Sunday, February 12, 2017

Debate Class and our partisan divide

I love Speech & Debate, and I have no doubt that it's one of the best classes/programs in all of public education for preparing students for college, careers, and life. In fact, if I could recommend one class that every student should take, it's probably debate (though that is an issue never worth arguing about). Fortunately for me and my kids, I work at a high school with one of the top programs in the country, and it has always been a given that my kids would be in Speech & Debate. In fact, when I went on my first debate trip to a great tournament at George Mason University, I returned home to tell my wife and kids that our children "are taking debate." So, I had an interesting thought when I recently mentioned to a friend that I was joining our debate team on a trip to the annual national tournament at U-Cal-Berkely. So, my very Republican friend asked me, "Are there any conservatives in speech and debate?"

That got me to thinking:  Could debate class be the key to easing our partisan divide?

Clearly, the question was a loaded one because the asker tends to believe in stereotypes about public education. And, of course, the tournament in question is being held in one of the premier bastions of liberalism. It didn't help that Berkeley made news last week for being so absurdly anti-free speech. Actually, the school itself wasn't - but that's another story. And the point is really this - debate class is not about Democrats vs Republicans, and it's not about liberals vs. conservatives. It's simply about pro vs con or aff vs neg. In debate fields of competition, the teams are always either "affirming" (aff) or "negating" (neg) a resolution. And teams must always prepare and argue both sides because they don't know their side until they enter the room.

Kids who participate in Speech and Debate are often the most well-informed citizens one issues of public policy. Whether they are debating the value of US-China relations or whether the US should increase its engagement with Cuba, these kids tend to geek out on being smart while competing to be the most informed and effective speaker in the room. It's not about politics and ideology, and it's certainly not about political parties. It's about winning an academic competition. Granted, I don't know if speakers and debaters actually become more tolerant and accomodating of opposing views. But they are certainly aware of all pertinent sides, issues, and details.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Where are the Conservatives in the GOP?

It seems everything is completely up for grabs when it comes to politics and legislating and civics these days, and many are feeling like down is up and we're through the looking glass. There was a time when we had two leading ideologies and two political parties, and they worked the basics of government out through a system of checks and balances and negotiation. Now, with the ascension of "President Bannon," many moderate voters and pragmatic Americans are wondering just what the heck has happened to the Republic. For me, one sadly mystifying comment came from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan this week in an interview with Judy Woodruff. In downplaying the obviously troubling relationship that Paul Ryan has, and will continue to have with the White House, the Speaker said of Steve Bannon, "We are different kinds of conservatives."

Uh, actually, Paul .... no. Neither you nor Steve Bannon is a conservative.

To paraphrase one of the best burns in contemporary political discourse, I'd offer this to Speaker Ryan:  "I knew conservatism. Conservatism was my friend. You, sir, are no conservative."

Conservatism as a political ideology was established during the Age of Reason to oppose radical change which threatened the stability of society through a challenge to its institutions and foundations. Edmund Burke was a primary voice of that establishment, and true conservatives will approach volatile political issues with a sense of prudence and Burkean evaluation. In the contemporary age, one of the most stable and erudite voices of conservatism is scholar and critic George Will, and if contemporary Americans are truly interested in understanding how conservatism should function today, they need look no furthur than Will's profound, succinct, and insightful treatise Statecraft as Soulcraft. 


In ''Statecraft as Soulcraft,'' his first book-length work, Mr. Will laments the lack of genuine conservatives in American politics and shows how the best conservative thought is lost even on the most conservative President in decades. ''I will do many things for my country,'' writes Mr. Will, ''but I will not pretend that the careers of, say, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt involve serious philosophical differences.'' Conservatives like Mr. Reagan attack ''big government,'' but Mr. Will is more concerned with the reluctance of modern government to cultivate the moral character of its citizens. He faults conservatives for agreeing with liberals that the ''inner life'' of citizens - our ''sentiments, manners and moral opinions'' -is none of the government's business. Mr. Will insists that ''statecraft is soulcraft.'' Government cannot be neutral on major moral issues and shouldn't try. ''Just as all education is moral education because learning conditions conduct, much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation in broad and important spheres of life.''

Having grown up in a very Republican household in a pretty Democratic county, but rather conservative region, my early political education came with the Reagan Revolution. That time was when I first began to investigate what politics and political parties really meant. In my life I have pretty much explored all the schools of thought. Interestingly, I have to argue that the early 1980s might be the last time the Republican Party was actually conservative. After that time, the GOP became a party of a certain ideology and positions, but it was not a platform that I easily identify as conservative. No, instead, I would just say that the GOP is simply a party of "Republicanism."  And, I'm not the only one to suspect and expose this weird dichotomy that has led to a real crisis in American political thought.

People like Ross Douthat have some solid ideas about the GOP and conservatism which he outlined in his book Grand New Party: How the Republican PartyHowever, while some may argue that the 2016 election actually signified the return of the working class to the GOP, I could hardly stomach the idea that Douthat supports the current regime and its approach. Another rising political pundit named Matt Lewis has some valuable insight in his book Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP went from the party of Reagan to the Party of Trump. However, neither of these really get at the true spirit of conservatism the way someone like George Will does. One astute thinker who might be on the right track is someone like David Frum who wrote Comeback: Conservatism that Can Win Again. Yet even a great thinker like Frum is still too far removed from the true spirit of conservatism when he gets hung up on tax rates and supply side thinking. 

