Category Archives: Education / Youth

Revising History? Or Ignorance Of It?

A recent article in the Charleston Post and Courier reported on the results of a poll conducted by Winthrop University. It was pretty disheartening.

The Winthrop University Poll randomly dialed and questioned 969 residents in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia between Nov. 10-20 and Nov. 26-Dec. 2. Results have an error margin of plus or minus 3.15 percent.

The poll found that half of residents either agree or strongly agree that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation.

Among white evangelicals, three-fourths agreed or strongly agreed with this belief about how the nation was founded.

The immediate question raised by such results is whether these respondents have chosen to ignore what they (presumably) learned in history class  or whether they are simply uninformed. Whatever the answer, the poll results explain a number of things about Southern political culture.

The poll’s director noted that the belief in a Christian founding is central to Christian Nationalism.

“Research has shown that increases in Christian Nationalist beliefs lead to more exclusionary views on immigration and more negative views of multi-culturalism in America,” Huffmon said. “Those who hold these views care more about whether they have a strong leader who will protect their religious and cultural values than whether a leader is individually pious.”

Forgive me if I suggest that the “cultural value” they want to protect is Christian social dominance.

It is virtually impossible to reconcile this belief in a Christian Nation with American history, or with what we know about the origins of America’s constitution–or for that matter, with the plain language of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is one thing for Christian fundamentalists to prefer that the country affirm the superiority of their particular creed; it is another thing entirely to falsify history in order to convince themselves and others that the Founders agreed with them.

If these folks have made a conscious decision to falsify history, that’s reprehensible. But it is far more likely that they are ignorant of history, that they’ve never heard of the Enlightenment, or encountered the (then radical) political philosophy that privileged personal autonomy over religious and political beliefs endorsed and imposed by the state.  The widespread belief in Christian nationhood reflected in the poll results is a stark reminder of Americans’ deficit of civic literacy, and the failure of our schools to teach history and government accurately and adequately.

It’s interesting–and telling– that this particular fantasy about America’s founding is almost exclusively a phenomenon of White Christians who consider themselves the only true Americans.

The Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Charleston, disagreed with claims that the country was intended to be explicitly Christian.

Darby, who also pastors Nichols Chapel AME in Charleston, didn’t mince words in describing Christian nationalists and white evangelical denominations with exclusionary views on immigration and multiculturalism.

“It’s called Christian hypocrisy,” Darby said.

Darby added that the country should not be in favor of one particular religion. Rather, he said politicians and voters should “love God and love others as we would be loved.”

“If the laws reflect that, we’d be one nation under all,” he said. “If you have something that’s exclusively Christian, you’re walking a very slippery, nationalist slope. Everyone in America is not Christian.”

I suspect that White Christian Nationalists are more worried about the threat civic equality poses to their cultural hegemony than they are about America’s spiritual prospects.

Policymakers can’t do much about chosen ignorance, but polls like this should be seen as yet another reason to make civic education a national priority.

Montana Is Right; Indiana Is Wrong

Montana’s Supreme Court recently struck down that state’s version of a school voucher program, ruling that it was unconstitutional under a provision of the state’s constitution.

As Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported,

The Montana Supreme Court delivered a win for church-state separation and public education last week when it struck downthe state’s private school voucher program.

Americans United, joined by other civil-rights organizations, had urged the court through a friend-of-the-court brief to prevent the voucher scheme – called a tuition tax credit program – from funding private, religious education. Our brief explained that the program violated the “no-aid” provision in Montana’s constitution, which protects residents’ religious freedom by ensuring taxpayer money isn’t used for religious purposes – including religious education.

The Montana Supreme Court agreed with us: “We ultimately conclude the Tax Credit Program aids sectarian schools in violation of Article X, Section 6, and that it is unconstitutional in all of its applications,” wrote the court majority.

“Montana taxpayers should never be forced to fund religious education – that’s a fundamental violation of religious freedom,” said AU president and CEO Rachel Laser. “The Montana Supreme Court’s decision protects both church-state separation and public education. It’s a double win.”

