Saturday, August 20, 2005


I suspect that the reason that demagogues of any stripe can gain so much popularity is because of two basic factors. The first is the rise of political correctness and the second is the resulting disappearance of civics courses from our public schools system. Don't get me wrong. When Brandon asked me to join this blog I was a creature of the right who had evolved into a creature of the left, and I am still the same individual who accepted the invitation. But I must say that there is a part of me that deplores the idea of any kind of censorship for virtually any reason what so ever, and that part of me tends to exist beyond the confines of the left to right spectrum.

Before I write another word, I want to specify that I am not talking about Brandon, nor his siblings, nor his friends and team mates here. In the time that I have known them they have proven to be intelligent, well-read individuals who are making an effort to support their beliefs with cold hard facts. So, what I’m about to say is in no way intended to reflect upon them. But I must also say that there are many, many young people out there who haven’t a clue as to what this country is about, or how it was formed, or as to who the founding fathers were. And if you want the truth, I worry about a country in which the upcoming generation doesn’t have a sense of where they came from, when they don’t understand the basic premises on which their government and liberties are based. I find it very difficult to talk to younger people today. If I mention names like Jefferson, Hamilton, Lafayette, Tocqueville etc so many of them haven’t a clue as to who or what I am talking about. Words like federalism, confederacy, states rights, the New Deal, etc produce confused looks and glassy eyes. Am I the only person out here who thinks that this is a bad thing? And it isn’t only the young people. I find significant segments of the older population who have no idea as to how issues interrelate and cross reference; seemingly educated people who are functionally illiterate when it comes to the history of this country. Again, I ask the question. Am I the only person out here who thinks this is a bad thing for the future of our nation?

Before writing this I asked Brandon for permission to use him as an example as to what can happen when political correctness is carried to an extreme. I’ve known this young man for the better part of five years. The fact that he was a bright, curious, inquisitive, and (at times) headstrong young man did not surprise me I the least. He was after all, my best friend’s son. But to be honest, I had not been at all impressed by his high school experience with literature. He seemed to have the facts but there was an obvious void when it came to the classics. Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, Age of Reason, Stranger In A Strange Land, Frankenstein, The Grapes of Wrath, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex: Those were just a few of the titles which his English, science, and history high school teachers had considered too “controversial” to discuss in a high school setting. The reasons were obvious—left and right wing political correctness. No one wanted to upset anyone. Indeed, the degree to which people are offended by ANY opinion which difference in only the SLIGHTEST degree from their own is truly frightening. Luckily, Brandon’s dad and I both have extensive, private libraries, so we’ve been able to fill in the gaps which had been created by past restrictions. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are still millions of young men and women in our society who will never know the wit of Mark Twain, or the prophetically accurate dystopias that we might find in works by Aldous Huxley or George Orwell; not to mention large stretches of American History and the important political/philosophical debates which took place during the Constitutional debate of 1787 and ever since.

In other words, we have just about politically corrected ourselves to death, and with that in mind I offer the following reasons for scrapping this God awful concept and going back to what has historically worked best: intense and often furious debate over real issues.

1. By silencing opposing view points you actually lose the ability to make effective arguments against them.

2. Imposing political correctness (i.e. censorship) onto individuals will only make them craftier and cagier when they present old ideas in new garb.

3. Political Correctness makes a mockery out of the basic philosophy that the solutions to bad ideas are better ideas, that the remedy for bad speech is better speech. .

4. It has a tendency to shut down debate by demonizing the person making the argument rather than the ideas themselves.

5. There may or may not be a constitutional basis for civility but there certainly is NOT a constitutional right to harmony. In other words, where in the Constitution does it say that there is a right to never be offended? The answer, very simply, is that such a right does not exist.

6. As bad as some speech may be there are cases when hearing it in the public square is actually useful. In other words, if racist or sexist or homophobic bigots want to make themselves look like fools, then LET THEM. At the risk of using a cliché, if you give them enough rope the damned fools in this world will almost inevitably hang themselves. The American people may be overworked and struggling just to keep their heads above water, and they may not have a lot of time to follow the details, but that doesn't mean the American people are idiots--far from it. If exposed to moronic ideas and a superior counter argument I suspect that they will invariably reject bigotry and embrace the superior argument.

