Bright, shiny things in the media

We like bright, shiny things.  Starting in our baby years.  And continuing into our adult lives. But now the bright shiny things are often political or cultural.  Or both. Greta Thunberg is a bright, shiny thing.

A conservative friend repeated several times on my facebook site that Greta Thunberg was unqualified to talk about climate change.  He wanted facts and not the thoughts of a “girl” who a Fox News host had deemed “mentally ill.” 

Facts regarding climate change had not appealed to this friend of mine.  And yes, I have friends that are Republican/Conservative. Only requirement for not getting blocked is not being an ass—respectful dissent is always welcome.  And I hate those moments he makes a valid point.

Anyway, he said Greta was unqualified.  After consideration, I had to conclude that she was indeed by her background, by education, by earned degree—she was unqualified. And then I concluded “So what?”   When did we get to an era when qualifications are required to be able to influence the public? We are certainly not there today.  

Some of the biggest influencers now are in social media.  According to Mediakix, the most popular social media influencer is Amanda Cerny (@Amandacerny). She has 24.7 million followers. She was recently in a Cardi B music video.  She did comedy sketches on You Tube which have gained her 2.6 million subscribers.  I watched several of the videos and there were absolutely attempts at humor.  

Other social media influencers have gained millions of followers based sometimes on their qualifications, sometimes on their looks and sometimes looking good though their qualifications are

But when did an education become a requirement for influencing society?  It hasn’t.  But unqualified people have led social change for decades.  

Some of our most influential folks in recent decades didn’t know squat.  But they said some stuff that got our attention.  Consider influencer Lenny Bruce. He changed the world of comedy.  By saying lots of four letter words.  And conjugating other words into profanities as long as 12 letters. And he did this in a time when such language was not allowed in public.  He was arrested at least five times for his vulgarity.  

George Carlin called him a role model to the degree that he got arrested with him just to say he did.  Lenny opened the doors to every comedian who followed.  If you are old enough to remember Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy in his prime—they did their thing because Lenny did his.  Lenny’s qualifications to change society?  None. Except he thought society needed some change to escape a suffocating hypocritical society.  And he was funny.  

Another unqualified funny man who made a difference: Dick Gregory. An African-American comedian who did his work when people didn’t refer to him as African-American, but instead used a term I won’t use.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Gregory. How can you not appreciate someone who explains his experience in the South like this. “I spent 20 years there one night,” Gregory began. “I walked into this restaurant and this waitress said ‘we don’t serve coloured people here’ and I said ‘that’s all right, I don’t eat coloured people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’” (source:  obituary from The Guardian, Aug 20, 2017).

He went to Southern Illinois University, served honorably in the army and served as a bridge between the races in the 60’s and for many years after.

He must have accomplished something of value.  Nixon put him on an enemies list and had the FBI do surveillance on him.  He was a black comedian on the Tonight Show back when Jack Paar hosted it.  Mr. Gregory insisted on being interviewed on the Tonight Show instead of just doing his routine.  

He changed minds and changed world and influenced the media.  His education that allowed him to pontificate on such matters.  Not much formal.  But he lived it. He knew it.

Conservatives also are led sometimes by the unqualified.  One is known by 80% of all Americans and has the sixth most popular radio show/podcast and has been named the 2nd most famous radio host in America (behind Howard Stern).

Baby boomers are his biggest fans.  Millenials think he’s the 40th best.    Yes, we’re talking Rush Limbaugh. He has been nationally syndicated for 31 years.  He wrote seven books, two of which became best sellers on the NY Times list.

Rush’s qualifications to pontificate on politics, to lead the republican party, to sow seeds of discontent like the people named above:  none.  Dropped out of college after two semesters.  His mother said he failed at everything except radio.  His career as a national leader of conservative thought happened because the Reagan administration got rid of the Fairness Doctrine.  Rush is unqualified to speak of political matters.  Or social matters or things that matter.  But he is highly rated.

So this is a long story to a short point.  Anyone else tells me that Greta was unqualified and uneducated in the details of science and climate change—well, the media has always given its time to bright, shiny things.  Those people who get our attention.  Some are qualified.  Many are not.  

We are a society not based on facts but our fascination by bright, shiny things.  Babies like bright shiny colors because their eyes are not fully developed.  Kind of like many America’s critical thinking skills.  And their media literacy skills.  So often we focus on bright, shiny things instead of finding out from experts what the truth actually is. Unfortunately, many experts are not telegenic. So, the focus goes back to bright, shiny things.

In Our Own Backyard–a story of Tennesse’s best and worst.

clinton high.jpg

Stewart Harris of the Lincoln Memorial University – Duncan School of Law offers this bit of history that we must remember.  Stewart is also host of the NPR program “Your Weekly Constitutional.”

