Political Disconnect

I try very hard to avoid any kind of political reporting, especially since we are more than 14 months away from the presidential election. Plus our news media is far more interested in polls, sensational arguments, and the flavor of the moment than they are about analyzing actual issues.

However, I stumbled across something this week that’s just too hard to ignore.

In an piece about a focus group explaining why they support Donald Trump, someone was quoted as saying “He’s like one of us.”.

Considering this woman, described as a “former dog breeder”, is likely a long, looong way from Trump’s social and economic class, and probably shares very few of his actual political views, her remark immediately enters the top ten dumbest things anyone has ever said.

Right up there with “That bear is more afraid of you than you are of him.” and “I’ll be rich as soon as the wire transfer from Nigeria comes through.”

Conspiracy Theory

Last week, Jon Stewart presented a great segment on the array of nutty conspiracy theories that seem to thrive in the desert of Texas. Having lived in Arizona and Nevada, I think there could be something to the idea that the hot, dry weather causes the brain to swell (or shrink?).

Anyway, I have my own conspiracy theory to offer: the probability of any conspiracy actually being real declines by 5% for each additional person whose silence is required for the plan to work.

Moon landing hoax? Alien spacecraft being hidden at Area 51 (for more than 50 years)? The US military preparing to invade Texas?1 Considering the hundreds of people required to keep each of these secrets, all in negative territory of likelihood.

Government agencies conspiring to collect phone data on American citizens? That only took one person, and not even someone high up the chain of command, to expose the deal.

Many, if not most, of these people who claim to see what everyone else has missed (too often on cable “news” channels) also rant endlessly about the incompetency of government. Even though, logically, it is completely impossible for an incompetent organization to formulate complex plots and then keep them totally hidden from everyone except a few loud nutballs.

Of course, logic doesn’t seem to be their strong suit in the first place.

Reflective Rebels

In a new essay, Alfie Kohn, one of the sharpest and most rational voices in the ed reform discussion, says he wants students to become “reflective rebels”.

His starting point is the “tangle of deeply conservative beliefs” which says that parents are too permissive and as a result, kids are spoiled and narcissistic. Kohn points out that there’s no evidence for this contention and that adults have had a similar view of young people for “approximately forever”.

However, let’s assume the grumblers are correct. What should we do differently so that children are less self-centered and will look beyond themselves?

The answer, I think, is to help them become people who are not only empathic and compassionate but skeptical and courageous. It’s one thing to offer a kind word or a dollar to an individual in distress; it’s something else to address the systemic causes of that distress. The latter requires a willingness to question authority and challenge unjust features of the status quo – to stand up to power. In short, the real alternative to egocentricity is what might be called reflective rebelliousness.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that the same people doing the complaining really don’t like the idea of “rebellious” kids, reflective or otherwise. Society, especially the formal education part of it, is not at all receptive to rebelliousness.

Whether or not it’s stated explicitly, compliance remains the central goal of most classroom management programs, character education initiatives, and parenting resources. Sure, we stress the virtues of independent thinking and assertiveness, but mostly in the context of getting kids to resist peer pressure. If a child has the temerity to resist unreasonable rules and demands imposed by adults, well, then, bring on the “consequences” (read: punishments) to “hold them accountable for their behavior.”

We certainly do talk a lot about wanting our students to learn to be creative, innovative, independent thinkers. But when it comes to their relationship the process of school and the educational system that’s been laid out for them, it’s pretty much all talk. We really don’t know what to do with truly creative kids.

In the end, Kohn says that if we really want kids to develop into “reflective rebels”, to think for themselves, “we ourselves must be rebels” and push back “against the dominant tendency to focus on producing children who do whatever they’re told.”

Observing the Future

Betteridge’s law of headlines states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”.

Take for example, a recent article on the Ars Technica website: “Is your smartphone making you dumb?”.

And despite the provocative question, the authors of the study being referenced don’t actually arrive at that conclusion.

“the results are purely correlational,” emphasize Golonka and Wilson. There’s no way to tell whether an over-reliance on smartphones decreases analytical thinking or whether lower analytical thinking ability results in a heavier reliance on smartphones, they explain.

Of course, this is one instance in a long line of “research” and “analysis” provocatively asking if Google, the internet, social networking, or technology in general is impacting human intellectual development in some way. For good or bad. Maybe both.

Did societal observers have the same questions in the aftermath the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio or any other major change in the way people communicated information? I suspect they did. Did humans get dumber? Smarter? Weirder?

I’m pretty sure the honest answer to the question of what the use of smartphones/instant search/social networking/<insert your tech fear here is doing to our brains is “we don’t know”. All of these digital tools some say we are addicted to (another of those headline concerns) are very, very recent developments in human history. It takes more than a decade or two to sort through all the data.

Which is all the more reason to do our own research. Be introspective about ourselves and observant of others. Pay attention and we’ll watch the future of the human species develop.

I’m pretty optimistic about it.

It’s The Poverty, Stupid

If it’s true, this is one of the saddest stories I’ve read in a long while.

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program in the 2012-2013 school year.

The worst part of all this is that most of our “leaders”, like the writer of this article, view this situation as an educational problem, not a major deficiency of our larger society.

The Obama administration wants Congress to add $1 billion to the $14.4 billion it spends annually to help states educate poor students. It also wants Congress to fund preschool for low-income children. Collectively, the states and federal governments spend about $500 billion annually on primary and secondary schools, with about $79 million coming from Washington.

No! You don’t spend billions on helping to “educate poor students”. Poor test scores (which, of course, is what these people mean by “education”) are not the primary problem here, and only one symptom of the far larger issue.

Instead, you work to change the situations that cause so much poverty in what is supposed to be an “exceptional” country, according to all those super patriotic politicians.

We spend money on improving communities and rebuilding our rapidly deteriorating infrastructure, especially public transportation. Provide funds to develop clean energy and other forward looking industries. And rewrite policies to support small and medium businesses, where the real job growth potential is, instead of providing welfare for giant corporations.

Unfortunately, we’ll spend at least the next two years arguing over trivial crap while largely ignoring the growing poverty and other elephants in the room.