Sunday Sermon (November 2, 2008)

¡Hola! Everybody…
I’m told I gained an hour of sleep. What I am unsure of is when did I lose an hour of sleep and, more importantly, why?

::blank stare::

* * *

-=[ Knowledge and Democracy ]=-

“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.”

— John Adams (1735–1826) 2nd US president

When I was in high school, an English teacher drafted me to be on the school’s debating team.

I attended a high school that had over 3,000 students packed into a building that was originally built to hold half that number.

The school’s major claim to fame was that a student had been murdered there the year before I went to high school, 1969. To walk through my school’s staircases and hallways was to navigate situations and dangers most adults would find hard to cope with.

I was at the top of the Dean’s List, but I had to, by necessity, forge some form of alliance with the hallways and staircases, and though I was an honor student, I might have known the individual who had taken your lunch money or sold you reefer.

Still, I was tagged as one of the few who would succeed. I was part of a citywide program that was specially funded for gifted inner city students. It was called the “College-Bound Program.” And while my extorter and drug-selling friends attended classes packed with 40 or more students, I attended classes composed of the brightest students and if there were fifteen students in the class, it was a lot. The best teachers, politically committed and passionate young people, became our mentors. Sometimes they were the last obstacle between us and the horrors that lurked just outside our classrooms. Some of the greatest teachers I have ever known were a part of that group.

They believed in the liberal notion that a good and free education was the key to a viable democracy. I learned some of the basic tools of intellectual craftsmanship under the tutelage of these men and women. They stressed to us that one of the primary elements of a true, functioning, representative democratic republic was that its citizens be well informed.

The vast majority of my classmates, most of whom were my childhood friends, went on to college and would be come professionals. Two went on to become lawyers, a few more ended up on Wall St., and more than a few became teachers themselves.

Our debate team was one of the best in the city. We would kick ass everywhere we went. Initially reluctant, I became of the of the team’s stars. I saw debate as gladiatorial arena in which the inequities of injustice could be hashed out. I was informed, passionate, and known for showing no mercy. I saw debate as a blood sport (still do LOL!) and I was especially merciless when I came up against schools from the richer neighborhoods– schools that received twice the funding we would receive. I remember visiting a school once that actually had a small stage in their “performance arts” classroom.

I was once taught algebra sitting on the bleachers by my school’s swimming pool, with the heat turned up to 90 degrees and people splashing and running around.

Yes, I took great pleasure in dismantling the premises of my better off opponents mostly because it was easy to see the inequality behind it all.

Funding for the “College Bound” program was gutted shortly after my high school years. White flight to the suburbs followed by the arrival of conservative political power (which succeeded by pandering to white fear), gutted most social programs and education was the first victim.

As a result of wrong-headed social policies, studies consistently show today that about 5 percent of the adults in the U.S. are illiterate, meaning that 11 million people lack the skills to handle many everyday tasks. Some 30 million adults, or 14 percent of the population, have “below basic” skills in reading/ writing. Their ability is so limited, they have difficulty making sense of a simple pamphlet, for example. Another 95 million adults, 44 percent of the population, have intermediary skills, meaning they can perform moderately challenging activities.

For too long, the solution to this educational crisis has been to accede to the conservative notion of privatizing education. The rhetoric has been that the school system is too broke to fix. In a way, they’re correct: the educational system is broken, but it’s mostly the result of their social policies. One example in a long list of examples is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which cost states more in property taxes and other taxes than they got out of it.

The traditionally American solution is not to go in and bulldoze the schools. The answer is not to privatize the schools. The answer lies not in destruction, but in creating the collective will to change and support the way we teach.

I doubt I’ll find much disagreement that our schools are melting down. Too many of the adults reading this are much too quick to blame the children. Don’t be fuckin’ stupid. If our children are failing, then that means we as a society are failing our children.

If you’re one of these people, then you’re just a dumb motherfucker.


Others want to blame the parents. While it is true that parental involvement is an important factor in educational achievement. However, it doesn’t matter how much a parent engages if the schools we entrust our children are in disrepair, offer no access to technology, or teach children in retrofitted bathrooms. Good parent in a highly funded suburban school equals a good student. On the other hand, good parent in a poorly funded and demoralized inner city school doesn’t equal good student.

The answer lies in how we view education. Education (like health care) isn’t a business, it’s an investment. For every dollar spent on education, you get $9 back. Educational investment results in healthier children who are less likely to end up in the special-education-to-criminal-justice-system pipeline, and are more likely to go to college.

Conservatives, however, seem hell-bent in pursuing an agenda that has resulted in a de facto caste system. They are channeling men like Adams and Alexander Hamilton who believed we should have a literate ruling class and a working class that should know just enough to make change when they buy something.

We are there.

They have done their best to destroy public education. The undermine teacher’s unions and starve schools. In other words, they set public education to fail and when it does, they point fingers and yell, “See! Government doesn’t work!”

Historically, we have seen education as an essential, organic part of our democracy and considered access to higher education — regardless of income status — to be one of the keys to building a strong middle class, a strong economy, and a strong, united nation.

Conservatives, however, see education as another commodity, like shoes or X-Boxes. Because they see it as a commodity, they operate under the false assumption that it’s easy to measure. Standardized tests lead only to standardized minds. Standardized tests don’t let us know if our kids know the difference between the worldviews of Paine versus Burke of the differences in the vision of democracy between Plato and Jefferson. Standardized minds don’t result in critical thinking skills and the ability to think “outside the box” — skills essential to a democracy.

If you want to know the consequences of 40 years of conservative educational policies, you have to look no further than the current GOP vice presidential candidate. In any other country, the way we treat our children would be considered child abuse.

And then you wonder how a Bush or Palin could run for high political office?




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