In Our Own Back Yard

Constitutional law sometimes seems like something that happens out there, somewhere, to someone else.  Think the Electoral College or the crisis at our southern border.  But that’s not the case.  The Constitution affects each us, every day, right where we live.  Sometimes profoundly.

If you’re of a certain age, you know all about East Tennessee’s great constitutional moment, which occurred in the late 1950s.  But if you’re a young whippersnapper (say, under 40), or if you came to the area only as an adult, you may need a refresher.

The Clinton 12 were a dozen African-American high school students—Maurice Soles, Anna Theresser Caswell, Alfred Williams, Regina Turner Smith, William R. Latham,  Gail Ann Epps Upton, Ronald Gordon “Poochie” Hayden, Robert Thacker, Minnie Ann Dickie Jones, Bobby Cain, Alvah McSwain, and Jo Ann Crozier Allen—who led the first court-ordered desegregation of a Southern public school after Brown v. Board of Education.  It was a year before Little Rock.  (Oak Ridge desegregated even earlier than Clinton, but it did so without a court order).

Recently, Marilyn Hayden, the Director of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center, arranged for me to speak with retired lawyer Jerry Shattuck.  We met at the Center, a memorial to the Clinton 12 constructed in a building that was once a segregated school for “colored” children.  Jerry and I sat down in the former principal’s office, a tiny room that had also served as the school’s library.

Jerry told me that a local legal challenge to segregation, McSwain v. Anderson County, had started before Brown, but ran smack into controlling precedent:  U.S. District Judge Robert L. Taylor followed the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.  But then, after Brown overruled Plessy, Judge Taylor ordered the school to desegregate, pursuant to Brown II, “with all deliberate speed.”

Clinton did not need much time for deliberation.  The school board came up with a plan, and, in the fall of 1956, Clinton High School implemented it, mostly without incident.  There were protests, mostly small, mostly by outsiders, but the community followed the law.

But then the protests grew.  Segregationists from throughout the South made Clinton their rallying point.  Thousands of rabid racists flooded the small town, recruiting like-minded locals, taunting and spitting on the Clinton 12 as they walked from the black part of town to attend school.  Some students harassed the Clinton 12 at school, jostling them in the hallways, knocking their books to the floor.  The international press took notice.  It was a circus.

But most Clintonians responded with dignity and compassion.  Clinton High’s principal posted his strapping young football team (including a teenaged Jerry Shattuck) in the halls.  The harassment quickly ended.  Baptist minister Paul Turner, a white man, escorted the Clinton 12 to school.  He kept the children safe, but, on his way back to his church, he was chased and beaten by the mob.

A group of thugs forced their way into the high school.  The Home Economics teacher, a diminutive woman, confronted them.  They slammed her into a wall.  A member of Clinton High’s marching band, Dennis Holland, ran, alone, toward the thugs.  They ran away.  Dennis soon received death threats.  His family sent him to live with relatives in Florida.

As at Lexington and Concord, the call went out.  Local citizens stepped forward to stand with the police, to repel the invaders.  But the invaders kept coming.  Eventually, the newly-formed “White Citizens’ Council” decided to do more than scream and spit and beat innocent people.  They decided to charge the police, to take their weapons, and kill them.

Town officials had been in constant touch with state authorities, who were understandably reluctant to intervene.  But when the racists attacked, Governor Frank Clement responded.  In a scene reminiscent of a John Ford western, a convoy of cars roared into town, red lights flashing.  A door opened and Greg O’Rear, the six-foot-eight head of the Tennessee State Police, rose and leaned his shotgun over his shoulder.  “Boys,” he said, “it’s all over.”

And it was.  For a time.  The next school year was uneventful.  Black children and white children learned together.  Jerry Shattuck graduated and went off to college at Princeton.

Then, in the fall of 1958, two years after integration, the people of Clinton awakened to a series of explosions. Someone had dynamited the high school.  It was gone.

Instantly, East Tennessee sprang into action.  Nearby Oak Ridge, Clinton’s perennial football rival, opened an old closed school.  Volunteers cleaned and painted.  Within a week, the school was ready.

Buses took Clinton High’s integrated student body to Oak Ridge.  As they emerged, Oak Ridge’s marching band greeted them with Clinton’s alma mater.

The Constitution touches all of us, where we live, every day.  But it means nothing unless good people stand up for it.  In the late 1950’s, the good people of East Tennessee did just that.  May we all be inspired by their example.  And may we always remember the Clinton 12.

