2022-11-26 Let’s Talk Gratitude

It is the weekend after Thanksgiving, and by now we’ve been – and continue to be – exhorted by every opinion writer in the English-speaking world to “give thanks for our blessings.” In other words, we are asked to “feel grateful,” i.e. “feel gratitude.”

This sense is most often urged upon us at the individual level in the sense of “count your blessings.” There’s a standard list of things we checklist here: Do you enjoy good health? Check, feel gratitude. Are you surrounded – not just at the holidays, but generally – by a loving family? Check, feel gratitude. Do you have good friends with whom you enjoy good times? Check, feel gratitude.

Most opinion writers/ op-ed columnists/ bloggers may stop there, as if health, a stable and loving family, and friends – all of which belong to the personal sphere of well-being – came out of nowhere (poof!) and are simply goods bequeathed us by chance. In fact, we often implicitly acknowledge this when we say “I’m so lucky to have x, y, z.”  

Let’s continue our checklist by widening the individual net a bit.   

Do you have a job that (a) pays you enough to live comfortably for the foreseeable future? (b) is secure? (c) provides you with a sense that what you do to make a living makes your life meaningful?

Are you in debt for college loans you’ve taken out? How much of your gross income goes to loan repayment each month?

Do you have health insurance that adequately covers both yourself and your family members?

Do you have enough savings put aside to cover a medical emergency (i.e. can you meet the costs of your deductible each year, assuming you’re insured?) Can you afford car repairs if your car breaks down or you’re in an accident?

Do you live in a home that (a) is owned outright or (b) has an affordable mortgage? Can you heat and cool that home adequately throughout the year? Is it insured in case of a man-made or natural disaster?  

If you have all these in addition to health, a loving family, and good friends, then your reasons for feeling gratitude are substantially increased.

Now let’s look at a few bigger-picture checklist items.

Does the city-town-village where you live provide good services, namely safe and welcoming public schools, well-stocked libraries, reliable transport, parks and recreational facilities, exercise and sports opportunities, humane care for the disabled-elderly, and a high level of public safety?

Is the neighborhood-community-region where you live environmentally intact, that is, do you enjoy the benefits of clean soil for your children to play in, clean air for them – and you – to breathe, and clean water in abundance for drinking and other household-related uses?

Do you enjoy the benefits of a trustworthy and honest government at all levels, from local to national? Do you feel your School Board/City Council members, your state representatives and senators, and your federal-level representatives well and truly represent you and your fellow-citizens?

Is your country characterized by a moderate political climate, one in which there may be differing views about how to address the major issue of the 21st century, but where there is a general consensus about what that issue is?

Does your community/ state/ country plan to invest heavily in climate-resilient infrastructure over the coming decades? Examples here would include new heating/cooling/insulation infrastructure (=non-carbon sources of energy and energy conservation), transportation infrastructure, and water infrastructure.

Is your country experiencing a time of peace, or is it embroiled in one or more conflicts at home or abroad? The answer to this question affects whether your country can financially justify the massive investment needed to adapt to a climatically-uncertain future.

Our point here is that “gratitude,” while characterized as a personal-individual feeling (the sense of having been granted some “good” without any particular expectation of reciprocation, or perhaps even without the possibility for reciprocation, in contrast to the sense of “indebtedness,” where there is a requirement for reciprocation), does not really come to us by chance, but rather as the culmination of factors and circumstances in which we as individuals play only bit parts. And if the foundations of personal gratitude aren’t laid at the communal level, well, the chances of being able to experience gratitude become commensurately smaller at the individual level.  

Let’s imagine the case of someone who enjoys all – or nearly all – of the benefits listed above. Starting at the macro level, they live in a country that’s at peace, which allows it to invest substantially in addressing climate change (new forms of energy, resilient public and private structures, mass transportation), and where there’s agreement all along the political spectrum from left to right that that is the top priority for the country and its residents.

As a result of this nature-driven but politically-indispensable decision, there is plenty of work to be done, and jobs are readily available. Wages enable all to survive adequately if not luxuriously; the housing stock is refurbished and rendered resilient – and new housing is built to specifications designed to survive extreme weather fluctuations. New sources of energy are affordable and clean, or at least far cleaner than carbon-based energy was. Environmental pollutants and heavily-toxic areas (so-called “dead zones”) are rigorously regulated by the EPA so that no child or adult is exposed to excessive doses of carbon-based fumes, heavy metals, or other toxic chemicals.

Cities, towns, and small communities, buoyed economically by world-scale public investment in climate resiliency and a cleaner environment, become better able to fund core public services, which themselves have been made climate-resilient. Some of these services are communal (schools, libraries, parks, mass transit), while others are focused on the individual (care for the disabled and elderly).

In this hypothetical scenario, no one goes hungry (including children, of course). No one has to choose between food and life-saving medicine or medical treatment. No one is evicted from their rental housing because rents are automatically linked to income. No one’s health or home is left uninsured. “Education for all” means, literally, free education for all.

For some of us, the baseline requirements if human life is to continue through this and into the next century are sufficiently satisfied at the micro level that we have the wherewithal to enjoy good health, the means to bring up our families in a secure and warm (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) environment, and sufficient leisure to cultivate friendships throughout most of our lives. We live in “good” (and environmentally intact) neighborhoods; we can survive comfortably on a single income – or two, if we’re married – and have 8 of each 24 hours to devote to our spouse or significant other and family. And that margin of financial security also enables us to devote time to recreational and volunteer activities, to groups whose interests mirror our own, and thus to cultivating long-term friendships among those with whom we come into frequent, regular contact.

It turns out that “gratitude” is more complicated than we might initially have imagined – there’s actually a minimal prerequisite even for health, family, and friendship that doesn’t depend on us alone.  

But because gratitude is normally seen as a purely individual feeling – and in that, it accords conveniently with the highly individualistic, atomistic nature of contemporary western society – we rarely if ever pause to consider how much it depends on factors beyond our individual control. Too often, gratitude devolves into an attitude of “Thanks be, I’ve got mine,” as we conveniently ignore the fact that many millions of our fellow human beings haven’t got theirs.

Why doesn’t this sense that we’re alright (which gives rise to “gratitude”) while others are suffering (not because they’re “ungrateful,” but because they have precious little cause for “gratitude”) engender another profound sense within us – namely, that of shame? Shame that while we may rise, others will not?

Out of shame, that oppressive sense that somehow we have transgressed both the social and ethical/moral law, another sense often arises: that of anger.

And out of anger – like shame, an uncomfortable emotion and one we’d often like to eradicate – comes action, action that might lead to millions (billions) of our fellow-humans’ being able to feel the same gratitude that we feel over this holiday weekend.

Feeling gratitude for all the good things one has been given (always keeping in mind, however, that these good things are a “gift,” not a “given) isn’t wrong; gratitude soothes our pain over inevitable loss and makes it possible for us to face the future with a lighter heart.

But surely there is space in the contemporary Western psyche for other feelings, among them shame, anger, and a will to act that others might also be given these gifts we so appreciate.

Let’s not let our sense of gratitude get in the way of righteous anger – because righteous anger might just lead to action, and action to saving both our planet and ourselves from devastation.

2022-10-29 A Tale of Two Films: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

From 1957 to 1992 to 2022: Three Generations of Social Mores

Angela Lansbury passed away on October 11, just 5 days short of her 97th birthday. A major stage, film, and television presence for 70 years, she was best known to American audiences as Jessica Fletcher in the long-running television mystery series “Murder, She Wrote” (1984-1996), one of the most successful Sunday-night shows in U.S. television. The series also garnered Lansbury herself ten Golden Globe nominations (four wins) and twelve Emmy nominations, the most any actress has ever gained in the category of “Lead/Best Actress in a Drama Series.”

In 1992, Lansbury starred in a slight little made-for-TV film called “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.” The film, in which Lansbury played the character of Ada Harris, charwoman extraordinaire and determined devotee of haute couture, was based on an equally-slight though enormously popular novel (novella, really) by the writer Paul Gallico, who published his post-War fairy tale in 1958; the story itself was set in 1953 (1992 version, which opens in the season of the Queen’s Coronation Ball) and 1957 (both film versions conclude just after the 1957 Dior collection; Dior himself died in October of that same year).

In 2022, the film was remade (with some changes to the plot, although the overall arc remains the same), with the actress Lesley Manville assuming the lead role.

Somewhat oddly, the reviews we’ve resorted to in order to test the temper of the critics this time round did not make reference to Lansbury’s 1992 film, although there were passing references to the original novel on which both movies are based. Admittedly, Lansbury was still alive when the 2022 film was released, and film critics are not paid to write in-depth analyses of the prototype and its remakes. But we – being neither a critic nor paid – rushed right home to view the 1992 version immediately after the cinema, and below we offer some observations.

In 1957, Britain was continuing to recover from World War II; in fact, fabric (among many other things) was still being rationed. Poverty and wealth brushed shoulders in the mansions of the rich, where poor women (“charwomen” in 1992, updated to “cleaners” in 2022) entered for a few hours each day to straighten, dust, polish, wax – they didn’t do the “rough” work, but rather the daily upkeep. Ada Harris, a World War II war widow (twelve years on, Ada’s husband’s death still hasn’t been confirmed in the opening scenes in the 2022 version), is such a one. She lives in a basement bed-sitter in Battersea, commuting by bus with her close friend and fellow-char Vi Butterfield.

In the earlier version, Ada is in one of her regular clients’ mansion one day when she comes upon two ball gowns recently purchased by her employer, who is invited to the coronation ball (the year is 1953). She asks Ada for advice about which to wear, and Ada – ever practical and well-up on the Queen’s preferences during the 1950s – proposes the pale blue gown (indeed one of Elizabeth II’s favorite colors when she was passing through her “pastel” phase).

There is a similar scene (many of the 1992 film’s scenes are re-enacted, though with subtle changes) in the 2022 version; this time, however, there’s only one dress for which Ada’s employer had paid 500 pounds (“500 quid!” Ada repeats in astonishment). No mention is made of the coronation ball (is it even 1953? Perhaps not), but the gown’s pastel colors are those of the 1950s. Here though, Ada has a word to say to her employer Lady Dant (played by the ever-recognizable Anna Chancellor, aka “Duckface” in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” [1994]), who hasn’t been paying her regularly. She’s put off by Lady Dant, who is rich but seems to believe her cleaner doesn’t really need her wages. The casual cruelty is straight out of 2022 Downing Street every day of the week.

From that point on, Ada (i.e. both Ada-Lansbury and Ada-Manville) becomes obsessed with owning that supreme object of desire, a Christian Dior dress. Where and how can a charwoman/cleaner amass a sum of that magnitude? Scrimping and saving are emphasized in the 1992 version, plus a tad of luck. There’s less scrimping and saving in 2022 (how much would be necessary for a £500  dress that today has an estimated value of £500,000?) and a lot more luck. Ada-Manville is fond of the races – not horse races, but greyhound races – and she bets all her savings (£100) on a raggedy, scraggly hound named “Haute Couture” (Hah!). Her bookie, Eddie (more of him later), tries to dissuade her, but nothing doing. Haute Couture of course comes in last, but Eddie – who is Ada-Manville’s quasi-love interest – has, unbeknownst to her, held back £10, placed it on a sure winner, and Ada ends up with considerably more than she’d brought to the track. Both Lansbury and Manville find a diamond brooch on the ground, turn it in, and receive rewards from the owners (in 1992, £25 for a piece “worth thousands”), but Manville’s Ada has an additional piece of luck.

The war references are different for the heroines in the two films. Ada-Lansbury’s beloved husband was exposed to mustard gas in the “Great War” (40 years previously), while Ada-Manville’s equally-beloved husband was a pilot in the war from which Britain was still rebuilding in the fifties; he was shot down and pronounced missing, but the dreaded telegram only arrived more than a decade later when his remains were discovered. Much to her shock, a young officer visits her one day to announce that she’s now entitled to a “war widow’s pension” (yes, once upon a time Great Britain had a social welfare state). And so …

Off to Paris they go, each in search of their dream dress (in actuality, their dreams) at the famed House of Dior. Both women, predictably, get lost in their search for 57, Avenue Montaigne where Dior had opened his operation a decade earlier. Here, the 2022 film introduces several elements of stark realism: Ada-Manville is directed to Dior by three homeless men (no, they’re not flâneurs), who obligingly offer her a swig of wine before she sets out (on foot – Ada-Lansbury has the francs for a taxi). When she arrives at the couturier’s – massive, pristine, white – the surrounding streets are awash in overflowing garbage due to a strike (ingeniously linked to the plot later in the film).

Both women magically arrive on the day on which one of the twice-yearly shows is set to begin; both are treated disrespectfully by Management, at least until they pull out the rolled-up pounds from their handbags and throw them down – a challenge and a temptation, as it turns out that the House of Dior’s clients aren’t as prompt with their payments as charwomen. The fact that both Lansbury and Manville come armed with cash is treated as a rare event, fervently desired but rarely experienced.

[Note: Dior did in fact have a hard time remaining financially solvent in the fifties; he himself died of a heart attack in the year when the story is set, and the House was rescued by the introduction of prêt-a-porter – in the U.S. in the late forties, where it was referred to as “off the rack,” and in France in the 1960s. Prêt-a-porter was designed for a different market, the upper middle class – wives of professional men, and today, women professionals. It turned out that the buyers’ market for an enterprise that employed 700 seamstresses across 15 workshops needed to be larger than the wives of the 1%, which is a lesson trickle-down advocates should have taken to heart 30 years ago.]

The 1992 show, where Ada-Lansbury is seen more sympathetically by the “Directrice” (masterfully played by a haughty-but-ultimately-humane Diana Riggs) once she’s plumped down several rolls of bills on the small desk in the reception room, includes an appearance by none other than Princess Margaret, to whom Lansbury directs a deep bow (to the embarrassment of other attendees – so gauche!); there are no princesses present in the 2022 version, just women with scads of money accompanied – or not – by their husbands or paramours. The Marquis de Chassagne kindly accompanies Ada to her seat (in the front row, no less) – a role beautifully enacted by Omar Sharif in the 1992 film. More of the Marquis later.

The dress, the dress – for both women, it comes down to #89, “Temptation.” Each Dior dress (around 170 in total for an actual show) was baptized. The 2022 film, which was produced on a much bigger budget than the made-for-TV film, includes a range of recreated pieces from the actual 1957 season. The film’s costume designer Jenny Beavan (who’s received 11 Academy Awards for costume design) was given access to the House of Dior’s archives and recreated with the help of master cutters around 20 of the actual show’s designs. It’s a pretty spectacular cavalcade of beautiful models and even-more-beautiful dresses for every occasion.

