Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Reading

History Lesson — The revision of history by the Texas School Board is the latest attempt to try to shape the past and the future.

“Why Is Texas Afraid of Thomas Jefferson?” the History News Network asked, referring to the board’s recommendation that Jefferson, who coined the expression “separation of church and state,” be struck from the list of world thinkers who inspired 18th- and 19th-century revolutions.

Other critics were more direct: “Dear Texas: Please shut up. Sincerely, History,” was the headline of an online column for The San Francisco Chronicle.

This reaction wasn’t altogether surprising. The board’s wrangling over the curriculum had been a spectacle for months, not least because its disputes mirrored those taking place across the nation. In mid-September, citizens showed up with firearms at tumultuous town hall meetings on health care reform, and the Tea Party movement emerged as the vehicle of conservative insurgents.

The majority on the Texas board, who are also conservatives, seemed to be filtering these protests into their deliberations — in the proposal, for instance, that students be instructed in “the individual right to keep and bear arms; and an individual’s protection of private property from government takings.”

Liberals — on the Texas board and beyond — detected an attempt to force-feed children conservative dogma, whether it was the putative religiosity of the nation’s founders, the historic contribution of the Moral Majority and Rush Limbaugh, or the elevation of John Wayne into the pantheon of patriotic heroes.

In reality, this controversy is the latest version of a debate that reaches back many decades and is perhaps essential in a heterogeneous democracy whose identity has long been in flux.

In the 18th century, the American writer Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, himself an immigrant from France, catalogued the continent’s bewildering mix of “English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans and Swedes.” He wondered, “What then is the American, this new man?”

He concluded that in America, “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”

That idea was later fortified by Alexis de Tocqueville’s concept of American exceptionalism, which suggested that the country was exempt from the bitter conflicts — class, religion, imperial ambition — that had convulsed Europe.

Long afterward, amid America’s own convulsions in the 1960s and ’70s, the concept of a single “race of men” looked outmoded. Didn’t race mean “white race”? And didn’t “men” exclude women? American exceptionalism might really be a form of cultural insularity.

So, universities and colleges devised new programs that prompted objections as fierce as those now being made to the Texas curriculum.

In 1968, when Harvard students demanded a black studies program, “Faculty hawks warned of the fall of Harvard, and even civilization, as they knew it,” as Morton Keller and Phyllis Keller note in “Making Harvard Modern.”

Soon an ever widening range of subjects, from gay studies to feminist legal theory and anthropology, were added, in keeping with the dictates of identity politics. Some of this thinking eventually filtered to grade schools, with children now celebrating Kwanzaa and composing essays, year after year, on the “I Have a Dream” speech.

More below the fold.

Tough on Teachers — The Sun Sentinel editorializes on a bill up for consideration in the Florida legislature that would make things even harder for teachers in public schools.

No one should mistake the measure linking teacher salaries to student performance on annual tests for a serious effort to reform education. A pointed jab at teacher unions and school districts is more like it. Unfortunately, the goal of improving classroom teaching, and rewarding the many solid educators in Florida, gets lost in the jabbing.

The bill requires school districts to stop using advanced degrees, contract negotiations and seniority to establish pay. Tenured positions would be eliminated, and salaries and job security instead would be based on annual student test scores and performance reviews. If school districts don’t comply, they risk losing state funding and could be forced to raise property taxes to make up the difference.

So imagine the hordes of eager teachers rushing to work in a state where annual contracts are the norm, academic qualifications and experience count for little, and any pay raises, not to mention job security, depend on how well students perform on that year’s standardized tests. We can’t, and it’s not exactly the big incentive Florida needs in its ongoing attempts to attract or keep quality teachers.

Yet, that’s what will occur if CS/SB6 becomes law. Right now, there’s no companion bill in the Florida House, and lawmakers in that chamber shouldn’t rush to craft one. The Senate measure seems more of a ham-fisted attempt to stick it to teacher unions and school districts than a serious effort to improve education.

There is no doubting the persistent, ongoing need to eliminate tenure for underperforming teachers. There is also reason to decrease the importance of seniority in pay. Number of years worked doesn’t necessarily translate into acumen, enthusiasm or knowledge.

Unfortunately, CS/SB6 has little merit as a reform measure. A smarter approach might be to find ways to give school districts greater authority in using meaningful merit pay and tenure to reward outstanding teachers, or establish guidelines not singularly tied to standardized test results.

Maureen Dowd — Don’t mess with the nuns, Bart.

David Remnick of The New Yorker looks at the relationship between the U.S. and Israel in the hands of the Obama administration.

This month’s diplomatic drama, which was set off during Vice-President Biden’s visit by the announcement of sixteen hundred housing units planned for Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, reached its sad nadir last week, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Hagai Ben-Artzi, declared on Israeli radio that Obama was an “anti-Semite.” No one, not even Netanyahu, should be denied his right to an idiot relation, but the remark is less readily dismissed when one recalls reports (later denied) that the Prime Minister himself has referred to David Axelrod (whose West Wing office featured an “Obama for President” sign in Hebrew) and Rahm Emanuel (a civilian volunteer in the Israeli Army during the first Gulf War) as “self-hating Jews.”

The Netanyahu government suffers from a troubling degree of instability, thanks to its far-right coalition partners (including its bigoted foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman) and its ineptitude. The insult to Biden, an ardent Zionist, was just the most recent blunder, following the humiliation of a resident diplomat from Turkey (Israel’s closest friend in the Muslim world) and of the Brazilian President, to say nothing of its presumed role in the assassination of a Hamas military leader on the soil of one of the few open-minded countries in the region. The professionals in Washington and Jerusalem share sufficient diplomatic agility to paper over this latest unpleasantness, but the memory of the trivial-seeming aspects of the dispute—the affronts, the lacerating phone calls—obscures a more unsettling pattern: a deep Israeli misreading of the President and an ignorance of the diversity of opinion among American Jews and in the United States in general.


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