Category Archives: Education / Youth

Constitutional Rights At The Schoolhouse Door

As regular readers of this blog and my former students know, I  approach my course on “Law and Public Affairs” through a constitutional lens. There are some obvious reasons for that focus: many of my students will work for government agencies, and will be  legally obliged to adhere to what I have sometimes called “the Constitutional Ethic.” Due to the apparent lack of civic education in the nation’s high schools, a troubling number of  graduate students come to class with very hazy understandings of the country’s legal foundations.

Freedom of speech seems particularly susceptible to misunderstanding.

The first problem is that a significant number of Americans don’t “get” that  the Bill of Rights only restrains government. Walmart or the Arts and Entertainment Channel or (as one angry caller insisted when I was at the ACLU) White Castle cannot be sued for denying you your First Amendment Right to express yourself.

The most difficult concept for my students, however, has been the principle of content neutrality. Government can–within reasonable limits– regulate the time, place and manner of citizens’ communication, but it cannot favor some messages over others. (I used to illustrate that rule by explaining that city ordinances could prohibit sound trucks from operating in residential neighborhoods between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am, but could not allow trucks advocating for candidate Smith while banning those for candidate Jones. I had to discontinue that example when I realized that none of today’s students had the slightest idea what a sound truck was…)

One example I did continue to use was public school efforts to control T-shirts with messages on them. Private schools can do what they wish–they aren’t government–but public schools cannot constitutionally favor some messages over others. This is evidently a lesson that many Indiana schools have yet to learn. A brief article from the Indianapolis Star reports that the ACLU is suing a school in Manchester, Indiana, after a student was forced by administrators to go home for wearing a T-shirt with the text “I hope I don’t get killed for being Black today.”

According to the Complaint, students at the school are allowed to wear T-shirts with Confederate flags and “Blue Lives Matter” slogans. It describes the plaintiff, who is identified only by his initials, as one of the few Black students at the school.

“Schools cannot selectively choose which social issues students can support through messages on their clothing,” Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana’s legal director, said in a prepared statement on Monday. “Students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors. The refusal of the school to allow D.E. to wear his t-shirt is a violation of his right to free speech.”

The school would be within its rights to ban all “message” T-shirts (although I can hear the grumbling now). Favoring certain messages over others, however, is a violation of the principle of content-neutrality –a core precept of the Free Speech Clause that prohibits government from favoring some messages over others.

The courts give school administrators a good deal more leeway than other government actors, on the theory that providing an educational environment requires a larger measure of control than would be appropriate for adults. But there are limits; as Ken Falk noted, and the Supreme Court affirmed in Tinker v. DeMoinesstudents do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.

Far too many school administrators are more focused on exerting control than on modeling or transmitting basic constitutional values. Too many public schools are operated as totalitarian regimes–environments that stress compliance and group-think, rather than teaching critical thinking, acquainting young people with the values of a democratic society, and encouraging civic debate and engagement.

When school officials themselves routinely break the rules, is it any wonder so many young people graduate still unaware of them?

 

Libraries

On yet another pandemic Sunday, I want to talk about anything but Trump and the transition. So…

At some point in history class, most of us learned about the fire that destroyed the library in Alexandria–a structure supposedly filled with all of the knowledge that humans had acquired by that point.

A few days ago, I came across an intriguing article about that story. Evidently, the great fire was mostly a legend–but the events that did lead to that monumental loss should stand as an even more significant warning about the dangers of anti-intellectualism.

The article began by quoting from Carl Sagan’s retelling of the conflagration that (legend tells us) destroyed the knowledge that had been acquired in the ancient world, all of which was thought to be within the library’s marble walls. Sagan warned that destruction of the library should be seen as a caution to those of us who are living some 1,600 years later.

Sagan stood in a line of writers who, for the last two or three hundred years, have made the word Alexandria conjure up not a place—a city in Egypt—but an image of a burning library. The term Alexandria has become shorthand for the triumph of ignorance over the very essence of civilization.

The article set out what historians do and don’t know about the actual library and its destruction. Although there are competing theories, it is most likely that the library met its end gradually–not in one big blaze, but over years and decades of neglect and growing ignorance. Although it is probable that there were fires during those years, accounting for the loss of many books, the “institution of the library” was destroyed more gradually– through organizational neglect and the growing obsolescence of the papyrus scrolls themselves.

And therein lies the real moral of the story.

Alexandria is, in that telling, a cautionary tale of the danger of creeping decline, through the underfunding, low prioritization and general disregard for the institutions that preserve and share knowledge: libraries and archives. Today, we must remember that war is not the only way an Alexandria can be destroyed.

The long history of attacks on knowledge includes not just deliberate violence—during the Holocaust or China’s Cultural Revolution, for example—but also the wilful deprioritization of support for these institutions, which we are witnessing in Western societies today. The impact that these various acts of destruction of libraries and archives has had on communities and on society as a whole is profound. Communities in places like Iraq and Mali have seen Islamic extremists target libraries for attack, and in the U.K. over the past decade, more than 800 public libraries have closed through lack of support from local Government.