END

Money Talks: Of Education and Money and Our Future

Choctaw scholar and educational policy expert Joel Spring (2011) has argued that there are three primary questions at the heart of the politics of education: What knowledge is most worth teaching, what are the best methods and school organization for teaching this knowledge, and what should be the cost of disseminating this knowledge?

It is certainly debatable as to whether American educational policy has ever truly formulated an adequate response to any of these questions with regard to the needs of all students. However,  there is little doubt that questions related to school funding and finance have most recently held center court in both the public and political realms. Policy approaches to school organization and curricular decisions are now seemingly inextricable from the influence of money, and as levels of advocacy and activism have risen on behalf of public schools and teachers, public perception and the realities of inadequate funding require a new approach to school finance.

The human cost of the decades long trend of cost-cutting in educational policy is clear. Competitive salaries and earning potential have been commonly cited as a factor contributing to the high attrition rate for professional educators. Recent statistics reported by the Department of Labor revealed that teachers and school staff are resigning their positions at the highest rate on record (Hackman & Morath, 2018). Although teachers who choose to leave the classroom permanently more frequently attribute their decision to professional frustration and absence of administrative support, issues of educational finance tremendously impact our schools. While the number of teachers with advanced degrees has continued to increase, studies have shown that education professionals earn far less than other professionals with comparable levels of schooling (Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, 2017). However, the issue isn’t only that teachers in states such as Tennessee earned 4.4% less in 2019, even with higher rates of advanced degrees, than they did in 2009. There is growing concern over a projected teacher shortage nationally. Teachers aren’t just leaving the classroom at higher rates, too few prospective educators are walking through the classroom door. Over the last decade, the number of students who completed a teacher preparation program has declined more than 20% and the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in education dropped by 15% from 2005 to 2015 (AACTE, 2018). The reality of poor school funding and low salaries reinforces the perception that teaching is not a financially viable profession.

The problem, however, is more complicated than just the money. The problem for school leaders and researchers is one of educational equity. Inadequate school funding and stagnant wages have long-term detrimental effects upon schools and students. Experienced teachers leaving the profession, unfilled teaching positions, higher teacher-student classroom ratios, organizational instability, and in some cases reliance upon unqualified staff all influence student success and achievement. Unsurprisingly, rural and urban school districts with the highest levels of poverty are impacted the most. For example, schools in Tennessee, which were recently assigned a grade of F for funding level and funding effort in a 2019 report published by the Education Law Center, are experiencing increasing levels of teacher turnover, and local education agencies in both rural and urban settings report lack of adequate funding as a significant challenge. One of every 3 students in Tennessee attends a rural school, giving the state the 5th largest population of rural students in the country; yet, rural school systems have had to withstand the greatest decrease in state educational funding support in the nation (Rural School and Community Trust Report, 2019). Similarly, urban schools in the state are also struggling due to a lack of resources and state funding for the additional teaching and staff positions required to meet the needs of a student population that has grown in both numbers and diversity. In metropolitan areas, teachers earn too little to afford cost of living within their own districts. In rural settings, districts cannot offer salaries high enough to recruit prospective candidates to work in their schools. Understandably, this only feeds the perception that teaching, especially in consideration of the professional demands of the classroom, simply is not worth it.

Too often, policymakers ignore the covert messaging of decisions focused solely upon budgets and accountability measures. The repetitive refrain that schools are failing by politicians and pundits perpetuates the narrative that districts don’t deserve increased funding levels and that money will not fix struggling schools. Indeed, surveys have shown that the national perception of schools is often relatively low; however, respondents’ perception of their own schools in their own communities is frequently very strong. Data from the 2019 PDK poll, which measures attitudes towards public schools, reveals that while the percentage of parents who would rate schools nationally as an A or B continued to drop, 76% responded they would assign an A or B to the school their child attended. Sadly, the same survey indicates on one hand broad support for increased funding and salaries for teachers, while also revealing that a majority of parents and current classroom teachers would advise their own children to choose a career path other than teaching and education.

Schools are being doubly harmed by the power of perception and the resistance of policymakers to pursue funding measures that benefit schools, teachers, and students. In a time when schools graduate more students, prevent more dropouts, and provide more academic options and support to a more diverse student population than ever before, there should be greater impetus on per-pupil expenditures and recruiting and retaining teachers who have both the skill and desire to spend their career working with the children of our communities. Teachers and students deserve more, and research indicates that increasing school spending and teacher pay does indeed result in higher academic achievement and reduced rates of adult poverty for students (Abott et al., 2020; Jackson et al., 2016; Spears, 2020). In Tennessee, where funding and poverty are a statewide concern that cuts across county and district lines, the continued failure to adequately fund schools and increase salaries sends a clear message—in educational policy, money talks. Either we believe kids are worth it or we do not.

