If you're reading my new mystery novel, "The Cat Came Back," you'll notice some jazz tunes spoken about and quoted throughout the text. Here are some versions of the tunes, to give you some music to read by...
I was wrong. I thought we were in agreement on the Big
Things, and the fights and debates were about details, the how-do-you-get-there
stuff. I thought we were on the same page about what America IS and what America
is FOR. I was wrong.
I was wrong—and I think that’s why this election has been so
difficult for me, and for so many other people. It revealed something I hadn’t
seen before. Maybe I was too dumb to see it, or too sheltered and bubbled. I
don’t know. But I’m seeing it now.
I thought America was for anyone who believed in and adopted
the core beliefs of the country, as put down by the authors of the Declaration
of Independence and the Constitution—with, perhaps, some Thoreau, Whitman,
Emerson, and Lincoln thrown in for good measure. I was raised to believe that
those core beliefs were what made us American.
It’s not surprising that I was raised to believe this. My
great-grandparents were immigrants, and were so committed to the project of
becoming Americans that, within two generations, any stories or memories they
had of the “old world” were forever lost to the family.
I was raised to believe that our core beliefs—and nothing
else—were what made us Americans—that being American was (unlike being Greek, or
French, or Irish, or Chinese) not about having a unique ethnicity or culture or
rituals, not about having a deep history of peoplehood tied to a unique and particular
place—that being American was an identity that was open to anyone.
Of course, there were caveats and hold-on-a-minutes laced all
throughout that set of childhood beliefs, things I had to encounter and deal
with as I got older—like the fact that there was a group who had a “deep
history of peoplehood,” here, who our forefathers slaughtered. But even as a
cynical teenager, I felt strongly that the failings were things we could fix—things
we would fix—things that our core
beliefs would simply not allow to continue existing. So, fine: Jefferson may
not have thought of black men when he said “all men are created equal.” But having
said it, it could never be unsaid,
and it would eventually force us to do the right thing. The more we read and
spoke and believed the words, the more they would transform us into the New
People and the New Nation we wanted to be. The belief in those words made us
who we were. They were our catechism; our dogma; our civic religion.
But I was wrong. Or—I wasn’t wrong in believing those
things; I was wrong in thinking we all
believed those things. I thought even the worst of us believed those things,
but also—at the same time—held racist or sexist or xenophobic attitudes that contradicted
those beliefs, creating an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. There are probably
people about whom that is true. But there are also people who just flat-out disagree
with everything I’ve written. They believe that America is for the Caucasian
Europeans who first claimed and stole this land from its native population—that
the history of the country should place those people front and center (not just
in the early chapters, but in every chapter), and that the culture of the
country should be deeply centered in and defined by the cultures of the English
and northern European peoples who filled Independence Hall, 200+ years ago. Now
Columnist Pat Buchanan makes his America First (and White
America even more-first) feelings very clear.
America was, is, and must remain a “Western, Christian country.” People who are
neither Western nor Christian can live in the country, of course, and be
citizens here, but they can’t really own
it like he can. For Buchanan, the American identity has nothing to do with our
founding documents or our laws. There’s an American identity that existed
before those documents were ever written, and has a deeper, more profound
importance. Of course, as someone of Irish descent, Pat’s acceptance as a “Western
Christian” would not have been a given, a hundred years ago. But whatever. He’s
in, and the Mexicans are out. He’s in, and the Arabs are out. That’s the way it
should be. Or—he warns us—we can let in all of those non-western and/or
non-Christian folks and utterly lose our country.
We can lose the country, no matter what
those people believe, or desire, or commit their lives to, because they are
the wrong kinds of people.
Ann Coulter, predictably, makes Pat Buchanan sound like
about “Emma Lazarus' insane idea that all countries of the world should send
their losers to us.” Of course she’s a loon, and a professional
bomb-thrower, and all that. But when you hear her words and ideas being echoed
by the new administration, you have to start paying attention. When your new
president decides that only brown-skinned Muslims need watching as “terrorists”—that
no longer has to spend money to keep an eye on white extremists—well, then you
have to deal with the fact that you’re not using the same dictionary as other
people. White people can’t be terrorists in their own land. I guess
mass murderers in America who happen to be white, extremist Christians are
just…protesters? I don’t know.