The Indiana Constitution has a provision very similar to Montana’s. What we don’t have is a Supreme Court willing to uphold it.

Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, and according to Chalkbeat, 306 of the 313 schools across Indiana that received vouchers this year are religious. When supporters of public education and civil liberties challenged Indiana’s program, citing our state’s constitutional bar on sending tax dollars to religious institutions of any sort, the Indiana Supreme Court declined to address the reality of the program, ruling that the funds were being sent to parents, not schools, and that it was thus the parents who were “choosing” to use them at religious schools. (Among other intellectually dishonest aspects of that analysis, the court conveniently ignored the fact that 90% of Indiana’s private schools are religious, a fact that rather obviously constrains that parental “choice.”)

There are numerous reasons to oppose school vouchers, and I’ve written about several: research rebuts claims that children attending these schools perform better than similar children in public schools; the program diverts money from already under-resourced public education; there is no requirement that voucher schools teach civics or comply with civil rights laws or refrain from discriminating against LGBTQ students or teachers. (Roncalli, anyone?) There is virtually no accountability.

Accountability has been cited as one of several differences between voucher schools and charter schools. Charters are public schools, they must obey the Constitution, and they can be closed if they fail to perform adequately. (The threat of closing does make them accountable, but use of that mechanism is terribly disruptive, and causes significant angst for parents and children who must find another educational venue.)

Now it appears that Charters, too, have discovered an escape from accountability. According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Charters closed for poor performance or financial improprieties can simply reinvent themselves as–you guessed it!–voucher schools.

The article addressed announcement of the closure of Thurgood Marshall School, a Charter.

If Fort Wayne’s charter-school history is any indication, however, the school might not remain closed. When authorizer Ball State University pulled the charters for Imagine MASTer Academy and Imagine Schools on Broadway, the schools simply converted to private voucher schools. About $3.6 million in state loans made to Imagine were forgiven…

The sponsors turned to Horizon Christian Academy, which took over operation of the two schools but seems to have made no improvements. The Broadway school was absorbed into the Wells Street campus school in 2016. Enrollment grew, but not academic achievement. After consecutive state accountability grades of D’s and F’s, the state finally prohibited Horizon from enrolling new voucher students this year, but current students continue to receive taxpayer-supported tuition for the school.

At the very least, lawmakers should prohibit Charter schools closed for non-performance from continuing to rip off taxpayers by converting to Voucher status.

What lawmakers ought to do, of course, is admit what the Montana Supreme Court recognized: sending tax dollars to religious schools violates both the state and federal constitutions–whether those dollars are “laundered” through parents or not.

Indiana’s voucher program was sold as a way to give poor children a better education. In reality, it serves middle and upper-income families by requiring taxpayers to subsidize their children’s religious education. It should be phased out.

 

 

 

YES!

The Parkland students who mobilized in the wake of that school shooting have been a much-needed bright spot in our gridlocked and polarized political discussions about gun violence and the reach of the Second Amendment. But the most wonderful thing about this group of poised and effective youngsters is they aren’t the only ones. A young, determinedly activist generation is emerging, and demanding that we adults get our acts together.

Much of the activism concerns climate change. A 15-year old recently confronted world leaders at a U.N. meeting about climate change, demanding action.

This 15-year-old has got something to say, and on June 29th, the United Nations General Assembly heard him loud and clear.

Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez stood before the representativesand spoke earnestly and boldly (without notes, for the record) about the urgency of climate change, urging them to take action immediately. “What’s at stake right now is the existence of my generation,” he said in his speech. “In the last 20 years of negotiations, almost no agreements have been made on a bonding climate recovery plan,” he said.

Another 15-year old, Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, is also demanding action.

Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg has been protesting for more than a month. Before the country’s parliamentary election on September 9th, she went on strike and sat on the steps of the parliament building, in Stockholm, every day during school hours for three weeks. Since the election, she has returned to school for four days a week; she now spends her Fridays on the steps of parliament. She is demanding that the government undertake a radical response to climate change. She told me that a number of members of parliament have come out to the steps to express support for her position, although every one of them has said that she should really be at school.

