November 20, 2022

John Thompson: History and the Long Road Here

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John Thompson reflects on the long road to the last election and the current state of education policy debates.

How do we make sense of the last six years, and how do we figure out what we do next?

I’m wrestling with the dilemmas intertwined with the wisdom of Michelle Obama: When they go low, We go high.

To go high, we must wrestle with the irrational and anti-Semitic statements of Kanye West. We must confront the MAGA right wing propaganda while also responding to his words, “Hurt people hurt people – and I was hurt.”

I was born in the middle of the luckiest generation in history. My first memory is a metaphor for the opportunities that were bestowed on Baby Boomers, that have been in decline. I was “twaddling” across the living room to the “win-dome” when adults were watching television, and they exploded with joy. The news, I was told later, was that the polio vaccine had been released!

Our parents’ generation survived the Great Depression and World War II, they were committed to our generation having far greater opportunities. Time after time, when I walked somewhere, worked with neighbors, and played with their children, I found one mentor after another. I was repeatedly told, “Pay close attention, I’ll only show you once;” reminded that my job at school wasn’t high grades but “Learning how to learn;” and “Your job is to be ‘inner-directed’ not ‘outer-directed’” like those who were “like the Red River, ‘a mile wide and a foot deep.’”

Of course, we felt the uneasiness of neighbors watching the Sputnik satellite cross the night sky, of “duck and cover” drills at school, and the Cuban Missile crisis (which only affected me by the news alerts interrupting the World Series.)

And I was clueless about Jim Crow until we went to a restaurant during the Sit-In movement. The owner directed us to the fancy room where, that evening, prices were not higher than the big serving area, because we shouldn’t have to eat with N—–rs. We shouted to our parents, “You’re not supposed to say that word! Why did he say that word?” My dad tried to remain calm but he exploded, “there’s not a god-damned reason” and tore into the racist owner. It took the full police line to pull my dad off him.

Of course, Oklahoma was incredibly corrupt and my dad would jokingly point out concrete examples such as “the road to Nowhere” (which led to our top oligarch’s property,) the Turner Turnpike, and the photo at church of a Supreme Court Justice who was convicted of bribery in conjunction to with the turnpike and other cases. But, as I began to lobby and/or interview members of the “Greatest Generation,” I realized that that criminal behavior was far more common back then, but their handshakes had to be good. In the last few decades, I asked powerful people if corruption had declined significantly, and whether norms have also dropped. They agreed but, a decade ago, a State Auditor added a disclaimer; so many behaviors by elites that used to be felonies were now legal.

And that gets us to the intertwined forces of the last fifty years that laid the foundation for Trumpism. In the 1970s, rightwing think tanks sold the theory that corporations were only beholden to the share owners, not the stakeholders, the community, and the United States of America. Then, the Reagan administration’s Supply Side Economics quickly wiped out good-paying industrial jobs, which undermined communities, especially in places like rural Oklahoma which became Trumpland.

As the economic pie became more unequal, more hurt people hurt people. The willingness to share declined.  And, eventually, hope declined, and life expectancy dropped for whites who hadn’t attended college, especially in places like eastern Oklahoma.

Rightwing spin masters convinced rural Oklahomans that Reagan “brought America back,” and immigrants and people of color “cut in line” in front of whites.  I plead guilty to being slow to admit the importance of racism in fueling Trumpism. My wife and I have had an Obama bumper sticker on our car since 2008. I don’t recall any rudeness by Oklahomans in response to it.  As soon as we crossed into Texas, and many other states, we’d be shouted at and given the finger.

Since my family came from “Little Dixie,” I was embarrassingly slow in admitting why counties in Southeast Oklahoma instantly turned Republican between 2006 and the 2008 presidential race. Similarly, Oklahoma passed one of the nation’s most punitive immigration laws, and I’d seen large numbers of attacks on Hispanics in our high school. But in my experience, Oklahomans also respected the work ethic and family values of immigrants. I saw our welcoming side until, surprise!, the nonstop anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Muslim propaganda sunk in.

While acknowledging my excessive optimism, I believe we can build on our strengths – the values that gave so much hope to this young Baby Boomer. Given my experience as an inner-city teacher, I will draw on my students’ moral cores. But I see those experiences as metaphors for how we can “go high” when reversing a full range of interconnected economic, social, political, and civility challenges.

Starting with economics, the worship of Free Markets began with Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” Corporate school reformers (like other true believers in the Market) adopted the same mindset, which they called “creative disruption” as the lever for transforming schools and rebuilding them through “venture philanthropy.” They became very skilled at “kicking down the barn,” and attacking teachers, hoping to quickly fire enough teachers (especially Baby Boomers) while training young teachers to obey top-down, teach-to-the-test mandates.

But, both sides of the “Teacher Wars” were bipartisan. Up until three or four years ago, I was very successful working with conservative Republicans who also didn’t trust the “Billionaires Boys Club” which dominated the Bush and Obama education policies. And many or most were angry at other big corporations.

If we could admit that neither Democrats or Republicans stood up to our neoliberal and their conservative funders, we could restart conversations about schools as a public good, not just a Free Market experiment. Then, maybe we could discuss the privatization of health care, the social safety net, and the other institutions on Gov. Stitt’s and other MAGA’s hit list.

Hopefully, Democrats and Republicans could join together in community building; the first step could be full-service community schools, which could also serve as community hubs. We could admit that both sides bought into the simplistic, false meme that teachers, alone, could drive transformative change of our highest-challenge schools.

Of course, teachers deserve more respect. But so do cafeteria ladies, bus drivers, counselors, tutors, parent liaisons, mentors, apprentices, and volunteers. And, sharing the respect and the credit with education teams will also create good will that would assist the dialogue we need.

As the MAGA Republicans ramp up the campaigns for vouchers, we will have new opportunities for bridging differences with rural areas. And, students can lead the way in explaining that accusations of spreading Critical Race Theory and Socialist propaganda are false.

In the late 1990s, during a community discussion about public health, my students asked white participants about the more humane way that Meth, as opposed to crack, was being handled. Perhaps because the students were so polite, the adults didn’t understand that the teenagers were contrasting the cruelty of the War on Drugs during the crack epidemic with the more empathetic public health response to the new, predominantly white epidemic. Afterwards, they told me that the white participants didn’t understand what they were saying, but they had hope for future conversations and, at least, the more humane response to Meth was a first step.

A decade later, Big Pharma profited by promoting Opioid addiction in the MAGA areas, significantly lowering life expectancy for under-educated whites. Rather than condemning “deplorables,” we should have recognized that “Hurt people hurt People.” Now, it won’t be easy, but perhaps we could unite, regulate, and control the corporate dominance that is spreading destruction across the world.

Finally, we must move on from the failed experiment of Creative Disruption. We should build on both, social and cognitive science, as well as what has worked for centuries. After all, teaching is an act of love. Neighborliness can be the driving force for community schools. Defending our children’s schools, as well as privatization battles ranging from public health to global warming, will require cross-generational, cross-cultural discussions. When they go low, we should go high by bringing the full diversity of our communities into schools, and bringing students out into the full diversity of our community.

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