Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Examine Your Homework, Kids

One night not too long ago, my daughter asked me, "Poppy, what are the names of the four hemispheres?" I laughed and said that there can be no such thing as four hemispheres. She insisted that there were, because her Social Studies teacher had told her class so that very day.

Clearly, this was a Daily Revolution moment—a time for examining assumptions and understanding the meanings of the words we toss around in our discourse. It's what we do here on the blog, and one goal of Daily Rev is to encourage folks to do it at home and work as well. So I suggested that Maria look up the word "hemisphere" in the dictionary, which she did. I explained the roots of the word (ancient Greek hemisphairon, or half a sphere), and that the prefix hemi- indicates "half," as in one of two parts of a whole. How can something that has only two parts be divided into four?

Children are taught to do their homework, and we adults are told to do our jobs. I am not against homework, jobs, or the performance of personal obligations in general. I would simply like for us to question, to examine what we are given to do, before we blindly try and do it. This practice of examining obligations before we undertake them actually improves our performance. Action that is fed by a questioning spirit tends to be more exact, more efficient, than action that simply does something for the sake of being seen doing something. Look back over some significant actions in your own life, and sort in your mind those that were nourished by prior examination from those that you carried out under pressure or in mere ignorance. How can any action meet the need of its moment if we haven't first clarified what we intend to do and why, through the process of asking some basic questions?

Why did this nation go to war in Iraq? Because we were told that there were mushroom clouds and poisonous gases in our very near future if we didn't act to stop those who were collecting these WMDs that we all heard about, and the stories of which our mass media vapidly, unquestioningly accepted and advertised to a frightened nation.

Nearly three years; over 2,000 dead GIs and some 15,000 wounded; tens of thousands of dead and maimed innocent Iraqis; and about $200 billion dollars later, we now understand that all the reasons we were given for urgent, immediate, and violent action were lies. All because those in power and too few of our prominent citizens and journalists bothered to remember that first step in preparing for action: examine what you are about to do and why you are being told to do it. We will be paying the price for this stupidity—in human lives, shattered families, international estrangement, and economic disaster—for years to come.

In yesterday's blog, Terry McKenna warned that we probably can't afford to spend on education as we should in this country. We can't afford to pay teachers what they're worth and help them to retire with a decent pension at a reasonable age. And to that I say "horsefeathers." How many 500 pound bombs would it take to pay such a teacher through to retirement?

Well, according to my research, your average 500 pound "guided weapon" would run around $19,000. This is perhaps a third of what we'd like to pay a good teacher at our school as her annual salary. 3 bombs, one year's pay for a teacher.

Now, how many bombs have been dropped in Iraq since the start of the war? Well, I don't have the time to properly research this question, but I found a conservative estimate of about 25,000 in 2003 alone. Let's do the math: 25,000 bombs at around $20K per bomb (most that are used are far more expensive than the one I'm citing as an example)—I get half a billion dollars from that.

All right, now let's get back to our teacher, making about 60 grand a year for a 20 year career, with another 20% for benefits and pension. The salary comes to $1.2 million, with another quarter million or so for bens and pension. Let's say our total cost for this teacher is $1.5 million.

Now let's say we decided, after thoroughly examining our assumptions before acting, that we didn't need to buy those bombs after all. Guess what, we just paid roughly 350 teachers for a lifetime of service to our kids.

Now smarter heads than mine can go into the details on all this, but to me it boils down to how we use our available resources. If we had asked some serious and searching questions about our reasons for going to war ahead of time, we never would have started this disaster. We can ask the same kinds of questions about the reasons we give for teaching our kids, and what standards we will hold ourselves and them to in forming the practical foundation and economic support for our education system. There is nothing—and I mean nothing, Terry—that we can't afford if we first involve ourselves in questioning, planning, and prioritizing our actions.

This is what we elect leaders to do in a democracy, and we the people had better start reminding these leaders in very blunt terms that we expect them to commit themselves to this process. We also have to insist that they show the capacity to admit their errors when they make them, and reveal to them that we can forgive mistakes that are made by leaders who are dedicated to forming decisions that reflect our values—the principles we elect them to represent, whether it's at a city council meeting or at the Capitol Building in Washington.

Granted, some mistakes are unforgivable: these include mass murder on a global scale such as the Bush administration has perpetrated in Iraq, along with torture at various points around the globe. This is the stinking breath of failure: failure is not the result of good effort meeting bad luck. Failure is the disaster that occurs when someone obstinately refuses to admit his errors and then learn from them. Denial is the fuel of failure, and if I were to choose one word to characterize the Bush presidency, it would be denial.

So now the Democrats on Capitol Hill are pushing the panic button, shutting the doors and demanding an accounting of this failure. They are being led by Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, Barbara Boxer, and others who have had enough of seeing their questions and demands for accountability from the Bushies shunted aside with spin and dogma and Scott McLellan's vapid one-line response to any challenge ("we've been over this before and have nothing more to say about it").

Now if the heat generated by this challenge is too much for Dr. Frist to bear without him wringing his hands and whining about what an insult this is, then he'd better step aside and let some people who are ready and able to lead take charge of this debate. He'll be busy enough dealing with those difficult question that the SEC is starting to ask him about where he's getting his stock tips.

The bottom line point here is that if we accept Terry's fatalistic brand of realism—whether it's about the implacability of gerrymandering or the impassable economic obstructions to properly educating our kids—then we're going to see this nation become a third-rate shadow of its former self within a generation. In other words, America will be a dismal place to live by the time my daughter has reached her 40's.

You'll forgive me if I refuse to accept such a realism, and the resultant downward spiraling of our nation into the Western hemisphere's version of post-Soviet Russia. Oh, and speaking of hemispheres, my kid raised that point about the impossibility of having four hemispheres with her Social Studies teacher, and he was delighted by her critical thinking. Now that's a fellow who deserves three bombs a year and an early retirement.

1 comment:

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