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Stocktaking on this last day of 2020

Like many people, at the end of the year I engage in some stocktaking.

Yes, 2020 was super shitty for the entire planet; no exaggeration. But it wasn’t equally bad for everyone. I was one of the lucky ones and have lots to be thankful for.

Despite the brutality of the events of the last year, there are also some signs that make me hopeful.

To begin with, several pharmaceutical companies have produced a viable COVID-19 vaccine and people are now slowly being vaccinated.
In twenty days, Donald Trump will no longer be in the White House, and a saner, more thoughtful and competent administration will be taking over.
Formal and informal civic engagement in various things, including voting in our recent election is at a historic levels. Many people braved the pandemic to protest in the streets and cast their votes.

There is also some racial reckoning on the horizon, but clearly not enough. The struggle for racial justice is not over and we must hold the Dems feet to the fire to make good on their promises.

These are the hopeful things that we need to continue to build on. I encourage everyone to do a sort of accounting in your own personal lives of how much you’ve done toward having a more equitable just society. I urge you to document not just the bad but the good too. What have you done? Can you do more?

Once you have completed this task, then I urge you to use the remaining time in this year, this day, to make donations no matter how small or insignificant they may appear. If you can’t afford to donate financially, then donate gently used clothing and household items you no longer need or use to shelters and charitable organizations. It’s not too late; it’s never too late. Don’t sweat about it. Don’t worry about the tax implications, just commit to it. Do it before the end of the day. Do it now.

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Three cheers for resilience: The unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic

Christmas is upon us. This holiday and the impending New Year is another opportunity to reflect upon the past and the possible future.

The last 9 months has been tough for most people. From a health standpoint, countless individuals in this country and around the world have become sick while others have died. From an economic perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to many people and businesses. Hard working individuals have lost their jobs, material possessions, and have been driven deeper into debt. Many of those who contracted COVID-19 will now have to live with the unknown and unpredictable side effects of this virus.

On the other hand, there have been some silver linings in the otherwise perpetual overcast skies. Some people have reached out or have been contacted by long lost friends and relatives. This has been both uneasy, unsettling, and in some cases liberating. Old wounds may not have been healed by these interactions, but the possibility of rekindling a connection has now become a welcomed outcomes.

For the lucky ones who can still work, and do not have school age children or elderly relatives to take care of, many have doubled down on their work or explored an old hobby or started a new one. They have completed writing an article or book. Others have explored a hobby, like cooking, gardening, sewing or painting. Some people report being more into personal fitness like running or yoga.

Many of us are now teaching online. Although I still prefer to teaching face-to-face, the pandemic has forced me to step up my game, and teaching online is now one more skill that I can add to my repertoire that can benefit my students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has motivated many people, particularly senior citizens who were not that tech savvy, to improve their computer skills. Many of the older generation, not completely comfortable with Facebook and SKYPE, have now explored the possibilities of Zoom as an additional communication vehicle. .

Some other things to ponder. The pandemic might have also pushed our political system to better consider the use of mail in ballots so we can open up suffrage to voters who under other circumstances may not have voted this year. And Trumps shameful handling of the pandemic, costing the lives of 300,000 people and counting who did not need to die, was one factor in mobilizing so many people to vote for Biden and Harris.

Sure the pandemic sucks, there was and still is a lot of suffering, and many people’s lives and businesses have been significantly affected. Close to 329,000 people have lost their lives, lost loved ones, and their livelihoods, but those who were able to make the best out of the bad situation they were confronted with often prevailed, with a sense of optimism, hope, and empathy for those less fortunate then themselves.

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Curriculum for an emancipatory democracy

As a professor working in the social sciences, I often struggle with choosing appropriate content for my undergraduate students, which resources (i.e., books, articles, movies, etc.) they should consult, and how to best evaluate their understanding of these materials.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that most K-12 public schools and community colleges do a poor job educating the majority of students I encounter. Based on conversations with other colleagues I hear similar concerns. More specifically, the current political situation has highlighted how little many Americans know about their history, the constitution, the political process, the ability to think critically, and information literacy.