The dresses chosen by each Ada, #89, were different: Ada-Lansbury’s was a pastel pink confection, Ada-Manville’s is a deep blood red tea gown (Dior, a superstitious man, considered red his lucky color and included at least one red dress in each show) in the signature “fit and flare” cut for which the designer was renowned. But in Ada-Manville’s case, we learn that Dress #89 has already been promised to a wealthy repeat patron, and since each dress was produced for only one client, Manville must settle for her second choice, Dress #73 (“Venus”), in forest green (so, Christmas colors).

When the two Adas learn that their dress will require 3 (then 2, then 1) weeks to produce – they hadn’t understood that they couldn’t just buy the dress used for the show and head off – despair ensues. The solution in each case is for Ada to stay with Dior’s young and eligible accountant, André Flauvel, whose sister is conveniently out of town.

André provides one of the love interests in both films – Ada is a born match- and peace-maker – as he is hopelessly smitten by Dior’s most beautiful model, Natasha. In the 1992 version, Natasha confides to Ada that André is “boring” like all accountants – she’s dating an older and clearly richer man initially – but she also confides that her life’s dream is to marry a man who loves her and have lots of children with him (surely closer to the 1957 mindset than the 1992 one).  The 2022 Natasha has been radically updated – she reads Sartre at every opportunity, a taste she happily (or unhappily, given that it’s Sartre) shares with André. There’s no mention of her childbearing aspirations – rather, she wants to drop out of modeling and attend university to study Existentialism.

A telling little detail about the Natasha-and-André affaire: in the 1992 version, Natasha is car-less, while André has a modest little convertible; in the 2022 version, Natasha has the cute convertible and André, a motorcycle – perhaps reflecting the salaries of supermodels today versus those of accountants.

In any case, Ada gets to stay a week longer thanks to André and Natasha’s – and everyone else’s – generosity. In both films, she has fittings (fun!) and spends the rest of her days and evenings getting to know gay Paris: in the 1992 adaptation, she, André, and Natasha spend an evening at the Parisian equivalent of a beer garden (Natasha refers to it as a taste of “le vrai Paris”), while in 2022 they visit what appears to be the Folies Bergère – a cabaret-style music hall where the music is loud and the costumes, scanty. There is also further contact with the Marquis de Chassagne, involving a common love of flowers in 1992 (Ada’s late husband had been a gardener in London) and a love of flowers + in 2022.

The widowed Marquis in both versions is extremely rich, but also a prince of a fellow instinctively drawn to Ada’s kindness and humanity. In the earlier version, he invites her to his office (he’s the “Minister without Portfolio”) for an elegant luncheon accompanied by champagne; in the 2022 version there’s none of that. But in both, he explains to Ada why he was drawn to her: she reminds him of the kindly charwoman at his school in England when he was a little tyke. He called her “Mrs. Mops.” There’s a considerable difference in the reactions here. Ada-Lansbury takes it well (in fact, her nickname at Dior will henceforth be “Mrs. Mops”); Ada-Manville doesn’t – she’d had feelings for the Marquis, and those feelings are dashed as the hard reality of the class divide crushes her dreams of incipient romance (all this apparent in just a few seconds of following Manville’s facial expressions in 2022 – she’s a masterful actor). Ada-Lansbury, on the other hand, delves deeper into the Marquis’ private life – it turns out that he is nearby the flower market to watch his daughter and granddaughter emerge from the latter’s school each day – they are estranged for reasons left vague. Lansbury’s character reunites them, of course; there is joy all round, and the reasons for estrangement vanish in an instant.

A week passes, during which both Adas manage to clean André’s messy flat, Ada-Lansbury with the active assistance of her Natasha, who has no qualms about getting down on her hands and knees and scrubbing and waxing the floors ‘til they shine; The 2022 Natasha is less involved in the cleaning endeavor. Another interesting (telling? again, who knows?) detail: when André goes shopping for provisions in 1992, he returns with a single bag of food; in 2022, he returns with two. It’s still 1957, mind you, but prosperity’s arrived in the world of Parisian accountants.

The 2022 version includes another two plot twists before Ada-Manville departs for London: first, that pesky garbage strike – it turns out that the arrogant and rude client who’d gotten first dibs on Dress #89 was the wife of the owner of the garbage collection company whose workers were on strike – her husband had been skimming funds from the company’s coffers, and thus workers weren’t getting paid their fair wages. She also hadn’t been paying her Dior bills, which was apparently a not-uncommon habit in 1957 and, probably, in 2022 as well. And so, “Temptation” is again available.

Near the end of Ada-Manville’s sojourn in Paris, Dior announces that he’s letting go many of his seamstresses and other support personnel. Ada-Manville is having none of that, and she leads a protest of all the workshop’s employees to the office of the Maître himself, accompanied by the rather hapless but intelligent accountant André, who’s had an idea about how to rescue the House of Dior from inevitable financial ruin. The seamstresses crowd into the office; André is allowed to have his say, and the Great Man himself listens – and thus is rescued the House of Dior.

(Note: There’s a bit of temporal compression here, of course, but in fact Dior was in dire financial straits by the late fifties, after a decade’s operation; it was only by expanding to ready-to-wear for the upper middle class, and into other fashion-adjacent production lines such as fragrances [“Miss Dior” and so on], handbags, etc. – that the name survived. But the expansion happened in a somewhat different sequence than that delineated in the film.)

Finally, our Adas can return to London, Dior dress safely tucked away in their single suitcase. But wait, there’s another problem – import duties, to wit 6 shillings per pound, a total of £165 for poor Ms. Lansbury (who’d arrived in Paris with a total of £9). The scenario solves this in a very adroit way at Customs – it’s one of the cleverest scenes in the 1992 film. There’s no issue with Customs in the 2022 version (nobody wants to witness Brexit-in-action these days), so Ada-Manville arrives safely home with Dress #73.

But where is Ada to wear such a dress in 1957 London, in Battersea no less? In the 1992 version, it’s a little unclear whether she ever wears it or not – when her friend-and-colleague Vi Butterfield protests that the dress is useless because Ada will never have an opportunity to wear it, Ada insists that she has worn it – her friends in Paris have held a ball in her honor before departure. But was the flashback to the “ball” real or imaginary? We are left guessing.

Ada-Manville’s dress has a more complicated adventure upon return. One of Ada’s clients, a Marilyn Monroe wannabe and client named Pamela Penrose, is invited to an event by a man who could/might advance her career – but she has nothing to wear! Ada loans her #73, only for Pamela to head straight for a burning fireplace in the course of her big evening – poor #73 catches fire (also, poor Pamela) and is ruined. Tragedy and heartbreak ensue.

But be still, my heart: the tragedy of a Dior dress’s destruction makes the society pages, which in turn make their way to Paris, and a plot is hatched by the Dior team: Dress #89 is remade to Ada-Manville’s measurements (they’ve kept them, of course), and the beautiful creation is sent to Battersea along with a bouquet of flowers (Dior was very fond of flowers himself, his favorite being the delicately-scented lily of the valley; each of his fragrances contains at least a hint of Dior’s childhood spent in his Mother’s garden).

And Manville gets to wear her dress for real: she dons it for a dance at the Battersea local community center, where the camera allows her a grand entrance down a rickety staircase. And lo and behold, Archie (her bookie) is love-struck at the sight of her. Manville, now officially a war widow, will have her second chance at love.

It is said of great works of foreign-language literature that they deserve a new translation each generation. Language, like living organisms, evolves, and new readers deserve to read the masters in a translation resembling their own idiom. Here we have a novel set in the post-WW II generation, filmed for television a generation later, and filmed for the screen a generation after this.

Generally speaking, the 1992 version is far closer to the ethos and social mores of 1957: Ada is a kind, poor widow who accepts her lot in life, i.e. cleaning the homes of the prosperous. She endures additional privation for three years to be able to purchase her dream, and is actually able to manage it. When in Paris, she displays the fortitude for which her generation was famed. There’s no hint of a desire to cross class lines; rather, there’s a bond established between Ada-Lansbury and all those toiling at the fashion house. The universal language is that of openness, determination, and a bit of well-intentioned meddling in the affairs of those whom she encounters: Natasha and André, the Marquis and his daughter/granddaughter, Madame Colbert (Riggs’ character was also a war widow; her husband was killed in the Resistance and Lansbury manages to persuade the Marquis that she should receive a letter of commendation and the Croix de Guerre from de Gaulle).

The 2022 film exudes a sense of being much closer to the present. The class divide here rankles, explicitly and implicitly, throughout the film. Ada-Manville’s first employer (she of the Dior dress) has been stiffing her on wages; the homeless men in Paris and the garbage-collectors’ strike assault our conscience upon her arrival (especially in contrast to the pristine luxury of the House of Dior at 57, Avenue Montaigne); her budding romantic feelings for the Marquis are nipped by his recollection of “Mrs. Mops”; Mme. Colbert’s husband appears to be suffering from PTSD, once known as “shell shock”. These plot alterations are small but revealing, and the vibe they give off is that of 2022, not 1957 or even, 1992.

And then, there’s Vi in the 2022 film, played by the black actress Ellen Thomas. Vi is Ada’s colleague (she fills in for Ada while she’s in Paris) and closest friend – they ride the bus together to work, they spend their evenings together, they go dancing together at the community hall. Would this relationship have been credible in 1957? In 1992?

The reviewers we consulted prior to writing this essay make much of the 2022 film’s “froth,” “escapism,” and mediocrity:

“The trope of the laughably frumpy worker bee, filled with optimism and quiet wisdom, is demeaning … Despite its gleeful showcasing of beautiful clothes and vibrant midcentury Parisian sights, the film is caught between its fantasies and its principles, landing somewhere more annoyingly clueless—and dull—than it out to be.” (Beatrice Loayza for the NYT, a young and very woke film critic indeed).

The Financial Times’ reviewer is clever, giving us such small linguistic gems as “The couture doesn’t lack hauteur,” “It takes nous to make a movie this sweet without rotting your teeth,” and (of Manville) “Eliza Doolittle redrafted as her own Henry Higgins.” As for the film itself, “A sharp eye passes over money, class, and business.” But how, exactly, we might ask – the FT reviewer doesn’t bother to elaborate.  

Some reviews point out the parallels with the 2017 film “Phantom Thread,” in which Manville played the Mme. Colbert character. But no one recalled the 1992 film. Well, fair enough. Most reviewers are young – some probably weren’t born in 1992 – and anyway, how much research can you do for a 500-word review, one of several you’ll pen that week?

One thing the reviewers all agreed on, however: Manville is superb in the role, infusing it with warmth, strength, and humanity – she’ll probably receive one or more of the big film nominations for 2022.

We, on the other hand, think “the film’s the thing” – Manville’s great, but it’s the sharpish edges, the clash of classes, that made this recent version seem so au courant for us. The director, Anthony Fabian, may not even have been aware of the nuances that contemporized the original story / fairy tale – after all, in 2022 we take for granted that garbage strikes are an everyday occurrence, that no member of the nobility would go out with a cleaning lady, that rich men’s wives live on credit, not cash, and that the poor need their dreams just like everybody else. What’s the difference between owning a single item of bespoke luxury clothing and an inner city child’s desire to own an iPhone, after all? If you’ll never own a house or a car, if you’ll never have a job that pays more than minimum wage, if you’ll never have decent health insurance or get out of debt, don’t you still have the right to dream, to hope for something better?

I wish I could say that Britain’s seen the error of its neoliberal ways today, but no – the overall lightness of the cinematic vehicle is belied by the small details we’ve noted above. We’ll close with a link to George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian earlier this week, for a preview of what’s coming to the real England in the near future. It’s a nightmare, not a fairy tale.

2022-08-08 The Better Angels of Our Nature

So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.

 –Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Yesterday evening I learned of the passing of a man whom I met by chance, whom I saw only a few times – perhaps ten in all – but whom I mourn nonetheless.

He was the brother of my Mother’s caregiver during the last two years of her life, and because her caretaker had no car, he served both as her driver and my Mother’s, shuttling her to the ever-more-frequent doctors’ appointments which came to constitute her sole escape from the confines of home, where she lived as a shut-in during her final years.

It is both easy and simultaneously difficult to articulate the qualities possessed by such a human being, and equally difficult to distinguish among “decent,” “good,” and “pure” when it comes to character. We can say, for example, that someone was a “decent” human being and mean no more than that they were born, grew to adulthood, and eventually passed without overtly harming others– they went to school and made friends; they went to church regularly; they attended their children’s softball and basketball games and cheered (or booed); they were adequate colleagues/friends in the sense that they never caused (serious) problems for others (or for themselves – a corollary).

When someone we know well, but perhaps not intimately – a friend, a former classmate, a fellow churchgoer – has passed and we say, not altogether unconventionally, that they were a “good” human being, we may be recalling their kindness to us and ours, or their generosity in giving of their time and/or money to charitable (“good”) causes, or their generally upbeat personality. Not only did they not cause problems, they endeavored to lighten the burdens of the afflicted.

What I have in mind is of an entirely different order of being than the decent or the good, though doubtless we mourn their passing as well. The pure soul – goodness incarnate, if you will – somehow touches the soul (or subconscious) of all those with whom they come in contact, even if fleetingly, in such a way that the other is uplifted spiritually (without any overt reference to religiosity) – in other words, by coming into contact with such an individual, we ourselves become better people, receiving the momentary gift of some small share of the other’s all-embracing compassion and empathy, their profound humanity.

Perhaps it is easier to characterize this (innate?) quality in the negative: such individuals are the living embodiment of the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm” and carry it to the next logical level: “Do only good.” Such individuals embrace the life they are given with grace, even if that life, when viewed by an outsider, seems very cruel and unjust.

In the case of the man whom I mourn, he had to contend with crushing poverty from birth, a poverty which despite his intelligence – an intelligence which shone through in the knowing twinkle of his eyes, in his gentle sense of irony (a difficult rhetorical mode to recognize, let alone master), in his ability to chide without ever causing pain – precluded the college degree he might easily have earned; with ill health from an early age, which relegated him to Social Security Disability Insurance twenty or more years before normal retirement age; with tragedy in love. Such misfortunes grind down many of our fellows, who effectively give up and give in to bitterness, envy, depression and despair – a (justified) conviction that fate and the world have wronged them grievously. The man whom I mourn could easily be excused for having succumbed to such feelings and that at an early age, but he didn’t. I never once heard him complain of ill fortune (Bernard Williams’ [bad] “moral luck”; what a strange phrase for “accident of birth”). Rather, he smiled and made light of his problems, without ever pretending that they hadn’t determined the course of his life – this would have been hypocritical and dishonest, and he was neither.

