Americans are below average

Honoring the teachers of America. National edu...

Honoring the teachers of America. National education association; 1857-1957. United States postage, 3 cents (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Speaking of thought or the lack of it in the United States at present, the OECD Survey of Adult Skills has found that American adults are, as a group, below average in both literacy and “numeracy”, or math.

What is most disturbing is how poorly young adults in America are faring. A summary of the survey states, “American 55-65 year-olds perform around the average, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the 24 countries surveyed.”

How to account for this? The report makes clear that young people in Finland are doing far better, near the top, in both literacy and math skills. And lately the Finnish system of public education has been getting a lot of press. The Finns have mandated smaller class sizes, increased teacher pay (and prestige) while requiring that teachers earn Master’s degrees. In other words, Finland has invested in the public school system and is willing to pay teachers what they are worth in exchange for high standards of teacher education and classroom effectiveness.

Privatization, standardized testing, cutting funding is not the Finnish way, and the results are quite remarkable. Wisconsin under Gov. Walker is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to education, reducing the money and morale of Wisconsin’s public school teachers as it pursues ever more ways of increasing aid to private schools. It is the direction that is all too common across the nation. So it is no wonder, really, our young are below average, when so many of the older adults in charge are in need of an education about education.

The Rise of Thoughtlessness

I’ll start with a few lines from a poem by Wendell Berry, one of the nation’s best authors (recently interviewed by Bill Moyers), a writer who is also a draft-horse using farmer in Kentucky. The lines are the first stanza of an untitled poem from Berry’s recent book, Leavings:

If we have become a people incapable

of thought, then the brute-thought

of mere power and mere greed

will think for us.

We don’t have to go far to find examples of the sort of “brute-thought” or thoughtlessness Berry warns us of.

Local “talk radio” makes a profit peddling such thoughtlessness, a brand of political analysis we could call anti-public intellectualism or, more accurately, public anti-intellectualism. And we now have a website, “Right Wisconsin”,    which is said to be “powered by Charlie Sykes” but was created and funded by the Journal Broadcast Group, part of the mainstream media corporation, Journal Communications, which also owns the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The website claims that Sykes offers “intelligent commentary and analysis.” But up on the site today are two photographs of the Democratic candidate for governor, Mary Burke, and some sexist analysis about an extreme makeover.  No judge of intelligence, it seems.

The Journal Sentinel is the Milwaukee area’s only major daily newspaper, and as such it likely feels the need to provide space for columnists and op-ed writers who cater to the generally conservative and well-off suburban readers. The Journal Sentinel is, of course, not alone in this seeking of “balance” and “fairness;” most mainstream media organizations– print or digital– do not want the “liberal media” label, even though most professional journalists tend to be rather rational and sympathetic due to the higher education (“critical thinking skills”) journalists receive. Yet, it’s been a long time since the executives of most mainstream media have been a really liberal or progressive bunch of people.

The business of journalism has lately trumped the intelligence of journalism. Fox News is the epitome of this conservative trend, so much so that it is a full-time job for one media watchdog to debunk the constant stream of propaganda. The Journal Sentinel is no Fox News, nor is it merely a conservative mouthpiece, despite endorsing Gov. Walker twice. Its editorials are often intelligent and thoughtful denouncements of power and greed. And yet the newspaper seems determined to promote the sort of “tea party” thoughtlessness in the interest of . . . well, what exactly?

Take, for instance, two pieces that appeared in last Sunday’s JS Crossroads section.

In his column, newly hired JS columnist Christian Schneider tries to justify what some Republicans in the House of Representatives are doing (demanding a delay to improved health care under the ACA by refusing to fund the government) by looking at past shutdowns (not really applicable) and reminding readers of what Wisconsin Democrats in the State Legislature did (go to Illinois to protest a rather heavy-handed, anti-state public employee bill, a bill that had not yet passed. No one lost necessary services when the Democrats fled.) Schneider also accuses Senate Democrats of “demagoguery” for refusing to fund (the NIH) what Republicans have cut funding for in the past and denied access to (along with everything else) by shutting down the government in the first place. Such “logic” is worthy of a conservative “blogger”, but we should expect more from a newspaper columnist.

Bernie Ziebart writes about how “addicted” we have become to government programs by beginning with a mythical America, a  “land of opportunity” for all where we all were “free to fail.” Perhaps some white, Protestant males did indeed discover a land of opportunity, but America was also a land of power and greed right from the beginning, as Native Americans, African slaves, indentured servants, Catholics, Jews, women and some children certainly suffered here for quite some time, either through plain starvation, poverty, plantation slavery and disease or through the “brute-thought” of our industrial system, racial and religious prejudice, patriarchal injustice and labor exploitation. This is simply history. The role of government in the United States has been, at its best, to recognize injustice and legislate against it. Ziebart’s “rugged individualism” was best espoused by Jeffersonian agrarianism, but Jefferson was not naïve enough to think that a democratic government should have no regulating role. And it was Jefferson who advocated for a limited public school system, not to hook Americans on government but to provide for, at no cost, a thinking and thoughtful populace, at least for young white males. Even Jefferson’s idea of democracy was not broad enough.