And in October, a federal court ruled that a lawsuit brought by American children, asserting that they have a constitutional right to a habitable planet, could proceed.

A lawyer for a group of young Americans suing the federal government over climate change said a judge’s decision Monday to allow the suit to move forward should clear the way for a trial to begin on Oct. 29.

The suit, which was brought by 21 children and young adults, accuses federal officials and oil industry executives of violating their due process rights by knowing for decades that carbon pollution poisons the environment, but doing nothing about it.

 “When the climate science is brought into the courtroom it will result in the judge finding that the government is committing constitutional violations,” said the lawyer for the kids, Phil Gregory.

It isn’t just climate change, however. In a suit that warms the cockles of my old, cold heart, Rhode Island, students are suing to force schools to teach civics.

Aleita Cook, 17, has never taken a class in government, civics or economics. In the two social studies classes she took in her four years at a technical high school in Providence, R.I. — one in American history, the other in world history — she learned mostly about wars, she said.

Left unanswered were many practical questions she had about modern citizenship, from how to vote to “what the point of taxes are.” As for politics, she said, “What is a Democrat, a Republican, an independent? Those things I had to figure out myself.”

Now she and other Rhode Island public school students and parents are filing a federal lawsuit against the state on Thursday, arguing that failing to prepare children for citizenship violates their rights under the United States Constitution.

The student plaintiffs allege that the state has failed to equip its students with the skills to “function productively as civic participants” and has failed to provide them with the information they need if they are to be capable of voting, serving on a jury and simply understanding the nation’s political and economic life.

The state allows local school districts to decide for themselves whether and how to teach civics, and the lawsuit says that leads to big discrepancies. Students in affluent towns often have access to a rich curriculum and a range of extracurricular activities, like debate teams and field trips to the State Legislature, that are beyond the reach of poorer schools.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs hope the case will have implications far beyond Rhode Island, and potentially prompt the Supreme Court to reconsider its 45-year-old ruling that equal access to a quality education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right.

I seem to recall a movie titled “The kids are all right.” These kids certainly are; in fact, they’re better than all right. They’re great.

I hope they kick our butts.

File Under: From Your Mouth To God’s Ears

When someone made a positive prediction in her presence, my grandmother would employ a favorite  “go to” phrase: “from your mouth to God’s ears!” It was her way of saying she certainly hoped that whatever was being predicted would turn out to be true.

Grandma has been gone for quite some time, but that phrase was the first thing that popped into my head when I read this report from Politico.

As many as five Democratic-led House committees next year could take on DeVos over a range of issues such as her rollback of regulations aimed at predatory for-profit colleges, the stalled processing of student loan forgiveness and a rewrite of campus sexual assault policies.

“Betsy DeVos has brought a special mix of incompetence and malevolence to Washington — and that’s rocket fuel for every committee in a new Congress that will finally provide oversight,” said Seth Frotman, who resigned as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s top student loan official earlier in protest of Trump administration policies likely to be examined by Democrats.

In any other administration, DeVos’ “special mix of incompetence and malevolence” would have garnered far more media attention. Trumpworld, however, has such a monumental amount of both that she has had to share that attention with others in the abysmal cohort comprising our nation’s current administration.

Among the incoming committee chairs antagonistic to DeVos is Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). She’s in line to lead the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing education funding, and–like the other incoming chairs identified in the article–she’s coming to the job with her sights firmly set on DeVos.

The panel’s oversight work, DeLauro said, will focus on ways to “hold Secretary DeVos accountable for her agency’s failure to uphold federal protections for our students.”

DeLauro called DeVos’ record on student debt issues “appalling,” citing the administration’s moves to eliminate Obama-era rules meant to cut off funding to low-performing colleges and make it easier for defrauded borrowers to obtain loan forgiveness.

“I will make sure Secretary DeVos knows Americans want her to protect students and veterans, not the for-profit school industry,” she said.

Maxine Waters will head the Financial Services Committee; earlier this month she accused DeVos of a “full-on attack on civil rights protections for students—particularly students of color, students with disabilities, transgender students, and survivors of sexual assault.”