He never said anything unkind about another human being, though he was not unaware that unkindness – meanness, pettiness, jealousy – was present in some, perhaps many, of those he encountered throughout life. How could it have been otherwise? But he had the preternatural gift of seeing beyond all these human frailties to the essence, the core humanity of his fellow human beings however wounded, suffering, angry or bitter.

During the final year of his life, he underwent numerous surgical interventions to lengthen his life long enough for him to become eligible for a heart transplant. I had spoken with him just a week before he and his sister – who called him “my brother and my best friend” – had an appointment scheduled to begin the process officially. Our call came on his birthday, and we had a lovely chat in which I promised to call him regularly once he received his new heart and had entered rehab.

But his other organs began failing just at that moment, making him ineligible for a transplant even had he somehow managed to survive multiple organ failure.

His siblings’ FB pages announced his passing, and there were comments about his having joined the angels, that heavenly choir privileged to sing the praises of God. Within an hour of the announcement, there were dozens of expressions of condolence – all for a man who hadn’t been active in the working world in fifteen years, who for the last two years of his life was scarcely able to leave his home at all, whose circle had essentially shrunk to his extended family during that period. But none of the commenters were family members – like myself, they were people who’d known him through church, or in some cases through his siblings, or who’d met him purely by chance as I had.

Such human beings do walk among us; we may sense something in their nature that sets them apart, but by and large they pass unseen, unheeded. They are not the captains of industry or the masters of the universe. Yet it is they who call out to the better angels of our natures, should we choose to attend.

When teaching English literature, I had occasion to teach Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd. Eventually, the experience of rereading and conveying what I understood as the meaning of the novella became so painful that I removed it from the class syllabus.

Briefly, Billy Budd portrays the prototypical struggle of Good against Evil in the context of Melville’s favored background, that of seafaring men. The humble sailor Billy Budd symbolizes pure, unalloyed Good; the Bellipotent’s master-at-arms John Claggert symbolizes Evil, with mediation both actual and symbolic provided by the ship’s captain Edward Fairfax “Starry” Vere. The captain, who convokes a court-martial after Billy accidentally kills Claggert after the latter falsely accuses him of mutinous intentions, admits that Billy was morally innocent but legally guilty and condemns him to death. Not long afterward, the Bellipotent becomes engaged in another battle during which Vere is fatally wounded. He dies shortly after being brought ashore, and the last words he utters are “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.”

Melville had a hard time writing the novella, and died before he finished it. Apart from the fact that he had difficulty finding the right words to convey the meanings he sought, he appears to have been undecided about how to complete the novella with respect to Billy’s character in particular. One ending is the one we know; another contained no suggestion of Billy’s moral purity but rather characterized him as a traitor in law and fact.

Leaving aside the topical issues Melville treated in the novella – the problem of mutiny on late 18th-century British ships, the problem of the death penalty (which was being debated around the time the novella was being drafted [1886-1891]), the enigmatic significance of Billy’s extraordinary physical beauty and its grip on Claggert, which has engendered a popular line of criticism focusing on the story’s homoeroticism, our own sense of the story is that, as noted above, Billy and Claggert are recognizable symbols of Good and Evil (modern critics have called Claggert a “psychopath”), while Captain Vere symbolizes the fine line that must be walked between the two by those in positions of authority and power. Vere is the man who is neither all good nor all evil – in this sense, he represents most men – but he possesses the experience, background and abilities to recognize both good and evil in his fellow-man. Those in positions of authority who wield considerable power over others – and the ship captain was a perfect example of such power in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – had to be be able to recognize and judge all types of men under their command; to be an astute judge of character was as important as expertise in seamanship.

Those like Billy of pure soul cannot deal with the psychically corrupt (the novella refers to Claggert’s “depravity”) because they literally cannot conceive of evil in others. This inability – it is a sort of moral blindness, perhaps – precludes them from wielding worldly power or authority.

On the other hand, the corrupt of soul should never wield power or authority; their narcissism prevents them from seeing the good in others as they project their own envy (Claggert’s form of moral depravity), lust, avarice – whatever of the seven deadly sins to which they are most inclined – onto those they lead. Only chaos and destruction will ensue when the psychically and morally bankrupt find themselves in positions of power.

We might wish that all human beings could be like the man I mourn, rather like humankind might have been before the Fall. We may wonder why there are human beings who have fallen as far from grace as Claggert – or the many others we encounter in stronger or weaker form throughout our lives. But our salvation – a bitter one, indeed – can only be found in those who hold both good and evil within themselves, i.e. those who are “fully human,” and who by dint of knowledge, ability and experience can harness the latent good that lies within their fellows in service of overcoming the equally-latent evil for the betterment of all.

(Note: This was the sense of the hope expressed in the closing paragraph of Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural Address in 1861: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Lincoln did not invent the phrase, but his use of it has made it famous.)

Why were Vere’s dying words “Billy Budd, Billy Budd”? We suggest that Vere, in obeying the law of man, recognized that he had transgressed the higher moral law in sacrificing a man depicted both as innocent of the actual crime of attempted mutiny and as spiritually innocent, an “innocent of God,”  symbolized outwardly by his beauty and spiritually by the spontaneous love Billy’s fellow-sailors felt in his presence.

Mourning is mixed with profound gratitude today, gratitude at having been granted the privilege of having known such a man.

The lyrics to this famous hymn seem especially apt:

It Is Well With My Soul

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come
Let this blest assurance control
That Christ (yes, He has) has regarded my helpless estate
And has shed His own blood for my soul

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul

2022-05-29 As We Sow, So Shall We Reap

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Within the space of ten days (May 14 – May 24), the U.S. has suffered two mass shootings, the first in a Buffalo, NY grocery story (Tops) which served as a community gathering-hole and for which residents had lobbied for years, the second in an elementary school (Robb) in the small town of Uvalde, Texas (pop. 15,000).

A mass shooting is sometimes defined as one in which four or more people are shot (there are multiple definitions of “mass”), not including the shooter; by this standard, both Buffalo (13 shot, 10 killed) and Uvalde (17? shot/wounded, 21 killed) fit the definition and then some. But while outliers, they are hardly the first mass shootings to occur in the U.S. this year – to date, there have been 213 such incidents over the first 145 days of 2022 (to May 25), an average of about 1.47 per day. At this rate, the U.S. can anticipate +/- 537 mass shootings by December 31 – a low estimate, since gun violence normally rises during the summer months.  

While mass shootings do not account for the majority of total U.S. gun deaths per year, because semi-automatics are the weapon of choice for those who kill in public and semi-public spaces, shootings by high-capacity semi-automatic weapons (e.g. the AR15 or an AR15-style weapon, nicknamed “America’s Rifle” by the NRA in 2016) on average kill six times more people per incident. These killings grab the headlines because so many people can be killed or wounded within just a few moments. The AR15 normally carries 30 rounds in its cartridge (although it can be modified to carry up to 100); all you have to do is pull the trigger once every second or so and if you’re a moderately good shot you can get off 100 rounds a minute.

It should come as no surprise that such incidents as that in Uvalde – or, going back a few years, those at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl. (17 dead), Sandy Hook School in Newton, Ct (27 dead), or even Columbine in Littleton, CO (13 dead) – arouse the public’s grief and outrage. All these incidents, of course, involved children, some as young as six (Sandy Hook). (Major mass shootings in the past 15 years not aimed at children include those in Las Vegas [2017, 60 dead], Orlando, Fl [2016, 49 dead], and Virginia Tech [2007, 32 dead]).*

For a country whose Supreme Court is on the brink of declaring its undying love of the unborn fetus, we have a strange way of demonstrating that love once the unborn are actually among us. Our philosophy of life-before-birth appears to be “the State will do everything to protect the sanctity of life”; our philosophy of life-after-birth appears to be “You’re on your own.” The Greeks say ο σώζων εαυτόν σωθήτω, equivalent to “every man (woman, child, newborn) for him/her/itself.”

I have spent the past days following the Uvalde mass shooting story, but – like other, more prominent writers – feel hesitant to comment on what happened during the hour or so from the time the 18-year-old gunman entered Robb Elementary School until the double classroom where he was holed up was breached by a BORTAC team (a federal tactical unit belonging to Customs and Border Protection, CBP), who killed him.

Videos shot by cell phone users make clear that there was chaos and confusion and terror around the school from the beginning (around 11:20 am on Tuesday). Here’s a timeline published within the past few hours – four days after the shootings (will it be further revised/altered?). The most salient details as of today:

…a school officer drove right past the shooter — 18-year-old Salvador Ramos — while Ramos fired at the school; that as many as 19 officers were inside the school more than 45 minutes before the suspect was killed; that the school district police chief decided not to breach the classroom where the shooter was; and that a young girl from the class called 911 several times asking for police while authorities were right outside.

The most likely explanation (so far) of law enforcement’s delayed response was the police chief’s conviction that they were dealing with a hostage situation and not an active shooter one – the protocol for the former being to negotiate with the shooter in order to save as many lives as possible, that for the latter being the requirement to take out the shooter as quickly as possible.

The timeline contains multiple references beginning at 12:03 am to 911 calls by students in a nearby classroom, begging police to help their classmates (12:03 initial call; further calls logged at 12:13, 12:16, 12:36, 12:43, and 12:47). The classroom where the shooter was located was opened at 12:50 with keys taken from the janitor.

Given this timeline – and, as of yesterday, the admission that police made “the wrong decision” – calls for more SROs (School Resource Officers), more local police, more county police, more anything police are ringing pretty hollow. If the shooter couldn’t be taken out by all the law enforcement on site within minutes of his entering the school, well, law enforcement might not be the solution to mass shootings after all.

What can be done, given Americans’ loving relationship with and profound attachment to guns – or rather, the profound attachment of 30% of Americans to guns, given that 70% of the U.S. population doesn’t own even one? In the U.S. currently, it is estimated there are 120.5 guns per 100 people; next in order come the Falkland Islands, with 62.1 guns per 100 people. Put another way, the U.S. has around 400 million guns as of now, and a population of ~330 million. Nearly half the civilian guns in the entire world are in the U.S., which comprises 5% of the world population.

That’s a lot of guns.

Can Anything Be Done about Gun Violence?

Efforts to impose a ban semi-automatic weapons like the AR15 and its various knockoffs and permutations are underway, and have been for some time, but this would need to be at the federal level (state-level gun control isn’t really useful, given the free and unfettered movement of guns across state borders – e.g., 60% of gun deaths in Chicago are caused by guns brought in from across state lines). And given that 60 votes would be required in the Senate to pass such a ban (similar to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban passed by the Clinton Administration in 1994, which was allowed to sundown in 2004), gun control advocates aren’t holding out much hope.

Additional restrictions: States that support gun ownership with minimal restrictions (like Texas, which since 2021 hasn’t required a permit or much of anything except proof of age [18 – the age limit was recently lowered from 21]) will do nothing. Texas has had 8 mass shootings in the past 13 years; most of the legislature’s efforts towards gun safety / school safety have been directed towards further arming and training school resource officers, teachers,** and “hardening” schools. Some funding has been directed towards mental health programs for at-risk youth. And there has been talk of red-flag laws (Gov. Abbott appeared to have supported such legislation until he didn’t) that would identify those who for various reasons should not be in possession of firearms.

“Hardening” schools: This term was new to me. It refers to making schools ever more impenetrable and inaccessible to gunmen through such measures as a single entrance/exit that would be heavily guarded, with strong fences and metal detectors, all interior doors locked at all times, more armed school police officers on duty, and more teachers and administrators carrying guns, etc. under the mantra “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” (This didn’t work in Uvalde, of course.) The basic idea seems to be to turn schools into prison-like fortresses, which casts a whole new light on the school-to-prison pipeline concept. It hardly needs saying that if a school goes into permanent lockdown mode, it’s also impenetrable to those who have legitimate reasons for visits (e.g. parents). And a school with bulletproof windows that don’t open, and permanently locked doors – well, that’s not going to do much for controlling aerosol viruses like Covid-19; every school and every classroom which is hardened in this way will become a veritable super-spreader hothouse of infection. 

Other bizarre proposals: “Ballistic blankets,” “Man traps,” and retired police and military manning the perimeter and hallways of schools in order to obviate any need for (actual, non-retired) police. In return, these retired individuals would receive forgiveness of their state or federal (?) taxes, or something. It would appear that they’ll propose anything but the one thing it makes sense to propose.

It’s surprising no one has yet (to my knowledge) proposed Robocop style School Guardians.

Note: None of the above is intended to be transformed into an actual policy proposal, of course: “I think everyone realizes that none of what Republicans are saying about how to respond to mass shootings will translate into actual policy proposals. They’re barely even trying to make sense. Instead, they’re just making noise to drown out rational discussion until the latest atrocity fades from the news cycle.”

Concentrating on the “mentally ill”, i.e. beefing up mental health background checks. This approach, which some Republicans are paying lip service to, is in contradiction to the goal of the Republican Party over the past 40 years, i.e. shrink the state and all social services associated with it to literally nothing. Any Republican who proposes that his/her state (or the federal government) legislate stricter background checks that would include a full psychological work-up of all prospective gun owners is pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes. And that’s not the only reason to nurture little hope regarding a more stringent mental health screening process: many of the mass shooters in recent history (by and large, males in their teens and twenties) would slip through the net of the DSM-V. A mass shooting requires forethought, planning, and careful execution – not qualities normally associated with the mentally ill. While it is certainly true that most mass killers are shown – after the fact, as was the case with both the Buffalo shooter and the Uvalde shooter – to have been racists and/or misogynists, “racism” and “misogyny” are not officially classified as mental illnesses. If they were, the ranks of the diagnosed mentally ill would extend to the halls of Congress and today’s Supreme Court. 

Searching for an “explanation”, aka excuse

Opponents are willing to lay the blame for America’s outsize gun violence on anyone and anything apart from the obvious culprit. “It’s the breakup of the American family, it’s all those fatherless children!” say some (e.g. Ted Cruz), as if (a) other countries don’t have high or higher divorce rates (they do), and (b) as if they cared about fatherless and motherless children (if they did, their behavior all throughout the pandemic would have focused on saving the lives of the million+ Americans who died, many of whom left their children orphaned).