7. Attempts at censorship in the name of political correctness invariably blow back in unexpected ways. We may attempt to penalize the local racist for offending people of a racist group but if we do so it will only be a matter of time before misanthropic (read fanatical) college students can take a college professor to court because he offended their religious beliefs by discussing the theory of evolution. Someone should tell the proponents of both, left wing and right wing political correctness about the old saying: “What goes around comes around.”

8. Political Correctness is an attack on the right to freedom of thought and conscience. And if I need to explain that then we’re in worse condition than I ever might have imagined.

9. Political Correctness stifles creativity by re-classifying a wide variety of speech and expression as histile acts. Only under the narrowest of circumstances should speech or freedom of expression be considered as forms of action. Perhaps shouting "fire" in a crowded theater or using speech to provoke physical violence might be considered actions, but that said, the frequency with with speech has been redifined as action itself is both repressive and frightening.

10. Political correctness runs contrary to our First Amendment Free Speech Rights. Need I say more?

I don’t know if the political climate would allow us to create an effective civics course, but I suspect that the job might become a lot easier if we could get past the idea that political correctness is in any way correct and learn to celebrate the fact that we have a right to be offended.

That may sound contradictory, but it is also true.


Kate said...

In all honesty, there are two roots of this problem: one is the actual issue with political correctness and the other is education. I've been calling for a massive educational reform for years (and NO, I don't mean the regressive bull found in the No Child Left Behind Act, which I've taken to calling the Every Child Left Behind Act) but, sadly, until I can get the idea into enough people's heads, the reforms won't come.

The extent of political correctness in this country is a problem, there's no question. But, in my opinion, the larger problem is education. They actually did try and reinstate Civics for a time, though under a different name. I was never required to take the class in high school but, I had an American History teacher my junior year that essentially taught history and civics together, without the curriculum telling her to.

I don't think that what people realize is the influence that school has on everyone. But I wonder, how could they not? Here is a place where children 6-18 spend 8 hours a day for five days a week. Sometimes, if kids go to full-day kindergarten, it's more. How can anyone ignore this as a serious source of influence? Well, perhaps I shouldn't say that. I think everyone is quite aware of what a social molder schools are. But it seems to me that we've forgotten why children are in school in the first place. It's not to make friends or see who can become the most popular or teach social skills or any of that. Those are all byproducts of the original goal: to educate people. Yes, the social aspect is important but no one can function without academics. Hasn't anyone else noticed that it's now fallen to parents to teach what their kids aren't learning in school and to teachers to give children the care they don't receive at home? When did it become acceptable to switch these roles? And, I've found, more often than not, the parents don't step in where the teachers aren't able and so, no one gets a proper education.

The first way to combat children who grow into knowledge-lacking adults is to actually teach them something. A novel idea, I'm sure, but perhaps it's just crazy enough to work. I can relate yet another personal experience: when I was in high school, I took AP English. We did so little work that we started calling it an "easy A." Um...?! This is Advanced Placement English. And yet, I did less work in that class than any class I took my senior year. I might even include study hall in that.

There is an auxiliary problem connected with both political correctness and education: the vicious circle they both create. We cannot educate properly because of political correcness but we can't start phasing out PC because we are not educating.

It seems as though the "grownups in charge" have forgotten a vital piece of information - that the reason they complain about a generation such as mine, who apparently knows nothing, is that they are the ones who made it happen in the first place. They dried up the curriculum and now, offer a few meager scraps that students are expected to take gratefully and be on their way. Sadly, however, this will not change until we have an administration (left or right) that understands education is the most effective way to bring up fine, upstanding citizens.

I'm not crossing my fingers.

Mandelbrot's Chaos said...

