A Letter to My Students — George Saunders in The New Yorker shares his thoughts with the students he won’t be seeing again this school year.
Jeez, what a hard and depressing and scary time. So much suffering and anxiety everywhere. (I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, Moron! If you only knew!) But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here (at least not since 1918). We are (and especially you are) the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterward. What new forms might you invent, to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the e-mails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important. Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened (or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us something about some crazy thing that happened in 1970.) What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this, and what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now, and what records you keep.
Also, I think, with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, “Ah, so this is happening now,” or “Hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth. Did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker.”
And then I real quick try to pretend that I didn’t just call the universe a “stinker.”
I did a piece once where I went to live incognito in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week. Very intense, but the best thing I heard in there was from this older guy from Guatemala, who was always saying, “Everything is always keep changing.” Truer words were never spoken. It’s only when we expect solidity—non-change—that we get taken by surprise. (And we always expect solidity, no matter how well we know better.)
Well, this is all sounding a little preachy, and let me confess that I’m not taking my own advice. At all. It’s all happening so fast. Paula has what we are hoping is just a bad cold, and I am doing a lot of inept caregiving. Our dogs can feel that something weird is going on. (“No walk? AGAIN?!”) But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger and we tend to live our lives there on its back. (We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger.) And now and then that tiger wakes up. And that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up and someone we love dies. Or someone breaks our heart. Or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He/she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always there have been writers to observe it and (later) make some sort of sense of it, or at least bear witness to it. It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer, too. Especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting, warts and all.
All of this is to say: there’s still work to be done, and now more than ever.
There’s a beautiful story about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Her son was arrested during the Stalinist purges. One day, she was standing outside the prison with hundreds of other women in similar situations. It’s Russian-cold and they have to go there every day, wait for hours in this big open yard, then get the answer that, today and every day, there will be no news. But every day they keep coming back. A woman, recognizing her as the famous poet, says, “Poet, can you write this?” And Akhmatova thinks about it a second and goes: “Yes.”
I wish you all the best during this crazy period. Someday soon, things will be back to some sort of normal, and it will be easier to be happy again. I believe this and I hope it for each one of you. I look forward to seeing you all again and working with you. And even, in time, with sufficient P.P.E., giving you a handshake or hug.
Please feel free to e-mail anytime, for any reason.
Author’s note: I wrote this letter quickly and sent it out. Later I was able to find the actual Akhmatova quote, from her poem “Requiem”:
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
That last line is, maybe, the real point of the anecdote—Akhmatova’s confidence gave this unknown and tormented woman some measure of comfort.
In May of 2019, I was accepted to the Eli Whitney student program at Yale University. At 52, I am the oldest freshman in the class of 2023. Before I was accepted, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had seen the infamous YouTube video of students screaming at a faculty member. I had seen the news stories regarding the admissions scandal and that Yale was included in that unfortunate business. I had also heard the students at Yale referred to as “snowflakes” in various social media dumpsters and occasionally I’d seen references to Ivy League students as snowflakes in a few news sources.
I should give a bit of background information. I was an unimpressive and difficult student in public schools. I joined the military at 17 and spent close to 26 years in the US Navy. I was assigned for 22 of those years to Naval Special Warfare Commands. I went through SEAL training twice, quit the first time and barely made it the second time. I did multiple deployments and was wounded in combat in 2009 on a mission to rescue an American hostage.
Every single day I went to work with much better humans than myself. I was brought to a higher level of existence because the standards were high and one needed to earn their slot, their membership in the unit. This wasn’t a one-time deal. Every time you showed up for work, you needed to prove your worth.
The vetting process is difficult and the percentage of those who try out for special operations units and make it through the screening is very low.
In an odd parallel, I feel, in spite of my short time here, the same about Yale.
After receiving my acceptance email and returning to consciousness, I decided to move to Connecticut and do my best in this new environment. Many people have asked me why I want to attend college at 52, and why at an Ivy League institution like Yale? I could have easily stayed in Virginia and attended a community college close to my home. Well, based on my upbringing in the military, I associated a difficult vetting process with quality and opportunity. I was correct in that guess. More importantly, I simply want to be a better human being. I feel like getting a world-class education at an amazing institution like Yale will help me reach that goal. Are there other places to get a great education? Of course, but I chose Yale.
My first class of the semester was absolutely terrifying. I don’t know if it was for the kids in my class, but it damn sure was for me. It was a literature seminar with the amazing Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature, Professor David Quint. He is an amazing human in that he has dedicated his life to literature, and he knows what he is talking about. The discussion was centered around the Iliad. I had read a bit of the Iliad in the middle part of my military career and decidedly didn’t get it. Listening to Professor Quint demonstrated exactly how much I didn’t “get it.” The other students looked like children to me. Hell, they are children, but when they speak, and some of them speak English as their second language, they sound like very well-spoken adults. My Navy issued graduate degree in cussing wasn’t going to help me out here. These young students had a good grasp of the literature and although they lacked much experience to bounce it off of, they were certainly “all in” on trying to figure out its underlying meaning.
At one point I said, “Hey, I’m just an old guy sitting here with a bunch of smart people, but I think….” And they all smiled, some of them nervously because I was essentially an alien. I was an old dude with tattoos all over his arms and a Dutch Shepherd service dog, brandishing a subdued American flag patch on her harness, sitting next to me. Professor Quint later approached me and said, “Hey, don’t downplay your intelligence. You are smart as well.”
I thought, I’ve got him fooled! Turns out I didn’t fool him at all when I turned in my first paper, but that is another story for another time.
After a few classes, I started to get to know some of my classmates. Each of them is a compelling human who, in spite of their youth, are quite serious about getting things done.
