Welcome the innovators, beware those who cling to the past
How the right-wing push to put education in a straitjacket is like stopping musical innovation.
Dolly Parton, or Whitney Houston? They’re different, but who’s better? You have to listen to know. (Photo by Wes McFee on Unsplash)
Do you prefer Dolly Parton’s version, or Whitney Houston’s, of “I Will Always Love You,” the classic pop ballad? How about choosing between Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and the original, recorded by Otis Redding? Or maybe you’d like to compare The Byrds’ tight harmonies and jangly guitar rendering of “Mr. Tambourine Man” with Bob Dylan’s first take on the song a few years before.1
You don’t have to choose, of course. Music thrives on interpretation and innovation, and when you hear a piece differently than you might have imagined it, well, sometimes it just turns your head around, doesn’t it? In music, as in other realms of the arts, there’s not necessarily a “right” way to do things.
Actually, that’s a notion we might hope to apply to a lot of what we encounter in our lives. The human capacity for change, and our ability to learn and then adjust to something new, is worth celebrating and empowering. Surely a key goal of education must be to teach young people — just as we have to keep teaching ourselves — to value the great variety of ways we lead our lives on this planet. Since the world is always changing, we must hope that rising generations are inspired to study and appreciate the past, examine what’s new and embrace the richly varied paths that people follow in their lives.
But we’re not doing that so well these days. We’re often confusing educating with indoctrinating, and we seem to prefer that our schools provide training — which is about imparting skills for the next step in life, like a job — rather than focusing on teaching, which is aimed at opening minds for lifelong learning.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons that our society seems to be splitting apart: With encouragement from cynical politicians and audience-hungry media stars, we’ve abandoned the essential human quality of empathy, leaving us unconcerned if our schools, from pre-K through the college years, fail to imbue the next generation’s minds with the values that make them open to understanding and change.
“I believe that education should expand our consciousness, capabilities, sensitivities and cultural understanding,” Sir Ken Robinson, a global leader in cultural education, wrote shortly before his death in 2020. “It should enlarge our worldview.”2
That’s pretty far from what’s happening in many parts of America, where state-level politicians and local school boards are instead fighting to limit what’s taught in classrooms, as though there’s nothing to be gained by seeing the world any differently than we did a few decades ago. It’s happening on a lot of college campuses, too.
Hey, here’s a suggestion, folks: While we’re going after this dang new stuff, let’s get out some of those swell Rudy Vallee records — because nothing can improve on that music, right? And bring your Lawrence Welk collection, OK?
Here’s the thing: Clinging to the past may seem like just an attempt to make sentimentality triumph over sensibility, which is fairly benign. But rigid conservatism is often the strategy of people who have benefited from the status quo as they try to hold their power at the expense of those who better grasp current realities or what’s next to come.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — whose musical tastes seem uncertain beyond his political partnership with the latest iteration of the 1970s rockabilly band Lynyrd Skynyrd — is the avatar of this campaign to re-impose a mindset from an earlier time. DeSantis seems to be a throwback to an era when those in charge — straight white men, mostly — didn’t really have to consider the needs of everybody else in a diverse society.
Is Florida really “where woke goes to die,” as DeSantis proudly proclaims? That makes it sound as though it’s a bad thing to be awake to today’s realities — which include fewer opportunities for people who don’t look and think like DeSantis, and the accumulation of greater wealth over the past four decades by those at the top, even as the middle class has lost ground. My old dog-eared copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, by the way, cites some antonyms for “awake” — including “asleep,” of course, but also “unaware,” “inattentive” and “ignorant.”
DeSantis isn’t any of those, though his all-but-certain presidential campaign will depend upon the support of those who are. He knows what he is doing. By imposing a right-wing stamp on education in his state, DeSantis knows he can fire up the conservative base. So he pushed through a law giving parents the right to sue schools and teachers if they have a hunch their kids aren’t being taught what the parents want, and another to ban discussion of gender and sexuality in lower grades, and to restrict it (again, at risk of a parental lawsuit) even in high school. That, of course, can’t be good for the mental health of children who believe they are gay, and those whose parents are gay, though there’s no indication that DeSantis cares about them.
At the urging of DeSantis, Florida imposed new standards for teaching history in public schools, prompting some fearful teachers to drop classroom references to the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and to stop teaching the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.3 Most recently, DeSantis went to war with the College Board, which promptly backed down from the fight and adjusted the curriculum for its Advanced Placement African American Studies course, including removing guides to teaching about Black Lives Matter, the generational impact of mass incarceration of Black men and reparations for slavery.4
So here's why what’s going on in Florida – and in so many other Republican-led states around the country — is problematic, and even unpatriotic: Our society can fully and fairly consider controversial topics — including how we teach about gender identity, sexual orientation and the nation’s history of racial inequity — only if people understand the facts. But clamping a lid on even talking about them isn’t going to give us a chance for those conversations.
The right-wing push against being “woke” is nothing less than an effort to take us back to an earlier time, when racial segregation was the norm, when gay people had to hide their sexual identity and, not incidentally, when women didn’t have the right to control their own bodies if they became pregnant. But we live in a different time. This is no longer a world where Black people will accept denigration, where people who aren’t straight will back away from proudly declaring their queerness and where a pregnant teenager from a rural community will quietly disappear to another state before turning over her newborn baby to an orphanage.
