“Though [Abraham Lincoln] never would travel to Europe, he went with Shakespeare’s kings to Merry England; he went with Lord Byron poetry to Spain and Portugal. Literature allowed him to transcend his surroundings.”
When I first started bartending, it was drilled into my head that discussions around politics or religion were not welcome at a bar. It was advice I promptly ignored.
My happy hours were filled with spirited conversation around every conceivable subject, the one rule being that all must remain respectful. If someone couldn’t honor that, it would be they, and not the conversation that would be expelled.
I remember once observing a gentleman quietly sitting in the middle of the bar while talk raged all around him. He had a look of concentration on his face, but he wasn’t engaging with those in his space. Concerned, I asked him, “Everything ok?”
He broke out with a big smile, “Oh yea. I just love coming here, and sitting, and listening, to all the conversations around me. Nothing is off-limits and there are just so many ideas swirling around. it’s the best part of my day. ”
I miss those days.
My middle school years were spent in Texas. At that time, it was required that each year students take a speech and language class. In that class, they would learn persuasive speech writing. They’d learn to construct an argument, as well as proper debate techniques. Skills that seem to have disappeared from our public discourse, at a time when they are needed more than ever.
People will wring their hands around America being divided, but the amount of division in our country doesn’t give me too much concern. If you look closely at our history, you’ll see that we have always been a product of at least two different visions. As we talked about on Friday, the original 13 colonies were deeply divided. Fast forward to the turn of the Twentieth century and you’ll see a push for socialism grew out of a rise by the industrial barons.
The Socialist movement gained popularity as it pushed for better conditions for workers, and opposed the first World War. You might be surprised to hear that Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs won nearly one million votes in the 1920 presidential election. I doubt many of us have learned about Debs in school.
It was about this time that “Socialism” gradually came to be an American conservative attack word aimed at merely liberal policies and politicians. Since the late 19th century, conservatives had used the term “socialism” (or “creeping socialism”) as a means of dismissing spending on public welfare programs which could potentially enlarge the role of the federal government, or lead to higher tax rates. This use of the word had little to do with government ownership of any means of production, or the various socialist parties, as when William Allen White attacked presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896 by warning that “[t]he election will sustain Americanism or it will plant Socialism”.
After WWII, for several reasons, the movement fizzled and the influence of Socialism faded a bit. The 1950s brought another Red Scare and battle lines once again became heightened. Socialists also played an integral role in the rise of both the Civil Rights Movement and the quest for Gay Rights. Per Wikipedia, according to David J. Garrow, Martin Luther King in private conversation “made it clear to close friends that economically speaking he considered himself what he termed a Marxist, largely because he believed with increasing strength that American society needed a radical redistribution of wealth and economic power to achieve even a rough form of social justice”.
So when you hear critics of the Black Lives Matter organization argue that it’s rooted in Socialism, they are not wrong, but the argument is not a new one either. These days Socialism is on a bit of a rise, as one 2018 poll reported 37% of American adults had a positive view of socialism and 56% had a positive view of capitalism.
Admittedly the preceding is a very limited overview of the history of the political conversation in America, but I just wanted to give a little context for what follows, as well as demonstrate that we have never been a country undivided. Some might argue that our divisiveness has served to make us stronger.
The rise in social media has added increased access to the public conversation. More voices are being granted an audience than at any other time in history. In the past, widespread access to an audience was only available to those with substantial resources. These days, all an individual needs is internet access and a potential audience of millions becomes instantly available. Unfortunately, that access doesn’t come with an inherent knowledge of how to effectively communicate. Thus, the many voices simply screaming into the void.
I’m not saying that I’m any kind of certified expert, but there are a number of trends that I’ve witnessed over the last year that I think bear commenting on.
For example, employing the word “science” doesn’t automatically guarantee you a winning argument. In fact, it seems like ‘science’, has become the new “data”. How many times have we seen a position presented as being “data-driven”, when upon closer examination what was really being said was, “driven by selected data”. Looking at different “data” often presents a different supposition. The same holds true for “science”.
Just because your opposition chooses to counter your ‘science-driven” argument, doesn’t necessarily mean they are ignoring science – though sometimes they are. The opening of schools would be a prime example. in this case, both sides are looking at “science” and drawing out the fact that best support their demands. Unfortunately, like I’ve said before, “science” is always evolving and often times becomes contradictory as more facts become available. So while “science” is certainly important, it doesn’t always provide the drop the mic moment desired.
My favorite new tactic, is the, “You are only against that because you don’t understand it” or the “it’s just bad messaging, once you get past the messaging it’s clear as day.” Not true, sometimes people understand your position clearly and they just don’t agree. Sometimes they’ve looked at the same information and reached a different conclusion.
In employing this tactic, one often begins with the assumption that nobody has done as much research into the subject as they, nor have they read any of the books they have. If they had, they’d have exactly the same position. That is a deadly trap to fall into.
