|I remind readers that Leaves on the Current and I do not have children of our own. There are reasons for that decision, and they are private. The impact is important for both of us. She is freed up to be the loving aunt to three nephews and two nieces, and I can put many hours and much energy into trying to be the kind of teacher who can make a difference.
Increasingly we both tend to look at thing not for their impact upon us, each of whom is well into the 2nd half of life, her in her 50s, me approaching my mid-60s. Rather, we look at the future and what it will mean for those younger than us, those to whom we devote much of our energy, our care, our love.
Health care, nutrition, opportunity for advancement, education, employment, environment & energy, war and peace - various issues of national and international concern, things for which those in government should evince concern and thus be able to take action. The political impact of the choices made should not be the primary concern, but rather the "general welfare" of the people to which the Preamble to our governing document refers. But on this we are failing.
WE are failing - We because our government is a reflection of us, all of us. We elect by how we vote or do not vote. But our responsibility does not end there. Our responsibility includes letting our elected officials know when they are not serving our people - all of our people, including those we think too dense to understand their own best interests.
I want to reflect briefly on the issues, through the eyes of a teacher of adolescents, thinking about them now and in the future.
Health care - I teach in the district of Deamante Driver who died of an abcessed tooth. Although we are in general a solid middle-class community, I see children with dental problems, I see children with chronic conditions, I see children who do not get medical treatment early in the course of an illness because it would break the family's budget. A child who misses school because of medical problems loses the chance to learn. A child whose health is compromised now is unlikely to develop as fully physically and mentally as the peers who do not face such risks. In a sense our nation understands this, because we have Children's Health Insurance Programs, although some argue it is not the government's role to meet such needs. A child cannot speak or act for herself, and in general Americans accept that a child should not be punished for the economic circumstances of her parents. In general, but some will argue against this on "principle" and while they argue children will die, or languish, or suffer. Others will bemoan the costs, refusing to recognize that the downstream costs and loos of revenue will be several multiples of what it costs us now.
Nutrition - the eating patterns of childhood and adolescence tend to persist into adulthood. Many of our young people do not eat healthily. The current administration is attempting to make fixes to school lunch programs, which could help. But the ubiquity of junk food of various kinds, the rushed nature of our lives and the resorting to fast food, the heavy advertising of foods based on high fructose corn syrup, fat, salt, additives, and our use of factory farming all contribute to what now appears as an epidemic of childhood obesity, of high blood pressure and cholesterol compounded by a lack of regular exercise. I found it ironic to go to a free health fair and find it co-sponsored by a soft drink company. We have soda vending machines in schools. Clubs and teams sell donuts and pizza for fundraisers. Class fundraisers for graduation include pizza, and candy. All we can do for health through increasing access to care and lowering the cost of medications will be of little efffect if we do not eat right, if we do not teach our children to eat right, if we do not provide the framework in which they can eat right. For too many as the economy sours the issue becomes less that of eating right than it is of eating, period. We have, including today, gone 11 days since seeing our students. For many in our county the school lunch is their primary source of food. Some obtain free breakfasts. And while there are programs to help during the weekends, the weather has meant those programs were also shut down. I wonder how many hungry children will be showing up to DC area schools tomorrow. Total nutrition. The right kinds of nutrition.
Opportunity for advancement - simply put, it is disappearing. I explored that some earlier this week in America, land of opportunity - NOT!. The total economic situation makes it harder to use college as a means of changing one's economic circumstances. The higher levels of unemployment, which as I noted in Unemployment Inequality falls more heavily who were already on the lower end of the economic ladder, decreases the ability for those at the bottom to improve their circumstances. Students who do not believe they will have a long-term future are less likely to persist in education - to what end? Perhaps their family will need the money they can make now, perhaps it will be that at age 16 making some money working part time seems to make more sense than dedicating oneself to education in the hope of a better future that seems to be disappearing, at least for them.
Education - it will surprise no one that I think we have lost our way on education. We look at symptoms and not causes. We obsess over things easy to measure like test scores and not the things of real meaning. We draw the wrong lessons from comparison with other nations, and apply from the business world things they have to recognize were destructive, like merit pay. We take one of our greatest resources - those willing to dedicate themselves to the future by teaching, often for far less than they could make in other pursuits, and demeaning them by attacking and belittling, by blaming them for things not within their control, by taking away from them the ability to respond to the needs of the children before them. I am not alone in worrying that the path being pursued by the current administration will do more damage to our educational processes than what occurred in the previous 8 years. The entire framework of what is happening now has (a) no research base to support it; (b) has not been vetted by the people's representatives in either the Congress or in most cases the state legislatures; (c) is using the financial crisis of funding schools to force unvetted and unsupported ideas upon states and localities; (d) is by the words of the Secretary of Education picking winners and losers, and thus acquiescing in the idea that we are not concerned with the education of ALL of our young people - after all, many will be in the states that will fall in the category of "losers." And don't kid yourself - students know what is happening to their education.
