An Educator’s Lessons for the New Year

I am not going to start with any platitudes.  Instead, I am going to start with what I have learned as an educator and a person in the 2016.

Lesson 1:   People are often not  who you think they are.

I belong to a fraternal organization that was founded with the ideal of bringing people together.  I will not name the order, but it was founded in the 19th century and was chartered by an Act of Congress to heal the wounds of the Civil War.   It has a non-sectarian history, although it did discriminate racially up to the mid 20th century  and it is supposed to be dedicated to benevolence, friendship and charity.  I was given the honor of a high position in this organization last year.  However, this year I discovered that the supposed friends I had in my lodge were no friends when someone revealed to them my very public personal and political beliefs.  These people ended up saying horrible things about me and my family because one, I am critical of the future president, two, I believe in protest and civil disobedience and three, my son is a married gay man with a family.  When I was supposed to be honored for the work I was doing for the organization, many members of my own lodge planned to boycott me.   They demanded that I apologize for something I wrote on Facebook.  I basically wrote that if the government passes an unconstitutional or unjust law, people have the right to protest that law and engage in civil disobedience.  At first, I have to admit, I succumbed to their act of bullying based on the advice of some good friends who wanted peace. Without really apologizing, as several brothers really wanted me to do, I clarified certain ideas to make my statements more palpable to my supposed brothers.    Then I thought about it. At first, I thought about leaving my lodge, but then changed my mind.  Why should the victim leave? Instead, I became angry that I betrayed my ideals because of threats and bullying.  As an educator, I have been trained to teach students how to deal with bullying effectively and I didn’t.    As a Doctor Who fan, I always think of this quote, “Never give up, never give in.”  Therefore, after my lodge had a holiday party in which several brothers chose to be disrespectful by trying to ostracize and ignore me, I decided to write them a letter telling them I will not stand for bullying.  In addition, I told them who I was, what I believed in, and that I expected a private apology before I would make a motion for a public apology at the next meeting I planned to attend.   The perpetrators have so far ignored what I wrote.  But why should I be surprised.  They voted for their role model.  

Lesson 2:  Only people who truly love you are your real friends.  

On Facebook, I had 25 people who unfriended me because of my beliefs and opinions.  One was even a cousin.   When someone denounces me completely out of ignorance, I will call him or her out.   Here are some things said.  “The fact you support Bernie Sanders proves you are a godless communist and hell fire awaits.”   When I tried to explain the difference between totalitarian communism and democratic socialism as well as certain religious perspectives on my part, such as the fact that in the name of religion countless millions have died, I was blocked.  I also was blocked when I stated, “Any law passed banning people from burning the flag is unconstitutional”    I was told I should be shot for treason and that I am wrong, it is illegal to burn the flag.  When I told one person to look up the Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. Texas in which none other than Antonin Scalia stated that burning the flag is symbolic speech and has to be protected by the first amendment, I was cursed, denounced and blocked.  Again, what should one expect when people mimic their new role model who will occupy the White House on January 20.  And this leads to . . .

Lesson 3: Many believe in free speech only for themselves.

Many who are angry that I will not support the new president have called me a hypocritical liberal.   They claimed that liberalism supposedly allows free speech for everyone to air their ideas equally.  Therefore, why do we constantly denounce the words of Trump and his supporters.   I love it when they set up straw men and state what liberalism supposedly believes in.  Guess what?  Free speech is not absolute.  Micheal Shermer and Alex Grobman in their writings about issues surrounding Holocaust deniers discuss extensively free speech issues surrounding people and institutions who claim that the murder of 6 million Jews did not happen.  Because the background and motivation of many Holocaust deniers are often anti-Semitic and can be labeled hate speech, the purpose of their proven lies are meant to cause harm and should not be completely protected once their ideas lead to criminal action.  The same can be said of the words of the future president.  His words have lead to the criminal endangerment of many people in American society.   Therefore,  there is nothing wrong in prescribing his words within the confines of a free press. What I mean by this is that he should be allowed to say what he wants, but there should be equal time given to the public refutation of his ideas. This is where the mainstream press has failed if you apply Shermer and Grobman’s concept of free speech to the president-elect.   With every word he said, there should have been given equal time to those who would use reason to refute his ideas with facts.  Our present concept of free speech comes from the Enlightenment, and according to many enlightenment philosophers, rational reasoning “trumps” the idea of free speech.   Our supposed mainstream free press really did not give equal time to a public refuting to the ideas expressed by Trump and his cohorts using reasoning and evidence in the last year.  I did not see any front page articles or 10 minutes of airtime on CNN showing that  statistics disprove that most illegal aliens were rapists and murderers.   I did not see mainstream articles describing that if he appoints to the Supreme Court several people who plan to overturn marriage equality, it will be overturned no matter what Trump says.  And this leads to . . .

