Monday, May 11, 2015

This Is How Self-Government Works

It doesn't take much reading here to know that I'm interested in the politics of education and, frankly, government in general, and specifically self-governance. Being cynical about government is as American as apple pie, of course, and to the degree that there are individuals who use government for their own personal gain and aggrandizement it's an emotionally, if not intellectually, valid stance, but ultimately to be broadly cynical about government is to doubt that Americans are capable of governing ourselves.

I recognize that I'm an idealist. There is little doubt that powerful interests have leveraged their financial superiority to more or less purchase the men and women who are supposed to serve as our representatives. There are more of us, of course, regular work-a-day citizens, but their money multiplies their influence, especially since lobbying and bribery of both the legal and illegal sort is simply part of their work-a-day lives as corporations and wealthy individuals. With the pressures and pleasures of living, many of us have limited opportunity to take part in self-government. Some even make a conscious effort to avoid politics altogether, not even voting, which is the minimal requirement of democracy. I consider those people traitors, even as I understand the frustration and despair that drives them from the public square.

On my best days, despite what I know about the realities of American politics, I still see "government" as the name we give to the things we've chosen to do together, be it building roads, running fire departments, or establishing libraries. The prevailing cultural idea during most of my adult life has been to doubt government's ability to do anything well and to instead look favorably upon private enterprise and those so-called "free market forces." We've tried disastrous experiments based on this notion, having turned institutions like prisons and healthcare over to the highest bidder. Even a large portion of our military at war is now staffed with highly-paid mercenaries. And now, powerful political and corporate interests have allied themselves in an attempt to privatize education in order to, in the words of Mr. Free-Markets himself, Bill Gates, "unleash powerful market forces" on our schools.

Listen, there are some things that are probably best created in the hothouse of free market competition (as opposed the faux competition in most of our market segments which are dominated by virtual monopolies), but when the desired results cannot be measured in profit, like with prisons (which should be measured by how many criminals we reform), healthcare (which should be measured by public health), military (which should certainly be measured by something other than profit), and education (which should be measured by the critical thinking skills of our youth), then it's a terrible model. These are not things that should be done for profit, but rather things we must do together, and that requires government: good government, and that means transparency, participation, and ample opportunity for citizen input.

When citizens sit on the sidelines, government still functions, just not necessarily on behalf of we the people. No the void we leave in our cynicism is filled by powerful monied interests, the investor class, those who benefit the most from the privatization of governmental functions. When citizens step up to our responsibilities of citizenship, however, no force can stand in our way. We tend to think our political system is too divided and corrupt to work any longer, but that is objectively not true, or at least not always true.

Bloomberg Business recently published a series of charts illustrating how quickly major things have changed in America over time, tracking such social issues as interracial marriage, prohibition, women's suffrage, abortion, same-sex marriage, and recreational marijuana. In each case, we see issues that start as impossible to achieve, that were opposed by powerful political interests. In each case, however, we see state-by-state public support of these issues slowly mounting, sometimes over the course of decades, until bam suddenly there is a surge of support as the American people rise up, together in the act of self-governance, to demand federal action. We don't always rise up, but when we do, we can't be stopped.

One of the defining characteristics of these major changes is that they require an upheaval of politics as usual, often making allies of former enemies, bringing together citizens unwilling and unable to remain stuck in the easy political straight jackets the entrenched elites seek to make for us. Indeed, they find that if they want to retain their power they had better run around to march in front of the parade and pretend to be leading it or else be trampled under our feet.

Change happens slowly, then suddenly, a theme that also runs through evolutionary science.

In our time we are watching this happen with same-sex marriage and probably the end of the prohibition of marijuana. I also assert that we are witnessing a similar phenomenon when it comes to education, as momentum continues to increase for citizens to reclaim our schools from those who would turn them into test score coal mines. Slowly, our movement has spread, and change is happening state-by-state. More and more politicians, from both parties, are seeing the light and beginning to sound like they're prepared to march with us. We're not at the tipping point yet, but it's not far off now.

We are at an interesting moment in our citizen-lead revolution in education. Last week, a group of 12 institutionalized civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, and La Raza, issued a statement urging us to not opt out of high stakes standardized testing, taking the side of the powerful elites from whom they have come to rely on, in part, for their funding. Grassroots education civil rights groups and individuals have responded strongly, boldly showing these vaunted institutions how they are wrong. Teacher Jesse Hagopian, writing on behalf of the Network for Public Education, schooled them in the Washington Post on the failings of high stakes testing, especially as they impact poor and minority children, followed a couple days later by a piece from Wayne Au, professor and editor of social justice teaching magazine Rethinking Schools, in which he follows up by  exposing the financial conflicts of interest that may be behind their support of the corporate agenda, asking the question, "Just whose rights do these civil rights groups think they are protecting?"

And just like this rift on the left, we are seeing rifts on the right as well as Republican governors are rejecting the federal Common Core curriculum, while Republicans in Washington DC continue to be cheerleaders.

This is what happens whenever the people lead major change in America, when citizens rise up and demand change. The old alliances fall away and there is a political realignment more in keeping with the will of the people. It's messy, noisy, and it takes too long, but this is the way democracy is supposed to work.

People, too accustomed to the cynicism that the monied elites rely upon, often feel like there is nothing they can do, but look at what is happening. Look what can happen. None of us have to do it all, we just have to do our part, talking to our friends and families, reading, sharing our opinions, and, when necessary engaging in small acts of civil disobedience like opting our children out of high stakes testing. This is how our parade is made, this is how self-government works. And this is how we are going to transform public education in America.

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