Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

You Just Can't Make This Stuff Up

            Lord Byron (1788-1824)

            Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Question: What is the difference between reality and fiction? Answer: fiction must make sense; reality doesn't.  Thus said the late novelist Tom Clancy during an interview with Larry King back in the early 1990s.  A bit of research shows that Clancy had adapted his pithy insight from either Lord Byron ("Truth is always stranger than fiction"), Mark Twain ("Truth is always stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities, truth isn't"), G. K. Chesterton ("Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it") or perhaps Leo Rosten ("Truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense"). Regardless of precisely who was responsible for the original quote (it may well have been Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas, both of whom wrote extensively about the nature of truth) there are, on a daily, even hourly basis, innumerable examples which should all be stuffed into a file entitled 'YOU JUST CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP!'  A handful of examples will suffice:

  • The United States, along with France and the U.K. bombs chemical weapons plants in Syria; within 24 hours, the POTUS Tweets "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!" (Sound familiar?)
  • '45 pardons former  V.P.  Richard Cheney's Chief of Staff, Louis "Scooter" Libby, thus firing a non-so-subtle shot across the bow of Robert Mueller III's investigation into all sorts of things. 
  • Armed with subpoenas, FBI agents raid the home, office and hotel room of the president's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, whom the DOJ now admits is "under criminal investigation." In response, '45 calls the raid "a national disgrace" and further claims that "all lawyers are concerned and deflated" by the raid. 
  • Former FBI director James Comey publishes a new book, A Higher Loyalty, in which he  says the president is both "unethical" and "untethered to truth." In response, '45 Tweets that Comey is a "weak and untruthful slimeball."
  • This past Thursday, the president weighs in on rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership, an eleven-nation regional trade pact which in pulling out of shortly after his inauguration, angrily termed "a rape of our country."  
  • Despite innumerable ethical lapses, the president recently praised embattled EPA administrator (and former Oklahoma A.G.) Scott Pruitt for the "fantastic job" he is doing.  It brings back memories of another Sooner, Michael Brown, the first Undersecretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response (a division of Homeland Security) who, three days after Hurricane Katrina wipes out much of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, was told by another president "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!" 
  • Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin lashes out at teachers protesting to raise state education funding, claiming that the statewide walkout "inevitably" led students to be sexually assaulted and use drugs. The governor also disses protesting teachers for “hangin’ out, shoes off ... smokin’, leavin’ trash around, takin’ the day off.”

You just can't make this stuff up!

This last bit of nonsensical reality directly affects some of the most important and influential people in America: public school teachers. In recent weeks and months, the long festering infection caused by low teacher pay, disappearing pensions and their overall treatment has broken through the surface and become highly visible.  In more and more states - Kentucky, West Virginia, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma to name but a few - teachers have been staging walkouts demanding a living wage and urging that their promised future pensions not be cut.  It is an utter pity that teachers - people whose job it is to help shape the future of society - are treated like second-class citizens. Armed with bachelors and often masters degrees (the earning of which leads to a lot of debt) they often work for less money than the clerks who manage the mini-marts where they purchase gas.  Today, few public school teachers can afford to buy a house or raise a family without benefit of a second - or even third - job.  Teachers in many states are not eligible to receive Social Security benefits upon retirement; their defined-benefit pensions have been replaced with hybrid retirement plans that combine features of a traditional pension with features of the 401(k) accounts used in the private sector.  

For years, thoughtless people have argued that teachers actually have a cushy deal: they only work 8 months a year, have summers off as well as a week in winter and a week in spring. What seldom gets mentioned - let alone understood - is that teachers spend untold (and unpaid)  hours creating lesson plans, reading essays and grading tests, as well as spending hundreds if not thousands of their own dollars providing their students with pencils, pens, paper, Xeroxes and the like that are simply not in their schools' budgets. The very same politicians and legislators who urge the arming of teachers and providing  see-thru backpacks for students (without worrying about where the money is going to come from) cannot find enough money for books and other basic educational tools. 

All across the country, teachers are staging walkouts, protesting these conditions. It is interesting to note that these protests - some of which have already led to promised raises - are all taking place in red states - states which do not permit teachers to join unions. Mind you, they are not asking for "The Moon and Sixpence" (the title of a marvelous Somerset Maugham novel assigned to us by our eighth grade English teacher Mr. Blakely); they are merely asking that they be treated as professionals who are entrusted with educating our young.  They are asking for more than lip service; they are asking that legislators quit depriving public schools of needed dollars in order to shunt them over to so-called "Charter Schools" or keeping taxes low in order to make their wealthy donors happy.

Two of the biggest motivators in getting public school teachers out of the classroom and out into the streets were the election of Donald Trump (the least intellectually curious president in recent history) and the confirmation of Betsy Devos as U.S. Secretary of Education. The latter was seen as a direct slap in the face of hundreds of thousands of public school teachers.  Ms. Devos, a multi-billionaire heir to the Amway fortune has never been an educator, let alone a student at a public school. She, her siblings and her children were educated at private religious schools. She has devoted years and years - not to mention millions and millions of dollars - to the cause of Charter Schools and home schooling, and has frequently attributed the "downfall" of public education to G-d being removed from the classroom.  

There was a time - and not all that long ago - when teachers were paid a respectable, living wage and treated as members of an honored profession.  Most of us remember the names of a handful of teachers who made a profound difference in our lives.  These teachers instilled in us both a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge.  The purpose of learning was not, strictly speakingfor the purpose of a future job.  Where today "learn-in-order-to-earn" is the unspoken meme, "learning-for-the-sake-of-knowledge" was the guiding principle back in the day. As the historian/philosopher Jacques Barzun noted in his 1981 book Teacher in America"Teaching is not a lost art, but the respect for it is a lost tradition."  (I thank my history teacher, Mr. Cousins, for turning me on to Professor Barzun a long, long time ago.)

It is frequently said that "throwing more dollars at public schools won't make them any better."  Perhaps this is so.  However, making the respect and restoration of learning and teaching a prime plank in future political campaigns just may.  We owe it to the men and women who devote their lives to educating young minds - the young minds who will one day shape our future - to support those who treat education as far, far more than a convenient sound bite.

Fiction?  Perhaps.  But do remember Twain's dictum that ". . . fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities, truth isn't." 

452 days down, 1009 days to go.

Copyright© 2018 Kurt F. Stone