Employment We are responding on too small a scale. We had already acquiesced in U-3 unemployment levels of 5% as normal. Now we look at several years of levels nearly twice that. I also wrote about this in A new jobless era?. What happens to the young people who cannot get jobs? What is the effect upon young people when they see older siblings and other relatives either unable to get jobs or losing jobs? How do we justify the obscene profits for health insurance companies and investment bankers while increasing numbers of Americans cannot make enough to keep the homes they have, pay for medical insurance, pay for an education, eat healthily? Oh yes, all of these issues are interrelated. And students know and can see. What if those young people live in communities like Martinsville VA, where the U-3 is over 20%, and the real figure counting U-6 is approaching 1/3 of those who want to work? What happens to those who lose hope that they will be able to form families of their own, because they cannot afford it? How does this filter down to what they do in school? I can answer the last question in part, because I am seeing it. Why invest the effort in something that seems to have no payoff. Unless there is hope down the line, it is hard to sacrifice.
Environment & energy We must look at these together. We cannot function without secure and affordable sources of energy. We cannot continue to despoil the environment around us. Aobut 1/2 of my young people are in our Science and Technology program. They are scientifically literate. They clearly understand the connections. They wonder why we as a nation seem so unwilling to address what we are doing to the world we will leave them. For some, if we will not act now, what difference will it make by the time some of them rise to positions of power, because the changes we have allowed to happen will be irreversible. For others they wonder about the health and nutrition implications - changing weather patterns will affect the world's ability to feed its still growing population. And nutrition and water and weather and all those things relate to the vectors of disease, to the body's ability to resist disease. Some students are not all that scientifically literate. They may think the recent heavy snows disprove global warming. But even these recognize that severe changes in weather patterns can have a devastating effect. And for those who worry about how they will earn a living are at the age where the price of energy already affects them - most need to use cars to get from one place to another, although some can manage some of their movements by public transportation. They see the impact of rises in gasoline prices. And they begin to understand that money they spend on gas cannot be spent on other things, many of which simultaneously increase in price because they are transported by petroleum-powered vehicles.
War and peace - The son of my best man is at West Point. One of the few seniors I have now, a student I also taught as a sophomore, just received a senatorial nomination to the Air Force Academy. Others my students are active in AF Junior ROTC. Some of my students have parents or other relatives in the military. Living as we do near the national Capital City all of my students are well aware of issues of war and peace. The ones with whom I began are oriented towards service. It is not that they - or the others - are seeking glory. Some are seeking stable employment (and perhaps our military, absent a draft, is becoming too dependent upon economic uncertainty in assuring a steady flow of new recruits). I have other students who are pacifists - there is Quaker Meeting a few miles away, and the world headquarters of the 7th Day Adventists is in Takoma Park, only a few miles further. I have Jehovah's Witnesses and Church of the Brethren students. They are raised in religious environments which oppose war. But it is not just them. Increasing numbers of my students raise questions about war as an instrument of policy. Perhaps I see more of that because of how many of my students have origins at least at the parental level and very much so at the level of grandparents born in other nations, often nations that have experienced directly the effects of war - in Africa, in the Middle East and South Asia, in conflicts in Latin America. Our students do not live under the threat of nuclear annihilation the way we did growing up in the 50s. Yet we tend to forget that as we see some demonize terrorism and the threat of 'rogue' states having "weapons of mass destruction" we scare some to the point that they begin to doubt their own long-term future.
There are many words to this point. They may not present to you a coherent picture. That is the because of the limits of my ability to use words. For which I apologize.
I do not apologize for attempting to give some sense of the world in which I spend much of my waking time. I only wish that those responsible for policy would, each time they argue a political point or some detail of policy, would think of the future, not merely of the impact of the policy, but of how what they say and do now affects the minds and spirits and hopes of our future, our young people.
On the one hand, we as Americans can be very generous, including towards our young people. On the other, we can be very selfish and - perhaps of greater importance - incredibly short-sighted.
I deal with the future, a future I will not live to see. I rest my hope in the remarkable young people I encounter every day. They are more generous than was my generation. They tend to be less prejudiced - in Eugene Robinson's column on Dick Cheney he refers to data from a Post-ABC News Poll showing 81% of adults under the age of 30 believe in allowing gays to serve openly in our military, a figure matched by the percentage of those who know someone who is gay, friend or family member. Increasing numbers of our young people are the product of relationships such as those of the parents of the President - of different races/colors. Many of the young people themselves have such relationships. It is so common for them it has no shock value, and they have trouble understanding why some adults still obsess so much over what they view as minor differences.
I do not want to see that generosity lost. I want us to provide all the hope that we can. I teach a subject that is academic, in that they must learn certain things to graduate from high school. But Government is also about living. I very much hope that what they experience from their government does not depress their hope.
I also hope and - as much as is possible for me - pray that we do not so mess things up that they cannot fix what we have done wrong. Then they will have the same opportunity that we have had - to decide whether or not they will pass on to their progeny and successors a nation and a world that is better than the one they received.
I teach because my legacy is in the young people. I want to do my part to leave the world a better place than I found it. I am selfish that way. I do not despair so long as I can experience hope through the eyes and lives of the young people who inspire me to keep going.
What about you?