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Sanity Prevails in Florida Dismissal of Holocaust Denying HS Principal… BUT…

July 14, 2019 Comments off

I read a NYTimes account of the dismissal of a Boca Raton HS Principal with a sense of relief… but also a sense of bewilderment. According to an article by Sarah Mervosh, William Latson, the Principal of Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton, Fla., wrote in an email exchange with an unidentified parent in April 2018 that:

…the school offered an assembly and courses on the Holocaust, but that they were optional and could not be “forced upon” all students.

I can imagine that an irate Holocaust denying parent writing an email to a Principal complaining about an elective course offering and, perhaps, a school-wide assembly on the topic… and I can see where a Principal’s appeasing response might be taken out of context as evidence that his personal equivocation on the issue. What I found astounding was what followed:

“I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee,” Mr. Latson wrote, making a distinction between his personal beliefs about the Holocaust and his role as the leader of a public school. “I do allow information about the Holocaust to be presented and allow students and parents to make decisions about it accordingly. I do the same with information about slavery.”

I cannot fathom how anyone “…can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event” and then justify such a stance based upon his status as a “…school district employee”. Then, in case the reader has any doubts about Mr. Latson’s wisdom, depth of knowledge of history, or political savvy, he indicates that he not only allows students and parents to make up their own facts about the Holocaust, he invites them to do the same thing with slavery!

Thankfully, the citizens of Boca Raton did not take kindly to Mr. Latson’s thinking and the school district did the right thing:

The comments set off an intense backlash in South Florida, which has a significant Jewish population and has among the highest concentrations of Holocaust survivors in the world. Thousands signed an online petition calling for Mr. Latson’s resignation, and on Monday, the Palm Beach County school district announced that he would be stripped of his position as principal and reassigned to another job in the district.

In response to the rise in anti-Semitism in the state, the Florida legislature has mandated instruction on the Holocaust in order to ensure that every student who graduates from Florida schools is aware of the horrific genocide that occurred in World War II. The Palm Beach County School Board Chair, Frank A. Barbieri Jr., emphasized that the district’s curriculum exceeds what is required by the state mandate.

“Every generation must recognize, and learn from, the atrocities of the Holocaust’s incomprehensible suffering and the enduring stain that it left on humankind,” he said. “It is only through high-quality education, and thought-provoking conversations, that history won’t repeat itself.”

And leaders in the Jewish community also weighed in:

Mr. Levin, of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, said that the Holocaust should be treated like other undebatable facts throughout history, from the Roman Empire to the Revolutionary War to slavery.

“We simply don’t let educators pick and choose what is a philosophical debate and what is not,” he said, adding: “There is no way to be politically correct about the Holocaust. It is a fact of life.

It IS a fact of life… like climate change, like the need for vaccines, like many inconvenient facts of history and science. When the day comes that we get to choose facts democracy dies.

A Debate Over the word “Democracy” in Michigan’s Social Studies Curriculum Lays Bare Conservatives’ Opposition to the Term… and the Concept

April 8, 2019 Comments off

A front page article by Dana Goldstein in today’s NYTimes should give everyone in the nation pause. Titled “Is the US a Democracy? A Social Studies Battle Turns on the Nation’s Values“, the article describes a five-year battle over the definition of the government of our country. In a country where it is seemingly impossible to achieve consensus on the teaching of subjects like reading and mathematics— let alone evolution, climate change, and reproduction— it is not surprising that reaching a consensus on social studies is difficult. But unlike the debates where the facts are clear, social studies content focuses on shared values, and as one who worked in public education for four decades I would have thought that politicians, parents, teachers, and voters would readily agree that we live in a democracy. I write this knowing that I do not believe it is the case— but believing that no organized group would want to argue the fact. As Ms. Goldstein writes, though, I am off-base with that presumption: a proposed revision of Michigan’s standards drops the word “democratic” from “core democratic values,” and reduces the use of the word “democracy”. Why?

The changes were made after a group of prominent conservatives helped revise the standards. They drew attention to a long-simmering debate over whether “republic” is a better term than “democracy” to describe the American form of government.

That the two sides in that tussle tend to fall along party lines, each preferring the term that resembles their party name, plays no small part in the debate. But members of the conservative group also brought to the table the argument that K-12 social studies should be based on a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents.

They contended that the curriculum ought to focus more on the nation’s triumphs than its sins.And they pushed for revisions that eliminated “climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights.

