Sunday, September 17, 2017

The New Normal Is Still Not Normal

Is it just me or is the political circus breaking for an intermission?

Yes, I know that the president watched FOX News, then tweeted that the British knew who the suspects were in Friday's terrorist attack. And he also reiterate his position that civil rights agitators are just as bad as Nazis and Klan members.

But somehow, it feels different.

Maybe it's that the president struck a deal with Democrats about the debt ceiling and agreed with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi that we shouldn't deport 800,000 people who were brought here by their parents, have generally led fine American lives, and now risk having their worlds upended because, well, why? There was some speculation that the president was concerned that his poll numbers were just too low or that throwing hard working people out of the country was too egregious even for the right wing media, who generally opposed his proposed policies.

Or it could be that John F. Kelly is actually doing a decent job as White House Chief of Staff and was able to get through the haze and appeal to the president on a level that Trump's children, spouse, past advisers, conscience, sense of decency and humanity, and presidential behavior have not. Or maybe he was just havin' fun, and next week he'll go back to savaging the truth, reacting and tweeting about news stories he hears and calling for the wall to be built.

In the end, it won't matter. Another eruption is always just around the corner. But, again, it just feels different.

And this week, the diplomats come calling for the annual opening of the United Nations. The president is scheduled to give a speech and of course anything goes, and will, when he takes the podium. Then he and his staffers must give some kind of explanation as to what his foreign policy will look like, but when you have no clue or knowledge about that it's difficult to be...cogent.

The great fear among those who oppose the president's agenda is that his behavior and utterances will become normalized. Perhaps we are seeing that. That's why this new feeling can be dangerous. This is no normal Republican administration.

And I don't think it ever will be.

For more, go to www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, September 10, 2017

It's Just the Weather. Nothing to See Here, Citizens. Move Along.

No, it's not the Apocalypse. That happened last November. This is just weather.

Just weather. And the earth. How quaint.

Three hurricanes, and a major earthquake that very few people outside of Mexico are paying attention to, are taking their physical and psychic toll on a country that does not need any more bad news. Add in a cleanup that will be expensive, daunting and political, and you'll see more partisan bickering in addition to the usual American disaster response which will include astounding stories of bravery, generosity, and poignancy.

Coming on the heels of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the earthly events of the past few weeks are instructive and worthy of reflection. For as a much as we consider ourselves as the vanguard of technology, knowledge, wealth, sophistication and freedom, we need to remind ourselves that nature ultimately holds us to account. There's just no way to stop a hurricane or to predict an earthquake in time to safely evacuate residents. We are really at the mercy of our own limitations and our uncanny hubris when it comes to assessing risk. Just as we overestimated our safety 16 years ago, and unconscionably put the New York disaster assessment agency in the World Trade Center, so have Houston and, I'm reasonably certain we will find out, South Florida, will find that they were unprepared for events that stretched the vocabulary of every weatherista in the media.

And the political lessons? Please. Just ask anybody in New Jersey who remembers the Texas Congressional delegation's incomprehensible opposition to federal relief for Superstorm Sandy in 2012, how they view the Ted Cruz FEMA telethon and screechy request for funds to rebuild, and they'll tell you quite a story. Just don't stand too close. And I hope you're not offended by salty language. There's also more money to be spent on Florida, and in the end I expect that both states will get what they need.

What these storms ultimately should tell us is that we are pretty good at reacting to disasters (right, Brownie?), but we are terrible at planning, execution, building codes and, yes, infrastructure. We simply cannot continue this way. Other countries, such as the European low countries and Great Britain, have made adjustments and not simply rebuilt up the affected areas. Dunes on the New Jersey shore will help, but building more houses on stilts will just set up homes as field goal attempts the next time we are pummeled with a 100-year storm that comes 95 years too soon.

The last piece to all of this is how we react, long-term, to these challenges, and the main component is the effect our activity is having on our atmosphere. Climate change is real. It is being influenced by choices and actions that humans have made since the industrial age. You can't believe in meteorology and astronomy and physics, but deny the atmospheric chemistry that is making the earth warmer and holding more moisture. It's time that we realized that we need to make adjustments and to not put people in danger that is avoidable.

That will require leadership that, at present, we just don't have.

For more, go to www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The New School Year: History Will Guide the Future

New school years always bring new challenges for children, parents and teachers. This school year, though, promises to be much trickier, because we are now debating United States History.

Remember history? That's the class that isn't tested at the end of the year by the great national testing monopoly, Pearson. The PARCC tests focus on non-fiction readings, which allows for more use of historical documents on the test, but there's no real history or context that a student has to master in order to answer the questions.

For decades we've focused on language arts and mathematics as the key components of K-12 education, relentlessly testing students in those subjects. And what has your school district likely spent a good deal of money on over the last few years? STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) or STEAM (ibid., but add Arts). Coding classes are now part of the curriculum in many states as are required business and personal finance courses. They get lots of press. And, yes, United States History is required in all states, but far too many of them require only one year of it. And with no summary test, save for a final exam at the end of the class, history has lost a good deal of influence in the curriculum.

We are now paying the price.

As this new school year begins, teachers will be asked to address the explosive issues that are daily in the media concerning our history and what it means. How should we treat Confederate statues and monuments? What place do hate groups such as the KKK and the American Nazi Party have in a country with a strong First Amendment? What should we do about immigration and children who were brought here by undocumented parents? And of course, we seem to be debating President Trump's behavior, tweets and spur-of-the-moment policy declarations on a minute-by-minute basis, not to mention his speculative knowledge of historical events.

This is the environment in which America's school teachers must operate this academic year. We are the ones who will be the first point of contact for many children who are feeling the anxiety and divisiveness that has taken hold in our society. Remember that as much as any adult is trying to make sense of what's happening in our society, children experience these events on a magnified scale. They have less of the emotional regulation necessary to confront explosive debates that adults have and they have little context by which to weigh the consequences of what they're learning. Great teachers recognize these deficits and conduct their classes so as to support students, to teach them civil behavior, to make sure students respect differences, and to calmly appeal to their students' intelligence, humanity, and sense of justice.

Of course, some would argue that if teachers had done this in the past, then we wouldn't be at this place in our history where there is so much disagreement and division. This would be a tragic conclusion. Did any of your teachers teach you to hate? To insult your classmates? To steal? To plagiarize? Of course not.

The simple truth is that teachers can only be as effective as the communities in which we teach, and if a community, or the country, is dysfunctional, then that will be reflected in the schools. We see students for only a portion of the day. The media, social and otherwise, takes over from there. Together with parents, teachers can only plant the seeds of knowledge; society and common sense have to do the rest.

That's why this school year will be more of a challenge than most years, but I have no doubt that America's school teachers will do their best, keep their emotions in check, teach from the heart and the head, advocate for every one of their students, and proudly represent themselves as doing one of the most important and difficult jobs in this country.

I wish all of my fellow teachers a happy new school year full of joy and wonder. May we learn as much about our students as they learn from us.

For more, go to www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives or Twitter @rigrundfest