We constantly argue that we are trying to raise critical thinkers. What that translates to is readers who applying their background knowledge and life experiences to a piece of literature and drawing their own conclusions. It is entirely possible that two individuals can read the same book and take away different interpretations. The young white man from a rural community is going to have a different feeling about the novel The Hate You Give than say a young woman from an urban neighborhood, In my eyes, that’s not a bad thing.
Over the past several years, in order to get more kids reading, there has been a push to emphasize the need for young readers to see themselves in the books they read – books as a mirror. While I don’t completely disagree with that argument, I strongly believe that books must also serve as a window for students. A means for them to begin to see that the whole world is not made up of people that look and think like them.
I would further argue, that by learning about others and how they live and think, we develop more empathy for those that are different. My wife often laments about the dwindling level of empathy in the world, and I can’t say I disagree. Those that have different views than us are quickly dismissed, as we try and dehumanize them instead of attacking their ideas. We assume that despite different histories and circumstances that all will universally adopt our beliefs, or there is something wrong with them. This does us all a disservice.
Some of my favorite people in the world think completely differently than I do. And I love them for it because I learn from them. It keeps me honest and helps ensure that my beliefs can bear questioning. It wasn’t that long ago when Team of Rivals, a book celebrating the diversity of President Lincoln’s Cabinet, was the most popular read in the country. Perhaps it is time for a re-reading of it.
The bottom line is that we shouldn’t expect to draw universal conclusions from literature. What reading should do is establish a baseline from which a conversation can spring forth. A place where the best of that argument can bind with the best of that idea, and a stronger position emerges. In the words of President Lincoln, “In order to “win a man to your cause,” you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”
This brings me to my last observation if you desire to increase the level of conversation around a topic, ban it. declare the subject matter off-limits. Better yet, threaten people with punishment if they dare discuss it. Telling somebody they can’t talk about something is the surest way to increase scrutiny and get them talking,
Think about your place of employment. All of us have gotten the heavy-handed email from incompetent management attempting to ban gossip from the workplace. It’s never effective. Upon receiving the ridiculous email, did gossip instantly stop? Or did people find a co-worker in which to gossip about the new policy and review all recent gossip in order to find culpability for the new edict? I suspect the latter.
Somebody needs to share this one with the Tennessee General Assembly. In passing legislation last week banning the in-school teaching of Critical Race Theory, all they managed to do was increase the conversation around Critical Race Theory. Prior to last week, there was little mention in the press about CRT and mainly anecdotal stories. But now, the conversation is wide open, with everybody from the local press to statewide publishers, to the national media weighing in. It’s a conversation that isn’t likely to die down anytime soon.
The problem is, that with all this talking, no one is listening. Battle lines are drawn tighter, and the nuanced conversation needed becomes a casualty and a source of deeper division. Neither side is giving ample consideration for the other side’s concerns. That too doesn’t show any signs of abating anytime soon.
There is an old saying, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” In this light, we just keep running on an eternal hamster wheel. Instead of looking at history, identifying our missteps, and using them to reconcile past mistakes, we are continually falling into the traps of the past. Ever at each other’s throats, seemingly thinking we can browbeat the other side into submission.
Modern technology serves to make those traps even more deadly and pervasive. Disparaging voices are amplified, taking a toll on our social and emotional well-being and thereby turning us all into losers. It’s ironic that as physical borders begin to fade, personal borders are only increasing. A situation that serves none of us well.
At some point, we have to reapply those tenets from middle school forensics classes. We have to reclaim the ability to construct a compelling argument and engage in civil discourse. Failure to do so puts us all at peril.
BUDGET, BUDGET, WHO’S GOT THE BUDGET?
Tuesday means another MNPS School Board meeting. A look at the agenda, reveals several contracts are up for consideration in regard to teacher residencies and summer school programming. Also on tap is a discussion around the long-promised personal student dashboard. What’s not on the agenda is a discussion about next year’s budget. It’s nice that the mayor has prosed substantial teacher salary increases, but let’s not forget that he doesn’t write the budget. That document is supposed to come from the school board.
The way the process has been constructed is that the board proposes a funding level supported by a line-item budget. The mayor and city council approves the funding level using the budget as justification for the allocation. The Nashville charter is very clear in outlining the prescribed powers of municipal government in regard to schools. Neither the mayor nor city council, have line item powers. In other words, they can only approve a funding level, not specific items.
That doesn’t mean that over the last several decades Nashville’s mayors haven’t tried to flex their influence. If you’ll remember, during the last election, incumbent Mayor Briley promised to become more involved in school governance than any other past mayor. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t win re-election.
But here we are, with Mayor Cooper announcing a change in teacher pay structure prior to an approved budget by MNPS. It’s a move that can only serve to increase mayoral influence over schools. Big deal? I don’t know.
