Sunday, September 04, 2005

On the Katrinafication of the Public Schools

[Note: I see this has gotten kind of long. I apologize. These are purely my own thoughts, but I felt it was important at this time to get them down in writing.]

I don't like to get political on this blog, and will attempt not to, even here. But it is necessary to look at what happened in the Gulf Coast this week in terms of political philosophies, and to see how the plague of beliefs that caused the man-made catastrophe following Hurricane Katrina is also undermining the quality of life here in Montgomery County. Especially, this being the Vigilance blog of, I want to discuss how the same philosophy that resulted in thousands of deaths in Louisiana and Mississippi can result in the destruction of the institutions of education here in our community.

The fact that the President stayed on vacation even after Katrina hit was not a lapse of judgment. It was a statement. Condoleeza Rice buying several thousand dollars worth of shoes on 5th Avenue and taking in a Broadway show while people cried out for help, locked in their attics: a statement. The Vice President never did come back from his fishing vacation. Is he embarrassed? No, this was his way of showing that the hurricane was not his problem.

These examples are vivid statements that explain why the current administration has systematically dismantled and disempowered FEMA, the agency that citizens count on to respond in emergencies. Once a cabinet-level agency, FEMA has been buried in the Homeland Security bureacucracy. An incompetent former administrator ot the Arabian Horse Association -- fired from that job for supervisory failures -- was placed at the head of FEMA as a political favor. It was no mistake, it was a statement.

I think a lot of Americans agree with the Jeffersonian adage that "that government is best which governs least," which is the single principle underlying the disaster that is still ongoing in the Deep South. We don't like to be told by the government what to think or what to do, and will complain like hell when unnecessary laws are passed.

A small group of Americans take the principle in an odd way. They believe that entrepeneurship, the dog-eat-dog competition of human with human, working through the invisible hand of the free market economy, is the only path to excellence and power. Where there is a need for a product or service, they say, someone will provide it, motivated by the desire for profit. And part of this belief system is the presumption that government can only interrupt this process. A government that relies on votes will probably interfere by forcing the strong and crafty to treat the poor and uneducated fairly, for instance. And so, in the interest of promoting self-serving business, government has to be systematically dismantled.

I think most of us basically agree about a lot of it. We all love the fact that this country affords success to those who have the motivation and brains to scrap for it. The philosophy itself, as it stands, is somewhat agreeable. Government must be prevented from interfering with the self-created ascent to success for any individual.

But there are several places where this philosophy of personal self-promotion collides with reality. For instance, people with power always desire to accumulate more power, and, because they are already powerful it is easier for them to acquire more. The result is a class system, a society of haves and have-nots, with the haves looking down and saying, you should be able to do what I did, you just need to work harder. But of course in such an unbalanced system that is not true; not only does opportunity knock on privileged doors in the absence of hard work, it does not knock at the homes of those without connections, without necessities. Greed in such a world begets and aids greed.

Another place where the conservative philosophy collides with reality is in a situation such as the recent hurricane, where the weakest members of the society need help. No corporation was going to send rescue vehicles into New Orleans to rescue those poor, black people -- there was no profit in it. Fix the oil rigs, sure, they'll do that -- after they've artificially jacked up the price of gasoline. Put pluck poor people off of rooftops? No, that job will not be done by entrepeneurs. Only government, the contract of the people with one another to cooperate in their mutual self-preservation, can do this sort of thing, in reality.

Some citizens believe it is not the government's job to educate. If education were put in the hands of private enterprise, they say, then everyone could pick the kind of education they want, religion-based or race-based or language-based or ideology-based, whatever they like, and education providers could compete to provide the service. Tax money currently going to schools could go to personal investments instead.

Can you imagine a country where teachers are like salespeople, whose job is to keep those tuitions coming in? The content of education is then determined by the popularity of ideas, just as the content of Clear Channel radio programming is determined by the market and not the quality of the music they play. Who's going to pay for their kids to get low grades, or be disciplined by teachers? No, there would be no profit in that. Who will teach the uncomfortable facts, will ask the challenging questions? No profit -- it won't happen.

There is no profit in teaching poor children, and the gap in education quality that we already see would become an immeasurable gulf if schools were only operated for profit. Facts would be tossed in favor of heartwarming ideological platitudes, in order to keep the business, and the quality of education, already poor in the USA, would plummet even further.

Some agents in our community are using the MCPS sex-education curriculum to chip away at the system. Their whole point is that the schools should teach what the parents want them to teach, regardless of the facts. Sex being the uncomfortable thing that it is for people, it is a perfect target, a weak spot where a lever can be inserted to pry the community apart. It is not surprising that many CRC members home-school or send their own kids to private schools. That's what they want: schools that do what the parents tell them to do. Entrepeneurial schools. They don't want to be taxed for an educational system that doesn't pander to them as customers.

It is no lapse of judgment, either, that at every recent board of education meeting the CRC has had somebody saying that gay and transgendered people eat feces, and talking about fisting; they want the discomfort as intense and vivid as they can make it, not to improve the quality of public education to to make it so unpleasant that people don't want it.

A very good recent article in a British newspaper, discussing Intelligent Design, had the intriguing title: One Side Can Be Wrong. Science, the advancement of knowledge by highly trained researchers, is not a democratic process. It is a social process, with scientists evaluating and influencing one another's work within the paradigm, but scientific results aren't something the society as a whole votes on. And education, even in the K12 world, cannot be about serving the ideologies of the parents, it has to be about teaching the facts as they are best understood by certified, highly educated experts. A recent study found that twenty per cent of Americans believe that the sun goes around the earth, as if the Copernican revolution had never happened -- should we determine classroom content by voting on it?