This state of affairs poses a number of contradictions. For example, we ask people who are becoming American citizens many of the basics of American history, laws and politics.

Why do we do this?

We want them to know this information because we realize the importance of having citizens know these simple facts. So why should we not require the general public to do the same?

We don’t bother to ensure that this is true for natural born citizens. In fact, a lot of Americans have difficulty passing a citizenship test.

This state of affairs is a fundamental breeding ground for the the decline of democracy and the acceptance of authoritarianism.

I don’t mean this piece to be another drawn out critique of the current state of K-12 education in the United States. But I do want to highlight a few things that I have alluded to in earlier posts about inequality, political participation, and crimes of the powerful.

Most Americans are woefully ignorant about their history, civics, and the law. They also have challenges with logic and critical thinking. This is especially evident in their understanding of what a democracy is, what it can achieve, the threats to its existence, and its limits. This has led to many of our political leaders proclaiming on network television many things that are just not true. And in some cases journalists who are either lazy, unskilled, or don’t know the facts failing to challenge these claims.

Ever since Newt Gingrich’s rants in Congress, we have experienced a ramping up of the culture wars. This struggle is evident in rhetoric coming from many of the talking heads and pundits prominently featured in our news and played out in the content disseminated in social media outlets. It’s also evident in our local school boards fights. In many jurisdictions there’s a comprehensive effort to re-write history and dumb down civic education.

Rather than bemoan the situation, we need to ask ourselves, is it possible to right this ship? I believe it is. It’s by no means an easy task, but it’s achievable. I will start by suggesting a few subject areas that need to be emphasized.

Classics

Students need to be exposed to and forced to learn the classics. Not the Sparks Notes or sanitized Disney version of this content. We can debate the specifics of what the classics should consist of, but there is no debate here. By reading the classics students should learn that many of the debates we witness today are longstanding and that solutions to many of them have been offered, some of them have been tried and some of these experiments work better than others in particular situations. Again, this also means that we have qualified people who can teach these subjects, which is yet another argument, left for another day.

History

And just because you stand for Pledge and the national anthem, and wave the flag neither means that you understand American history nor the constitution. Students making their way through the public school system should learn both these items as they were originally written and the important commentaries. Americans need to learn how essential slavery was to the founding of the thirteen colonies, and how the founding fathers tried really hard not to abolish it. I also believe that it is necessary to understand that was not just founded but it relied upon the genocide of American Indians. I think it’s also important to teach that the Constitution is literally words on paper (which the founders recognized as imperfect) and almost every country has one, but ours has been elevated to some sort of mythic document.

Civics & Government

In terms of politics, it’s not sufficient to simply know how many years a senator can serve, or how a bill gets passed, but how ideas in the public realm make or don’t make their way into legislation, including the limits of the law on human behavior. Americans also need to learn the history of public protest, including nonviolent protest, and the heavy handedness of the state when legitimate protest is squashed by law enforcement, the national guard, or company goons. I also think that Americans believe that “government” is something that happens very far away and not in their backyard.

Critical Thinking & Information Literacy

Finally, students need to understand logic. There are multiple courses at the university level that teach this subject, but it should be mandatory at the K-12 level. I’m not talking about taking classes like today we learn about Descartes. I’m referring to systematically picking apart arguments and learning the different kinds of fallacies inherent in them. Closely connected to this point is that students should be well versed in information literacy. Simply going to google or a search engine of choice without being able to deconstruct (i.e., assess the validity) of what we read is insufficient.

The elements of this curriculum should apply to all students, whether they are enrolled in the public school system, or those in private or parochial schools, and homeschoolers.

-How will we establish this? How will we make sure that this is what is being taught? There needs to be a recurrent funding mechanism for this curriculum. Public schools should be primarily funded by the federal government and not through local property taxes. If the new system or funding model is properly designed it could be enabling and not a chokehold. If the private sector or wealthy individuals want to pitch through financial incentives with no strings attached, and get a tax break, that is fine. But we can no longer leave the curricula and teaching of important subjects subject to the whim of local preferences. We need a curricula and the subjects that are taught in order to be a bulwark against authoritarianism and one that is truly emancipatory.

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