Another gem: “Americans aren’t going to church enough! If they were God-fearing Christians (the only church Republicans recognize), these shootings wouldn’t happen.” And while it is true that Americans have lost religion in the past 30 years – more declare themselves as agnostic or atheistic than at any time in U.S. history – the connection between religious fundamentalism and preventing mass shootings seems a bit tenuous at best. Church attendance has declined in most developed Western countries over the past generation exactly as it has in the U.S. (Just check out Italy and France if you’re curious about this.) And one other point: Is it really any safer to go to church than it is to go to primary school these days? Consider, for example, the Charleston, SC shooting at an AME Church in June 2015, or the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in October 2018.

American “exceptionalism”: A bedrock explanation for gun rights enthusiasts as well as some sociologists/political scientists/historians. We’re America, we’re different than all other countries – we have a tradition of bearing arms (like no other country in the history of the universe ever bore arms), our country has a violent history that includes genocide (like no other country/empire has a history of violence and genocide).

And then we’ve got the Constitution’s Second Amendment, ratified in 1791.

About that Second Amendment: Yes, it enshrined the right to bear arms by a well-regulated militia: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  

Here’s the sort of weapon the Second Amendment had in mind:

Revolutionary War era muskets equipped with bayonet

A trained Revolutionary War soldier could get off about 4 rounds a minute. Gunpowder got wet in the rain, so armies avoided engaging in inclement weather. Let’s bear in mind that “those who wrote the Second Amendment in the 18th century could not have envisioned how their perfectly reasonable intentions would be distorted 235 years later — or how 18-year-olds would be able to buy and carry assault weapons meant for a modern battlefield into grade-school classrooms.”

Military history and the advance of weaponry in the past 235 years aside, an important SCOTUS decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), interpreted the Second Amendment as giving individuals the right to bear arms to protect themselves, i.e. their persons, homes, possessions. (Note: Heller was recently characterized by Charles M. Blow as “a corrupt and bastardized interpretation of the Second Amendment.”)

However, Heller did recognize that there could be some limitations on this right to bear arms for personal protection (none of the Constitutional amendments is unlimited):  It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

On Thursday, Useful Idiots Podcasters Katie Halper and Aaron Mate hosted guest Michael Prysner, an editor of The Empire Files and Iraq war veteran; their sole topic was the school shooting in Uvalde. (starts at 21:00, well worth watching in full.) This wasn’t a typical interview – questions were few and far between – but rather, an extensive discourse by Prysner on all the issues discussed above, each concluding with the belief that nothing much, or nothing at all, could be done.

Prysner touched on some of the deeper issues that are weakening the U.S. both internally and externally – high levels of poverty (especially child poverty, which is rampant), low levels of mental health services and support for at-risk populations, and an increasing sense of alienation among a starkly-divided populace accompanied by the loss of a sense of community and core civic values.

Having recently become a father himself, Prysner discussed how to protect one’s children from senseless and random violence of the sort exhibited in Uvalde. He judged that there is nothing Americans can do to protect their children, concluding that the only way to feel they were safe was to move to another country (he mentioned Canada, which has a pretty violent history itself that in many ways mirrors that of its neighbor to the south, but where mass shootings are virtually non-existent).

In a nutshell, Prysner concluded “this is the way it is and there’s really no hope.”

Maybe the U.S. is special after all.

*“A shocking number of U.S. mass shootings take place in schools. According to the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, there have been 2,054 school shootings in the United States since 1970, with 681 deaths. Canada has had a total of eight school shootings in about the same time frame, from 1975, with a total of 31 victims killed. Mexico has had 17 school shootings since 2004, with 15 victims killed.”

**Teachers in Texas, indeed across the nation, had already reached their breaking point by the time the Uvalde shooting occurred. Both individual teachers and their professional organizations (AFT, NEA) are opposed to their taking up arms, which is in any case virtually pointless: in violent crime incidents, less than 1% even get off a shot against their assailant.

Further reading:

The American Killing Fields

The GOP War on Civil Virtue

Failure in Uvalde

Even Republicans Seem to Know Something Has to Change Now

 “Federal Agents Entered Uvalde School to Kill Gunman despite Local Police Initially Asking Them to Wait

 “A Timeline of How the Texas School Massacre – and the Police Response – Unfolded

Did Texas Police Fail School Massacre Victims?” (Useful Idiots Podcast, May 27, 2022)

 “Gun Massacres Are the Grotesque Pinnacle of ‘American Exceptionalism’

Current Causes of Death of Children and Adolescents in the United States

12 Stats to Help Inform the Gun Control Debate

Bowling for Columbine” (Michael Moore’s film on the 1999 Columbine school shooting)

2022-04-11 Education in a Time of Pandemic IV

Interlude 2: There Is a Better Way

‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living’ (Finnish saying)

We’ll see in the final part of our series how the K-12 public education in the U.S. – sometimes referred to as “America’s Best Idea” – is being undermined by a well-organized and well-funded campaign ongoing for more than a generation, one which has taken advantage of the pandemic to step up its efforts, particularly in statehouses across the country.

But before we descend that divisive and costly path, let’s consider a country that has got public education right: Finland.  

What makes this small Nordic country’s system so successful? A number of factors:

  • No private schools (well, there’s one: the Finnish International School in Helsinki, which is for the children of foreign residents such as diplomats)
  • Equality (key goal from birth)
  • Emphasis on the individual child from a very young age (early intervention)
  • Well-defined and comprehensive youth policies extending beyond schools
  • Highly-qualified teachers (teaching is on a par with medicine and law as one of the “most desirable” professions; only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted; all teachers hold master’s degrees paid for by the state, and special education teachers have additional training – in other words, teaching is a high-prestige, high-qualifications profession which guarantees (a) continual demand for teaching positions by candidates AND (b) longevity among those selected
  • No state testing; students take only one national exam at the end of their secondary schooling (and they don’t assign PISA* results any significance)
  • Students are in school fewer hours, which allows more time for extracurriculars  (in Finland, this means means many outdoor nature-related activities like skiing, hiking, biking, sauna use)
  • Minimal or no homework
  • Major emphasis on play; in fact, the early years mostly consist of play –socialization, with Finnish children not beginning school proper until age 7 (Note: The Finns recognize “play” as a human right as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Article 31)
  • Emphasis on special needs children, with the goal of mainstreaming all children when possible.

The world has noticed what Finland’s been doing over the past half-century – the restructuring of the country’s education system was a long-term goal, and introduced gradually with the input of stakeholders. Interestingly, Finland looked initially to what other countries were doing (primarily, the U.S.). They adopted and adapted (and continue to adapt) what they consider best practices to their own education system. It’s a system based on involvement of all stakeholders (education authorities [all of whom are educators themselves], municipalities and teachers in the first instance, followed by business leaders, non-governmental associations, researchers, and parents). In short, “This consensus-based policymaking process has guaranteed sustainability of reforms and maintained the focus on a singular, shared vision of ongoing reforms. There have been over 20 different ministers of education and government coalitions since the 1970s in Finland, but the main principles of education policy have changed little.”

Teachers aren’t evaluated or assessed, and neither are schools. It’s a given that every school, every teacher, does the very best they can for their students. A single teacher may have the same class for as many as five years, giving them the chance to know each student (around 20 per class, with one teacher’s assistant for every 6-7 students) really well. The goal is to help each individual to reach their full potential, not some abstract test score or metric. The Finns don’t pay much attention to metrics, either; rather, they employ the human factor – teachers figure they understand their students better than any metric can convey.  “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect” (Timo Heikkinen, 24-year veteran teacher and principal from Helsinki). One important consequence of this focus on the individual child: the Finns have the smallest difference in the world between their strongest and weakest students.

Also of note: “Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.” (Outcomes and costs remind us of national health systems vs. the private U.S. health system).

Teaching and learning take place within a broader environment of “caring for the child.” Finland has generous parental leave, subsidized daycare, free preschool, and a subsidy for each child until they turn 17. No student goes hungry or has its medical needs unattended: “Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.” And municipalities help out too, providing extra funds to cover the costs of special needs teachers for, e.g. a school’s immigrant children still not conversant in Finnish (the system provides all children a full Finish-language education in addition to two foreign languages, begun at ages 8-9: Swedish and a second language, with English being the most popular).

For five years in a row, Finland has been named the “happiest country in the world” (runners-up: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland) and its education system is listed among the main reasons. Here are some others:

  • A national sense of fortitude (Finnish sisu), partly born from living in an inhospitable climate, and partly due to a harsh history of conflict with its nearest neighbors, Sweden and Russia.
  • The “freedom to roam”: 75% of Finland’s land expanse is forest (highest percentage in the world), and the country enjoys low levels of air and water pollution. All Finns have the right to circulate freely in nature – along rivers, on lakes, in forests.
  • A strong sense of community fostered not least by the national custom of the sauna – there are 2.4 million saunas for a population of 5.5 million. Finns come together in saunas stripped of the outer trappings of wealth and status – which is both a strong equalizer and a means of encouraging comfort with their own – and others’ – bodies.
  • Sustainable, thoughtful consumption. Finns aren’t fans of the throwaway society; what they do possess is solid and built to last (often, for a lifetime). They are avid recyclers as well, so less “stuff” gets tossed; rather, it’s reused – again and again. And they’re borrowers, too: the public library system in Finland loans out 68 million books a year.  
  • Child welfare. Finns believe in giving everyone an equal start in life – witness, for example, the famed “baby boxes” distributed since 1938 to all new parents upon a child’s birth. And there’s affordable daycare and free elementary, secondary, and university education.
  • A sense of humility. Finns tend to accept their lot (both individual and collective) in life, and therefore to consider themselves happier than those who are endlessly striving.
  • Finns embrace the darkness and the light – whether weather extremes, the hot steam in the sauna versus the freezing cold outside, 200 days of darkness versus the Northern Lights, or hardship itself, which is viewed not as a setback but as an opportunity for growth. “[T]he self-image of Finns is that we are a relatively melancholic nation, who like to listen to sad tangos or angry heavy metal instead of happy songs. I think this acceptance of negative emotions as part of life might actually have a positive effect on the happiness of Finns” (well-being researcher Dr. Frank Martela).  

To sum up, here’s what Finland has going for it:  A highly egalitarian society (not so homogeneous anymore, however; Finland now has a significant refugee population); a focus on the welfare of all its inhabitants from birth; a national ethos of moderation in consumption; care and respect for the natural environment (which is, after all, the nurturer of us all); strong social welfare programs that alleviate poverty, strengthen the middle class (Finland has no homelessness, almost no poverty [Gini coefficient of 27.3]), and a high level of trust in government at all levels – for example, the national education system is completely devolved; local councils have full responsibility for schools, and there is no oversight by the national government.

And finally: Finland, although an EU member country, is also neutral (since 1995), which means that a higher percentage of its GDP can be devoted to life-enhancing as opposed to life-destroying investment. That matters too.

*PISA = Programme for International Student Assessment, administered every three years to around 500,000 15-year-olds throughout the world. It was most recently administered in 2021.

Further Reading

Finnish Lessons”: Interview with Pasi Sahlberg

 (beginning at 20:46)

Finland’s Educational Success Is No Miracle

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?”

Why Finland Has the Best Education System in the World

What Makes Finland the Happiest Country in the World for the Fourth Consecutive Year?”

7 Lessons Learned from the Happiest Country in the World

2022-04-06 Interlude

The Story of Buzz and Janie and Danny

It has been clear for some time that completing our series of planned posts on “Education in a Time of Pandemic” has become difficult, painful even. The final planned post, on the many well-funded efforts to privatize American public education by stealth, will have to wait for a bit as we go on holiday from the darkness enveloping our world to seek out the light.

We woke up this morning determined to find a more uplifting topic to use as a launching-pad. It took several hours, but we found one, on a site we visit occasionally when we’ve a mind to read in-depth, reflective writing on a wide variety of subjects. Appropriately enough, the site is called “longreads.” The piece we chose, “Raphael Couldn’t Have Painted Something More Beautiful,” was published in an online magazine called The Atavist, which we weren’t familiar with – one of the pleasures of longreads is that its selections come from all sorts of out-of-the-way sources.

The story is set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and concerns only three people – Buzz Alexander and Janie Paul (Buzz was a Professor of English Literature at the University of Michigan; Janie, an artist who taught color theory at the University’s School of Art & Design) and a man named Danny Valentine, and of how Buzz and Janie first saved Danny’s life (literally and metaphorically), and of how Danny subsequently saved theirs.

Here’s what happened: Buzz and Janie met at an artists’ residency in 1992 (“Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love”) ; Buzz spent his 1993 sabbatical year in NYC with Janie, and when the year was over, she managed to land a job in Ann Arbor and moved there.

Before meeting Janie, Buzz had become involved in art outreach for prisoners (Michigan’s prison population had gone from under 10,000 to over 30,000 in the 20 years he’d been living in Ann Arbor). Once Janie became his life partner, that outreach expanded, and grew to include the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), a University of Michigan program “dedicated to promoting the arts behind bars.” ([Both Janie and Buzz] “thought academia was too conservative, a stodgy bubble where people indulged in niche pursuits. They preferred to invest their energy in civic engagement, and especially in making art more accessible.”)

One of the program’s features became a yearly exhibition of artwork by prisoners, hosted by one of the University’s art galleries. Works were for sale, with proceeds to go to the artists themselves. In order to gather ideas about possible artist-exhibitors, Buzz wrote to a number of the prisons PCAP was already working with. This was in 1995. And here’s where Danny enters their lives.

The director of a prison in Jackson proposed a man who, in his words, “could do anything.” He could sculpt, he could model, he could paint, he could draw – an all-round master of every technique available to him. And so, Buzz wrote a letter to prisoner number 156689. His name was Danny Valentine.

Danny’s story was light-years apart from those of Buzz (Harvard, Cambridge, Harvard, Michigan) and Janie (Hunter College, NYU, Michigan). He’d grown up as the second of five children in a blue-collar family in Ann Arbor. There was a fair amount of violence in the family; Danny had found solace by teaching himself to draw at the age of six.

He first ran away from home when he was 12; his father called the police, and thus began Danny’s long carceral career – he was in and out of jails and prisons until, as so often happens with young men who’ve had an early acquaintance with the injustice system, he was accused of rape (he claimed he was innocent) and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison.

During his first years in prison – not long before his path crosses that of Buzz and Janie – he married his girlfriend, Diane, who served as his lifeline for a short period. But she moved to another town, began seeing someone else, and served him with divorce papers not long after. He signed them. Here’s Danny in the fall of 1995:

Danny was just shy of 35. He had served four years of his sentence and didn’t think he could last even one more day. He planned to kill himself one evening at chow time, and he had two backup plans in case jumping from the rafters of his cell block’s atrium didn’t work: a noose and a fatal shot of heroin.