Kate, I have a simpler solution: Make movies like "PCU" and "Higher Learning", as well as the first three seasons of South Park, required viewing in all high schools with thoughtful discussion. Have the kids read Yevgeniy Zamiatin, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and maybe some Chekhov and Dostoevsky, though if they're going to be exposed to Russian literature, please save them from Solzhenitsyn. Maybe even include an elective Comparative Religion class... It'd be far better than mandating language courses kids forget within a year or two of leaving high school except, of course, for the profanity they found elsewhere. As a side note, do you know how weird it is to know a few curse words in a language that's been dead for the better part of two millennia?

Kate said...

Mandelbrot's chaos...I don't agree with everything you said but for the most part, your ideas would make for a better curriculum than what we have now, even if you meant any of it in jest. If I were an educator, my goal would be to make well-rounded human beings. I had to take a math program in school that made absolutely zero sense. It was supposed to be that it made kids think more for themselves, while putting less of a burden on the teacher to lecture. What it ended up being was my math teacher sitting at his computer and writing email while we did nothing in groups. I had three years of this and as a result, I had to take remedial math in college, and I've forgotten most of that anyway.

Thoughtful discussion really is what should drive many lesson plans but sadly, it doesn't. It's more at vocab and learning historical dates, which, while important, aren't as effective at teaching. I think one of the best ways to teach a social studies course would be to have my students watch The Daily Show and then question/comment what they see. They don't have to agree with it, they just have to come prepared to discuss it. But, sadly, that plan might work, so it'll never see the light of day. But, I suppose here's hoping...

Advocate1 said...

Brandon and I were talking over the weekend and we came to the conclusion that Mandelbrot Chaos would make a fine civics teacher. We don't mean that to sound sarcastic. Mandelbrot sounds like the kind of individual who would encourage free debate even when he disagreed with it, just because he considered free debate to be a good thing. I don't know who he is, but I certainly hope that he is taking an interest in his local public school system.

Before I say anything else I should say that Katie and I live in neighboring villages which are both covered by different versions of the same news paper--only the front pages differ, So if the rest of you think this sounds a little too "inside," you're probably right, but there really isn't a great deal that can be done about it.

Having said that, let me say that Katie is right about education. And who knows? The day may come when I'll actually want to write another piece about education and educational reform, but before I do, I should explain why I didn't want this to be a post about educational reform per se.

In 1994, the village in which I reside received a new Grade School Administrator who was trying to introduce meaningful educational reform into our local Grade School. It was a disaster. Not because of her intended reforms but because of the response(s) her reforms drew from a certain segment of the public.

Instead of listening with an open mind, a large segment of the community decided that it would be a nice time to drag out the phony issues just in time for the upcoming school board elections.

The anti-reform campiagn began in October or November. Initially I didn't pay too much attention to the situation. I didn't have kids in the school system and my attitude at the time went something like: "oh, well it doesn't concern me." I was soon corrected. I would soon discover that what happens at your local school effects everyone, not just those who have children in the local system. Luckily, in small towns, the people tend to know one another and it soon became obvious, from the same old-same old names which kept appearing in the editorial pages of the paper that the attacks against reform and the new administrator were coming from a very specific constituency, from a very vocal and very active group of area churches who had a lot more on their mind than education reform.

I began to look at past letters to the editor and quickly discovered that the wheels which were getting the most attention came from--you guessed it--the "WE ARE A CHRISTIAN REPUBLIC" crowd. And the campaign they were running made Joe McCarthy look open-minded.

Sitting School board members would get late night phone calls, (requests for trivial, often meaningless pieces of information). Key figures in local, fundamentalist churches complained because the school board was "full of Jews and Catholics." The administrator herself was condemned because she was a paracticing Catholic. Threatening, anti-semitic phone calls were made to Jewish members of the community. School Board meetings devolved into visceral screaming matches with the same people raising the same questions over, and over, and over--even after the questions had been answered time and time again.

And through it all the Fundamentalists consistently tried to paint the administrator's reforms as everything from OBE (Outcome Based Education) to Behavior Modification, etc.