A number of watchdog groups have brought lawsuits that can serve as agendas for these committees:

Groups like American Oversight, National Student Legal Defense Network and Democracy Forward have all filed multiple lawsuits against the department — many focusing on its ties to the for-profit education industry.

“We are certainly hopeful that the Department of Education will cooperate with the incoming Democratic chairs’ oversight requests,” said Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network, which published a list of oversight topics for Democrats to take on after the election. “However, given this administration’s track record when it comes to following the law, it would not be surprising if Congress has to use subpoenas to get any useful information.”

Trump’s cabinet–with a combined net worth estimated at $14 Billion–is filled with appointees chosen mainly for their deep antagonism to the missions of the agencies they head. (Total ignorance of the matters under the agencies’ jurisdiction is a plus.) But even in that pathetic assembly, DeVos stands out.

Hostility to public education? Check. Lack of even the slightest understanding of education policy debates? Check. Devotion to her fellow plutocrats who are making fortunes by ripping off students and taxpayers? Check. Total lack of respect, regard or concern for the students DOE supposedly serves? Check.

When Politico’s mouth gets to God’s ears, bring popcorn.

 

What We Can Do

Yesterday, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians about–surprise!–the importance of civic knowledge, and what each of us can do to encourage its acquisition…Here’s what I said. Apologies for the length.

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I was asked to talk today about the importance of what I call Civic Literacy—and to suggest what your congregation and each of you individually might do to encourage other people to acquire the knowledge necessary to properly discharge their citizenship responsibilities.

Let me share some background. In late 2010, I was teaching my undergraduate class in Law and Public Policy. I approach this subject-matter through a constitutional lens, because—after all—in order to be legally enforceable, policies have to be constitutional, and it helps when policymakers have some idea of what the Constitution requires. I begin with a brief description of the Enlightenment (which few of my undergraduate students have ever heard of), proceed to the “architecture” of our constitutional system, and then consider what people mean when they talk about “original intent.”

I often introduce that discussion by asking what James Madison thought about porn on the Internet.

Usually, the students to whom I direct that question laugh and say something to the effect that Madison could never have imagined something like the Internet. But of course, Madison did have opinions about the importance of free expression and the need to protect such expression from government censorship, so we proceed to discuss how the courts have applied the Founders’ intent – protection of the principleof freedom of speech—to a variety of communication mechanisms Madison could never have contemplated.

On this particular day, however, the student to whom I directed the question (a college junior) looked puzzled, and asked “Who is James Madison?”

It was my introduction to America’s civic literacy deficit.

That incident triggered a question I went on to explore: how widespread is such civic ignorance? What don’t Americans know about our country’s history, philosophy and legal system? The answer, according to the data then available, was: a lot. At the time, for example, only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government. By last year, that same national survey found the number had slipped to 26%.

Overall, a huge amount of data confirms that most Americans know little or nothing about the Constitution, or about government, economics or science. Most cannot define the terms they routinely employ to embrace or dismiss different systems, like capitalism, socialism and fascism.

Why do I think that informed civic engagement is so important?

Civic literacy (or lack thereof) affects the whole of society. Reasonable levels are especially critical to the maintenance of democratic norms.

We are currently seeing the results when people elected to high office don’t respect those norms, or know anything about the Constitution, or the way government works—or for that matter, what science is or the most basic principles of economics. Such individuals are elected by voters who don’t understand those things, either– who don’t understand what skills governing requires and who are unable to evaluate the performance of the people they elect.

If that isn’t bad enough, over the past quarter century or so, we’ve seen the growth of yet another problem that is largely attributable to low levels of civic literacy: susceptibility to spin, propaganda and so-called “fake news.” When you don’t know what the rules really are, it’s easy to believe hysterical accusations. Did a Court say a cross on government property violated the Establishment Clause? That means Satanists have won, and we’ll have to remove the crosses from our churches! (True story.)