 

we don’t need presidential elections to last two plus years….

Along with all Americans, I am bombarded by the media with partisan rhetoric referencing the 2020 elections. While I manage to sift through most of the commentary in order to benefit from a nugget of real news, I am exhausted by the process. It seems to me that our representatives are primarily concerned with their reelection campaign, that begins almost immediately after their election. Members of the House of Representatives for example never stop raising money and campaigning even though for them the election comes every two years.

 

The founders who drafted Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution undoubtedly had no idea that the campaign for a two-year term would continue without respite throughout the Congressperson’s length of service. U.S. Senators, after the passage of the 17thamendment, are required to run statewide and often feel the pressures associated with a prolonged campaign. Moreover, senators frequently find themselves concentrating on the forthcoming presidential election in support of the party’s nominee. Is it fair to ask, who is conducting the people’s business while those responsible are engaged in helter-skelter campaigning?

 

The campaign for the November 2020 election began almost two years in advance of the actual election. Various House and Senate committees are busy investigating and finger-pointing rather than debating the important issues of the day. The debate, if it has any substance, seems to be carried on in the public arena as part of the electioneering associated with the next election. Compromise has always been a part of the American legislative process and has served the American people well for over two and a half centuries. However, the negative campaigning has made compromise a dirty word. While it is important to put the issues before the electorate, is it not possible to make the campaigns shorter and less exhaustive for both candidates and the voters? I for one hope so.

 

Other democratic societies seem to be able to conduct their elections within a few months while ours seem to go on and on for years – never stopping. The expense is mind-boggling. Apparently, outsiders are meddling in and influencing our elections. Surely, that is a threat to our system of democracy. The longer these campaigns go on the more opportunities are available to our adversaries. By the time these lengthy campaigns conclude most of our elected officials are tarnished and smeared so completely that our confidence in them is eroded. Rough-and-tumble political campaigns have always been a part of the American political system and in general that is a healthy process. However, all civility seems to be lost in a world of email bombardment, tweets and social media. I look forward to a return to a positive and optimistic campaign. I am reminded of Franklin Roosevelt’s optimistic statement at the height of the depression “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Unfortunately, positive, optimistic and abbreviated campaigns are disappearing from the American experience.

A New Museum, A New Perspective

by Charles Hubbard

Recently the country has engaged in a vigorous debate about the treatment and interpretation of Civil War artifacts.   The treatment and use of the Confederate battle flag has elevated the discussion into the public policy arena. Statues of Confederate leaders and soldiers for over a century dotted the ground surrounding public buildings and parks.   Other symbols and memorials dedicated to remembering the so-called “lost cause” provoked debate and legislation in several state legislatures. Public historians and museums are grappling with the question of how best to interpret the Civil War so that the public appreciates the impact of the war on contemporary American society.

On May 4, 2019 the new American Civil War Museum in Richmond Virginia opened to the general public. Richmond has always been an essential destination for Civil War buffs, enthusiast, historians and scholars. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and the surrounding area was the site of over 40% of the battles during the Civil War. The new $25 million facility is located along the historic James riverfront and includes ruins of the Tredegar Ironworks. Certainly, the remains of the destroyed Ironworks where slaves produced canons of the Confederacy is a fitting place to reinterpret the war. The permanent exhibit includes over 500 artifacts including Robert E Lee’s hat, along with many tattered battle flags from both sides of the conflict. The first gallery in the museum includes a spectacular exhibit of the Henry House which was blown to pieces during the first battle of Bull Run. The widow Henry was killed when she refused to leave her house as the battle raged around her. The exhibits deliver the message that the American Civil War touched all Americans, white, black, North, South, Native Americans, and recent immigrants. The legacy of the Civil War reflects both the cultural diversity and inclusiveness that is the American experience.

The new Museum is the result of a merger between the 120-year-old Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center. Both institutions coexisted in Richmond for years even though both focused on the Civil War. Chisty S. Coleman the director of the Civil War Center and S. Waite Rawls, III Director of the Museum of the Confederacy, after lengthy discussions, agreed to merge the museums and present a more comprehensive and historically correct interpretation of the war and the social revolution it created. The Museum of the Confederacy traditionally supported Confederate apologist and a conscious decision was made to abandon the “Lost Cause” while still maintaining respect for courage of the Confederate soldier. Efforts are underway to digitize and make available the extraordinary archival material that includes private papers of numerous Confederate political and military leaders as well as the personal correspondence and diaries of southern citizens to further explain the passion and emotions of Southerners during and after the war.

The American Civil War Museum will continue to generate further debate and discussion, but perhaps the stories revealed in these galleries is the best way to incorporate the contributions of the Civil War into our personal understanding of the overall American experience.