The movement of human archives to internet servers (or the Web or the Cloud or other digital storage venues) has been just one of the numerous dislocations we humans are experiencing in our bumpy transition to a digital age. As various legislative bodies wrestle with the issues presented by that transition and by the emergence and dominance of huge digital enterprises, the protection of knowledge–and the ability to distinguish knowledge from disinformation, fantasy and conspiracy theory–has to be a primary goal.

Libraries and librarians are immensely more important guardians of that goal than Google.

Neglect of libraries is part and parcel what Isaac Asimov called the “cult of ignorance,” a phenomenon that we see in contemporary dismissals of expertise as “elitism”and the cyclical eruptions of anti-intellectualism in the United States. Asimov’s famous quote probably says it best:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

If the story of Alexandria stands for anything, it’s the importance of libraries–national and local. Those libraries are our gatekeepers, safeguarding our ability to access practical information as well as hard-won wisdom that has been built up over centuries. If we fail to adequately fund, maintain and protect them, we will suffer a setback not unlike the years following the legendary loss of the Library at Alexandria.

 

 

Middle Schoolers Solve Gerrymandering!

One of the many structural problems that prevents America from experiencing genuine democratic accountability is gerrymandering. Those of you who have been reading this blog for more than a few months will have encountered my frequent posts describing the multitude of ways that partisan redistricting–aka gerrymandering–distorts election results and operates to suppress citizen participation.

Over the years, the Supreme Court’s majority has declined to find partisan redistricting unconstitutional or even justiciable–piously labeling it a “political question.” One of the Court’s excuses was the unavailability of reliable tests to determine whether a vote margin was the result of a gerrymander or simply a reflection of majority sentiment. Even after tests were developed that proved their accuracy to the satisfaction of lower courts,  the Supreme Court declined to rule against the practice, reinforcing the widespread conclusion that the Justices’ decisions were impelled more by ideology than an inability to determine whether gerrymandering had occurred.

Now, according to a fascinating article from Forbes,  a group of middle-school children has demonstrated the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff–or in this case, the gerrymander from political enthusiasm.

The article began by noting that the practice of gerrymandering is used to “dilute the voting power of certain constituents, minorities, and other groups.” (In the felicitous phrase coined by Common Cause, gerrymandering is the process that allows legislators to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.)

As the subject of their science research project, three middle school students from Niskayuna, New York, decided to take on this serious issue. In their work, Kai Vernooy, James Lian, and Arin Khare devised a way to measure the amount of gerrymandering in each state and created a mathematical algorithm that could draw fair and balanced district boundaries. The results of the project were submitted to Broadcom MASTERS, the nation’s leading middle school STEM competition run by the Society for Science & the Public, where Vernooy, 14, won the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation and a $10,000 prize.

These middle schoolers, who are too young to vote, decided to use scientific research to solve the problem of identifying when a redistricting map was the product of a gerrymander. They came up with a method of identifying political communities and regions of like-minded voters, then grouped those communities together to form precincts.

Each precinct was adjusted to include a compact or circle-like shape, a similar population size and a similar partisanship ratio. The result was a simple representation of where groups of like-minded voters live in each state.

These precincts were then compared to actual voting districts within the state. The comparison shows the percentage of people that are in the precinct but not the district, therefore illuminating the number of people that the district fails to represent. Using this method, they were able to give each state a gerrymandering score.

The article included color-coded maps illustrating the process the middle-schoolers devised. It ended with the pious hope that “the right people” would take note.

The article should serve to remind us that there are solutions even to seemingly intractable structural problems. The disinclination of the Court and Congress to actually implement those solutions is a different kind of reminder.

That disinclination reminds us that the people who benefit from cheating are unlikely to be interested in stopping the practice.

The Appeal Of Fascism

A comment to a recent blog post reminded us of the overwhelming–albeit under-appreciated–power of culture. The famous banner in Bill Clinton’s war room was wrong. It isn’t “the economy, stupid”; that message should be edited to read “it’s the culture, stupid!”

The problem is, in today’s United States, there are two very different cultures. (Actually, there are many permutations within those two “mega” cultures.)

As a recent essay at the Brookings Institution site put it, despite the fact that Joe Biden won by an enormous margin (more than five million votes and counting) the size of Donald Trump’s vote is a “stark reminder of the enduring power of racism and misogyny in America.”

The essay from the usually circumspect Brookings didn’t mince words; it compared Trump’s core appeal to the appeal of fascism,

the pleasure of inflicting cruelty and humiliation on those one fears and disdains, the gratification of receiving the authoritarian’s flattery, and the exhilaration of a crowd freed from the normal strictures of law, reason and decency.

Americans are not immune to the charms of authoritarianism. We did not need Trump to know this about ourselves; racial authoritarianism has existed within and alongside our democracy from the beginning. Trump was in essence a rearguard action by those who wish to preserve the racial hierarchy that has defined America from its founding.

The rest of the article discussed the very real costs of divided government, in the event the Georgia run-offs do not deliver slim control of the Senate to the Democrats.  Those costs are clearly obvious to the people who read and comment on this blog–divided government, whatever its merits at other junctures of our national history, will make it impossible to address the structural issues that have entrenched government power in a minority party unresponsive to and contemptuous of the needs of a majority of Americans.