We can no more turn our society back to the norms of the 1950s than we can now imagine “Over the Rainbow” without hearing in our minds not just the indelible performance of 16-year-old Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz,’ but also, now, the ukulele version released 67 years later by Jake Shimabukuro.5 Choose which you prefer, if you like, but you cannot assert that one is better than the other without listening to them both. And a new recording of the song wouldn’t sound like either one, because we live in a different musical era from either time.
That’s the glory of being open to the great panoply of experience all around us. If we want the rising generation of Americans to respect our history, we owe it to them to be honest about all of its truths. We are a nation deeply scarred by its history of racism and yet unsatisfied in pursuit of its honorable goal of giving everybody an equal shot at freedom and equality. Our founders were as flawed as we are, yet they gave us a brilliant foundation of democracy that offers us an unmatched opportunity to do better. Our hope lies in, first, recognizing and appreciating that checkered past and, second, in remaking what we’ve been given to meet today’s challenges.
That is worth celebrating. So, as Leonard Cohen so movingly sang, “Hallelujah!” That sentiment was set to music before, and even Cohen’s approach to it has been performed beautifully since by others. Hallelujah, indeed.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Savannah, Ga. (Savannah Morning News, savannahnow.com)
Des Moines, Iowa (Iowa City Press-Citizen, press citizen.com)
Great Falls, Mont. (Great Falls Tribune, greatfallstribune.com)
Burlington, Vt. (Burlington Free Press, burlingtonfreepress.com)
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Lawmakers want international protection for swamp
A group of seven Democrats and one Republican who represent Georgia in Congress are petitioning to have the U.S. advance the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to reporting by Marise Mecke in The Savannah Morning News. The designation wouldn’t carry more legal restrictions to protect the ecosystem of the deep bog, but it would draw more attention to the challenge of protecting the biodiversity it sustains. A nation can nominate only one site per year to the United Nations for World Heritage Site designation, and the Georgians are hoping this will finally be the year for the Okefenokee. But to protect it from the looming threat of a titanium mining operation on its edge, Mecke reports, the site would benefit from enhanced federal water protections that were reversed by the Trump administration. Those enhancements have been resisted by the lone Republican who advocated the international designation, Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, whose district includes the swamp.
Legislators press ahead despite please of LGBTQ kids
Ignoring the pleas of LGBTQ students who testified before them, Iowa state legislators are poised to pass legislation that will restrict what schools can teach about gender identity and how they might accommodate trans kids. Katie Akin of the Des Moines Register reports that Republican lawmakers were unmoved by the testimony of children who said they were bullied at school, and seem intent on passing bills aimed at clamping down on teaching about social justice concepts, and LGBTQ issues, in particular. The coverage notes that the American Medical Association wrote in a 2021 letter that "trans and non-binary gender identities are normal variations of human identity and expression." The AMA recommends enabling "young people to explore and live the gender that they choose."
Bird flu found in grizzly bear
The bird flu outbreak that first surfaced last February in Indiana has led to the destruction or death of 57.8 million birds so far; there is no known cure for the disease. Now, reports David Murray in the Great Falls Tribune, three juvenile grizzly bears recently euthanized in Montana due to their poor health were found to be suffering from the pathogen. It is the first time the disease has been detected in the species, Murray reports, though it has previously been found in foxes, skunks, cats and dogs. The federal government considers the likelihood of transmission to humans to be extremely low.
Pandemic effect on students’ performance still apparent
The latest student test scores in Vermont continue to reflect the effects of school shutdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic, April Barton reports in the Burlington Free Press. Test administered last spring in grades 3 through 9, she reports, showed very few gains in proficiency between 2021 and 2022 with most scores continuing a downward progression. “The results are just one more data point reinforcing the continued importance of our Education Recovery efforts across the state," Vermont’s education secretary said.
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It’s mighty cold
My friends in warmer climates are fond of messaging me to let me know how much worse they think I have it than they do. Usually they’re wrong — it’s not really all that cold and snowy in this corner of Upstate New York. And, anyway, I’m a fan of seasonal change. Some of the quite temporary hardship that winter brings to those of us in the North is worth embracing. Too, there’s a beauty in the rugged nature that’s carved by ice and snow and wind. Besides, we don’t get mudslides, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes. Take that, Sunbelt!
But the thermometer tonight on the windowsill — it’s digitally linked to a little weather station on top of the shed across the way — reveals that there are no degrees just now to report. That is, it’s at zero, and plummeting. It’s mighty cold, folks.
That makes this a good time to snuggle in with a book, once the writing of the day and week has been done. It’s my great intention to do just that in the next 24 hours. There are three fine novels and a half-dozen gotta-get-to-em nonfiction books on my bedside table, and they’re all within reach of my hopes — just relying on the reach of my execution skills to be read, then. Wish me luck.
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Thank you for reading — special thanks to our paying subscribers! — and thank you for joining me in the way we share our *common ground, this great America.