What I do know is this: I’m not an American because it
pleases my neighbors’ sense of Christian charity and makes them feel
big-hearted and tolerant. No thank you. My ancestors had to live at the
pleasure of kings in one nation after another—never citizens, never under the
protection of the law, always disposable when their presence became a problem. Their
gravestones are in Yiddish, no matter what country they lived in, because they
were kept so isolated—and were driven out so regularly—that it was never an
advantage to learn the native language. They were forced to be a nation apart,
with no home in the world—and were then held under eternal suspicion because
they didn’t truly belong, anywhere they lived. That is not going to happen
So Pat, Ann, Donald: this isn’t your country, just because
you love Jesus. This isn’t your country, just because you don’t tan well. This
isn’t your country, just because your relatives got here before mine. This is your country, God help us, but it’s
It’s mine, not just because I was born here, but because I
signed on the dotted line and said YES to the things that our best dreamers wrote
and dreamed and believed: YES to, “All men are created equal;” YES to, “Consent
of the governed;” YES to the first amendment (and the second, and the third…);
YES to, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” And, while
we’re at it: YES to, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist;” YES to, “I
went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately;” YES to those “huddled
masses, yearning to breathe free;” YES to, “I got to light out for the
Territory ahead of the rest;” YES to, “I celebrate myself and sing
myself;” and YES to leaning forward to the, “next crazy venture beneath the
Those are my articles of faith. Those are my non-negotiables.
What are yours?
So. Betsy DeVos will be our new Secretary of Education. Every
educator I know is freaked out about the fact and what it portends for public
education in this country. Will she use her power to divert public moneys to
private and religious schools? (Definitely.) Will she preside over the complete
dismantling of the Department of Education? (Who knows?) Will her actions bake
racial and class segregation even more deeply into our educational system?
Freedom of individual choice does not sit comfortably alongside
equality. We value both, but they often work against each other. The more we
enforce equality of inputs and resources, the more likely we are to constrain
individual choice. The more we empower individual freedom, the more likely we
are to end up with un-equal outputs. It’s a difficult balancing act.
Democracy is hard because we are maddeningly inconsistent. We
talk about the importance of individuality, freedom, and choice, but our
advocacy kind of depends on the thing we’re choosing. The Right believes firmly
in individual choice when it comes to guns, schools, and health care, but
stands firmly against personal choice when it comes to things like family planning.
The Left is exactly the opposite.
Individual liberty is obviously an important part of what
makes us Americans. But where to put the boundary between the rights of the
individual and the needs of society has been a tricky issue. It’s something our
founders thought hard about, and it’s something that has troubled thinkers and
authors through the ages. John
Stuart Mill, writing in 1869, said:
As soon as any part of a person's
conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction
over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be
promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no
room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the
interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they
like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of
understanding). In all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and
social, to do the action and stand the consequences.
This is why the rights to and limits of individual choice are
moving targets. There are personal decisions that, in 1869 or even 1939, would
have affected no persons besides yourself--which, today, would absolutely
affect other people. We force every driver to wear a seat belt and buy
automobile insurance. We didn’t used to. Why are those limits to free action
necessary now? Because today we are so pressed up against each other that every
stupid action any one of us makes in a car will have consequences that affect
other people, either directly (you hitting me) or indirectly (my rates going up
because too many people are terrible drivers, or my taxes going up because too
many people in too many road accidents have no insurance and have to go to the
Individual freedom to make choices about children’s education
was severely limited in the middle of the 19th century, when compulsory
public schooling was introduced. At the time, some children went to school;
some did not. Some children were educated at home by parents or tutors; some
simply went to work. Some girls were taught the same things as boys; some girls
weren’t taught how to read. It was very much a family-based decision, based on
the values and needs of the family. The government decided that the needs of
the industrial revolution and a rapidly diversifying population required some
kind of Assimilation Machine that would spit out functional, employable Americans,
regardless of what was fed into it. Which is why some families greeted the
introduction of compulsory schooling with a snarl and a shotgun. They weren’t
fighting to maintain their children’s ignorance; they were fighting for the
right to make their own choices. Bad choices, you might say. Choices motivated
by fear, racism, and xenophobia, you might say. But still: their choices.
A hundred and fifty years later, astonishingly, the fight
goes on. Many parents want to send their children to private schools, religious
schools, home schools—whatever kind of school they want-- and they want public
moneys to pay for the choices they make, so that educational decisions aren’t just
a privilege of wealth. Some of those choices are motivated by a fierce devotion
to a good education and the feeling that their current options are limited and
sub-standard. And some of those choices may well be motivated by things like
fear, racism, and xenophobia.