Does the pay raise supersede how schools are governed? Possibly, and I’m sure for many the answer would be an emphatic, “yes”.
But shouldn’t there be a little discussion around the issue? If this goes undiscussed, where will the line be drawn in the future in regard to mayoral influence? Will they influence discipline policy? Perhaps they will choose to weigh in on charter school approvals. Once precedence is set, we don’t get to pick and choose where the mayor can apply his influence.
Maybe it’s not a big deal with this mayor, but remember city demographics are changing, and that could mean the office being filled by someone with very different ideas than those preferred today. Someone who could kick the crack in the door open, and possibly even bring schools under direct mayoral control. Eventually leading to an appointed school board or even its dissolution. Don’t think these aren’t ideas that haven’t been proposed in the recent past.
Some people would argue that more input from the mayor is a good thing. The point has been made that they often get held accountable for the city’s schools, even while enjoying limited influence. The thinking being, why put him at the mercy of a school board without options?
A recent article in the Tennessee Lookout seems to be making an argument for the importance of mayoral control. It comes complete with accolades from Council Members like Dave Rosenberg,
“Frankly I’m just blown away that he’s been not just making financial investments, but communicating with Dr. Battle regularly and with school board reps. For a guy whom public education was never something I’ve known him to be passionate about, he’s been a game-changer on it.”
Unfortunately, Mayor Cooper’s “passion” for public education doesn’t extend to his own family. His kids continue to attend private school.
In his Lookout piece, writer Nate Rau makes claim that,
Those spending commitments, combined with the Cooper administration’s successful legal challenge of the state’s controversial school voucher law, have created a sense of optimism among Nashville’s public education stakeholders. And, that optimism is welcomed in Nashville public education circles since the district has been dealing with virtual learning due to the pandemic, the resulting learning loss, two major lawsuits that could reshape how public education functions and incessant battles with the state.
Interesting, considering that most in “education circles” recognize that ‘learning loss” is not a real thing and that virtual education is not without its success stories. Not to mention, a not unsubstantial portion of the city’s public education stakeholders are pretty upset with the mayor’s inability to get schools reopened in what they would call a timely fashion. Limiting graduation attendance while major events around town reopen isn’t helping Cooper’s cause.
I think it’s probably a little early to be printing up those “Nashville’s Education Mayor” t-shirts. There is still a lot of questions around MNPS’s direction. Be it the status of virtual school, the new literacy program, or future staffing issues, there is a lot of work to be done. The jury is still out whether Dr. Battle and more importantly her team can successfully meet these challenges.
Again, maybe it is time to revise the city charter and give city officials more influence over the school district. Or maybe not. But either way, the conversation needs to be public and transparent. That begins with budget talks.
Looks like that revolving door at the TNDOE is still swinging. Jerre Maynor (Senior Director of Pathways) in CTE has left the department. Also reportedly leaving is Steve Playl (Senior Director College and Career Experiences). Rumor has it that Playl is staying in Tennessee Government but moving to the Labor Department. Could the CTE department be following him? It has been suggested in the past that CTE would be better served if housed with the Labor Department. Seems like something that would be in Governor Lee’s wheelhouse. We shall see.
Friday was the last day for Jason Thacker, who was Director of Programs and Program Management for the TNDOE. Thacker didn’t remain unemployed long. He has started today as a PT consultant for the DOE. This seems interesting because apparently there wasn’t an RFP created for his new role. Nor did Thacker adhere to the required mandatory separation period. Also announcing their pending departure this week is Rick Zadd, Senior Director of Procurement and Logistics. Can’t wait to see who’s next.
I think it’s starting to sink in with Governor Lee that he’s not going to get his shiny voucher program. But that doesn’t mean he can’t continue to grow the state’s charter school sector. Last week the TNDOE sent out a press release trumpeting 15 grants for charter school applicants – including grants for charter applications in several districts that do not currently authorize any charter schools – Rutherford County, Montgomery County, Millington Municipal, Fayette County, and Williamson County. Subgrants totaling $6.3 million were awarded primarily from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), which is the second GEER grant designed specifically to support charter schools, with additional funds from the Charter School Program grant. Andy Spears has the dastardly details over at the Tennessee Education Report.
Nashville Public Education Foundation has just released its annual Bridges to Completion Report which highlights trends in MNPS graduates’ college consideration, enrollment, persistence, and attainment and recommends important policy and practice changes. This annual report is completed in partnership with the Tennessee College Access and Success Network, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce through the New Skills Ready initiative. You’ll want to check it out.
The Economic Policy Institute has published a handy graphic so you can see just how underpaid teachers are in each state. Depending on the state, teachers make between 2.0% and 32.7%less than other comparable college-educated workers. Tennessee is in the middle of the pack at 21.4%. Not something to be proud of.
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