Happy New Year! There is something very special about this holiday season. Whether you celebrate it in the context of a religious tradition or simply enjoy the sights, sounds, and family gatherings, I hope you have been able to find and share peace, joy and love during this time. My continued wishes are for health, curiosity and engagement for the New Year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the terms intentionality, leadership and change and, in the next few posts, I’ll be sharing some thoughts about these, why change doesn’t seem to change much, and how we can make change happen.
Coincidentally, as I was reflecting on this, I had the chance to have lunch with a long time friend and colleague during the break and, as expected, we spent considerable time talking about our experiences and what the recent election might mean for education. A few days later, Bernie shared the following memo he had sent to his staff when he was a principal and following the presidential election of 2000 which, prior to the recent election, was only the fourth in U.S. history in which the winner failed to win the popular vote.
Because it is You (Sic) Choice
As we enter the DeVos Times, I offer the following essay written as a high school principal for my parent newsletter 16 years ago on the occasion of the “electoral traumas” of the 2000 presidential election.
A recent report included among the evidence justifying New York State’s recent school finance court decision the decrepit conditions in P.S. 187 in New York City’s Washington Heights This reference held more than academic interest for me: my own schooling began in P.S. 187, and I still have clear memories of my four years there. Standing under Charles Wilson Peale’s dour portrait of George Washington, I learned the Pledge of Allegiance. In those days, establishing and promoting that allegiance was an unabashed purpose of our public schools.
Many aspects of the current educational and political scene would make it difficult for Dour George to lighten up. In much the same way as P.S. 187 has fallen into disrepair, weeds have crept into our civic space. We seem to educate less for democracy and more for money. As a result, our democracy elicits less intelligent passion from us than it requires while our economic anxieties absorb more of our attention than any other purpose for schooling.
In this vein, the filter of Election 2000 casts some interesting shadows on recently released data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). At issue are the persuasive writing abilities of American high school seniors, Class of 1998. One of the prompt topics used in this assessment required students to advocate a position, either for or against, on the efficacy of voting — i.e., does one person’s vote make a difference, and therefore should one bother to turn out on election day. Responses were rated for quality (as opposed to the position taken) on a six point scale ranging from “unsatisfactory” to “excellent.” Ratings between these two poles included: “insufficient response”; “uneven response”; “sufficient”; and “skillful.”
Four percent of the tested population turned in “unsatisfactory” responses on the order of, “If you want to vote go for it. Because it is you (sic) choice.” Three percent produced “excellent” prose as suggested by the following essay introduction: “Whether a single person’s vote makes a difference in an election is irrelevant. A democratic nation is one that recognizes an individual right to think and formulate an opinion, and voting is a manifestation of that right.”
Between the poles, the population arrayed itself as follows: Insufficient = 21 %; Uneven = 30%; Sufficient = 32%; Skillful = 10 %.
In other words, less than half the population responded coherently.
Perhaps I am drawing too easy a line between “if you want to vote go for it” and last November’s electoral traumas. However, a democratic society based wholly upon individual wants is in jeopardy unless those wants include what a democracy needs. Among those needs are the virtues of mind and character which our schools, alone among our public institutions, are charged with fostering. For this reason, we need to pay the price required to sustain them and keep them vibrant. Someone once described an ideal democracy as “an aristocracy of everyone.” If growing intellectual poverty – in addition to the material kind – widens the divide between the haves and the have nots, I fear we will lose not only the ideal but the reality of our democracy.
So why would I include this “guest blog” here? I see it as a lead in to the next post on leadership. It’s a call to action. It’s a reminder that if we are not intentional about how we will lead the direction of learning to help our kids learn how to know, learn how to do, and learn how to be, we will continue on a trajectory that further advances the privilege of the wealthiest among us at the expense of equity, opportunity and the democratic ideal to which Bernie refers.
Can’t happen you say? Humorist Dave Barry offers the following from his annual Year in Review. In the article, he has been working his way through the months and is now up to November…
“Election Day approaches, a consensus forms among the experts in the media-political complex, based on a vast array of demographic and scientific polling data evaluated with sophisticated analytical tools. These experts, who have made lucrative careers out of going on TV and explaining America to Americans, overwhelmingly agree that Hillary Clinton will win, possibly in a landslide, and this could very well mean the end of the Republican Party. The Explainers are very sure of this, nodding in unison while smiling in bemusement at the pathetic delusions of the Trump people. Unfortunately, it turns out that a large sector of the American public has not been brought up to speed on all this expert analysis. And so it comes to pass that the unthinkable happens…”