Anne Klaeysen's Blog
Turn on your television today and you will see commercials for school supplies. They started early last month and often feature parents gleefully singing and dancing as they push shopping carts down aisles loaded with backpacks, notebooks and snacks. In others, children spin around to show off their new school apparel. Yes, it’s that time of year again. Parents may feel relieved, but students and teachers often feel anxious. So much is at stake. Education is perceived as the key to success. Without a good education, students won’t get good jobs, meet the right people, or live in the best neighborhoods.
Public school teachers bemoan that they can do little more than “teach to the test.” All their training and creativity are stifled by an education reform movement, starting in the 1980s, that emphasizes national Common Core standards, having abandoned the progressive pedagogy of John Dewey that many of us experienced. Remember the field trips, school plays and festivals, and the thrill of “learning by doing”? Parents wanting that for their children today shell out tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition to private schools or compete for scholarships.
Why does our nation have this dichotomy? And why do our students continue to fall “in the middle of the pack” compared to other industrialized nations? Since 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has tracked what our students know and can do in various subject areas. It issues what is known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” and several institutions analyze these data looking for answers and solutions.
In his article, “In Praise of Dewey” (Aeon 7/28/16), Nicholas Tampio holds the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Charles Koch-funded conservative think tank the Heartland Institute responsible. “For both the business community and traditional-values conservatives, Dewey’s pedagogy fails to train workers, and inculcates liberal, even socialistic values.” This year is the centennial of Dewey’s ground-breaking tome, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. Tampio notes that “his pedagogy has been under assault for at least a generation.”
This should be of great concern to Ethical Culture because, in many ways, Dewey took Felix Adler’s place as the philosopher of our movement. When I attended my first National Leaders Council retreat, I heard one leader heatedly say to another, “You have forsaken your father Felix Adler for your stepfather John Dewey.” Nonetheless, Adler would never have endorsed teaching to Common Core standards and preparing students to get better jobs. Both he and Dewey believed that education was essential to moral development and participatory democracy.
Children should be encouraged to pursue their own interests, find their own voices, and fight for a world where everyone can learn, grow and develop. To be a fully participating member of a democracy means far more than voting on Election Day. It requires a deep understanding of humanity and the ways in which we organize ourselves, an appreciation of history and cultures, and a commitment to the common good. It’s about putting democratic theory into practice every day in all of our relationships.
Tragically, as we can observe from this year’s election process, our national educational system has failed to teach even basic civics. One of our presidential nominees says he will uphold an article of the constitution that doesn’t exist, but his followers neither know nor care enough to correct him. People who expect opinions and policies to be based upon facts are called “intellectual elites” and dismissed by those who feel they are losing their social and economic status to immigrants and people of color. We all live in “bubbles” of different values and influences.
Let us, too, go back to school this fall. Let us learn what education can and should be. Celebrate the centennial of Dewey’s guide to progressive education by reading and discussing it. Then put it into practice. We owe it to ourselves and the future of our democracy.
And when we wore ourselves out, we flopped on the grass and tried to make sense out of the clouds. We told each other stories and reflected upon our existence. Who has time to reflect any more? Who even takes a vacation? According to a report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research, the United States is the only advanced economy that doesn’t require employers to provide paid vacation time. Nearly a quarter of all Americans receive no vacation or paid holidays, trailing far behind the rest of the world. And when we do manage to drag our sorry selves out of town, we take our technology with us, arguing that if we don’t keep up with our work there will be an ominous backlog awaiting our return. In other words, we are always plugged in and turned on. There is never a dull moment in our lives, no time to process what is happening, and no opportunity to reflect. Perhaps the only time that we reflect as a community is during vigils, of which there are, tragically, too many these days. As I write this, I think about the two vigils I will attend later today: one as a chaplain at New York University, the other as a neighbor in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Last night a vigil was held in front of the Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the gay rights movement. I wear a shirt bearing the words “LOVE conquers HATE,” because I want to believe that this is true, in spite of overwhelming contradictory evidence. I want to hold fast to a faith in the goodness of humanity. I want to be in the company of people who share that faith.
But it is so hard. We have gathered too many times and held too many memorials. We have held one another close to cry and to comfort. And we have railed against the moneyed interests that continue to supply the weapons that wreak this havoc.Hate and fear, fueled by prejudice nurtured in religious, political and ideological communities, are armed to the teeth. How can compassion compete? And yet we must try. I carry with me, at all times, a Tonglen practice written by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. Today I took it out and read: “In order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves. . . To have compassion means not to run from the pain of finding hatred and fear in ourselves.” I traveled back to the summer days of my childhood innocence to reconnect with who I was then. I was lucky to have been given that time and space. Others have not been; they have suffered in ways I cannot imagine. Some recovered; many have not. Take time this summer to reflect upon that reality. Reconnect with who you are and find compassion for yourself so that you can share it with the world.
