It’s too late to post anything for credit–that deadline passed Wednesday–but I am in the process of revising next fall’s Contemporary American Literature course. I’m likely to replace Salvage the Bones with Sing, Unburied, Sing, but additional suggestions are welcome!
In Larry Brown’s brilliant novel Dirty Work, the protagonist, Walter James, shares a dozen anecdotes that reveal the violence from his past. The bloodshed starts early. As a first grader, he gets his nose smacked and his grape Nehi stolen by the class bully. Walter doesn’t fight back. He goes home to his mother seeking sympathy. Instead, she tells him this:
If you don’t take up for yourself in this world, there ain’t nobody else that will. If you let him run over you once, he’s gonna run over you again. The next time he sees you, he’s gonna run over you again. Cause now he knows he can. So you got to teach him right now he can’t. Either now or the next time, it don’t matter. Is he bigger than you?. . .Well, I guess you gonna have to just pick you up a stick, ain’t you?
Mississippi parents still tell their kids things like this all the time. “You better not start a fight at school, but if somebody starts a fight with you, I expect you to finish it.” We tend not to want our children to have to rely on systems we don’t entirely trust to protect themselves. (Whether this is a stronger indictment of education or the law is hard to tell.)
While discussing this passage in class, students expressed varying levels of tolerance for bullying. Some students agreed absolutely with the mother. In light of yesterday’s school shooting in Colorado, it seems easy to wish for playground fights rather than active shooter emergencies. Of course, that’s a false dichotomy borne of nostalgia. The broader issue seems to be this: in a society that’s saturated with violence, how do we encourage children to stand up for themselves?
I’ve been interested in and amused by plans that Democratic presidential candidates have been floating for making a college education more affordable. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan involves offering all those who currently hold student loans $50,000 of amnesty. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, which some conservatives find scary. My objection to the plan lies in the belief that it would cause eventual (and massive) increases in the cost of obtaining a higher education. When colleges find out that students will be able to borrow an additional $50k, do you expect them to freeze tuition and other costs? If so, I’ve got a bridge in Tibbee to sell you.
However, a more conservative qualm to Warren’s plan involves fairness. As Dan Meagan puts it in theatlantic.com, cultural conservatives have a fundamental problem with the way that it penalizes people who do things the proper way:
Consider a hypothetical comparison of two people who graduated from college five years ago with equal amounts of debt. Jessie successfully implemented a plan to pay off the debt in five years, while Sam still has much to repay. Warren’s plan forgives Sam’s debt, but offers nothing to Jessie, despite her industriousness and self-discipline. To add insult to injury, Jessie must contribute tax dollars to the $640 billion fund necessary to forgive outstanding loans, including Sam’s.
In this example, Jessie would rightfully feel put upon. More broadly speaking, conservatives have an understanding of what fair that relies on proportionality. If you put something into a system, you have the right to expect something out of it. This is the way Social Security and Medicare work. People perceive that it’s fair.
So, here’s the challenge: how can you have a plan that eases student debts but appeals to a sense of fairness that many people share?
Graduation lurks one calendar month away. There’s so much I’d like to discuss–the Mueller Report, the Mississippi State Auditor’s assessment of how we spend too much money on administrative expenses, the brain drain and Mississippi–but I’m going for the low-hanging fruit first: seniors, please tell the juniors something you wish you knew twelve months ago. On the flip side, juniors, feel free to ask for advice on surviving and thriving your last year at MSMS.
I have a confession: I was a good test taker and a terrible student. As late as my second year of college, if the weather pleased me, or if some event drew my attention, I would cut class and do what mattered to me.
I made a few Cs as a result.
But I also managed to retain sanity throughout the most stressful moments of my education. I focused on the classes that interested me most, figured out how to make grades I could live with in the others, and proceeded from there. Part of me does not want my students to follow such a pattern. Part of me does, and here’s why: instead of knowing what interests them, I see way too many students fool themselves into believing that making As is what interests them. An A can be a wonderful achievement. However, it seems a hollow one when it isn’t tethered to a larger goal.
Be deliberate. “Advance confidently in the direction of your dreams.” “Be bold, but not too bold.” Be more than your grades and your standardized test scores.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently presented a budget to Congress that would eliminate funding for Special Olympics. “We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget,” she told legislators recently. She added that the success of the Special Olympics program should enable it to make up for the $17.6 million cut through its own fundraising.
The cut saves taxpayers approximately the same amount as five presidential trips to Mar-a-Lago. DeVos and the administration she represents drew a conclusion remarkably out of touch with the realities of most Americans, particularly those who support children with special needs. Having said that, I do not envy the policy makers who have to decide how to fund education. The economy is a twisted zero-sum game. Want to spend more money on university-level research programs? Great! Shall we take cash from elementary reading programs to provide it? Well. . .hang on a minute.
Of course, the government’s biggest mathematical problem involves figuring out ways to pay for entitlement programs. It’s not like we can tell retired septuagenarians that the checks won’t be coming any more. This administration’s specific problem involves its funding priorities. If you ran the government, how would you balance spending on defense, health, and education?
As tempting as it may be to blog during class, I consider it bad form. Also, unless you’re highly proficient at multi-tasking, you’re not really getting the material being covered while you blog.
On to another topic: callout culture, which is the practice of publicly denouncing the biases of others. Chelsea Clinton recently attended a vigil in New York for the victims of the mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. On her way there, students from a local university accosted her for being contributing to islamophobia. Her crime? Expressing support for a congressional resolution against anti-Semitism.
The logic of Clinton’s detractors is a thin potation of name calling and conspiracy theory logic. It points to a broader, identity-based cultural issue: the inclination to “shame” people for having opinions that differ from our own. I see it as something that cuts against the grain of our nation’s great experiment in democracy, which largely involves listening to a broad plurality of voices to find the great middle way that does the greatest good for the greatest number.
Ponder this during the last nine weeks of the semester: some of you will attend colleges that admit students whose admission resulted from their parents’ strenuous–perhaps illegal–efforts to place them there, rather than on the merits of their own labors.
It isn’t fair.
It isn’t a surprise.
Parents will do amazing things to ensure the well-being of their offspring, from rewarding uninspired doodles with a place on the fridge to spending boatloads of cash on college admissions counselors. Such actions spring up from a natural impulse to see their kids do well. However, at what point do those parents cross the line between being pushy and doing too much? If you could counsel those parents about the best ways to encourage a child’s happiness and success, what would you tell them?
Recent legislation to improve school safety not only involves active shooter drills and required training sessions for teachers, but also an expansion of the way schools and police scrutinize social media postings. Civil Libertarians fear that the latter provision takes us one step farther down the primrose path to a police state. However, I also know that things have changed from my high school days, when “school violence” meant a fight in the cafeteria.
I’m curious: if students were to draft legislation regarding school safety, what would they prioritize?
Imagine a state where medical professionals had immediate access to information that would assist in diagnosing health issues. Imagine a state where science reduced the likelihood of wrongful prosecution and imprisonment. Imagine a state where all citizens could know with the click of a button where the branches of their family trees extended. DNA databases can provide all these benefits–and, perhaps, just as many threats. Civil libertarians have sounded the alarm on proposed legislation in Arizona would require a wide range of public employees–and recently deceased bodies that come into the possession of local medical examiners–to provide DNA samples. Their forced contributions to DNA databases would be invaluable to researches, but would turn some facets of jurisprudence upside down. What risks to civil liberties do DNA databases present? Do they outweigh the benefits? Does a person have the right to keep his DNA private? Do dead people have any rights regarding the use of their DNA?