So, who has some thoughts on the spirit of conservatism that can match up with the Burkean roots and the succinct insight of George Will and his application of conservatism to contemporary America? Well, after George I like to look to a great contemporary writer and thinker by the name of Rod Dreher.  Dreher, a writer and editor who has worked for the National Review and Weekly Standard and is now the editor and chief blogger for The American Conservative, is a pragmatic and thoughtful conservative who doesn't let his politics mess with his ideology and vice versa. While Dreher's conservatism is a bit heavy on the religious side at times, I don't think I've enjoyed another conservative treatise since Will's Statecraft more than I did Dreher's Crunch Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Farmers [and more] Can Save America. 

In Crunchy Cons, Dreher reports on the amazing depth and scope of this phenomenon, which is redefining the taxonomy of America’s political and cultural landscape. At a time when the Republican party, and the conservative movement in general, is bitterly divided over what it means to be a conservative, Dreher introduces us to people who are pioneering a way back to the future by reclaiming what’s best in conservatism—people who believe that being a truly committed conservative today means protecting the environment, standing against the depredations of big business, returning to traditional religion, and living out conservative godfather Russell Kirk’s teaching that the family is the institution most necessary to preserve.

The sad reality is that conservatism doesn't even really mean anything anymore, especially in light of the electoral fiasco of November. And, I have little faith in Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell to lead the country back to the Right. But perhaps if a few individuals do some reading and thinking and start acting locally, we might have some hope for a return to reason a few years from now.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Patriots Win another Super Bowl ... in mystifying way - Spy-gate, Part II?

OK, I'm gonna say it - I am not a Pats fan. That wasn't always the case. I liked the Pats growing up, and for some strange reason I was a big Pats fan during the Drew Bledsoe seasons. And, I will concede that Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. No doubt. If I were putting together a team, either in a fantasy league or for real, I would always choose Tom Brady if possible. And I would never bet against him.

That said, I am not happy about this "historic comeback to win Super Bowl LI."

It all seems a little odd to me. Let's not forget that Bill Belicheck and Tom Brady and little boy McD have all been proven to be cheaters in the game of football. It goes all the way back to that unexpected upset of the Rams in 2001 - after which the first rumors of Spy-gate surfaced. While those accusations were never fully validated, the same nefarious actions from Josh McDaniels a decade later in Denver pretty much assured that the suspicion of corruption was at the very least reasonable.

In this game against the Falcolns, the legendary Tom Brady could not seem to hit a receiver in the first half. His inept overthrows and flubbed passes were so noticeable as to be almost a joke. The Pats were down 28-3 in a game that appeared to be a potential blowout. And then, as if by magic, the Patriots went in to the locker room for an extended halftime, and they came out by picking apart the Falcolns defense like they knew their every move. And, of course, then the Falcolns' dynamite flawless offense with "kid mastermind" Kyle Shanahan completely and nonsensically stalled out and were shut down by the Pats seemingly inept defense - it was almost like the Pats knew which plays were coming.

What magic potion did Brady drink at halftime? What insightful film did they unearth in that locker room?

Yep, the Pats are a great team, a true dynasty. And truly Brady is a legendary quarterback.

But legends are generally a bit detached from reality. Is this Spy-gate, Part Deux?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Far too many "College-educated" kids can't write

As I've noted many times before, teachers are pretty good at assigning writing but not so much at teaching kids how to do it. Especially at the high school level and especially in content areas other than English class, too many teachers assign and grade essays and reports without ever teaching kids how to write for their class. It's as if educators believe that the skills of reading and writing are solely the English teachers' domain - they're not. Reading and writing are learning skills; they are academic skills. They are not just the language arts domain. And, currently, too many kids are graduating high school and college with very limited writing and reasoning skills. That concern and warning comes most recently from education researcher and writer Marc Tucker who opines in EdWeek.org "Our Students Can't Write Very Well - It's No Mystery Why."

My friend Will Fitzhugh points out that high school students are rarely required to read entire works of fiction and are almost never asked to read entire works of non-fiction.  I know of no good writers who are not also good readers. More directly to the point, high school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers in which they are expected to present a thesis and defend it, analyze something complicated from multiple points of view and draw a reasoned conclusion, or put together a short story in which characters are developed in some depth and insights are revealed.
Writing is a craft.  Like any other craft, it is learned only by doing it, over and over and over, at increasing levels of challenge, under the watchful eye of an expert.  How on earth are our students to learn to write if we do not ask them to write, and write a lot, and write well?  The reason, of course, that they are not asked to write much is because their ability to write a substantial paper is not tested.  And why, in this age of accountability, when we judge teachers by how well their students do on the test, would we expect their students to write well when we do not test their ability to write a good paper, 10 to 20 pages in length. Our own research tells us that a large fraction of community college professors do not assign writing to their students because their students cannot write and the professors do not consider themselves to be writing teachers. It is no wonder that employers like us find it so hard to find candidates with serviceable writing skills.  
Special thanks to Joanne Jacobs for the link to this post.

I believe a great many educators across all content areas could benefit from programs like The National Writing Project and the Colorado Writing Project.