We know that the American public is ignorant—not stupid, just ignorant– but there’s a lot we don’t know about the causes and consequences of this very troubling deficit of civic knowledge:
·      What is the civic deficit? i.e., what is the necessary content/what are the essential skills that make a person “civically literate”?
·      How are civic literacy and civic engagement related? Which comes first? What behaviors beyond voting reflect civic engagement/civic skills?
·      Where, besides some public-school classrooms, are civic skills taught and/or civic information imparted?
·       Is there a relationship between perceived political efficacy and motivation to become civically knowledgeable? (“I can’t make a difference anyway, so why bother?”)

As an old lawyer once told me, there’s really only one legal or political question, and that’s “what do we do?” That’s the question the Center for Civic Literacy is now focusing on.

So—what can any of us do? Let me share a few ideas.

Awhile back, a graduate student and I wrote a short book we called Giving Civics a Sporting Chance. We compared America’s fascination with sports trivia to our lack of civic knowledge. Every weekend, some bar is holding a trivia contest and customers are demonstrating that they know who threw the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series.  Why not hold trivia contests focused on American history, government and the constitution?  (You might generate some local political support if you include questions like “Who’s your city councilor?” or “What does the county coroner do?”)

In Indianapolis, we worked with the public library on a project we called “Electing Our Future”—it might also serve as a template for local efforts. A couple of months before municipal elections, we had panel discussions about the issues winning candidates would face. We didn’t talk about the candidates–we didn’t even invite them– but about the problems we’d expect them to solve and the practical, legal and financial constraints they would face.

One effort that is still ongoing and has been very popular is an adult version of “We the People.” Women4Change worked with the National Center for Civic Literacy to offer one night per week, six-week versions of that very effective civics curriculum.

There is another thing that each of us can do to call attention to the superficiality of American knowledge. When we read a letter to the Editor or a post to a widely-read blog that misstates a Constitutional principle, or incorrectly defines an economic term, or confuses science with religion, we need to respond.

For example: “I noticed that Sally Smith dismissed evolution because it is “just a theory.” But “theory” in science is a technical term, not to be confused with ordinary usage. Scientific theories are supported by evidence that has been tested empirically….” You get the idea. These corrections should be as polite as we can make them, since the people who express uneducated, factually-wrong opinions are likely to resent having “smarty pants elitists” correct them. That said, I think a concerted effort to highlight misinformation and raise awareness would have a positive effect.

The problem isn’t just that Americans are deficient in knowledge about the country’s history, constitution and legal system— the problem is that, so far as I can tell, most Americans have been unconcerned about those deficiencies, and the failure of most schools to teach civics adequately.

One of the reasons our public schools don’t focus on educating future citizens is the philosophical divide among citizens about the purpose of public education. The arguments made by self-styled reformers tend to focus on education as a consumer good; a “good school” is one that imparts skills needed by children who will enter the global marketplace. In the United States, however, public education was originally conceived to be—in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase—constitutive of a public. In an ever-more-diverse polity, where the Constitution and “American creed” are essential elements of our “civic religion” (and frequently the source of the only values we hold in common), a robust civics education is what allows us to “constitute” a polity. It is what makes us Americans.

Marketable skills and STEM skills are important, but so is familiarity with—and ideally, allegiance to– the history and philosophy of America’s approach to self-government. If there is one over-riding lesson we at the Center for Civic Literacy have learned it is that—despite our national fondness for flag waving and our constant, pious references to the Constitution—too few Americans know what the flag stands for, or what the Constitution says.

Ultimately, of course, we have to lobby our legislatures to require more and better history and civics instruction in our schools. When you think about it, Americans don’t pray to the same god, read the same books and newspapers, watch the same television shows, eat the same foods—a lot of us don’t even speak the same language. The only thing that all Americans have in common is a particular philosophy of government and a distinctive set of social values—and when we don’t know anything about that philosophy or those values, we aren’t Americans; we’re just a collection of separate, mutually-suspicious constituencies contending for power.

And most of us understand that encouraging distrust in a bunch of mutually hostile, know-nothing constituencies is highly unlikely to make America great again…

Thank you.