Thomas Jefferson did not believe it was possible to be both ignorant and free, and the rise of “tea party” conservatism, despite all its talk of freedom, is a symptom of a growing ignorance that is degrading our system of government, as well as our system of education and American journalism. So it’s time for our democratic institutions to raise their standards of thought and truth, go back to school, and put the stuff and nonsense in its place. Democracy does not mean we must accept and give credence to stupidity and greed; it means we should speak out clearly against unchecked power and greed, expect our various governments to speak and act in kind, while treating all Americans (and everyone else) humanely.

The New Wisconsin Idea: Heal Thyself

English: Great Seal of the state of Wisconsin

English: Great Seal of the state of Wisconsin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When asked what the federal government should do to resolve the current government shutdown, Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker suggested that the feds should act more like Wisconsin and other states:

“I think not just in Wisconsin but in states across the country there’s a lot of  governors and lawmakers in both parties who wish the folks in Washington in both  parties would act more like the states and less like our nation’s capital.”

But Wisconsin, along with 25 other states, has chosen not to take federal funds to expand Medicaid. And as the NY Times reports, this has created a coverage gap that even with the implementation of the ACA will leave some 8 million Americans without any access to health care coverage. Despite Gov. Walker’s bipartisan spin, it is, of course, a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives, along with House Speaker John Boehner, who are seeking to undo or delay implementation of a law that would at least make our health care system a bit more humane and more affordable.  Wisconsin is now governed by a totally Republican regime which makes cooperation and the passing of bills quite easy.

Ironically, the “tea party” faction in the House is actually attempting to follow Wisconsin’s lead, acting as if it were in control in order to save the nation, they claim, from what was originally a conservative health care plan.  That the ACA is already law and is already up and running seems not to concern them.

Gov. Walker, remember, is the fellow who deleted Milwaukee’s voter-approved paid-sick-leave ordinance by creating a “state preemption” law in 2011, a law that became, according to PR Watch, the ALEC-approved blueprint for similar state laws blocking local governments from awarding paid sick leave. The idea of paying some of our lowest paid people to stay home when they are ill or care for sick children was just too generous a notion for certain lobbyists and politicians to stomach. The proposed federal Healthy Families Act, which would provide for up to seven days of paid sick leave for all employed Americans has not as yet passed, but at least some in Congress prefer not to use Wisconsin as a model of humane governance.

We can compare the undoing of heath care (and other liberal notions) of Gov. Walker and the Republican Legislature to what the Progressive Gov. Francis McGovern accomplished, along with the state Legislature, in Wisconsin back in 1911. As the Wisconsin Historical Society succinctly puts it:

“The 1911 legislature created a model workers’ compensation law to protect people injured on the job. It passed laws to regulate factory safety, encouraged the formation of cooperatives, established a state income tax, formed a state life insurance fund, limited working hours for women and children, and passed forest and waterpower conservation acts.”

Wisconsin’s Progressive Era was clearly a moment of protecting the health and welfare of both people and nature. A hundred years later we now find ourselves governed by an anti-democratic, ultra-capitalistic, every man (but especially every woman and child) for himself ideology. Do we now have a healthier, happier state? If we look closely at our inner-city and rural communities, their general decline and pockets of real poverty, I think we can see that Wisconsin could use a lot more government investment in the places that need it most. And what is Wisconsin leading the nation towards? An austerity that protects the wealthy and the fortunate while reducing services and programs for everyone else, a state that invests in open-pit mining while doing all it can to limit clean energy and conservation. So while we are all doing the best we can to heal ourselves and our communities, we ought not to neglect how our current state government is working to undermine the public and the public trust.

Wisconsin would do well to heed Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, Indiana

Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, Indiana (Photo credit: David Marshall. CC, some rights reserved via Wikipedia. Click photo for copyright information.)

As Wisconsin prepares for the possibility of witnessing the desecration of the Penokee Hills and Bad River watershed, thanks to a proposed iron ore open-pit mine of vast proportions, the first post of this new domain is a link to the recent  interview Bill Moyers conducted with the poet, writer and farmer Wendell Berry.

Berry has been a long-time opponent of just the sort of “mountain-top removal” mining the North Woods can expect if the mine is built. The difference is that the ore-bearing mountains of Wisconsin, unlike the coal-seam mountains of Kentucky’s Appalachian Range, will become huge anti-mountains, deep craters that will turn the earth into the moon and pollute the water.

Full Show: Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet.