July 8, 2012

As a teacher enjoying time off to attend professional workshops and plan for the coming school year, I began to reflect, given the recent celebration of July 4th, on how well our schools are preparing America’s youth for participation in our democracy and what message students are receiving from their society, parents, teachers, media, and even political leaders about what is expected of them, or even possible for them to achieve. Today, the United States is experiencing what seems to be quite a lot of political activism, from the Tea Party movement to the Occupy movement, but I doubt whether our schools, the media, or our leaders are interpreting these movements in such a manner that legitimates them or communicates to young people that such movements are worth participating in. The question is: are students being prepared for democracy and encouraged to participate in politics? Or, a related question: what forces are discouraging young people from participating in politics?

What is the purpose of politics? Of representative democracy? Well, we are all familiar enough with the basic concept: politics is the art of organizing and maintaining the various aspects of a society; and representative democracy is the participation of the people in determining how society is organized and maintained. In a democracy the people are the government, which means that the people are self-governing. Throughout the history of the United States, wealthy individuals and businesses have exercised various degrees of disproportionate influence over government (the people), exercising a lesser degree of still disproportionate influence during times of popular “unrest,” periods when the people have organized on a massive scale to “take back” the government, which is essentially a reassertion of their right to govern themselves, to have their vision for society actually determine how society is organized and maintained.

Today, two movements are trying to “take back” the government: the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers. In my opinion, the libertarians in the Tea Party movement have legitimate concerns about Big Government, but what they fail to see is that corporations, who largely control the government (the people), pose a much bigger threat to individual liberties and American values than Big Government. Thus, the Occupy movement’s emphasis on the corporate corruption of democracy. I believe that some libertarians could find common cause with the Occupy movement, but the Christian nationalists within the Tea Party movement want to “take back” something else entirely, not the government as it ever actually existed, but as they imagine it to have been: some sort of “democracy” that was also “Christian.”

If we want to determine whether students are being prepared for democracy and encouraged to participate in politics or discouraged from engaging in the political process, then we must understand the influence that politics has on education, specifically, the influence that libertarian and Christian nationalist views have on education. In Texas, the influence of both groups is rather pronounced. “The Revisionaries,” a documentary about the Texas State Board of Education, details the influence of Christian nationalism on issues such as man-made climate change and the separation of church and state, both of which many board members think are “liberal myths.” Texas requires teachers to present denial of man-made climate change as an acceptable scientific position, emphasizing the “controversy” over climate change. Workshops, based on Texan David Barton’s pseudo-scholarship, arguing that the separation of church and state is a “liberal myth” are offered as professional development in some Texas school districts. Recently, our governor ran for president saying that he wanted to “make government as inconsequential to [our] lives as possible.” More recently, the Texas Republican Party’s platform included language suggesting that schools should stop teaching critical thinking skills because they “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

What is going on here? Critical thinking skills are the foundation of education. An individual has to be able to analyze, evaluate, and judge arguments, beliefs, and ideas in order to decide what they think or how they want to act. The only person who thinks that critical thinking is no longer necessary is the person who thinks that they have access to undeniable, absolute truth that leaves no room for doubt or self-criticism. Personally, it seems like only God could claim exemption from critical thinking. Doubt is what necessitates faith. Doubt is what enables an individual to listen to other perspectives out of a desire to self-examine one’s present beliefs or opinions. A willingness to hear other arguments, sincerely consider the merits of other perspectives, and critically analyze one’s own positions is necessary for democratic deliberation.

Those politicians and libertarians who assure the people that society’s problems stem from too much government, that government regulation is ruining the economy, that more tax cuts for the wealthy and major corporations will stimulate job growth, are pawns of the growing corporatocracy. Those politicians and business leaders who mock citizen activists, unless of course it is a Tea Party rally, do not want the people to participate in the decision-making process because the beliefs of average middle-class Americans, from their support for universal, single-payer health care (Medicare for All) to their support for a repeal of Citizens United, stand in direct opposition to the corporate agenda pushed by corporate-funded politicians. Those politicians who entertain fantasies of reclaiming the United States as a “Christian” nation forget that Christianity itself has many different denominations and various interpretations of Scripture and most importantly that religious freedom, the ability to practice your faith and not have another’s faith imposed on you, is what brought many of the earliest settlers to America.

The Republican Party is fractured: corporatists, libertarians, Christian nationalists; and the Democratic Party is a milder corporate version of the Republican Party due to the nature of campaign finance. The people are organizing on a massive scale to “take back” the government, to reclaim the right and the privilege of self-government. The media is ignoring them, politicians are avoiding them, and business leaders are mocking them. What are the schools doing? Not much. To inform students about much of the content of this column is considered “having a political agenda” or “indoctrinating the youth.” Critics argue that merely exposing students to the realities of their society, their government, and their environment is synonymous with “brainwashing” them. The result: America’s youth do not know what challenges they face, how to confront those challenges, or why it matters. The government is the people. We need more government, that is, more people actively involved in the political process. Texas has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. If Democrats continue to vote, then Democrats can get elected in Texas. If sane Republicans would vote, then we could at least have sane Republicans in office. But, as Father Daniel Berrigan once said: “if voting were effective, it would be illegal.” Taking our voices to the ballot box should be a requirement, but taking our voices to the streets is a privileged responsibility.

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