CHALLENGES FOR THE NEW SCHOOL YEAR

September 1, 2010

 

            I write this as Labor Day approaches.  Labor Day means that the PCT membership, like teachers throughout the country, are experiencing the pre-school jitters Ė wondering what their students will be like, thinking about what they will talk about on opening day, experiencing the similar emotions to those of any performer.  Only this performance goes on for 180 days.  No matter how many times one has done it, for most of us, Labor Day Weekend is consumed with more than thoughts of the history of labor.  

            We open school this year at a very troubling time.  A sputtering economy has brought with it what difficult economic times often do, a substantial narrowing of our sense of what it means to be American.  Our students today are being bombarded with stimuli that encourage nativist bigotry, the surrender of personal freedom for some illusory safety, a belief that government is the enemy of its citizenry and a belief that if only the super rich were unfettered of government regulation and taxes, our country would prosper as never before.  While it may be a subversive idea in some circles, I believe very deeply we have an obligation as teachers to discuss these notions with our students in age appropriate ways.  As a young teacher, I read the late Neil Postmanís Teaching As a Subversive Activity which Iíve been drawn back to in times like these.  

            Take the anti-immigrant tide sweeping our nation.  Itís imperative, if we are really educators, that the bigotry that our students easily confuse with love of country be rebutted.  Weíve reached the absurd point where because our president has an unusual name, a significant number of ignorant Americans believe he was not born in the United States .  There is no serious question but that the successive waves of immigration have enriched this country and contributed to its competitive edge.  Until the advent of the United States , there had never been a nation that could bring together so many different people of so many different nationalities and religions and races and meld, in many cases, historic enemies, into the greatest nation on earth.  Sure we need to control our borders and respect the rule of law, but when Microsoft builds a campus in Vancouver because it is easier to get visas for foreign scientists and engineers in Canada than it is in the United States , we need to change the laws.  The best and the brightest still want to come here.  We will keep them out at our peril.  Teach the children that immigration has and will be the life-blood of our country.  

            I know we were attacked on 9/11.  Like most Americans, I want to do everything I can reasonably do to prevent another attack. Is it reasonable, however, to be so pre-occupied with safety that we blithely tolerate surveillance cameras everywhere, laws like the Patriot Act (Just the name ought to make us a bit suspicious of it.) and a growing ability to know where every American is at any given moment.  Thatís the kind of thing we used to cringe to think about, so deeply have our ideas of freedom been.  FREEDOM Ė We need to get students thinking about the importance of freedom if we are to continue to enjoy it.  The history of the United States has been a general expansion of person freedom.  

            The United States has always been suspicious of government, but we have arrived at a point in our history when a committed minority on the extreme right of the political spectrum has systematically demonized government seeking to cast it as our enemy or at the very least completely inept.  Unless you teach them, students canít know that Social Security  and Medicare have rescued millions of senior citizens from the ravages of poverty that was the lot of many when I was young.  Unless you teach them, government regulation will be anathema to them.  They probably will not hear of how environmental laws have us breathing cleaner air than we did before they came into being.  They wonít know of the workplace safety laws that, while still in need of improvement, have reduced the number of deaths and maiming of countless American workers.  If we donít teach them, they will just inherit the view of too many of our contemporaries - the government takes your tax dollars and wastes them on things we would be better off without.  If we donít teach them otherwise, donít wonder when they support the privatization of schools and other vital services that decent societies provide through their government.  

      One more challenge for you as we start a new school year.  Find ways to engage our students in discussions of our media environment.  Students need to learn to authenticate information in a web world in which we are barraged with opinion masquerading as fact making it very difficult for them to tell the difference.  They need to be asked to also confront the belief many of them have that they can multi-task without any cognitive consequences.  The jury is in.  They canít.  They know more than we do usually about how to work the technology.  Too many are ignorant about what to appropriately do with it.  Teach them.  And yes, get good test results too.

 

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