The paranoia and self-contradiction in this group was astounding. One day they would complain because the Administrator had dared to discipline children. The next day they would complain because the administrator wouldn't discipline the children. One day they would claim that behavior modifictation was a spawn of the devil and the next they'd complain because behavior modification wasn't being employed in the local school. In short, it soon became obvious that this group had a religious/political agenda and that they were perfectly willing to self-contradict their arguments about education if it kept their phony issues before the public. In other words, attack the board and administrator no matter what they did for propaganda sake.

As the conflict dragged on and on and mercilessly on, it soon bedcame obvious that the local group was mirroring tactics used by a national educational deform (pun intended) group called CITIZIENS FOR EXCELLENCE IN EDUCATION. Less conerend with education than in getting right wing Fundamentalists elected to local schools boards, this group, at the time of our local conflict, had been operating stealth campaigns to get like-minded individuals to school boards. The game plan was to offer the local yahoos the literature and tactical advice while covering up the agenda of CITIZENS FOR EXCELENCE IN ah...EDUCATION.

Through the entire campaign the locals denied that they were receiving instructions--this despite the fact that several of its key members had viewed similar opinions in past letters to the editors and attended churches which tended to believe in the same kind of paranoia as espoused by CITIZENS FOR EXCELLENCE. Of course the fact that one of their members stood up and dropped literature from CITIZENS FOR EXCELLENCE IN PROSELYTIZATION didn't hurt either.

It was a mess. The entire village devolved into a shouting match. Key teachers were forced to resign. The administartor herself became so frustrated that she herself gave up in disgusted and resigned as well. Neighborhoods and families found themselves in visceral screamning matches over education reform. I myself received a number of anonymous mailings and obscene phone calls. My favorites came from the unknown individual who told me to "go fuk (sic) myself," and the erudite individual who mailed his anonymous remarks on personalized stationery.

And through it all, we had the lunatic fringe which claimed to advocate a "back to basics" approach while the group behind the proverbial curtain spewed paranoid drivel about a New Age Satanic Conspiracy which included the likes of:

NBC-TY, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Theresa, Health Food, Self-imaging, meditation, the Catholic Church, Native American Religious practicies, crucifixes, Pope John XXIII, Westinghouse, The United States Navy, Social Security, birth control, Norman Cousins, Save The Whales, The Minnesota Public School System, the New York Public School System, group learning, the information revolution, computers, Planned Parenthood, Jewish religious practices,positive thinking, ad infinitum.

In the end we discovered that the reasoning behind both, the national and local groups, was one that pegged human beings as criminals who had to die to their criminal selves every day; that people were basically evil and needed to be treated as such, and that children basically needed to be lectured to and dominated with as little debate as possible. In other words, rote learing and bullying with virutally no input from the children.

To make matters worse, the anti-reformers didn't even understand the basics of the educational reforms they were condemning. Even worse than that, they didn't even understand the nature of their OWN educational philosophy. This became obvious when a group of parents took their children out of the local school system and started a Christian school of their own--which used many of the very techniques that they had been campaigning against. In other words, after condemning OBE and behavior modification they employed a technique which used--you guessed it--key components of OBE and behavior modification

Luckily, the local misanthropes were only able to elect one board member who had virtually no effect on the every day operation of the school. And we eventually overcame the hostility which the group had created, but "happy" endings not withstanding, I think you can understand why I would be a LITTLE reluctant to write another piece about education.

On the other hand, I understand what Katie meant when she talked about implementing a plan that might actually work. You can try, but the minute you do, some bone head from somewhere on the political spectrum will begin a "home grown" political movement to crush any kind of innovation and to gurantee continued mediocrity.

For the record, I wasn't blaming the recipients of the "dumbed down" education. Young people don't make the rules, so if their education isn't quite what it should be then the so called adults in the situation need to take their share of the blame.

It's sad. I see many young people out there who would be well-served by higher standards, who are just dying to be intellectually stimulated, and yet they keep running into loopy grading curves, easy A's and dumbed down curricula.

How many ways can you say "bad?"

How many ways can you say bad?