Given a desire to base social studies on “a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents”  the elimination of the terms “…”climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights” makes perfect sense! After all, the founders didn’t want to allow anyone but white, male landowners to vote. And those who penned the original documents could not foresee the impact that industrialization, advances in medical science, and changing morays might have nearly 250 years in the future.  Indeed, the founders realized that they were not writing a set of commandments since they provided a means of amending their original document, probably because they realized that 250 years prior to the writing of the Constitution literacy was barely in place and the notion of democracy was fanciful given the monarchies and feudal economic systems in place.

The article describes the protracted process that carefully expanded the number of participants in the writing process as it attempted to draft a set of standards that would allow every student in the state to “see themselves” in the instruction. But despite all of the efforts to be inclusive, at this juncture the definition of our government remains elusive. Ms. Goldstein writes:

But in the days before the document was to be sent to the State Board of Education, fundamental questions about how to describe American government and citizenship had not been resolved.

It was not just that some Democratic-leaning committee members liked the term “democracy” while some Republican-leaning members preferred “republic.” The debate was really about bigger disagreements that transcended party lines: about how to deal with populism and protest, and about whether the United States is a unified entity of citizens or a conglomeration of groups divided by race, class, language and other identities.

On March 7, the heads of all the subcommittees gathered at the Historical Society of Michigan in Lansing to go through the draft one last time. The laptop screen of the head writer, a district social studies consultant named Dave Johnson, was projected onto the wall as he made last-minute revisions in a Google document.

It strikes me that process of developing the standards, something I called “management by rough draft” when I was leading schools and school districts, is an apt description of our governing model at it’s best. And when the process was complete, here’s how it ended up:

The list of core values that the standards writers eventually agreed on was “equality; liberty; justice and fairness; unalienable individual rights (including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness); consent of governed; truth; common good.”

And after months of sometimes bitter debate, the group decided these values could still be called “democratic.” As part of a compromise, the nation’s political system would be referred to primarily as “American government,” but also, in some instances, “constitutional government” and — yes — “democracy.”

But the conservative lawmaker who protested initially and whose protests led to the lengthy and contentious debate, was not pleased.

Mr. Colbeck, the former state senator who had helped write the previous draft, was displeased. Calling the nation a democracy was not “politically neutral and accurate,” he said.

As one who leans left, I agree. I believe we are now living in a plutocracy…. and I would have to believe that Mr. Colbeck and his anti-democratic colleagues who support an originalist interpretation of the Constitution would be OK with that. After all, Mr. Colbeck is a white male who owns land… HE would be able to participate in making decisions about the direction our country is headed.

In the end, Ms. Goldstein final sentence concludes that our debate about who we are will continue…. and implicitly agrees that the management-by-rough-draft will persist:

The process of retelling the nation’s history — deciding what gets left out and who is heard from — never ends.

I hope she is right… and that the pendulum that is now swung in the direction of the plutocrats who want to change the core values of our nation swings to the left.

ESSA and the “Death of the Compassionate Democracy”

March 18, 2019 Comments off

NYTimes columnist Margaret Renkyl offers a scary and scathing insight into the synergistic efforts of the religious right and pro-business libertarians to undermine democracy in Tennessee in the name of God and mammon. In so doing she describes how the notorious Koch brothers use the causes of the religious right to help advance their goals, which are described in Nancy Maclean’s book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”as follows:

According to Dr. MacLean, the Koch network’s goal — and the goal of all legislators in thrall to the Kochs’ PACs — is to weaken unions, suppress voter turnout, privatize public education, undercut climate science, roll back existing environmental protections, dismantle the social safety net and, of course, stack the courts with sympathetic judges.To enact that unpopular agenda, they’ve had to make common cause with the religious right.

And so we have a world where religious zealots who presumably believe in the teachings of Jesus are stripping poor people of medical coverage, relegating their children to substandard schools, and subjecting all of their fellow citizens to polluted air and water… all in the name increasing the bottom line of corporations.

Ms. Renkyl’s column is full of excellent insights, but it’s closing paragraph overlooks one reality that is most unsettling:

For all its often-empty swagger, the Tennessee General Assembly has made one thing very clear: If Americans don’t start paying closer attention to what’s happening in statehouses across the country, the republic may never recover.

The one reality that Ms. Renkyl overlooks is that Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, the champion of the bi-partisan disaster known as ESSA, has enabled states like Tennessee to set their own standards for education and, in so doing, effectively support the notion that STATES should be able to define curriculum standards… and if Ms. Renkyl doesn’t think that the Koch brothers are willing to throw science education standards, reading lists, and literacy under the bus in the name of free enterprise she is not paying attention herself.

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