Lesson 4:  Freedom does not mean freedom to express hate within the greater society.

Many Trump supporters talked to me about hating political correctness and felt proud in making myriads of racist comments against Obama.  Interestingly, if they really believed that people were punished for not being politically correct, how come they were able to curse Obama without consequence?     And yet, a  person screamed at me how Obama forced people to serve and bake cakes for gay weddings against their religion while musical entertainers are refusing to play at the inaugural without consequence.   First off, Obama cannot force anyone to do anything, but the laws of the United States does. These people do not understand that a business is only allowed to exist through state incorporation laws and once incorporated, the business becomes a public accommodation and thus cannot discriminate.  On the other hand, an entertainer is a private citizen and is an individual who has a right to entertain or not entertain whenever or whoever they want.  In terms of your own domicile or house, one is free not to allow someone who is black, blue, gay, green, or Klingon inside.   Inside your house, with people of like mind, you can scream every racial epitaph you want.  If you have a totally private school and take zero money from the government, unless a state prescribes some minimum curriculum requirements, you can teach that Fred Flintstone and Dino really existed or that the Jewish people whose calendar states it is the 5777 existed before some supreme entity created the world 5500 years ago according to someone on Trump’s transition team. A totally private school even has the right to ban a male student who wears a yellow poker dotted shirt if it wants.  But once you take a penny of my money, I, through my government, have the right to call you out. And if we reach the point where the government refuses to obey its own laws, people have the right to go to the court and get what is called a Writ of Mandamus, which is an order forcing the government to do what it is supposed to do.      What does this all mean?  You do not have the freedom to publicly hate or discriminate because of anti-discrimination laws and the fact that hate almost always lead to violence. And present hate crime statistics against Muslims proves this out.  On the other hand, I have the freedom to call out your hate and use whatever legal constitutional measures to stop you.  As the 18th century Enlightenment philosophers basically said, your liberty cannot infringe on my liberty.  Therefore, government exists, through both our consent,  to be a mediator so that we can reach some type of accommodation so that we can both exist peacefully within a given society.    

 

My one true wish is for the New Year is this.  These lessons should be understood and respected by those who have different ideas.   Why?  Simple.  Millions of Americans live our daily lives by lessons such as these.   And to disregard these lessons, puts this approximately 240 year experiment in freedom and justice in grave danger in the year to come.  I hope you are listening Mr. Trump.  

Public Education, Justice, Civil Disobedience and Conscientious Refusal—is there a Common Denominator?

When I was an undergraduate at Queens College in the 1970s, I took a course in political philosophy.   As part of the course, I had to write a term paper.   The 1970s was a very turbulent time in America and so I decided that my paper would be about the right of protestors to engage in civil disobedience in their opposition to the Vietnam War.   When I started to research civil disobedience, I started with two premises:  One that the protestors and draft resistors were absolutely right in their justification to take over buildings, burn their draft cards and even attack police and two that I understood what civil disobedience really meant and when it was justified.   When I was finished with my research under the guidance of a true educator, I ended up having more questions than answers.

This professor taught me that a truly educated person is one who is comfortable to walk in the shoes of those you disagree with.  Only in this way can one garner a true understanding of what various concepts really mean.    Doing this increases one depth of understanding and clarifies all the “isms” that people use—more as clichés than anything else.  It also enables one to make connections and synthesize different ideas.

Originally, I planned to write about how we educators may need to use civil disobedience in order to try to stop those who want corporatize and privatize education through charters, vouchers, and de-professionalizing teaching.   Then something happened in the last week that made me rethink everything that I planned to write about.  The event was the Supreme Court ruling making gay marriage the law of the land.   All of a sudden I started to hear the word civil disobedience coming from those opposed to the ruling.  What I did not hear was the specific type of civil disobedience those on the right planned to engage in.  Then it became clear to me why the myriad of GOP presidential candidates and fundamentalist religious preachers could not describe exactly how they planned to be civilly disobedient.   It is because they do not have a clear understanding about when civil disobedience is justified or what exactly is civil disobedience.  And obviously next I began to think about whether public educators have a justification to be civilly disobedient.

