Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

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Cave Clinton and Keller!

Helen Keller at Age 20

Helen Keller at Age 20

About a week ago (Friday, Sept. 14 to be precise) the Texas State Board of Education took a series of key votes which would eliminate teaching the state’s elementary school children anything about such wicked, worthless nonentities as Hillary Clinton, Helen Keller, Oprah Winfrey, John Hancock or W.E.B. DuBois. Their rationale? By removing dozens upon dozens of significant historic and contemporary figures from the public schools’ social studies curricula, they would be saving time for teaching about more “relevant” figures such as Adolph Hitler, Jefferson Davis and Kay Bailey Hutchison. According to a study undertaken by members of the board, excluding any reference to Hillary Clinton will save teachers 30 minutes of instructional time (in the course of a school semester), and Keller a whopping 40 minutes.

In an op-ed piece she wrote for the Washington Post, Texas State School Board Chair Donna Bahorich insisted that neither partisan politics, ethnicity nor gender had anything to do with determining which figures would be eliminated. After all, both Democrat Sam Rayburn (a Texan who served as Speaker of the House for longer than anyone in U.S. history) and Republican Barry Goldwater (America’s first - and so far only - presidential candidate to have Jewish heritage) were on the “thumbs-down” list. Despite Ms. Bahorich’s assertion that those slated for history’s trash heap were determined solely by necessity, her words just don’t ring true. A fine-tooth-comb examination of the school board’s list includes such folks as:

  • Benjamin Banneker, a free-born African American almanac author, surveyor and naturalist;

  • Phyllis Wheatly: the first published African-American female poet;

  • Stanley Marcus: one of Texas’ greatest success stories; the founder of Neiman Marcus;

  • Jane Addams: the Nobel Prize winning “Mother of Social Work”;

  • Thomas Jefferson

  • Hyam Salomon: A Polish-born Jew who became one of the two greatest financial underwriters of the Revolutionary War.

Mel and Norma Gabler: The Textbook Tzars

Mel and Norma Gabler: The Textbook Tzars

As shocking and upsetting as this current campaign is, one must remember that in Texas, dictating who and/or what shall be either mandated or eliminated from both curricula (and especially) textbooks, is as old as the Alamo. With respect to the latter - textbooks - there is an old expression which teaches “What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks” To fully grok the underlying meaning of this bon mot, one must first enter the Orwellian minds of the late Mel (1915-2004) and Norma (1923-2007) Gabler. Back in 1961, while sitting at their kitchen table in Hawkins, Texas, the Gablers claimed that they found numerous errors in their son’s history textbook. What they believed they were uncovering were numerous factual errors and examples of secular humanism, the censoring of conservative political and social views in textbooks. And so, armed with anger and the Divine Spirit, they founded a non-profit organization they named Educational Research Analysts, whose raison d'être has long been to read, review and rate textbooks. As stated on their website, “We are a conservative Christian organization that reviews public school textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas. Our reviews have national relevance because Texas state-adopts textbooks and buys so many that publishers write them to Texas standards and sell them across the country.”

To this day, ERA’s particular areas of concern are:

  • Scientific weaknesses in evolutionary theories

  • Phonics-based reading instruction

  • Principles and benefits of free enterprise

  • Original intent of the U.S. Constitution

  • Respect for Judeo-Christian morals

  • Emphasis on abstinence in sex education

  • Politically-correct degradation of academics

Hauntingly, these core issues have been making their way into textbooks for more than half a century . . . and not just in Texas. Remember their original statement: “Our reviews have national relevance . . . publishers write [textbooks] to Texas standards and sell them across the country.” What the Gablers were (and still are) to textbooks with ultra-conservative bent, the Texas State Board of Education is to public school curriculum. The main difference is that the Gablers, at least, were upfront about their intentions, while the State Board of Education is disingenuous to the max . . . hiding their agenda behind the false cloak of time management.

It is not terribly difficult to understand what Donna Bahorich and her colleagues have against Hillary Clinton and why they want any mention of her excised from public school classrooms; they hate everything about her and her husband the way a moonshiner despises a revenuer. But Helen Keller? What could they possibly have against Ms. Keller (1880-1968) who, in her day, was the most admired woman on the planet? I mean, here we have a woman who, despite being both deaf and blind since age 2, learned to read Braille, speak several languages, graduate from Radcliffe, write more than a dozen books, travel the world on behalf of peace, have her own film production company, become great friends with Mark Twain, visit every president from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy at the White House, and become one of the founders of both the American Civil Liberties Union and International Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”)? What harm could there ever be in children spending a mere 40 minutes of their elementary school education learning about this amazing, iconic, heroic woman? Absolutely nothing, except for the fact that she was a woman, has long been suspected by conservative Christians of possibly being a lesbian, and made no bones about being a Socialist who stood up for the rights of other women, minorities and the poor. Then too, maybe Bahorich et al are latter-day eugenicists; people who don’t want school children to be exposed to people with disabilities . . . no matter how distinguished they are.

In Latin, “cave” (pronounced KA-vay) means “beware of.” So, the title of this week’s post, Cave Clinton and Keller is a tongue-in-cheek way of saying “Beware of Clinton and Keller!”

One could easily conclude that last week’s votes by the Texas State Board of Education (which will be recast again in November) are not all that surprising in the age of Trumpeters. And indeed, at first glance, it does seem to fit in with all the intolerance, civic illiteracy, nascent racism, anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and Islamophobia that are the worst, most abhorrent ancillary aspects of Trumpism. One can also rightly fear that left unchallenged, the Texas State Board of Education’s lunatic Neo-Luddism may one day bring back the days when books were burned in town squares. The answer - and I believe there is one - comes not from changing presidents or members of Congress . . . although that certainly could not hurt. No, the real answers come from watchfully standing guard over the two institutions which have the most long-lasting effects on the nation: our school boards and our courts. Instead of spending their time arguing over whether or not classroom teachers - or even students - ought to be armed, our educational boards should pay heed to providing a quality education for every child; one that is free of partisan politics, religion or hidden agendas. Here in Florida, one of the biggest “successes” of the latest session of our state legislature is mandating that every public school classroom has a “In God We Trust” sign posted on the wall. Never mind that billions of dollars are being pulled out of public schools in the name of “school choice.” Never mind that the average classroom teacher must work a second - and sometimes a third - job just in order to live a middle-class existence. Never mind that mindless administrators are injecting their private agendas into what is taught or read. That a fundamentalist minority should have such chilling power over what is or is not taught to a generation of school children is but a few steps away from intellectual authoritarianism.

It is not Clinton or Keller of whom we should beware; it is the so-called guardians of education and public morals like Donna Bahorich (who, among other things, is the founder of Home Ed Plus, whose stated objective is “teaching classes from a Christian worldview perspective”) and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos, who wants to use America’s schools to “build God’s Kingdom.”

We began with the Latin word cave (“beware of”), and end with a Latin phrase from the great satirist Juvenal:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Namely, “Who shall guard the guardians themselves?”

44 days until the midterm elections!


Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

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