So: their children; our society. Who gets to make the
It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? On the one hand, we know that public
schooling in this country has been a great equalizer, a way for children from
different backgrounds, nationalities, and cultures to some together and become
One People. On the other hand, our current generation values diversity and
individuality over conformity, and many people fear the whole idea of
assimilating into some “norm,” whether it’s a capitalist, consumerist,
media-soaked kind of norm or a secularist, humanist, one-worldist kind of norm.
On the one hand, a public school is a
place to inculcate the core ideals and values of a culture. On the other hand,
families have their own core ideals and values, and should have the ability to
protect their children from ideas they don’t believe in.
Or should they? Where is the line between public and
private? The shrinking of our world makes it a very complicated problem. A
hundred years ago, you could grow up thinking and believing any wacky thing as
your parents might want you to believe, and it would have limited public consequences.
Basically, your education would affect just you, and perhaps a small group of your
friends and co-workers. Now, with social networking and with people changing
jobs and home cities, you and your ideas may touch and affect hundreds, perhaps
thousands or millions of other people. To what extent should government care
about the effect of weird, bad, diverse schooling on the public at large?
And to what extent should government care about you--little old, individual you? When
you are a minor, your parents get to make choices about your life. Should there
any limits to that, for your own protection? Should you, as a minor, be
protected from your parents’ bad choices? And if so, who gets to say which
choices are bad?
When I was teaching in New York City, the department of
education created a wide array of magnet middle and high schools, to provide
some measure of choice without succumbing to charter schools or handing out
vouchers. Every parent got a thick book in the spring, listing every possible
school. Parents made their choices, and some computer algorithm figured out who
would go where. But some parents chose not to choose. They let their children
go to their regularly zoned, neighborhood school. And what happened? The better
students went to small, magnet schools, all over the city. The students with
more educated parents went there as well. The students with engaged, activist
parents went there. The students whose parents paid attention and cared went
there. And, by and large, whoever was left over ended up at the zoned school.
And who was left over? The kids whose parents chose not to
choose, or didn’t know how to choose, or were too busy, distracted, or
un-informed to know that the choice mattered. Choosing not to choose was
unmistakably a bad idea; the old, zoned schools became depositories of the
least motivated, hardest to educate children, staffed by teachers who lacked
the seniority to transfer elsewhere.
Is that all right? In a system where parents get to choose
what’s right for their children’s education, is there any role for
“nanny-state-ism,” any role for the government—local, state, or federal—to say that
certain choices are off the table because they will harm the child—for his own
sake and on behalf of the larger society of which he will someday be a part?
From the most brutalist, Libertarian, Ayn Rand position,
you’d say No—there is no role for government. If you’re too stupid to make good
choices for your children, then they will fail and you will fail, and good
riddance to the whole bunch of you. Excellence and strength should be allowed
to rise, and weakness should be culled from the herd through its own bad
actions. It’s the same position Jerry Seinfeld referenced when joking about
motorcycle helmet laws.
This is the position that values individual freedom to act over pretty much any
other social good, because it sees extreme individualism as the greatest social good. It’s an extreme position, and you can
easily imagine more moderate versions of it.
From the most collectivist, social-welfare-oriented
position, you’d say Yes—there is a role for government to put forth rules and
set legally binding and enforceable limits on behalf of the health and welfare
of minors. This is the position that values equity and the health of the
community over individual freedom. For the good of all of us, individuals have
to be protected from their worst impulses and decisions. This, too, has extreme
and more moderate versions.
When we’ve worked well as a society, we’ve found ways to
move to the middle and honor both sides of the equation, providing choice but
also accountability to standards of what Good looks like. Unfortunately, we’re not
in a very moderate or understanding frame of mind, these days. We’ve come to
believe that the life of the republic is a zero-sum game; only one side can be
right, and each side, thinking it’s allied with God, must fight the forces of
evil to the death.
That is a lie, and it is nonsense, and it will eventually destroy
us. That much seems obvious to me. I wish it seemed obvious to more people.
"If you want to
build a ship...teach [people] to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
There was a joke I used to hear quite often, growing up. In
the joke, a Jewish synagogue (Reform, like the one I went to) is plagued by an infestation
of rats, and the congregation can’t seem to get rid of the pests, no matter
what they do. They try poison, they try traps, they try sonar, they try cats—nothing.