In today's paper, I see that the administration is blaming the states for the failure following Katrina. But FEMA was in charge, they blocked help that was offered from Chicago, from other states, from Cuba, from the UN. Where people could have driven into Louisiana and picked up the stranded, they were not allowed, by federal officials. A Navy ship with food, water, and even a hospital waited offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, never called by the agency to help.

After 9/11, we all lived in shock and fear, with a feeling of vulnerability we had never known. And we were promised that our federal government would make us safe. A new Department was created, Homeland Security, and billions of dollars were invested in it. Now we find that the only thing we got out of all that was a color-code scheme for manipulating the country's paranoia level during the election season. The every-man-for-himself conservatives don't believe that homeland security is a proper of function of government, homeland security should be ensured by private enterprise. The new Department, we have just learned, was a hoax, another way for the entrepeneurs to profit. Those billions are gone, and there is nothing to show for it. A mistake? Incompetence? No -- that's how it was suposed to work. That was the plan. Katrina was the lesson, the debut, this was where we found out how this new world operates. You'd better keep an axe in your attic, because nobody's coming to bust you out, unless there's money to be made in it.

Out of generosity, let's just call it all an experiment that didn't work. We gave it a few years, the stripped-down, unaccountable form of government that declares war without reason and leaves helpless citizens to fend for themselves. Now we know, it doesn't work, there really is a need for a government that administers services for the people in an honorable and honest way. It must be accountable to the people, not the corporations, not the entrepeneurs. I say, let the billionaires fend for themselves, and let us work toward modifying our government so that it supports the people who need it.

We can't save the hurricane victims, you and me. But in our county, we can put our foot down and see that conservative groups don't Katrinafy the health curriculum or any other class, teaching kids some unoffensive, watered-down mythology with no factual content. No, let's perform the prevention and planning that was never done on the Gulf Coast. Let's teach our kids what to do when the moment comes. Sexual passion is a Category Five, let's not only plan for a Three this time, OK?

Sorry. I'll try to be funny next time.


Blogger Christine said...

Thank you JimK. You are not alone in seeing the administration's failure here, a huge failure caused by greed and insensitivity to those in need. Here's what Bob Schieffer said as he signed off Face the Nation September 4, 2005:

SCHIEFFER: Finally, a personal thought. We have come through what may have been one of the worst weeks in America's history, a week in which government at every level failed the people it was created to serve. There is no purpose for government except to improve the lives of its citizens. Yet as scenes of horror that seemed to be coming from some Third World country flashed before us, official Washington was like a dog watching television. It saw the lights and images, but did not seem to comprehend their meaning or see any link to reality.

As the floodwaters rose, local officials in New Orleans ordered the city evacuated. They might as well have told their citizens to fly to the moon. How do you evacuate when you don't have a car? No hint of intelligent design in any of this. This was just survival of the richest.

By midweek a parade of Washington officials rushed before the cameras to urge patience. What good is patience to a mother who can't find food and water for a dehydrated child? Washington was coming out of an August vacation stupor and seemed unable to refocus on business or even think straight. Why else would Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert question aloud whether New Orleans should even be rebuilt? And when he was unable to get to Washington in time to vote on emergency aid funds, Hastert had an excuse only Washington could understand: He had to attend a fund-raiser back home.

Since 9/11, Washington has spent years and untold billions reorganizing the government to deal with crises brought on by possible terrorist attacks. If this is the result, we had better start over.

For those who wish to make donations to the relief effort, you can call the American Red Cross at 1 (800) HELP NOW, which is 1 (800) 435-7669. CBS News will have continuing coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

And that's our broadcast. Thanks for watching FACE THE NATION.


September 05, 2005 1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend who has regularly pointed out shortfallings in this administration concluded today that the aftermath of Katrina wasn't due necessarily to racisms or cynicism, but by laziness. I won't disagree that laziness lies in the center of the storm after the storm. This administration has an insular, black and white, regimented response to everything because that's a lot easier than shifting through a sea of information and opinions that may not immediately agree with your world view. Who knows? If you occasionally ask yourself the hard questions (or permit others to do so), you might learn something. But that's hard. So when top officials claimed ignorance of the misery in Louisiana, they probably weren't lying. The innermost circle has always protected them from inconvenient facts so the message doesn't get "clouded." In this case, some of that circle were in seats on Broadway, or enjoying the view from a fishing boat. What to do when you advisors are on vacation? It's just easier to go with your gut.

But is laziness a better excuse than racism? Either way, those people who should have been rescued are beyond help. The public should ask themselves, would they tolerate laziness from a physician caring for their loved ones, or an airline pilot flying them to a family reunion? The more authority and power, the more responsibility.

Sorry for the political commentary. I'm just so angry and anguished at the needless suffering and the gutting of the national treasure of emergency response and public health.

September 05, 2005 9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Racism has anything to do with the Bush administration's response to Katrina. It is clear to me that non-wealthy peole mean nothing to these "leaders." The census records released last week show that poverty has risen again for the fourth year in a row. Who cares?

America's poor are beneath the notice of this administration. How could they possibly care about the races of people who are already nothing to them?

September 06, 2005 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we're all angry and anguished, Anon. Well, at least those of us who acknowledge or are "have nots" are angry and anquished.

The devastation caused by Katrina and by our government's inability to get moving until after Blundering Bush touted his War in San Diego, Clueless Cheney finished his fishing trip vacation, Imelda Rice bought her new designer shoes, and Give 'em Hell Hastert attended his fundraiser back home, confirms our worst fears: Our proud C-student frat boy led government, after nearly four years of rearranging itself into the Homeland Security heirarchy still cannot protect us and won't even bother to pluck us off our roofs until they notice their tanking poll numbers.

Sign me,

September 06, 2005 12:06 PM  

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