The way Danny would later tell it, as he was contemplating the last hours of his life, a guard tossed a letter through the bars of his cell. He told himself he had no interest in what it said—anything that threatened to get between him and his impending oblivion felt meaningless. He tried to ignore the envelope on his bunk, but some force compelled him to open it.

Inside, printed on University of Michigan letterhead was an invitation. Danny would read it countless times in the coming hours and days and years. Dear Daniel Valentine, he remembers it saying. I am Buzz Alexander, professor of English literature at the University of Michigan. My colleague Janie Paul and I are organizing our first annual show of art by Michigan prisoners next spring. I have heard you are a terrific artist and would like to know if you would be represented in our exhibition.

Danny decided to keep on living, and participated in PCAP art exhibitions for 20 years.

The first PCAP exhibition Danny took part in (with two works) was in spring 1996; he didn’t meet Buzz and Janie, however, until 2004, eight years after he’d begun exhibiting with the program.

Janie on that first meeting:

I remember looking into his face and grabbing his hands between my hands. I could feel his presence as I had felt his presence in his drawings. The intensity of the work comes partly from the content, which is often about loving relationships between mother and child, man and woman, but also from the intensity of the labor that goes into the drawing.

Danny’s memory of that same moment:

I felt the same kindred connection as when I opened that letter from Buzz the first time. I felt like I had met the other half.

Danny was up for parole in 2011, and Buzz and Janie wrote a letter in support of his release. But his request was rejected, and he vowed never to apply again – he’d serve out his full term.

Then in 2013, Danny was released without prior notification (perhaps the prison needed to free up beds). He’d served 23 years – by that time, he was in his early fifties. He was taken by his brother to a halfway house, where he’d have six months to get his life together. With an inheritance from his father, he bought a Dodge Caravan – if he became homeless, he’d be able to live in his car. He’d never had a bank account, never used a cell phone, and his prospects for regular employment as a registered sex offender were slim to nil.  He ended up moving to northern Michigan, a long drive from Ann Arbor and Buzz and Janie’s beautiful, book- and art-filled home, where they’d hosted him for a blueberry pancake breakfast following his release.  

After he left the halfway house, Danny moved in with his ex-wife and her boyfriend; eventually, she found him a trailer home located in the Upper Peninsula (six+ hours from Ann Arbor); the owner said he could live there rent-free if he fixed it up. He was alone, without friends, without colleagues, and had once again begun contemplating suicide.

On Christmas Eve 2016, Danny got a call from Janie – they’d stayed in touch since his release, and he would occasionally drove down to Ann Arbor to visit them – asking him to come and stay with them. Buzz had been diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration (FTD) in 2014, and Janie was desperate; she could no longer care for him on her own.

Danny arrived at their home on Christmas Day 2016 after a 12-hour drive in a driving snowstorm, and not long after this he determined that he would stay “until the end.”

Caring for those in the latter stages of dementia is exhausting and psychically stressful – Danny had had no previous experience with caregiving, but he became Buzz’s full-time caregiver in the final years of his life. The title of the essay is taken from this brief anecdote, relayed by Gillian Eaton, Buzz and Janie’s best friend:  

Eaton recalled coming into the house once to find Danny hunched over Buzz’s feet, clipping his toenails. “Raphael couldn’t have painted something more beautiful,” she said.

As the disease progressed, Buzz lost more and more cognitive and motor functions, along with the ability to express his thoughts in words, an academic and intellectual’s  foremost connection with reality. Danny seemed to sense, intuitively, what Buzz needed on any given day, and he devised ingenious methods of adjusting to his declining skills – for example, when he lost the ability to use eating utensils, Danny devised an entire menu made up of finger foods.

Dementia is both terrifying and puzzling as cognitive functions drop away in no particular order for any given individual – there’s no cure for FTD, it’s fatal, but there is oddness about its progression:

There were days when Danny took Buzz on long drives. They loved these outings. Their first stop was McDonald’s. “We’d order chocolate milkshakes, and he’d suck his right down and reach over and grab mine,” Danny said. Buzz still had his sense of direction, and he’d point Danny here or there, to a house where he once lived or the place on campus where his office used to be. One time, Danny recalled, “he started crying a little bit. He pointed, he tried to tell me something, and it sounded like speaking in tongues.”

“Yeah, Buzz, I know,” Danny said. “You worked there for 47 years.”

Buzz just shook his head

In early September 2019, Buzz stopped eating and drinking – he could no longer swallow. A hospice nurse was called in, but Janie and Danny were always near him as well. Buzz passed away on September 19, twelve days after he’d stopped eating.

Now, Danny and Janie are together – theirs is not a conventional story, or even a romance, but perhaps it is something more precious, more profound. Their relationship seems to us to be a real-life example of a form of love we touched on in our Valentine’s Day post:

“Even now, with Buzz no longer here, Danny and I still feel like there’s this circle of love,” Janie explained. “I want to maintain my connection to Buzz through Danny and me taking care of each other.” Danny described himself and Janie as “bound by memories of Buzz.” He’d taken to wearing a bracelet and a watch of Buzz’s. He often cried when he talked about his friend, about what three years of being by his side as he died had meant. “I wish him back every day,” Danny said.

Danny and Janie, Janie and Danny—now they were a pair, a package deal, born of necessity and intimacy. “They filled each other’s loneliness in a way I don’t think anyone else could,” Eaton said. “They needed each other to look after Buzz, but now they need each other to look after each other.

This exceptional piece, by Kelly Loudenberg, opens with a quotation from 1 Cor. 4-8:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

The Greek word, of course, is agape / αγάπη.

The Michigan Daily published a long appreciation of Buzz Alexander following his death which includes reminiscences by friends and former students who’d taken his classes and become involved with the PCAP. One of the testimonials:

Sara Falls, a high school English teacher in California, took Alexander’s “What is Literature?” and “Theater and Social Change” classes at the University, the latter involving improvisational theater in prisons. Alexander’s readings and discussions on prison justice got her thinking more deeply about how the education system can create a pipeline to prison, eventually compelling her to become a teacher herself. 

“He started to get me to think about what it means to be a teacher,” Falls said. “This is my 20th year teaching, and I don’t think I’d be a teacher if it wasn’t for him. It’s my life’s work, and I feel deeply called to it, because it’s about finding the power in young people and helping them to use their voices and helping them feel powerful in themselves to make change.”

Can there be a more eloquent description of the mission of a teacher? We think not.

2022-03-28 Education in a Time of Pandemic IV

Prologue: What Education Cannot Do

Before taking up the long list of public school crypto- (and not-so-crypto) privatization initiatives in our final installment concerning the consequences for public education in a time of pandemic, let’s clear the slate regarding the stated purposes of education and the reason/s these purposes have become controversial over the past 30 years.

Below, a sampling from several state constitutions, setting out the purposes of education and responsibilities of (four) individual states for providing such an education to all residents. [Note: Highlighting is ours.]

(1)

Article 14, §1 Arkansas Constitution

Text of Section 1:

Free School System

Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.

(2)

State Constitution, New Hampshire

Part 2, Form of Government, Encouragement of Literature, Trades, Etc., New Hampshire State Constitution.

[Art.] 83. [Encouragement of Literature, etc.; Control of Corporations, Monopolies, etc.] Knowledge and learning, generally diffused through a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; and spreading the opportunities and advantages of education through the various parts of the country, being highly conducive to promote this end; it shall be the duty of the legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this government, to cherish the interest of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries and public schools, to encourage private and public institutions, rewards, and immunities for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and economy, honesty and punctuality, sincerity, sobriety, and all social affections, and generous sentiments, among the people: Provided, nevertheless, that no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination.

(3)

ARTICLE VIII, Section 1. North Dakota Constitution

EDUCATION

Section 1.A high degree of intelligence, patriotism, integrity and morality on the part of every voter in a government by the people being necessary in order to insure the continuance of that government and the prosperity and happiness of the people, the legislative assembly shall make provision for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools which shall be open to all children of the state of North Dakota and free from sectarian control. This legislative requirement shall be irrevocable without the consent of the United States and the people of North Dakota.

(4)

The Page Amendment, Minnesota Constitution (proposed 2022; not yet approved*)

“All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state. It is a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right. The duty of the state established in this section does not infringe on the right of a parent to choose for their child a private, religious, or home school as an alternative to public education.”

Democrats have backed themselves into a corner over the past 30 years by supporting education through claiming that a university degree represents the 21st-century path to the middle class, out of poverty and into the land of plenty. In other words, their argument for public education has been essentially an instrumental (as opposed to intrinsic) one of the sort, “Get an education and get a good-paying job.” The converse of this argument? “If you don’t get an education, that’s on you.” It’s somewhat analogous to blaming those who became ill with COVID-19 due to the nature of their work, or the fact that they live in multi-generational households, or because they suffer from underlying co-morbidities such as diabetes or autoimmune diseases: “Your bad luck is your own fault.”

It’s an argument that devalues and shames those without a college degree, who accounted for 62.5% of the U.S. population in 2020. How can one-third of the population look down on the other two-thirds when in fact this is not their fault?

How’d we get here? Here are some of the major economic and political transformations in the U.S. economy and political environment over the past generation:

  • The rise of heavy industrial production in the mid-to late 19th century up through approximately 1970 (mechanization / urbanization / two World Wars which ignited the economy)
  • This shift in the economic base (to industrial production) was accompanied by a long, often violent conflict between industrial workers and owners (“robber barons”), culminating in the National Labor Relations Act (1935) that inter alia guaranteed all workers the right to organize without employers’ exercising unfair labor practices. Formerly rural farmworkers became industrial workers, were unionized, and gained access to wages well above poverty level, enabling their entry into the post-World War II middle class.
  • Inflation and changes in individual and corporate tax structures after around 1980 (in part fueled by the oil crisis/embargo in 1973-1974, which had been partly caused by the falling rate of the USD) and the rise of industrial capacity outside the U.S. initiated
  • A process of deindustrialization, i.e. the movement of large production facilities to locations where labor was cheaper; this process involved both shifts from more costly, more heavily-unionized northern states to southern ones, as well as the shift to other countries (offshoring) including Mexico, China, and Southeast Asia, where labor costs were a fraction of what they were in the U.S.
  • This loss of industrial production in turn led to the U.S.’s transformation from a production economy to a human and financial services economy, accompanied by
  • A precipitous drop in union membership (down to 10.3%, from 20% in 1983), which in turn
  • Depressed wages for workers, while it simultaneously
  • Increased profits for owners, leading to
  • An ever-growing gap in earnings/savings between owners/the (higher) professional classes and workers/service providers. (Cf. for example the 70% increase in wealth for U.S. billionaires during the pandemic, whose worth soared from $2T to $5T since March 2020), which has
  • Resulted in 40% of Americans not having savings of $400 today to cover an unforeseen emergency (car repair, dental work, death in the family)

During the past 30-40 years, as (1) through (10) were occurring, the working middle class lost ground continuously. Factories closed and no comparable jobs came to replace them. There was a shift from a “production” to a “service” economy. Democrats, whose most powerful base – both in terms of funding and in terms of voter turnout – was falling out of the middle class and into the “working poor,” had to figure out a way to continue to attract the displaced and discouraged. The solution they arrived at was “go to college” – a university degree suddenly became the ticket (formerly provided by high-paying union jobs) to the middle class.

But many – most – of those to whom this new mantra was addressed couldn’t afford the cost of a college degree. And so, another “solution” was found: the college loan program.  

Given that this mantra was financially-motivated (“Go to college and you’ll get a good job”), colleges and universities obliged by gearing ever more programs of study to getting a job after graduation. Many degrees have ended up as what was once referred to as “technical training” with a much higher price tag. In consequence, the humanities and social sciences have seriously declined in terms of enrollment and offerings; entire degree programs have been cancelled. Many university graduates have only rudimentary (or no) knowledge of the subjects which once formed the foundation for an educated human being – philosophy, history, literature, foreign languages. All have fallen out of favor because they don’t automatically guarantee a decent job.  

Today, about 37.5% of the U.S. population has college degrees; 13% has a master’s degree, and 1.2% has a PhD. Although many graduates don’t enjoy middle-class salaries, one thing both higher- and lower-end graduates share is upper-class debt. In 2021, 43.4 million students (sixty-two percent of the total) were burdened with $1.6 trillion dollars in debt; average debt held by individuals for undergrad student loans is $28,950, and $57,520 for families where both partners carry debt burdens (2019 figures). Loan totals increase considerably at the professional degree levels (e.g. medical school: $201,490; law school: $145,500). Sixty-two percent of students graduate with debt weighing down their future – the prospect of owning a home, for example, diminishes considerably for those with student debt, which is nearly impossible to discharge in bankruptcy (thanks, Senator Joe Biden).

The dream of gaining admission to the middle class through education, which has for a generation been touted as the solution to the loss of manufacturing and production jobs as the latter were being offshored has not materialized, nor will it.

Of course there were other means of steering the economy in new directions in the wake of offshoring, and there were other tools in the political economy toolkit to address the drastic decline in prosperity of the former blue-collar middle class. Medicare for All, a permanent Child Tax Credit that applied to all incomes, even those too meager to be taxed, a progressive taxation system for the top 1-5% (remember – it reached 90% during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency), tuition-free study at all public colleges and universities are a few that come to mind. And the specter of climate change, the urgent need to transition to renewable/sustainable energy, to retrofit the entire U.S. housing stock for extreme temperatures, to rebuild our infrastructure and urban cores sustainably – all of these needs have been known for the last 20 years, we just haven’t implemented them on a scale that would have both gainfully employed former industrial production workers and made the U.S. more resilient in the face of what is coming in the next half-century. Creating a sustainable and resilient new national infrastructure to ward off at least some of the consequences of climate change would have compensated for the working class prosperity which has been lost.

But none of the above happened, and there are only faint prospects of action before it’s too late, both for the working class and for the climate and natural environment.

Education must walk in lockstep with the overall goals of a society – and in societies where the greatest possible profit for the smallest possible number of beneficiaries, without regard to economic externalities that harm both people and the environment reigns above all, there is little chance for education to accomplish what the business class, the financial class, and the political class do not want it to accomplish.

Neither K-12 nor college education can put food in hungry children’s mouths (in 2019, 10 million children, around 20% of school-age children, were living below poverty level), nor money in their parents’ pockets when they’re earning $7.25 an hour (the federal minimum wage since 2009). Education cannot pay their own or their caregivers’ medical costs in case of a major illness or life-threatening accident; it cannot clean up the air they breathe, or the water they drink, or the food they eat. And in the absence of all of these, teachers cannot do their job, which is to teach.