Finally, the rabbi comes to president of the congregation and says he can help.
He stands in the middle of the sanctuary, raises his arms in benediction, and utters
some prayers in Hebrew. Then he turns to head back to his office. “Wait a
minute!” the president says. “That’s it? What did you do?” “I gave the rats a Bar Mitzvah,” the rabbi
said. “You’ll never see them in here again.”
The joke definitely rang true for my generation. Once we had
gone through the obligatory lessons and delivered our obligatory prayers and
speeches, most of us had no desire to hang around for…whatever. There didn’t
seem to be anything worth hanging around for. We had learned all there was to
learn, and most of it held little meaning or relevance to us. It was dumb. It
was kid-stuff. We were over it.
Of course, we didn’t know what we didn’t know—a cognitive
lapse that now has a name to help us define and describe it: the Dunning-Kruger
Effect. The effect explains why the least knowledgeable and least competent
among us are often the most confident: we simply don’t know any better. With limited
horizons, we think we can see the ends of the earth. And we are wrong.
Fortunately, in my generation of suburban, assimilated Jews,
many of us made our way back to temple, or at least to a library, and discovered
that there was far more to our history, our culture, and our faith than what we
were taught as children. And the same is true of many people who find the core
subjects they study in high school and college to be a snooze, but who wind up,
in their 30s and 40s, as history buffs or passionate readers of Neil Degrasse
Tyson. It’s a version of the quote attributed (perhaps apocryphally)
to Mark Twain:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand
to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how
much he had learned in seven years.
What informs the joke is precisely the Dunning-Kruger
Effect. What it’s really saying is: when I was a boy of 14, I was a bloody genius.
But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how little I knew.
The more we learn, the more we understand that there’s more
to learn. Unfortunately, (though I hate to disagree with Antoine de
Saint-Exupéry), you can’t really teach people to “yearn for the vast and
endless sea” if they aren’t aware there is
a vast and endless sea. You can’t make people hungry for something they don’t
know exists. If you don’t keep learning, you’ll be just as convinced of your
brilliance at 21, 31, and 41 as you were at 14.
What does this mean for us as educators? It’s hard enough to
get students to grasp the academic content we’re cramming into our curriculum. There
is so much to teach, so much to learn, so much to do, and there’s never enough
time. What’s missing, I think, and what we need, isn’t more stuff to teach. It’s
an awareness in our students of how much else is out there, how much we’re not going to teach them today. Senior
year—of high school or college—isn’t supposed to be the end of your education,
with a sharp break between Learning (what you’re done with) and Doing (the
series of jobs you’re about to start); it’s supposed to be the end of your
introduction to the great, wide world, and the beginning of an adult life of exploration
and discovery. Our students need to know that what we’re bringing them is just
a drop in the bucket.
How do we let them know that? Well, first of all, we have to know it. We have to know and
love our subject matter far beyond the limits of what’s in the textbook or the
curriculum map. We have to know how what’s in
the course connects to what’s outside
the course, so that we can make hints and references to the Great Beyond all the time. We have to tantalize our
students with the richness and depth and breadth of what’s out there. Instead
of apologizing for having to teach them so much (whether we do so out loud or
just in our minds), we need to be apologizing for teaching them so little of what there actually is to
know. We have to bring bits and pieces of grown-up level knowledge to their
attention, even it’s a little above their heads—whether it’s piece of a Brian Greene video on wormholes or
string theory, or a few pages from Stephen Jay Gould’s exposé
of how racism infected 19th century science; whether it’s a scene
from Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,
or a scene from Ken Burn’s epic series on the Civil War.
We err grievously by dumbing-down academic content for our
students and pre-chewing their food for them. The simpler, more straightforward,
more black-and-white we make our material, the less valuable, interesting, and
intriguing it becomes to students, and the less compelled they feel to engage
with it within the classroom, much
less beyond it. Yes, we need to teach them the basics, the fundamentals, the
core skills. Yes, they need to walk before they can run. But we also, from time
to time, need to dazzle them—awe them—blow their minds—with a true picture of
what lies beyond the ABCs and 123s, so that they get a sense of what running feels like—so that they know what’s worth
The world is built to support self-service learning in such
profoundly different ways than I grew up with. Whole universes are out there,
in the cloud, for the taking. It’s our job to point at things they haven’t seen
yet—things that are strange, perplexing, confusing, amazing—and say “LOOK!”