We in public education and those who oppose the Supreme Court ruling have something in common.   We both believe that laws have come into existence, which are unjust.   In addition, we both believe that we are absolutely right in our world view.  Where we differ is in how we define the philosophical concept of justice. One side views justice as coming from some ephemeral being while the other side views justice as a concept that is a human construct.

Recently, I posted an article on Facebook which elicited an angry response from a friend.   It was an article from a clergyman who had a different interpretation as to what the bible says about homosexuality.   My Facebook friend believes that what a particular bible says is immutable because he/she knows that it was written by god and anything written by god can never be changed or interpreted in a different way.   Here is someone who is unable to walk in someone else’s shoes to gain a deeper understanding of the those who see the world in a different way.   Obviously, what the bible says has been reinterpreted many, many times.   One just has to look at history and see about two thousand years of religious wars and conflicts over the nature of god and the truth in three different bibles. (By the way I am purposefully not capitalizing the words bible and god for reasons that will soon be obvious).  The fact that there are three different bibles, canon law, talmudic law and sharia law as well as a myriad of commentaries on each is the evidence that our religious and spiritual understanding of god and our relationship to a possible supreme being has changed many times over the centuries.   Even the Jewish bible or old testament to Christians and Moslems changed in its spiritual understanding of the nature of god and the universe.   Biblical research reveals that different parts of the bible were written at different times by different men.  For example, there are two stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis.  In addition, the modern conception of heaven and hell does not exist in the first five books.  Those ideas would come into Judaism and later Christianity from the Hellenistic world.   Now I know what I am saying may offend some who read this.   I bring this up to show that free and open inquiry through education and study made our understanding of how our Western religions developed and changed possible. I do not capitalize the word bible because there is more than one bible and I do not capitalize the word god because there is more than one conception of god.  If there was only one interpretation of the bible there would not be hundreds of Christian denominations, different branches of Judaism, and the Sunni and Shiite conflict within the Moslem religion. Furthermore, there are several billion people who inhabit this earth who have a completely different spiritual understanding of the world. It is unfortunate that people who believe that their view is the absolute truth and who have used some type of power relationship to enforce their truth have a lot of blood on their hands.  One needs to look no further than South Carolina to see what is wrought by any type of extremism—either religious or political.

Let us move away from religion and return to the concept justice.   Historically speaking, the modern view of justice comes not from religion but from the Enlightenment.   Originally, governments were thought of having received their authority to rule from a religious perspective.   The Chinese thought Emperors received a mandate from heaven, a thousand years ago, European feudal monarchs believed they had to be anointed by god’s earthly representative (the Pope),  and approximately five hundred years ago the absolute monarchs of Europe thought they ruled by “divine right.”   Our modern concept of governmental justice derives from a social contract between people and the political institutions that they create.  It is simply that governmental power derives from those who are governed.   People established governments to keep order, protect us from danger, and give us a measure of “liberty” and “justice”.  Ah, it is these last two concepts that have caused every political, social and economic conflict in the modern western world over the last several hundred years.

When I took political philosophy in college, I was greatly influenced by the writings of John Rawls.  In 1971, he published “A Theory of Justice.”  It was this book in that college course which gave me insight into what exactly is injustice and the role civil disobedience plays in trying to correct injustice in a given society.   Rawls defines justice to mean that people within a given society should have equal liberty and equal opportunity. In addition, he states that liberty is a reciprocal relationship between people and groups.  Basically, your liberty cannot harm someone else either socially, economically or politically. Rawls believed that injustice can only occur in a near-just society that is well ordered and has a constitutional government.  He also understood that most near-just societies often are imperfect and that the concept of justice is ever changing and usually defined by those who have power in that society in order to keep or derive some economic, political or social benefit.

