my pissant two cents

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

...and the first shall be last

"nobody ever went broke understimating the intelligence of the american people." -- h.l. mencken

it's a privilege of age that allows one generation to lament the shortcomings, real and perceived, of the following generations.

i'm sure my mother, who called me a "dumbshit" when she saw that i had pierced my ear (i was 18 at the time), has had oportunity to gnash her teeth over my decisions on more than one occasion. this notwithstanding that i have a master's degree, an emmy award, and i'm a licensed attorney. she's older than me. it's her right.

so, now as i enter the downhill slide of my adulthood, let me take the opportunity to say, "WHAT THE F*** IS WRONG WITH KIDS TODAY?!"

i'm not even talking about the "daddy's little prostitute" outfits the girls wear, or the impossibly stupid affectation of boys walking around with their pants belted around their thighs. i'm talking about bedrock issues of liberty and freedom, and teens' lack of knowledge of or respect for them.

in case you hadn't heard, a recent survey found that half of the high school students polled believe that the government should have some authority to censor newspapers. half believe the government can censor indecent material on the internet (it can't), and three-fourths believe flag burning is illegal (it isn't). three-fourths also say they take the first amendment for granted, or simply don't know how they feel about it.

i feel cold... so cold....

the study, a $1 million operation sponsored by the john s. and james l. knight foundation, surveyed more than 100,000 students. university of connecticut researchers who conducted the study also spoke to about 8,000 teachers and 500 administrators at 541 public and private schools across the u.s.

the ultimate finding of the study is that young people don't know squat about their rights, and don't care much more than that. some who do care have a decidedly negative take on the matter: 13% said people should not be allowed to express unpopular views. (as upsetting as this number is, i'm equally-- if not moreso-- disturbed by the 1% of administrators and3% of teachers, who are supposed to teach respect for the law and the constitution, who agree with the proto-censors.)

the study found that students who work on campus newspapers and such tend to skew a little higher on the free speech scale. it also found, however, that about a fifth of schools don't have any student media, and that many of them cut their programs in that past five years due to budget cuts. the likeliest candidates for such cutbacks are non-suburban and low-income schools.

why the lack of concern? why the lack of understanding?

it's pretty simple, really. in the recent past, the wildly inaptly named "no child left behind act" requires schools to perform well on proficiency exams or suffer horrible consequences, like cuts to funding. (this makes sense to the punitive reactionary-right mind: if you're underperforming, we'll take money away from you so will learn how bad it is to underperform, even though it is likely to cause you to continue to underperform.) so schools teach to the test, strictly the three r's, which are pretty much all you need to be a good consumer.

more significant is the lack and failure to teach critical thinking. the school system i remember actively discouraged critical thinking, for the most part. critical thinking leads to challenging authority, and challenging authority is unacceptable. repetition and regurgitation are all that's needed, and rote is easy. the education system is a strictly q-and-a transaction, because it's adequate.

i know what i'm talking about here. i was removed from an economic theory class in high school because i debated with the teacher over an exam. he asked for "three reasons" for a particular economic scenario (i don't remember what it was). i gave three reasons. each one of them was accurate and valid, but they were not the three he was looking for. so i got it wrong. on top of that, he looked at my questioning his reasoning as disrespect and had me removed from the class at the semester. and, get this: it was an honors class, for gifted students.

i have since been a teacher at a major top-tier univeristy, teaching a decidedly tricky and conceptual class on censorship and the first amendment, and i can confirm that the lack of critical thinking continues today. many students are resistant to any manner of critical thinking. they are used to rote q-and-a, and they are comfortable with it. when you ask them to hash out issues with no specific answer, they freeze up, or lash out. "we're paying you to give us the answer" is a phrase that i have heard.

(this is not to say that all of my students were unable to think for themselves. many were brilliant, highly motivated and wicked smart. too few, though....)

when students are not encouraged to think for themselves, they begin to lose respect, or even mild concern, for their right to do so. is this part of a grand malevolent design, a right-wing conspiracy? probably not in any conscious or overt way, though it does help the right go about its mean-spirited business when people don't challenge what's going on in business and government that is ruining their lives.

as wobbly troubadour utah phillips says, public schools are equipped like no other institution to socialize and indoctrinate students, installing levers and buttons that can be manipulated at will to produce any desired response. those who don't go along with the pep rally are quickly informed that they are not wanted or tolerated. the lesson is well learned over the course of 13 years or so.

i strongly doubt there's any deliberate atempt to short-sell our children in schools. it's just easier to create compliant, malleable kids than those who can think for themselves. there were a handful of teachers in my pre-college years who challenged and inspired students, and most of them were thought of as crackpots and weirdos.

my path from journalist to lawyer started long before i went to college. the same with my respect and commitment to the constitution and the ideals upon which this country were founded. mr. edwards, mr. midyett, mrs. kelly and even that odd mr. gevirtzman pushed me along the way, and i thank them, quite belatedly, for it.

the failure of high schoolers to understand the value of their right to speak, to hear, to see, to read, to create, to think and to be whatever they want is no fault of theirs. it's the fault of every principal and teacher who forgot, or never learned, that they are building citizens, not consumers.

and shame on them.

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