distracting others and hurting the learning atmosphere of the class.

I believe that this positive approach is, in the grand scheme of things, better than the drill sergeant approach, which may cause more students to answer more multiple choice questions correctly, but which does not promote applied understanding or inspire a love of learning.

Libraries are Underrated

burton barr
Burton Barr Reading Room

Burton Barr, the downtown Phoenix library, recently suffered extensive damage after a monsoon storm broke through the roof, drenching books and equipment. It has now been closed for over a week.

Upon hearing the news, I’m sure most people got sentimental. Poor library. Too bad. The news probably served as a reminder, for many, that libraries still exist.

With the world at our fingertips, who needs a physically-housed information center? These archaic institutions where people talk in whispered conversations.

But what more sacred a space exists today than a library, where people of all ages and backgrounds voluntarily show up to work and learn and socialize?

There are 225 public libraries in Arizona.

There’s even a library in Wickenburg. The Wickenburg Public Library has a livelier atmosphere — people talking on the phone, setting up job interviews, pouring over bills on the table. People clicking and tapping on desktop computers. There’s a youth section, where over the summer I saw one room of teenagers playing video games, another room of younger kids quietly studying books.

The Phoenix library system has coding classes, summer reading programs, discussion groups, and genealogy classes to help adults trace their family histories.   

Each library holds local characteristics. Burton Barr houses unique documents of Arizona’s history. I browsed the Flagstaff Public Library earlier this summer and saw several collections of Native American history specific to Northern Arizona.

Benjamin Franklin invented the community library in America. He was always wanting for books, and it was an occasion to stumble upon a new collection. In his autobiography he describes meeting people who were “lovers of books.” He would make conversation with these folks, hoping to glean something new from the books they had read. In Philadelphia, he had made acquaintances with fellow lovers of books, each holding a small collection. Franklin thought it in their best interest to rent a room to store the books, allowing individuals to borrow from others as desired.

To expand the concept, he created a subscription library, collecting money to purchase more books. Eventually, the American library system expanded, turned into a public service, where now anyone can get a library subscription for free, with access to computers and the internet, daily newspapers, magazines on any subject, the ability to check out and take home movies, music, TV shows, and, of course, books.

When we think of “public education” we almost always think about “public schooling,” yet as education writer Heather McDonald points out, these two terms are not interchangeable. She argues that we mistakenly invest too much energy into public schooling, to the detriment of public education.

Community libraries serve a vital role for an educated public. Let’s not take them for granted.

Making the Best of a Broken System

In my last post I defended the new Arizona law decreasing requirements for teacher certification. My point was basically: subject experts who are capable of teaching should be invited into our classrooms, not forced to take ineffectual teacher training courses.

Not to say that teaching is easy, just that it isn’t brain surgery. You can afford to struggle and learn from experience; you will eventually improve and become effective in the classroom. No one will die in the process. Kids might learn more from witnessing your determination than they would from a perfectly executed geography lesson.

Teaching will test your wits and drain your soul. The classroom atmosphere is supercharged with bundles of emotion. Because kids are powerless, the classroom often becomes a power struggle. What kind of teacher will you be? Because most kids wouldn’t voluntarily be doing what you are telling them to do, coercion is required. Will you be an authoritarian or a genteel motivator? Almost every minute of the day, a teacher makes a decision that impacts the psychic dynamic of the group. How to answer an off-topic question. Whether to let someone go to the bathroom during a lesson.

I’ve started to read Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt, an Irish immigrant who ends up teaching at a New York vocational school for 30 years. (Also the author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis.) He perfectly captures the classroom dynamic in his narratives. And he started teaching in 1958! Shows you how sturdy the education system has been.

He’re a riff about the role of the teacher:

In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

Show me a certification program that prepares you for that, and I’ll sign up.

Another anecdote perfectly captures the problem with “teacher education.” On his first day in the classroom, Mr. McCourt encounters this scene:

Petey threw his brown-paper sandwich bag at the critic, Andy, and the class cheered. Fight, fight, they said. Fight, fight. The bag landed on the floor between the blackboard and Andy’s front-row desk.