This definition clearly describes the history of our country.   The founders knew they were creating an imperfect political system.   Otherwise, our constitution would not have an elastic clause or a process to amend or change it.  Also, it was created through compromise based on certain religious, social, economic and political concepts that existed at the end of the 18th century.  However, most of our founding fathers had the general conception that justice meant that a government should not deprive a person of his/her life, liberty or property without some type of due process of law that all members of the state would agree with.  Furthermore, Rawls also understood that a strong democratic process enable groups to exchange opinions and ideas without fear of intimidation. He felt that exchanging opinions checks the partiality of different groups and widens their perspectives.  However, even after long and fruitful discussion—especially in a democratic republic—it sometimes does not yield a unanimous agreement.   Therefore, we have to apply the basic principal of any democracy “majority rule” as Rawls called it, which means the majority wins.   This principle is based on the presumption that it is less likely for a majority to be mistaken. On the other hand, sometimes the majority can be mistaken because of selfish economic interests, religious beliefs or certain life-experiences.  It is for this reason that he believed that a “near just” society allows the minority to express their views.   In our society, the way we have decided to do this is through education and the social contract imbedded in our constitution that allows for dissent through a free press, the right to petition the government for redress, and the right of legislative representatives to express their varying points of view.

So what exactly is civil disobedience and when is it justified.   First, civil disobedience is political in nature.   It is used when a political law is deemed to be unjust based on evidence that the law denies equal liberty and equal opportunity to a minority.  It is a clear, serious and blatant violation of justice by denying a group economic, social or political participation in a democratic society.   Next, normal constitutional routes must have been tried and have been subverted by those who hold power.   Third, the level of disobedience must never reach a point where it threatens the rule of law within a society because those who engage in civil disobedience accept that most of the laws of the society are just.   Fourth, the action must be controlled so as not to provoke those in power to unjust violence.  Therefore, it must be peaceful.  Fifth, the exercise should be rationally framed to advance a specific objective (change of a law).  Sixth, it should be public and educational.  Seventh, those who engage in civil disobedience must accept the legal consequences of their action in a peaceful manner.  Therefore, when I began to apply this definition to those who were protesting the Vietnam War, I came to realize that many protesters were not really engaged in civil disobedience.  Instead, they were engaging in what he termed conscientious refusal.

According to Rawls, what he calls conscientious refusal or objection is a simple refusal to obey what one considers an immoral law based on a personally held and immutable moral, social or political view.  Therefore, conscientious refusal is not really appealing to a “shared” political conception of justice.  It is not necessarily seeking to convince the majority or the authorities to change the law. It is often the attempt to force someone’s will through violence and power. For example, those who burned draft cards did not object to the draft law, but to end the war based on their own point of view—moral, economic or political–and chose to create disorder to force their belief system on the government.   Often, the conscientious objector does not have a sense of justice because many objectors  use violence to resist the law that is opposed, such as anti-abortion protesters that find abortion so wrong that they will manhandle pregnant women and kill doctors that perform abortion.  And yes, it has been reported that several groups have threatened that one solution to preventing gay marriage is to inflict harm on those who acquire a legal marriage license.

Now, what has all this to do with public education?  To me, the most important purpose of public education at the school and college level is to create a common civic view of what constitutes justice in our society through open and free discussion.  Through education one develops a common civic culture through consensus.   It is to develop the conception that there are general principles of civic justice and a constitutional mechanism to resolve our differences.    It is to develop the understanding that we are a country based on law and not on threats and fear.  It is for different people to get together and try to create a common civic conception of government and justice.

The real beginning of the voucher and charter movements was based on the idea of conscientious refusal.   It began when America’s consensus of what represented justice fragmented.   That fragmentation occurred when the Supreme Court in 1954 ruled separate but equal to be unconstitutional.   There was a plurality that was unable to accept Afro-Americans having equal political, social and economic status in our society.   Therefore, by creating separate charters, home schooling, or enacted vouchers to pay for religious schools, a separate and different type of curriculum could be taught.   One could create a curriculum based on a biblical view of the world or one that would create limited opportunities for certain groups through the exclusion of disabled, noncompliant, or ELL students.   One purpose of the many no-excuses charter school is to create compliant workers and citizens who will not question authority.   By defunding public education, what remains is a shallow shell, teaching a limited curriculum in which there is no time to discuss different ideas.  In addition, common civic institutions have little control as to what is taught in many charter and voucher schools.   The Gates, Broads, Kochs and Waltons understand that when one controls education, one controls the story. They do not want students to be taught alternate viewpoints.   They want students to accept their power and authority to control the government by saying that through their schools, they will give everyone the opportunity to join them in membership while at the same time really allowing very few into the club.  The control of education is really about who will control American society.