So what does this have to do with culture?

In the quoted language, I was most struck by the definition of “Trumpism” as a rearguard action focused on preserving white privilege. White privilege is the essence of the alt-right movement–it is clearest in the pronouncements of the Proud Boys, the Neo-Nazis, and the Klan remnants who see themselves as the protectors of “White Culture,” but it isn’t limited to those fringe movements.

We can see “white culture” in the urban/rural divide, in the sneering dismissals of “cosmopolitanism,” in the denunciations of coastal and global “elites,” and in the efforts to protect Confederate monuments as exemplars of Southern culture rather than reminders of American willingness to enslave dark people. Etc.

I was never a huge fan of John Edwards, whose Presidential campaign dissolved for a number of reasons, including his infidelity (remember when infidelity actually harmed a candidacy? talk about the “good old days”!), but he was onto something with his highlighting of the existence of “two Americas.”

Cultural change is inevitable, but it is also difficult and slow, and it creates understandable and unfortunate resentments. It will take time–and changes in both the media and social media platforms– for those resentments to abate.

Pious exhortations to more progressive Americans to “reach out” to those resisting social change aren’t just embarrassingly one-sided (no one is telling the alt-right to try to understand those dark-skinned or Jewish or Muslim “libruls”); they also have a distressing tendency to be either naive or condescending– or both.

I don’t know whether the gulf between America’s very different cultures can be narrowed or bridged. I have no suggested magic wand, but at least a part of the longer-term solution needs to be a new appreciation for the importance of public education in public schools–education that emphasizes what we diverse Americans presumably have in common: allegiance to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Enlightenment approach to empiricism upon which they were constructed.

An in-depth civics education would at the very least be an inoculation against the appeal of fascism.

 

 

 

 

And (Most of) The Children Will Lead Us….

As Americans were hanging on every update of the vote counting, Inside Higher Education posted a fascinating–and overall encouraging–graphic.

 

The embedded image shows the election results we would have gotten had we counted only the votes cast by those under 30. In a real sense, it also is a snapshot of each state’s “political future.” Overall, the map is comforting–results range from light to dark blue in large areas of the country, confirming my often-stated belief that the younger generation overall is more inclusive, more community-minded and “with it” than my own.

Voters under age 30 leaned heavily Democratic, favoring Joe Biden over President Donald Trump by a wide margin (61 versus 36 percent) in the recently-called presidential election, but there were key differences among young voters across gender, racial and state lines, according to an analysis of exit polling data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Massachusetts

That said, there are some disappointing elements to the analysis. For one thing, young white men supported Trump by a six-point margin (51 versus 45 percent).( I am happy to report that young white women favored former vice president Biden by 13 percentage points (55 to 42 percent)).

Even more disquieting for my family of Hoosiers, Indiana remained red amid the varying shades of blue. Young people in Indiana will evidently carry on the state’s tradition of minimal, largely ineffective government and widespread racial antagonism. As my son recently pointed out, higher-education levels are low in the state, and young Hoosiers who graduate from college leave Indiana at a high rate.

Other states show evidence of evolution, albeit with that same disquieting racial breakdown:

In Georgia and North Carolina, 90 percent or more of young Black voters chose Biden, while more than half of young white voters (54 percent in North Carolina and 63 percent in Georgia) favored Trump.

In Texas, Latinx voters supported Biden over Trump by a nearly 50-percentage-point margin (73 versus 25 percent), while a majority of young white voters preferred Trump (51 versus 45 percent for Biden).

My son pointed to the analysis as justification for his advice to his teenage children–“find a better place to live; don’t come back to Indiana; we’ll follow you.” That advice was more anecdotal evidence supporting Bill Bishop’s Big Sort assertion that Americans are voting with our feet, and “sorting” geographically into locations where our neighbors share our political convictions.

None of this bodes well for Indiana. The past couple of decades have seen small towns continue to empty out. Children born in those towns, and the rural areas that surround them, have migrated either to metropolitan areas within the state, or left Indiana entirely. The super-majority of Republicans dominating our state’s legislature  has waged war on public education, creating a voucher program that sends already scarce education dollars to (almost always religious) private schools, several of which teach creationism in lieu of science.

Indiana’s legislature has also defunded higher education, resulting in Indiana’s finest colleges admitting ever more out-of-state students who tend to leave after graduation.

The low levels of education and the relatively low levels of diversity around the state contribute to a situation that’s exacerbated by the “winner take all” law that is the worst aspect of the Electoral College. Even if 49.5% of Hoosiers somehow voted for a Democrat, the state’s Eleven Electoral Votes would be awarded to a Republican who received 50.5%, a situation that encourages the legislature to ignore dissenting voices. That’s not a situation likely to bring talented people to Indiana, or to keep those we manage to raise.

People move to livable communities. Strike one against Indiana’s creation of such communities is our neglect of infrastructure. Strike two is inadequate funding of education. Strike three, as displayed on the embedded map, is the fact that Indiana voters — today and evidently into the future — can be counted on to support know-nothings and White Supremacists up and down the ballot.

Indiana–the Mississippi of the North….