I came from behind my desk and made the first sound of my teaching career: Hey. Four years of higher education at New York University and all I could think of was Hey.

I said it again. Hey.

They ignored me. They were busy promoting the fight that would kill time and divert me from any lesson I might be planning. I moved toward Petey and made my first teacher statement, Stop throwing sandwiches. Petey and the class looked startled. This teacher, new teacher, just stopped a good fight. New teachers are supposed to mind their own business or send for the principal or a dean and everyone knows it’s years before they come. Which means you can have a good fight while waiting. Besides, what are you gonna do with a teacher who tells you stop throwing sandwiches when you already threw the sandwich?

The full story is hilarious. After an internal monologue about what to do about this sandwich on the floor, McCourt ends up picking up the sandwich himself and eating it in front of the class. His students were impressed, but he winds up talking to the principal after school.

The principal doesn’t know the whole story, assumes McCourt decided to eat his own lunch in the morning instead of teaching class.

McCourt smiles and nods in his conversation with the principal, but he really wants to explain why he did it, and that… “there was nothing in the courses at college on sandwiches, the throwing and retrieving of.”

Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.

I think the same would be said by teachers getting started in today’s classrooms.

If I were elected King of the Education World, I would blow up the whole system and start from scratch. In that vein, any chipping away of this dinosaur system, like relaxing teacher certification laws, is most welcome.

The Teacher Certification Debate

Teacher protests at the Arizona State Capitol.

Arizona just passed a law reducing the requirements to become a classroom teacher. Before the new law, teachers needed formal training to become state certified. Now, as long as you have relevant experience in the subject, you can lead a classroom. The school districts and principals decide who is qualified.

Public education stalwarts are freaking out. How can you lower standards for teachers?

It even got national coverage. An article in the Washington Post said the new law “plays into a misconception that anyone can teach if they know a particular subject and that it is not really necessary to first learn about curriculum, classroom management, and instruction.”

Let’s examine whether this is a misconception or not.

Granted — not everyone who knows a subject will be a good teacher of the subject. Teaching is an inter-personal art form. An experimental scientist does not automatically make a good 8th grade science teacher.

However — Bill Nye the Science Guy would probably make an excellent 8th grade teacher. Why prevent a subject expert from teaching a class if the principal of the school, an education expert, thinks this person would be an effective teacher? A teaching candidate goes through an interview process, and usually teaches a sample lesson, before getting hired. We can trust a principal to hire someone who displays teaching competency.

During debate about the lax regulation, an Arizona congressman asked, “are there alternative pathways to become a surgeon, dentist, or lawyer?”


But shouldn’t there be an alternative pathway for a former surgeon to teach high school biology? We’re really going to make a lawyer take classes on “curriculum” before teaching government?

Let’s be real. Teaching is not brain surgery. If you are organized, have the desire and some interpersonal skills, you can figure it out. In a well-functioning school, a new teacher will have guidance and support to figure it out.

I’ve taught seven different subjects over five years at the high school level. Because I’ve worked in private and charter schools, I am not certified in Arizona. Under the old laws, I would have to go back to school, pay a bunch of money for courses in curriculum and classroom management before teaching in a public district.

My first year was a struggle, but I adapted, read about strategies, learned from other teachers, and figured out a teaching style that worked for me and my students.

And here’s the thing. Everyone struggles their first year, regardless of their training or level of certification. The first year is notoriously challenging for everyone. All veteran teachers say you have to figure it out with experience.

Teacher education programs are like getting ready for a basketball season by making players watch powerpoint presentations on dribbling and shooting. You wrote an essay last month about defensive footwork, remember? Why can’t you stop these guys?!

In fairness, I’ve never gone through a certification program. Maybe it’s a blast. My perception is that it teaches you cryptic teacher lingo so you can understand what’s going on in faculty meetings.

Lots of factors are causing a teacher shortage in Arizona. If teaching paid more, more people would be willing to teach. If working conditions changed, reducing stress and improving work-life balance, more people would be willing to teach.

I see the certification debate as tangential to the main factors causing the shortage. It won’t solve the problem, nor will it lower the quality of education. It’s more of a morality and common sense thing. If someone can teach, don’t force them to jump through hoops to do it.