What we are left with, then, are the idealistic promises and goals (today more honored in the breach than the observance) set forth in the state constitutions quoted above. More than 40 million students/graduates are burdened with debt that will never permit them to enter the traditional middle class, symbolized perhaps most conspicuously by home ownership following World War II (the U.S. is now in the early stages of a seismic shift from a home ownership society to a rental society, as we will discuss in the post on Housing and Homelessness later in this series). Our population has been gravely harmed by the coronavirus pandemic, from which an estimated 10%-20% of those infected will suffer from “long COVID” for an unspecified and unknown period, and with as-yet unknown costs for the economy. And we confront a K-12 public education system which, already weakened over the past 30 years, is now being subjected to a brutal frontal attack on its very existence.

In our next – and final – post on Education in a Time of Pandemic, we will consider the push towards privatization which is threatening a foundational institution of the United States: free public education for all.

Further Reading

I Am Not a Proof of the American Dream

If You Think Republicans Are Overplaying Schools, You Aren’t Paying Attention

Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice

Moral Relativism and the Bottom Line

*“The Page Amendment Is a Trojan Horse to Destroy Public Schools

2022-03-25 Education in a Time of Pandemic III

Governance & Education Policy: Where Have All the Grown-ups Gone?

It’s just not one or two people here — there’s a mind-set coming from the governor on down to ban conversation and to segment communities and to erase life experiences from classroom discussion”(Hedy Weinberg, director, ACLU Tennessee)  

The sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical schisms in the U.S. which we observe daily on the national front cannot avoid being reflected at the local level. And one local governance body which has been especially vulnerable to spillover conflict is the school district.

School districts are representative government at its best (and worst): members are elected for set terms, and, at least traditionally, have tended to be individuals with children who were or had studied in the district schools, former teachers or other district employees, or civic-minded individuals inclined to involvement in les affaires educatives.

Boards set general policies for their districts (remember: there are 13,000 districts across the nation; Illinois alone has 859 – a fact that deserves a post of its own), and the degree to which individual boards become involved in the day to day running of schools varies from extremely hands-off to way too hands-on; Superintendents (who are hired by the Board and answer, ultimately, to them) are de officio members of the Board, although they may not be voting members.

The “Great Unraveling” of civility and civic-mindedness has not occurred in all 13,000 districts, of course. One of the most strife-ridden districts, Loudoun County, is next-door to another district in Alexandria which has experienced a conflict-free pandemic.

Most media reporting contends that the civil war that’s erupted in many school districts was caused by the pandemic. In contrast, we believe that the pandemic simply hastened a process of “unraveling” that had been underway for decades. The initial triggering event was, understandably, school closings (March 2020) and the almost-overnight shift to online/virtual instruction, for which many districts were, also understandably, unprepared.

Parents suddenly found themselves in the role of tutors-in-chief, or overseers of their children’s educational curriculum and day-to-day learning experiences, and there were not a few parents who didn’t like what they were seeing and hearing onscreen, whether it was how math was being taught (or not), or what books their children were reading, or how crucial racial issues in American history were being presented and discussed.

The early weeks and months of the pandemic have practically retreated to the status of ancient history two years on, but from March to September 2020, chaos reigned throughout the country. Schools, which in industrial and post-industrial societies serve in loco parentis for seven or eight (or more) hours each weekday so that children may be under adult supervision (i.e. “cared for”) during adult working hours, were unable to fulfill their twin role as community institutions of learning and looking after children before and after school. For those parents able to switch to working from home – by and large, middle and upper-middle class office workers – this situation was stressful. When both parents were working from home and trying to supervise / mentor two or three school-age children simultaneously, patience waned and tempers flared. But where were parents to direct their anger and frustration?

In late May 2020, George Floyd’s murder was captured by cell phone and the country erupted in horror. Protests and demonstrations continued for weeks, and millions of Americans began, perhaps for the first time, to awaken to the harsh reality of systemic (structural) racism in the nation’s justice system. Much of the background and some of the foreground of the School District Wars has been played out over What to Teach about Our Nation’s Racist History, and is currently before state legislatures (states have a major role in funding and dictating state educational policy, as a result of our diverse, non-federal system of public education) in the form of bills that would, for example, forbid schools to teach subject matter that might make students feel “uncomfortable.” Clearly, some state legislatures do not fully grasp the purpose of education itself: if you’re not feeling uncomfortable, you’re probably not learning.

Below we examine, in chronological order of their emergence, the issues which have made governing local school districts so difficult during the pandemic:

School Closures (March 2020)

When school districts across the U.S. began shutting down in March 2020, mostly within about two-three weeks, what ensued can only be described as chaotic. Among the issues children and their guardians confronted when schools shifted to virtual (online) platforms: (1) many families (poor urban, rural populations) could not afford or did not have access to high-speed broadband required for synchronous online learning; (2) Public schools offer meals to children of eligible families (those earning below 130% of the poverty level, or who are on TANF or SNAP), and emergency accommodations had to be made for meal preparation / pick-up / delivery so that children wouldn’t go hungry during the first few months of the pandemic; (3) Public schools, for want of a more flattering description, offer childcare services (aka “babysitting”) during the normal workday (8-4/ 9-5), and when schools closed suddenly, parents/guardians were left scrambling to make alternative care arrangements. At every socioeconomic level, knotty problems emerged.

There were two-parent, two-income families living in cramped urban apartments trying to work full-time from home while simultaneously supervising their children’s online learning – a “first-world” problem, but a problem nonetheless which drove thousands of professionals to seek somewhat cheaper and more spacious dwellings in the suburbs, and this problem, for which those with the financial means found a solution, is going to have knock-on effects on public school enrollments and thus, finances for years to come.

There were children of essential workers whose parents’ jobs couldn’t be performed from home; who was to look after the youngest of these, and who was to supervise the coursework of their older siblings? There were no adults at home, so inevitably, older siblings looked after younger ones, often to the detriment of their own learning. Families which had relied on older relatives (grandparents / great-aunts) for childcare when their children missed school due to illness could not responsibly expose elderly caregivers (many of whom were not comfortable using a laptop or iPad) to COVID-19. Of course, in multi-generational households, such exposure was unavoidable.

Parents of children under five who were in daycare or preschool programs had nowhere to leave them during the first months of the pandemic as daycare centers too were shut down (many, apparently, permanently). As a solution of last resort, some engaged friends/neighbors to look after the under-5s during the first several months, but we should remember that COVID-19 was running rampant in densely-populated urban neighborhoods, particularly those inhabited by POC. Everyone was fearful, and rightfully so.

It is understandable that many parents – often those parents who were financially able to confront the crisis in school closures – became upset and later, angry. They began writing emails to school boards, attending meetings via Zoom, and posting on closed Facebook groups, lobbying to re-open schools. Those most likely to become the object of anger were local school boards, populated by their friends, neighbors, fellow church-members – people they knew or knew of, people they might even have voted for in local elections.

This anger was expressed despite the fact that school closures were not the fault of school boards or districts; members / administrators were, however, a lot more accessible and vulnerable to attacks than the federal government, whose refusal to issue clear guidelines / explanations through the CDC will ultimately be seen as responsible for a pandemic whose end is not yet in sight. The CDC’s policies, while helpful after some months had elapsed (although by then it was too late), never clearly identified the coronavirus as aerosol, even though this was clear from the earliest superspreader events in Washington State and Boston.

Why did the virus’s airborne transmission matter? Well, it turns out it mattered more than just about any other characteristic feature of the virus, particularly in regard to transmission in congregate settings like public schools.

What’s the problem with our public schools? By and large, they’re old, and they haven’t been properly maintained and retrofitted during the past 30-40 years. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) most recently graded the U.S. public school infrastructure (2021) with a D+. Many urban schools in older industrial cities whose schools were built between 1900 and 1950 have outdated, malfunctioning ventilation systems and/or windows that hadn’t been opened in years. With aerosol viruses, ventilation is the key to successful mitigation; when the air in a school (both central areas like cafeterias and classrooms) can be changed every 10 minutes, the virus’s spread is significantly lessened. Air purifying systems producers made millions from contracts with school districts in 2020-2021, but many of these systems actually did not meet the requisite standard of air replacement classrooms required to be considered (relatively) safe.

Today there’s a DIY means for ventilating classroom-size spaces called the Corsi/Rosenthal box. It’s cheap (around $100 for all materials), and can be assembled by amateurs. And it works very well, even in spaces that are otherwise poorly-ventilated. Every classroom should have one.

In short: parents/guardians were right to be angry that schools were closed by the force majeure imposed by COVID-19, but their anger was misdirected. School boards and administrations could as a practical matter do little to ameliorate the virus’s spread in old, poorly-ventilated, over-crowded and under-staffed buildings. Furthermore, districts didn’t possess reliable information about the virus’s airborne spread.  

The George Floyd killing (May 25, 2020)

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer in late May, which was recorded on a cell phone, ignited a series of protests and demonstrations across the country (starting from Minneapolis itself on the day after Floyd’s killing). Suddenly, Americans “woke up” to the realities of structural racism in the U.S. justice system. During most of the summer, public and private institutions and organizations scrambled to step up racial justice programs (often referred to as DEI = Diversity, Equity, Inclusion programs). There is a highly profitable service industry devoted to training schools (boards, administrators, teachers, students) to be more racially aware both in practice (e.g. active recruitment of Black / AAPI / Hispanic teachers and senior staff) and in the classroom (e.g. through use of teaching materials which more accurately reflect the country’s racist history, including the 20th-century civil rights movement, etc.).

Cultural Conflicts (2020-present)

CRT

Not all districts reopened with in-person classes in the fall 2020 semester; many remained closed until spring 2021. Overcome by despair at their children’s prospective “learning loss” and concerned that precious teaching/teacher resources were being devoted not to the basics but to sociocultural initiatives, conservative parents in (primarily red/purple) districts directed their anger against an acronym, CRT, i.e. Critical Race Theory. Let’s clear up a much-misunderstood point: CRT is not taught in K-12 schools anywhere in the country. Rather, it’s a term plagiarized from legal analysis which was introduced in some law schools in the early 1980s. DeedSpeakOut is clear about this because the types of issues CRT actually considers – how persistent negative effects of earlier practices continue today (examples: redlining in housing, school segregation in education, environmental sacrifice zones, the school-to-prison pipeline in education/justice) -are precisely the sorts of issues this blog has been dealing with the last five years.

From a purely academic perspective, we believe that a 12th-grade AP American History or Sociology class could undertake incredibly useful archival research into these areas – we’ve often thought that high school seniors could, for example, study the original deeds for houses built between 1920 and 1960 in their neighborhood/city, or examine K-12 school boundaries as these were drawn and redrawn during the same period (or up to 2000; the process of gerrymandering school attendance boundaries continues), or examine publicly-available detainment/arrest/sentencing records of young juvenile offenders between 1960 and 2020, or partner with an investigative reporting group (the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting comes to mind; another group is ProPublica) to examine historical zoning regulations for residential/light/heavy industry within the boundaries of their district.

Such research projects, depending on how they were ultimately presented (and deployed), could legitimately be considered “critical race theory-related/relevant” (although their primary focus would not be on legal issues, which are graduate-level). But what angry parents are protesting isn’t this sort of student work. Rather, they’re disturbed by efforts to introduce more racially- and ethnically-sensitive texts and discussions of U.S. history. Nicole Hannah Jones’ The 1619 Project (which came out in 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in Virginia) has provided a lot of fodder to the anti-CRT movement, which has now spread to numerous state legislatures via bills outlawing the teaching of racism in various iterations, even going so far as to forbid the teaching of material that would make students feel “uncomfortable.” Such bills originate from a small number of conservative activist groups; in some states (e.g. Alaska), The 1619 Project is explicitly banned, while in Missouri, “Students must be presented with a positive picture of US history. Discussions of current policy issues are banned.” Many of these bills (not all have been voted into law; some remain pending and may be voted down) also include clauses forbidding classroom discussions of LGBTQ (or sex or gender) issues; Virginia has expanded on this with a bill that would require students to use their original “biological sex” bathrooms. Ah, Virginia.

Book Banning

When difficult and painful subjects are banned from K-12 education, whether by states or individual districts, can the banning of books which treat difficult and painful subjects be far behind? A small Tennessee school district board (McMinn County) enjoyed nationwide notoriety for several weeks over its decision to ban a modern-day classic, the graphic novel Maus, which garnered the Pulitzer Prize for author Art Spiegelman. The novel is a story of the Holocaust, and apparently the bones of contention were the use of “mild swear words” (as if students in 2022 had never heard them) and the depiction of a naked female mouse.

Another book on the blacklisting list in 2021-2022 is Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1988). Glenn Youngkin, then a Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia (now Governor), featured the mother of a former high school student who had been assigned the novel in one of his campaign ads. The controversy, which culminated in a book banning (or “explicit content warning”) bill that then-Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed twice, eventually was capped by McAuliffe’s infamous – and eminently quotable – quote “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” – a statement which the national press believed cost McAuliffe the election. The main objections were that the book depicted violence, sex, and above all, the heroine Sethe’s killing of her baby daughter.

It should be noted that Beloved was taught at the AP level only (Morrison’s other classic, The Bluest Eye, was taught in regular English classes). The campaign to ban Beloved because the heroine killed her little girl so she wouldn’t have to suffer the depredations of slavery (in line with the conservative line that “all life is sacred,” which is honored by conservatives mostly in the breach) reminded us of another American classic, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1932). We checked to see whether The Good Earth had similarly been banned for its depiction of a mother killing her newborn daughter. Yes – it had been banned, but not in the U.S. It was banned in China because it depicted poverty in a way that made the Maoist-era Communists “uncomfortable.” The U.S. may want to think carefully about whether it wants to follow China’s example.

Having set the stage, we now proceed to a consideration of the havoc wrought by the pandemic – school closings – school re-openings on two school boards, one on the East coast (Loudoun County, Va.) and one on the West (San Francisco). The bitterness and successive controversies which rent both boards asunder (literally) were well-documented in the national and independent media, and illustrate the complex issues which each board confronted before and during the pandemic.

Case Study 1: Loudoun County, Virginia

“The core misread of the national press is an idea the Equity Collaborative essentially labeled taboo. ‘The culture war is not a proxy for race,’ is how Grim put it. ‘It’s a proxy for class.’” (from Matt Taibbi, “Loudoun County Epilogue”)

“‘Economic diversity across the county/division complicates the discussions about race, leading many people to steer the conversation away from race to focus on poverty,’ would be among their main initial observations about Loudoun.” (Taibbi, “Part 2: The Incident”)

Loudoun County lies in Northern Virginia; it is heavily populated by federal civil servants and high-tech employees (with many overlaps between the two groups; since the Clinton era, it has been known as “the Silicon Valley of the East”). Loudoun is the wealthiest county in the U.S., and that’s germane to the story of what happened there between 2018 and 2021, although it’s hardly ever mentioned by anybody.

