Home > Uncategorized > Fixing Politics and Fixing Schools Require the Same Thing: More Free Time for Parents and Children

Fixing Politics and Fixing Schools Require the Same Thing: More Free Time for Parents and Children

April 12, 2016

David Brooks wrote another maddening column in today’s NYTimes titled “How to Fix Politics”. In the column Brooks laments the demise of “middle ring relationships” which he describes as follows:

…As Marc J. Dunkelman writes in his compelling book “The Vanishing Neighbor,” people are good at tending their inner-ring relationships — their family and friends. They’re pretty good at tending to outer-ring relationships — their hundreds of Facebook acquaintances, their fellow progressives, or their TED and Harley fans.

But Americans spend less time with middle-ring township relationships — the PTA, the neighborhood watch.

Middle-ring relationships, Dunkelman argues, help people become skilled at deliberation. The guy sitting next to you at the volunteer fire company may have political opinions you find abhorrent, but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week.

Middle-ring relationships also diversify the sources of identity. You might be an O’Rourke, an Irish Catholic and a professor, but you are also a citizen, importantly of the Montrose neighborhood in Houston.

With middle-ring memberships deteriorating, Americans have become worse at public deliberation. People find it easier to ignore inconvenient viewpoints and facts. Partisanship becomes a preconscious lens through which people see the world.

Brooks links the disappearance of the middle ring relationships with the focus on individualism, but I see it differently. The middle ring disappeared around the same time that corporations decided they needed to focus on shareholders more than employees and started downsizing, outsourcing, and avoiding taxes in order to increase profits. There was a time not so long ago when middle managers weren’t expected to be on call 24/7, when unionized line workers made enough one ONE job to only work 40 hours a week, when CEOs did not expect to make more than ten times what the lowest paid full-time employee received, and when children were allowed to “play” without committing to an organized athletic team. During that time in the 50s and 60s each part of the economic strata and the children they raised had something they lack today: FREE TIME! When we expect high compensation to be linked with obsessive work schedules, “middle class” families to have husbands and wives holding down full time jobs or multiple part-time jobs, and children to be under the control of adults after school we are undercutting the middle ring relationships that lead to civil politics.

And we now find ourselves preparing children for this new economy that WE developed. The children who “succeed” in school and are most likely to get accepted into the most prestigious schools are those who “build a resume”.,.. which they accomplish by filling their daily schedule with music lessons, participation in organized sports, registering in summer programs that serve the dual purpose of providing child care and training them in the use of technology, sharpening their musicianship, or participating on high level sports teams. The children of “middle class” parents get shuttled between overcrowded child-care-centers and the homes of relatives in the same way their parents move from one part-time job to another. Our children are replicating our schedules… and their loss of free time is diminishing their middle ring relationships as well.

There is a way out of these woods, but it won’t happen the way Mr. Brooks envisions it. With his hierarchical thinking, he sees the solution as coming from the top:

It’s possible to imagine an elite solution. The next president could get together with the leaders of both parties in Congress and say: “We’re going to change the way we do business in Washington. We’re going to deliberate and negotiate. We’ll disagree and wrangle, but we will not treat this as good-versus-evil blood sport.” That kind of leadership might trickle down.

But in his next paragraph, he implicitly identifies the ultimate means of transformation:

But it’s increasingly clear that the roots of political dysfunction lie deep in society. If there’s truly going to be improvement, there has to be improvement in the social context politics is embedded in.

From my perspective,it is possible to imagine a grassroots solution…. one that requires us to collectively revisit the notion that profit is more important than people. If we begin to accept the notion that, say, 1% growth in profits is sufficient we might begin to scale back our workloads as we scale back our earning expectations and give ourselves the gift of free time… and we MIGHT use that time to spend with each other face-to-face in middle ring relationships. One thing is clear, without the additional time those relationships will continue to wither.

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