There are myriad problems in this country crying out for our attention: poverty, climate change, and racism, to name a few. Surely, which bathroom one uses is of little consequence, right? Not as far as the state of North Carolina is concerned. In March it passed a law restricting public restroom access to the sex cited on a person’s birth certificate. This was a first, and it drew immediate condemnation, but other states and localities are considering similar legislation.
Having lost a long battle to prevent the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, social conservatives have turned their attention to transgender rights and efforts to allow certain types of anti-LGBT discrimination based on religious beliefs. They contend that expanding anti-bias protections to bathrooms and locker rooms increases the risk of sexual predators molesting women and girls on those premises.
This myth persists in spite of the fact that experts, including law enforcement officials and advocates for victims of sexual assault, have called it baseless. Research has shown that women are no more vulnerable in public restrooms than in any other public space. Furthermore, since sexual assault and harassment are already illegal, this legislation is unnecessary. Once again, women are used to “shield” social conservatives from their real motivation. It is a strategy used throughout U.S. history to discriminate against marginalized groups for the sake of “women’s safety.” As Dru Levasseur, Transgender Rights Project director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal, said “It gets down to prejudice and it’s not based on any kind of reality.”
In early May, the Justice Department threatened to sue North Carolina, or strip some of its federal funding, if it did not scrap its divisive law. North Carolina’s governor responded by suing the Justice Department, accusing it of “baseless and blatant overreach”—and of “being a bully.” This prompted a counter suit, describing the restroom restrictions as “impermissibly discriminatory.” Then, on May 13, the Obama administration issued a letter to every public school district in the country directing them to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity. While lacking the force of law, it contains an implicit threat of lawsuits and loss of federal aid.
If you are confused by all of this, I suggest you visit the Lamda Legal website. There is a downloadable FAQ: Answers to Some Common Questions about Equal Access to Public Restrooms at http://www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/transgender/restroom-faq. It includes these definitions: “Transgender refers to people whose gender identity, one’s inner sense of being male, female or something else, differs from their assigned or presumed sex at birth. . . Gender-nonconforming people don’t meet society’s expectations of gender roles.” Identity and expression should also not be confused with sexual orientation. There is a difference between knowing who we are and knowing whom we love.
The odds are great that you know and interact with these people; they don’t wear labels. But now social conservatives want them to wear labels and carry IDs before entering public restrooms.
So much for politics. Now what about ethics? Last month I met with two young transgender men to discuss starting a support group for their peers who feel unwelcome at LGBTQ settings where “We are asked to check our masculinity at the door.” “What does that even mean?” they want to know. They want to be seen as individuals, not as labels. Don’t we all want that? I often think of the words of Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler that I use to close my guided meditation: “The spiritual nature, the best in each person, does not need to be saved, it needs to be recognized.” Everyone longs to be recognized as a person of worth and dignity. We have it within our power to grant that wish.
Finally, the most ethical statement was made by Attorney General Loretta Lynch:
This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed, to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably – in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.
To which I can only add “Amen.”
On my walk from Union Station in Washington, DC to my lodgings, before participating in Democracy Spring last month, I noticed a memorial and stopped to read what was carved there in stone.
“Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
President Ronald W. Reagan, upon signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988
I had entered a “sacred” space: the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in WWII, designed by Japanese-American artist Nina Akamu and architect Davis Buckley, located at Louisiana Avenue and D Street NW, commemorating Japanese-American soldiers and those held in internment camps. I knew about the camps, as well the annual Day of Remembrance, held on or near February 19, the day in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that required the internment of all Americans of Japanese ancestry. I had also read about the finding, in 1983, of the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians “that there had been no military necessity for the mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans and that a grave injustice had been done.” But I had neither heard about nor seen this memorial. I walked slowly through it: taking in its stark beauty, hoping that others had also taken the time to stop, and wondering how often the words “Here we admit a wrong” are spoken, never mind carved in stone. Not often enough, I suspect.
Although I admired the cast bronze sculpture, depicting two Japanese cranes caught in barbed wire, atop a pedestal, I was drawn to the words and numbers inscribed in the semi-circular granite wall curved around it. There are the names of the ten camps where over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were placed. There, too, are the names of those who died serving their country. And there is this quotation from Daniel K. Inouye, US Congressman, US Senator, and Captain of 442nd regional combat team: “The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group.”
I carried his words with me when I marched to the steps of the Capitol the next day. A movement is growing. People who have learned those lessons are calling upon politicians to learn them, too. We are demonstrating, and risking arrest, to call attention to the state of our nation: a home to natives and immigrants; diverse in our languages and customs, beliefs and values; and deserving of equal and fair representation. Democracy is both a promise and a responsibility.
As I reluctantly left the memorial, I read this poem written by Akemi Dawn Matsumoto Ehrlich, titled “The Legacy”:
Japanese by Blood
Hearts and Minds American
With Honor Unbowed
Bore the String of Injustice
For Future Generations