Those who want to privatize education truly hate public school teachers because most of us are products of a liberal arts education.   A liberal arts education teaches one to think, question and become a lifelong learner.   Instead, the reformers wish to create a post-secondary educational system that is vocational and job related.   They see no purpose to teach history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy or political science.   I believe their purpose is to destroy the intellectual foundation of those who would question their right to control this nation socially, economically and politically.  It is for this reason that they are trying to destroy unions—especially public employee unions by undermining their ability to collect dues. They want to make it impossible for people to organize collectively in order to create a political balance.  It is interesting that they got the Supreme Court to rule that money represents speech for corporations in Citizens United while, at the same time, they want to destroy that same right for workers.

I fear the ultimate goal of those who want to privatize and corporatize this nation is to fragment our common civic culture.  The privatizers want to use schools to divide us and not unite us.   They want an educational system that will foster hate and mistrust among different groups.   They want Afro-Americans to distrust middle class whites.   They want different ethnic groups to be in conflict with each other.   They want Latinos and Afro-Americans to fight each other over the few crumbs thrown to them.   They surely want to foster and support schools that will try to circumvent the tolerance most Americans now feel toward LBGT people, not really because of any real religious or moral point of view, but to create enmity in order to hold onto power.  After all, when one studies history, those who rule often disregard the moral codes they impose on others (the Borgias Popes, the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, etc.).  Our present billionaire oligarchy that controls so many politiicans want to destroy Rawls conception that justice means equal liberty and equal opportunity for everyone.  When one turns people into human capital only having economic worth, it is dehumanizing and sets up one group against another.

On the other hand, people should be free to believe and teach their children whatever they want, but not on my dime.  It is for this reason public school must remain democratically run so that a consensus can be reached as to what should be the curriculum within a given community.  Yes, the politics of school boards can be messy, but that is what democracy is all about.  Strong democracies force people to compromise and moderate their ideas through open discussion.   In addition, strong democracies are able to deal with civil disobedience.  In strong democracies, civil disobedience is a stabilizing force in a well ordered society.   In this country, its use has been to offer protection to the least advantaged.   Its use has been to expand justice in our society.   However, charters, vouchers and other privatization schemes are really a form of conscientious refusal to accept an expanded view of justice.  People should be wise to learn from our history that each time people in our nation chose to limit liberty, it led to violence, conflict and dysfunction within our political system   Think about Prohibition, Jim Crow and McCarthyism.

Finally, should teachers engage in civil disobedience to save public education?  The answer is obviously yes.  Teachers feel that de-professionalization, punitive evaluation systems, denial of collective bargaining, and the closure of public schools based on circumstances where they have no control violates the consensus of what represents justice.  These acts deny equal liberty and equal opportunity afforded to others in the society.  The purpose of these laws is to deny teachers, parents and children equal liberty and equal opportunity to participate economically, socially and politically in our nation. Teachers as well as parents must engage in civil disobedience to motivate those in power to change certain laws.  Its purpose will be to educate most Americans to understand that we now have injustice. Civil disobedience often works best when those in power do not have the means to prevent it from happening. Here would be some examples.  Groups of retired teachers could follow around hedge fund billionaires that finance charters and give support to AstroTurf nonprofit organizations whose goal it is to weaken public education. We could do the same with Arne Duncan until he engages teachers in a constructive discussion.   Retired teachers could trespass and video for YouTube the private schools where the corporate reformers send their children to contrast the type of education they want for their children as opposed to everyone else.  Teachers within a collocated school could also take videos of the well-stocked charter classrooms as compared to the resources their public school classrooms have.  Teachers can picket collocated charters before the start of school and after the day ends (charters usually have longer school days) to drive home the fact that a separate and unequal school system has been created. In mass, public school teachers can educate parents about the consequences (or lack thereof) of opting out of the test culture that has been created outside of the school day.  The most extreme act of civil disobedience would obviously be to just refuse to give those invalid and unreliable common core assessments to prevent its use until those in power negotiate with all stakeholders—parents, teachers and students.

I think this country has to make a choice.  Either we want to use education to create a common civic culture that expands justice for all Americans or we want to create an educational system that will fragment and create rifts that will eventually be unbridgeable.  This happened in the past.   One just has to study how schools in the United States developed during the anti-bellum period in the North and South.   It lead to the development of two separate cultures that either could have gone their separate ways, but what often happens in history, a majority culture  that is more powerful economically and politically forces their will on the weaker.   We know the result and still live with its consequences.   On the other hand, we can build a common national civic culture, using public education as a foundation, to create a shared sense of justice, but also respect for our individual differences and beliefs. There is a place for private and religious schools in our society, but their role should be to engage with the dominant political culture and not to impose their will on others.