Here’s how the MSM story goes: Terry McAuliffe lost the governor’s race in November 2021 because of white (i.e. racist) backlash against social justice movements within schools and over whether parents should have a say in what their children are taught.

But that’s not what happened in Loudoun County, which has for several election cycles been seen as a quintessential PMC voting bloc – i.e. Democratic. Matt Taibbi, an experienced and open-minded independent reporter, decided to go to Loudoun County and find out for himself what was going down.

Our summary of his four-part series (here, here, here and here): As noted above, Loudoun County is wealthy and predominantly white (67%). However, during the past 20 years, its population of Asian and in particular, South Asian first- and second-generation immigrants has risen to more than 20% of the total (Blacks, on the other hand, account for just 8% of the county’s population). This newly- and recently-arrived population have flocked to Loudoun for its well-paying high-tech jobs, and for its nationally-ranked public school system.

Loudoun’s School District has for years maintained an agreement with neighboring Fairfax County (also wealthy; it ranked no. 4 in 2020) so that 250-300 students from Loudoun could attend Thomas Jefferson High School (rank: no. 1 in the U.S.) in nearby Fairfax County. Fairfax’s accommodation of its neighbors doesn’t come cheap; the cost is more than $4 million a year. Each spring when it comes time for LCS to approve the upcoming year’s budget, there is grumbling, especially since Loudoun built its own state-of-the-art Thomas Jefferson clone, Loudoun Academies.  The Board was unhappy with allotting $4+ million for TJ when the district had spent a bundle on Loudoun Academies, and parents whose children were destined for admission to TJ – the biggest public feeder school in the country to the Ivy League (and MIT, naturally) – weren’t at all pleased at the idea that their children might have to attend a knock-off school which could take decades to acquire the reputation of Thomas Jefferson.

The grumbling grew worse over the past three years, and then racial justice initiatives entered stage left. The local NAACP and activist parents began maintaining that a blind admissions system based on examination was racially biased, although blind admissions were actually created to avoid racial bias (it’s a topsy-turvy world in racial justice land these days). They began lobbying for admissions based on criteria that would take into consideration children’s race, recommendations, and so forth. (One wants to say “and SES,” but that’s a bit of a stretch in a county were the average income is more than $150,000 a year).

The thing was, Black students were somewhat underrepresented in admissions to TJHS, but the group that was most seriously underrepresented was white students, whose parents were unhappy but have resolved the issue of non-admittance by sending their children to private schools in the wider area for some time now.

What was the irony here? The group that was over-represented (by a factor of +3:1 in relation to their population share) in Thomas Jefferson admissions was Asian / South Asian students, many of whose parents / grandparents had left South India to escape racism in their own country. As Taibbi notes, many of these students are darker than their Black peers, but in Virginia they are classified as “white.”

Indian and South Indian parents had moved to Loudoun County for jobs and its public schools. Their mantra was that by working hard and excelling at academics, they could succeed in America in a way their skin color would not have allowed them to do in India. In other words, they believed in the American Dream.

These parents, who had previously voted pretty solidly Democratic, were unfailingly polite but really, really angry, and in November 2021 they expressed their anger by voting – many for the first time in their life – Republican.

And this wasn’t all. The District had hired a consultancy firm to carry out racial sensitivity training on a no-bid contract ($500,000, an amount the Board would normally have had to approve). The firm, “Equity Collaborative” out of Oakland, California (its headquarters located not far from San Francisco, the wokest of woke school districts as we’ll see below) implemented something called the “Action Plan to Eliminate Systemic Racism” which was approximately like igniting a torch to the kindling of parent discontent.

By late 2020, Loudoun County still hadn’t reopened its schools, and with white-collar workers returning to their offices, suburban mothers were furious. Schools reopened in early 2021, but by this time parent anger had reached the boiling point – and the Board’s patience, particularly that of members who had fully and uncritically embraced the Equity Collaborative’s anti-racist training had come to an end. School Board meetings devolved into shouting (and more); parents set up small groups of “for” or “against.” A special security detail had to be hired to protect board members during meetings, and parents who wished to speak before the Board were let in one by one to avoid rioting.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ student rights had come to the fore in Loudoun County and Virginia as a whole, with a focus on bathroom choice. The national press, Taibbi documents, got a particularly ugly incident in spring 2021 wrong. This led at least indirectly to the arrest of the father of a 16-year-old student who was sexually assaulted by a fellow-student in a (girls’) bathroom. Her attacker was wearing a skirt, but was apparently not transitioning. The school transferred him to another school in the district, where he promptly assaulted another student. The incident was misrepresented as an attack on transgender student rights, when in fact it was a case of a sexual assault on a minor.

Finally, we come to Terry McAullife’s “gaffe” when he maintained in a late September 2021 gubernatorial debate with his opponent that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin took that statement and ran with it – and won.

On the surface, this sounds pretty extreme – and Taibbi (who should perhaps be forgiven since he has three young children of his own) got this one wrong, as did the national press.

Jennifer Berkshire, writing for the Nation in the wake of the November election, fills in the details: in fact, McAuliffe was correct when he said that parents won’t be telling their children’s schools what to teach in future. But neither the state nor individual school boards/districts will either. McAuliffe had several years previously (2017) signed away curricular privileges for Virginia public schools to Amazon when Crystal City was awarded Amazon’s HQ2 in 2018. Cue Berkshire: “Virginia is essentially retooling its schools to train an army of future Bezos employees …”. Henceforth, the state will be divided up into regional workforce development districts, and companies / curricular development businesses will present curriculums tailored to training students to work for local employers.

Here’s the most ironic thing of all: Youngkin (co-CEO of private equity firm the Carlyle Group before entering politics in 2020; est. net worth $440 million) and McAuliffe are in perfect accord regarding who’ll be telling schools what they should teach in future.  And it won’t be parents.

Case Study 2: San Francisco, California

And now for San Francisco, whose Unified School District has around 120 schools and 54,000 students (7th largest district in California). Like Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, San Francisco County is perched near the top of the income pyramid: it’s in 5th place in the nation, right behind Fairfax.

San Francisco schools closed early in the pandemic and reopened late (not until spring 2021); thus they remained closed for three full terms, only beginning to return in April 2021. This was in line with the county’s health department recommendations – San Francisco was more proactive about closures and required mitigation measures than most cities/counties in the state (or country), and as a result experienced a comparatively lighter incidence of COVID-19 during its first wave than other comparably-sized cities/counties.

But enough was enough. Parents wanted the schools reopened earlier than the Board did, and San Francisco being San Francisco, the City ended up suing its own School Board to force schools to reopen. Clearly, relations had worsened during the first year of the pandemic.

Given that schools were closed for a year+, how did the San Francisco School Board spend its time during this period? One issue that appears to have occupied it intensively (since 2018) was that of renaming no fewer than 44 (out of 120) schools in a gesture towards racial equity – not empty, admittedly, but not exactly geared towards solving San Francisco’s desperate housing shortage, not with even the business of reopening public schools safely. The Board’s decision, which included renaming Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln (yes, Lincoln) schools due to the racism of the three Presidents, had to be rescinded in the wake of public opposition (partly motivated by a host of historical mistakes by a presumptive “blue-ribbon” committee which undertook the renaming project), but for many, they’d crossed the Rubicon of racial equity extremism. In a recent (and very rare) recall election, three of the Board’s most outspoken anti-racism advocates were recalled by margins exceeding 70%.

There’s more – in fact, the story of the city’s various excursions into the tangled web of racial equity sans economic equality deserves a post of its own.

The next post in “Education in a Time of Pandemic” will look at how educational entrepreneurs seized on the opportunity afforded by pandemic school closures to hasten the process of school privatization on the public dime.

Further Reading: Governance & Education Policy

General

School Boards get death threats amid rage over race, gender, mask policies

Death threats, online abuse, police protection: School board members face dark new reality

Why Public School Supporters Need to Keep On Pushing Back Against Laws Banning

of ‘Divisive’ Subjects at School

 “This Is Not Transparency

Opinion: Cruz Attacks Jackson for ‘Critical Race Theory’ — But Sends His Own Daughters to Learn It

Book Banning

Where Have You Gone, Laura Bush?”

The Woman Who Wanted Beloved Banned from Schools Is Right about One Thing

 “Virginia Governor Highlights Irony of Banning ‘Beloved’ from Schools

Holocaust Novel ‘Maus’ Banned in Tennessee School District

The Fight over ‘Maus’ Is Part of a Bigger Cultural Battle in Tennessee

Loudoun County, VA

Loudoun County, Virginia: A Culture War in Four Acts

A Culture War in Four Acts: Loudoun County, Virginia. Part Two: ‘The Incident.’”

 “The Holy War of Loudoun County, Virginia

Loudoun County Epilogue: A Worsening Culture War, and the False Hope of ‘Decorum’

 “Corporate Democrat Goes Down to Defeat in Virginia” …

 “Fairfax Schools Request Stay of Judge’s Order Invalidating TJ Admissions System

San Francisco

San Francisco Sues its Own School District for Not Reopening

San Francisco recalls school board members seen as too focused on racial justice

The Radical History of the Murals at George Washington High School

What Happens When an Elite Public School Becomes Open to All?”

2022-03-05 Education in a Time of Pandemic II

Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

Most American readers will be familiar with the euphemistically-termed “teacher shortage,” often presented in the media as an out-of-the-blue consequence of the pandemic. But just as we saw with nurses and nursing home workers, the teacher shortage has been decades in the making.

Like nursing, teaching is both a profession and a vocation. The best teachers are “called” to teach (cf. derivation of “vocation” > Lat. voco -are, “to call”); their knowledge is acquired through university attendance, honed through teacher training, and later, professional development courses which committed members of the profession continue to enroll in throughout their careers. As the parents of school-age children who were at home doing virtual classes in the early months of the pandemic have realized, teaching is not a matter of showing up and handing out homework at the end of the day. It requires an incredible amount of mental energy – even for the “natural” teachers among us – and the 20 or 30 hours of in-class time standard for most primary and secondary school teachers are accompanied by as many hours again of out-of-class preparation and grading. It’s easily a 60-hour week for a conscientious teacher.

But most teachers gladly give of themselves – their time, mental engagement, dramatic skills (yes), because that’s why they entered the profession in the first place. They chose to contribute to children’s growth through the acquisition of “book knowledge” as well as “social knowledge” – a fair amount of school time in the primary years involves socializing very young children to the idea that there are other people in the world outside their family. It’s not easy.

Througg the middle decades of the 20th century, teaching was still deemed a middle-class profession; salaries varied considerably by state (considering both cost-of-living differences between states/regions and the fact that wealthier districts / states paid higher salaries than poor districts/states), but in most states a teacher could maintain a decent lifestyle, particularly when they were one of a two-person working household. Of the three options available to lower- and lower-middle-class women in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, it was the most secure.

Today, there are two major national teachers’ unions: the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) with 3 million members (it includes teachers and all others who work in education as well as future teachers and retired ones). The AFT (1.7 million members) has around 3,000 local affiliates and is currently led by one of the nation’s best-known public unionists, Randi Weingarten. Of the two, the AFT was from the outset a true union (militant, strike-ready), while the NEA began as a professional organization which only later acquired the characteristics of a true union (with collective bargaining, for example). Individual districts (recalling that there are 13,000 of these), when unionized, become “locals” – thus, the Chicago Teachers Union is “Local 1” of the AFT; that in NYC is the “United Federation of Teachers” (UFT). Since the 1960s, teachers unions have wielded considerable lobbying and ballot box power at the local, state, and federal levels.  

But teachers and the unions which represent them are not without powerful opponents. To some extent this has always been the case, its origins going back to the mid-19th century when teaching shifted from the home and into the institutional setting of the school room – often, throughout the smaller towns and rural regions of the U.S., the one-room school house [note: our blog’s masthead features an early 20th-c. one-room schoolhouse in Central Illinois]. Young women assumed responsibility for imbuing a small group of children (aged 5-18) with sufficient “reading, writing, and arithmetic” to enable them to function in adulthood as farmers and laborers, but their tenures were short – only until marriage, when they were normally required to resign – their ambitions seen as non-existent, and their “vocation” a temporary one which terminated once they had a husband and family of their own. The emerging professional class (white, male dominated), in its effort to professionalize office work / management of enterprises both service- and production-oriented, looked down on the nation’s teaching ranks as inferior, largely due to the profession being dominated by young women, whom they saw as docile and obedient but not really up to the job of educating the country’s youth.

For the past generation or more, teachers have been attacked by numerous organizations which have systematically downplayed / downgraded their work and its results, and which have lodged an equal amount of vitriol towards their unions; while men began entering the teaching profession in significant numbers after WW II, especially at the secondary school level, much of the activism that led to collective bargaining rights, decent pensions, health insurance, sick days – all the benefits of white male private-sector unionism, in other words – was conducted by women, and two of the most powerful unions – the UFT and the CTU – are or were led by women in the 2010s.  

Over the past 30 years, teachers have been systematically attacked by both political parties for the inadequacy of “outcomes” as these privately-backed groups began hacking away at the primacy of public schools through the introduction of the “Big Test,” VAM (value-added-model of teaching), charter schools offering parents “choice” if they were unhappy with their children’s outcomes in public schools, voucher (private) schools, online (virtual) schools, and home schools, of which the “pod” or “micro school” which gained some traction during the pandemic was but a recent variant.

When teachers themselves, their profession and their union are being assailed on all sides for decades, it’s hardly surprising that applications to schools of education decreased in the years leading up to 2020; in fact, what’s surprising is that applications didn’t fall even further.  Deeds have consequences, and the consequence of late 20th and early 21st-century “teacher bashing” was that when the pandemic arrived, it was already estimated the system would be 200,000 teachers short by 2025 out of a required 3.5 million to maintain fully staffed classrooms.

As we enter Year 3 of the pandemic (apparently having decreed that it is at an end), U.S. school districts across the country are struggling, often unsuccessfully, to find staff. One reason is clearly the pandemic: teachers at or near retirement age, considered to belong to a COVID-vulnerable group, took early retirement. Others were forced to quit because of family obligations – caring for elderly relatives who were vulnerable themselves, or for young children who were at home due to pandemic school closures or COVID. Similarly, the ranks of substitute teachers shrank as many districts’ substitute corps is made up of retired teachers.

Other staff essential to operating and maintaining our public school systems similarly decreased in numbers throughout the pandemic, including classroom assistants (aides), bus drivers, cafeteria workers, crossing guards, and custodians. Many of these workers live in poverty, in communities hit hard by the initial wave of the pandemic in 2020, and in multi-generational settings with elderly relatives whom they were loath to expose to the virus.

How have states dealt with personnel shortages, which have not yet abated? Two states, New Mexico and Massachusetts, have called upon their National Guards to fill in for sick teachers (New Mexico) or for bus drivers (Massachusetts). Oklahoma has recruited police officers.

New Mexico holds the dubious distinction of having the highest child poverty rate and the lowest average teacher salaries in the nation (an argument could probably be made that these two data points are connected), although salaries are slated to go up 20% this summer. So the state, in collaboration with its National Guard, normally tasked with providing assistance in times of natural disasters and serving abroad in military missions, created the “S.T.A.F.” (Support Teachers and Families) program. The Guard was hoping around 70 of its members would step up; in the end, 96 did. This may not sound like many, but for some schools like those in rural areas featured in this NYT story, it meant that schools could stay open even when 10% of their staff was absent.

In Massachusetts, which in January had over 1,000 school employees out sick on an average day (20% absence rate in food/nutrition, 100 bus monitors, 30 bus drivers),  hundreds of school administrative staff went into classrooms, including the Boston Public Schools Superintendent herself. When administrators and clerical staff must enter classrooms, their work doesn’t get done in a timely manner; often, those teachers still working are tasked with additional paperwork and quasi-administrative tasks which add to the burden without benefit to children’s learning.

In 2021, 37% of all teachers were considering leaving the profession earlier than they had planned. Between July 2021 and January 2022, teacher retirements and resignations jumped 85% in Chicago Public Schools, in addition to 72 resignations by principals and assistant principals.  With a total workforce of 39,000, there were 1842 resignations and 524 retirements during the same period, up 50% from 2019-2020.  Percentage-wise, the highest turnover was observed among principals/assistant principals. While the stresses on school leaders have been different than those on teachers, they’ve been no less severe: the initial shift to online learning, reopening (or not) school facilities, ensuring the safety of students and staff through mitigation measures, resisting anti-vax and anti-mask activists (mostly parents, not students), dealing with the repercussions of the annus horribilis 2020 for our country’s race relations, managing massive amounts of federal coronavirus assistance responsibly, confrontational school board meetings, critical race theory, book banning,  and the list goes on.

But there’s more than the grievous effects of the pandemic at work here. We have often read about “teacher burnout” and “low morale” during the past two years, but teachers were burning out and morale was falling well before COVID-19. In a recent post, education writer Peter Greene suggests another name for the ill that has befallen our public school personnel: “moral injury.” He adopts the definition employed by Syracuse University’s Moral Injury Project: “Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.” Greene – a long-term high school teacher in Pennsylvania who recently retired – gives an example of one classroom practice which he considers as having inflicted moral injury, viz. “teaching to the test.” He estimates in another post that between 6 and 10 weeks a year were devoted to practice, preparation, and taking standardized tests – when you have only around 180 teaching days, and 50 of those have to be devoted to “the test,” that’s a lot of valuable real teaching time lost, to nobody’s benefit apart from the testing companies’ bottom line.

But there are many other aspects of teaching today which contribute to moral injury, i.e. the sense that what you are being forced to do goes against your values and indeed against the very reason you entered the profession in the first place.

It’s easy to say “Well, let’s just all pull together and agree on our values so teachers can inculcate them in our students.”

The thing is, our country’s values are fractured along very deep fault lines today. And inevitably, these fractures are played out in classrooms.

Teachers didn’t create them, but they’re paying the price in moral injury.

Next up: Governance & Education Policy in a Time of Pandemic. Lots of misbehaving and conduct unbecoming to adults – stay tuned.

Further Reading:

 “Opinion: I see firsthand why teachers are burning out and quitting. We owe it to children to fix this.”

Teacher Voice: Why We Are Being Driven Straight Out of Our Classrooms

I’m Never Going Back

Who Wants to Be a Teacher?”

 “Burnout and Moral Injury

The Blame Game: 100 Years of Teacher Bashing

 (Episode #84, Have You Heard Blog)

 “Iowa Won’t Require Schools to Put Live Cameras in Classrooms after Republican Bill Dies

 “Who wants to lead America’s school districts? Anyone? Anyone?

In Chicago Public Schools, More Principals and Teachers Are Leaving

 “New Twist on Pandemic’s Impact on Schools

“‘We Are Losing Good Teachers and Staff Every Day’: Report Reiterates Pandemic Shortages

2022-02-26 Public Education & COVID-19

Part I: Why is Public Education Public?

“…it’s hard to think of an education-related policy that has effectively and sustainably worked, beyond the granddaddy of all ed policy: a free, high-quality, fully public education for every American child, no matter what they bring to the table.” -Nancy Flanagan, Teacher in a Strange Land

We return to our overview of what COVID-19 has revealed about systemic weaknesses in the various areas DeedSpeakOut covers, starting from public education.

Let’s start this group of posts with a question: What is the purpose of public schools? Sounds simple, right? But the answer has become more controversial over the past 30 years as the U.S. has been inundated by “school choice” (charter schools, expanded voucher/quasi-voucher programs for private schools, home schooling, virtual [online] schools), national curricular and assessment programs (Common Core, No Child Left Behind [2001], Race to the Top [2009], Every Student Succeeds Act [2015]), anti-union and anti-teacher agitation, and aging school facilities. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 with its drastic budget cuts have not been made up for in many states/districts by a return to pre-2009 funding levels. And then the pandemic arrived.

The almost-overnight shift to online learning did not proceed smoothly in many schools/districts. It particularly affected those already resource-strained before the pandemic, i.e. high-poverty inner-city and rural schools (a significant percentage of which lacked adequate [or any] broadband coverage).

By 2021, parents in better-resourced districts were lobbying for school re-openings. Working parents (particularly mothers, who still bear the burden of most child-rearing) were obliged to return to their offices but could not leave children at home all day without an adult presence; mothers of preschool-age children struggled to find day care facilities because so many such centers had closed. Lobbying sometimes turned into hostile confrontations with school administrations and boards; parents, goaded by frustration at lengthy school closures, continuing mask mandates, curtailed extracurricular programs and “learning loss”, accused boards/district leaders of infringing on their own and their children’s “freedoms” (to attend in-person class, to ignore mask mandates at will). For these parents, COVID-19 has devolved into a minor inconvenience to be treated as “endemic.” “We’re done with COVID,” parents and like-minded community members claim. How many ever pause to ask whether COVID is done with us?

To return to our initial question: Why is public education public?

The U.S. public school system is not a federal one, although federal funds are disbursed to support schools, for example through Title I, which provides additional support to poor schools in the amount of $16.7 billion (2020). But we have no “national” prescribed curriculum (the closest thing being the “Common Core”), and the various states are largely free to determine, in collaboration with school districts, the curricula, textbooks, and requirements for graduation from primary and secondary schools.

This, as we shall see in this group of posts, has proved a double-edged sword.

Individual states have enshrined their commitment to educate all residents within their constitutions. The fourth Illinois Constitution (1970) is typical:

Article X.

Goal – Free Schools

A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.

The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.

Thus: “the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities” is defined as a goal, further elaborated as an “efficient system of high qualityinstitutions and services” It “shall be free.” And the State “has the primary responsibility for financing ….”

To restate for the purposes of discussion:

– the public education system is for all persons, i.e. it is universal

the public education system shall be efficient and of high quality

the State shall provide primary financing

Defined in these terms – universal, high-quality, state-financed, free – public education is a public good. In this it resembles our interstate highway system, our bridges and dams, our public parks (national, state, local), our public libraries, our law enforcement personnel (local, county, state police), our fire departments, and emergency services. All of these are public goods for everyone who uses/needs them.

The guiding principle behind public goods is that they are financed by everyone (through taxes) and are equally-accessible to everyone. They thus differ from private – consumer – goods in that the latter are paid for by individuals, at their individual discretion, and consumption should not materially affect the availability or quality of public goods. Private consumption is a matter of individual preference in concert with financial means, and is sometimes referred to as discretionary consumption.

Applying the terminology and adopting the criteria associated with private, discretionary consumption to refer to public goods is intellectually disingenuous and deliberately misleading. Over the past 20-30 years, school reformists have insisted on using the term “consumers” to refer to public school parents. This is strange, because while parents (along with all other taxpayers, parents or not) are indeed funding public schools, if anyone is a “consumer” it is their children, not themselves. The appropriate term should be “beneficiaries” – you won’t see that term being bandied about – or simply “users.” (Think of “library users” or “highway users” – we’d hardly call people who check out books from the local library, or drive their autos on public interstates “consumers,” would we?)

Public goods are public because they demand massive investment, planning, coordination, oversight, long-term maintenance, and regular renovation/replacement, all of which are too costly for any private individual to fund. Not even billionaires could have built the Hoover Dam, or the New York Public Library; to take a recent example, not even Elon Musk could have funded the James Webb Space Telescope.

In the case of public education, both private individuals – students – and the public itself – “society” – are beneficiaries. Each student benefits to the “limits of their capacities,” and when those limits are attained, society as a whole reaps long-term benefits.

What sort of “freedom” is involved for parents here? Well, there is the freedom to opt out of the system entirely, for one; wealthy parents may choose to send their offspring to private schools whose tuition ($60,000 per year is not uncommon for an elite private school today) their fellow citizens could never afford. This doesn’t, however, mean that wealthy parents’ obligation to the universal good ensured by public schools can be abnegated; they can opt out of sending their children but they cannot opt out of the more general obligation to the common good. Thus, the rich continue to pay local property taxes and state and federal taxes, some portion of which return to states/districts in the form of public school funding.

Against this background of public schools as public goods supported by public funds as enshrined in our various state constitutions, we will examine a number of issues exacerbated by the pandemic but not caused by the pandemic.

First, we’ll consider personnel shortages. It’s estimated that 90% of public schools are currently short of staff, including administrators, teachers, teachers’ aides, substitute teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians. What happens when 20% of a school’s bus drivers are out on any given day? Some students won’t get to school, or they’ll get to school two periods late. When 10% of your teaching staff is out, and there are no substitutes to call on? Administrators, secretaries, custodians are asked to fill in, or classes are combined and placed in a gym – in which case, gym classes are curtailed. Many districts depend on retired teachers for substituting, but because this population tends to be over 65, many were reluctant to serve during the pandemic.

Second, we’ll look at school infrastructure. The U.S. has 50,000,000 school-age children enrolled in 13,000 districts and around 100,000 separate school facilities. Many schools couldn’t manage to make their facilities COVID-safe because the buildings themselves were too old to renovate quickly or indeed at all. The great period of public school construction was the first third of the 20th century; many of these structures are still in use, but they have not been maintained or renovated to 21st-century standards. This is particularly true for our older industrial and commercial cities both large and small; when COVID struck NYC, for example, where more than 50% of all schools operate out of facilities more than a century old, many had non-functioning windows, or ancient ventilation systems that would have required gut renovations to upgrade to COVID ventilation standards. This had consequences for the virus’s dissemination.

Following infrastructure, we’ll take up privatization, which along with governance and policy form two of the most fractious aspects of public education today. Privatization of the public schools has been presented as a matter of “choice” and (personal, individual) “freedom.” Beginning in the 1990s, school “reformists,” funded by various private groups and individuals devoted their efforts to dismantling U.S. public schools and replacing them with charter schools (tax-funded private schools) and vouchers (for private, largely religious schools). Two states (Alabama and Oklahoma) currently have pending legislation that would essentially abolish public schools entirely – parents would be awarded a sum of money each year and left on their own. This isn’t easy (and that’s another reason we call public schools a public service): charter schools are often loathe (or refuse outright) to admit special needs students and English Language Learners (ELL), and in order to keep their test scores/rankings high, are prone to expel students each school year, leaving them to scramble to find a school that will accept them. Nor do charter schools offer any guarantee that they’ll remain open indefinitely; in fact, they sometimes close without notice over a weekend. Vouchers/quasi-vouchers (such as Education Savings Accounts and Tax Credit Scholarships) supposedly enable parents to enroll their children in private schools, but the amount doled out never covers tuition and fees at the private schools of parents’ dreams.  

Governance has become increasingly difficult for many school boards during the pandemic, partly due to controversial virus-related measures such as mask mandates and, during the first year of the pandemic, cancellation of athletics – not everywhere, but in many states/districts. Many school boards moved their meetings online and it proved a lot easier for parents to participate vocally via Zoom than in person. And then in the summer-fall of 2020, CRT hit the public schools like a spiritual-ethical pandemic. Some boards jumped on the pro-CRT bandwagon, others on the anti-, but few had any clear understanding of what CRT even was. Iowa’s governor now wants a camera in every public school classroom in the state to ensure that teachers aren’t teaching “CRT,” but what she means by that is that teachers will be forced to ignore key events in U.S. history and social life from the 16th – 21st century.

The fifth and final topic of this series of posts will be the more general crisis of public education towards which most states have been heading the last 30 years. But the crisis of public education is in fact only part of the crisis of American society itself – schools are microcosms of society at large, and their problems are mirrored in other public sectors. The U.S. never fully transitioned to the form of social democracy enjoyed by many European countries during the post-WW II era extending from the late forties to the late seventies. Its social welfare system remained anemic, universal healthcare was never implemented, daycare / preschool programs were never federally mandated or funded, university-level education was never free. And since the eighties, there has been a concerted assault on the working classes combined with a powerful anti-tax movement which has intentionally starved the public sector of funding to maintain public services at their 1970s level. Poverty has become more prevalent at both the individual and the public sector level. Many reformists and like-minded opponents of public schools – of public anything, really, except perhaps freeways and law enforcement – have for a generation now been engaged in a misdirected assault on public schools as responsible for a plethora of ills.

But social inequality, systemic racism, and a deliberately-underfunded public sector are not the fault of our public schools, and they cannot provide a full redress for larger social failings.

Above all, schools cannot be made to compensate for mass poverty. Nearly 17% of all U.S. children were living below the poverty line in 2020. One in 10 of NYC’s 1,000,000 school children is homeless at some point throughout the school year. No teacher and no school can compensate for such social tragedies.

 In the remaining posts in our “Public Education & COVID-19” series, this stark and shameful reality will serve as backdrop.