One young woman made a very big impact on me. She approached me after class one day and said, “I am really glad I can be here at Yale and be in class with you. My grandfather came to Yale and when WWII started, he left for the Navy and flew planes in the Pacific theater. After he came home, he came back to Yale, but he couldn’t finish. He locked himself in his room and drank and eventually had to leave, so I feel like I am helping him finish here at Yale and I’m doing it with a veteran, you.”
I was surprised and quite emotional. Exceptionally emotional. She went on: “I can send you a photo of him!” and I told her I would love one. That evening she sent me this photo of her grandfather.
I used to read stories about men like him and they are heroes to me. Clearly her grandfather is a hero to her as well, and she is going to make him quite proud. This connection with a WWII vet through his amazing granddaughter is a gift. One of many I receive on an almost daily basis in this amazing institution. I think it’s worth taking a moment here and acknowledging that this thing we now call “PTSD” has always been around. Some of us veterans escape it while others, like me and likely this gent in the airplane, felt the sting of it.
One day in another lit class, I brought up a book I’d read a long time ago called “Taxi Driver Wisdom” by Risa Mickenberg, Joanne Dugan and Brian Lee Hughes.
After that class a couple of the students approached me and explained that their dads were cabbies when they first came to the United States, and that their fathers had told them that the things they sometimes heard from people in their cabs were amazing.
Think about that for a second. These students are first generation Americans. Their fathers immigrated to this country and started out by being taxi drivers. Now, their children are attending Yale University. I’m a patriotic man and those are the stories that help me understand how, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of negativity surrounding it, the American Dream is still alive and kicking. It makes my heart sing every time I see those kids.
Let me address this “snowflake” thing. According to the Urban Dictionary, a “snowflake” is a “term for someone that thinks they are unique and special, but really are not. It gained popularity after the movie Fight Club from the quote ‘You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.’ ”
I hear the term occasionally from buddies of mine who I love. They say things like, “How are things up there with the liberal snowflakes?”
Let me assure you, I have not met one kid who fits that description. None of the kids I’ve met seem to think that they are “special” any more than any other 18–22-year-old. These kids work their asses off. I have asked a couple of them to help me with my writing. One young woman volunteered to help me by proof-reading my “prose” and, for the record, I believe she will be the President someday. I recently listened while one of my closer pals, a kid from Portland, Oregon, talked to me about the beauty of this insane mathematics problem set he is working on. There is a young man in our group who grew up in Alaska working on fishing boats from a young age and who plays the cello. There is an exceptional young woman from Chicago who wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News expressing the importance of public demonstrations in light of a recent police shooting. She and I are polar opposites. I am the “patriarchy” at first glance, and she is a young black woman who is keen on public protests. Not the type of soul I generally find myself in conversation with. We come from different worlds and yet we both read classic works with open hearts and minds.
We recently met with a prominent writer from a think tank who is researching the state of the humanities in the university setting. There were four of us students: two young men, the young woman from Chicago, and me, the old guy. As the younger students started to express their thoughts, the young woman (truly a unicorn of a human) used the word “safe space” and it hit me forcefully. I come from a place where when I hear that term, I roll my eyes into the back of my vacant skull and laugh from the bottom of my potbelly. This time, I was literally in shock. It hit me that what I thought a “safe space” meant, was not accurate. This young woman, the one who used the phrase, isn’t scared of anything. She is a life-force of goodness and strength. She doesn’t need anyone to provide a comfortable environment for her. What she meant by “safe space” was that she was happy to be in an environment where difficult subjects can be discussed openly, without the risk of disrespect or harsh judgment. This works both ways. What I mean is, this young woman was comfortable, in this university setting, wrestling with things like the Aristotelian idea of some humans being born as “natural slaves.” She was quite comfortable in that space. The question was, how comfortable was the 52-year-old white guy in that discussion? Did it make me uncomfortable? Yes. I’m grateful for the discomfort. Thinking about things I don’t understand or have, for most of my life, written off, is a good thing.
Being uncomfortable is KEY in this world of ours. Not altogether different from the world of special operations, where the work needs to be done, regardless of weather or personal feelings. The climate in this educational institution is one where most students understand that there HAS to be a place where people can assault ideas openly and discuss them vigorously and respectfully in order to improve the state of humanity. I’ll call that a “safe space” and I’m glad those places exist.
Here in the “Directed Studies” program, instead of “tuning in” to our favorite self-confirming “news” source, we are given a timeless text with heavy ideas and then we throw them out on the floor and discuss them with people who have, as I mentioned earlier, made these works and their meaning, their vocation.
In my opinion, the real snowflakes are the people who are afraid of that situation. The poor souls who never take the opportunity to discuss ideas in a group of people who will very likely respectfully disagree with them. I challenge any of you hyper-opinionated zealots out there to actually sit down with a group of people who disagree with you and be open to having your mind changed. I’m not talking about submitting your deeply held beliefs to your twitter/facebook/instagram feeds for agreement from those who “follow” you. That unreal “safe space” where the accountability for one’s words is essentially null. I have sure had my mind changed here at Yale. To me there is no dishonor in being wrong and learning. There is dishonor in willful ignorance and there is dishonor in disrespect.
On Veteran’s Day, there was a great scene on Cross Campus. A bunch of American flags had been placed there and I stopped on my morning walk to class and took photos of my dog in front of them and sent them to my friends. Later at some point during the day, a young student placed a glove with red paint on it on one of the flags as she wanted to demonstrate her displeasure with something…I’m not quite sure what.
That same afternoon, some of my fellow students from “Directed Studies,” after a lecture, gave me this:
It is a card thanking me for my service to our nation. I was humbled and amazed.
These hardworking kids are very kind and thoughtful. A far cry from the picture that is often painted of them.
One of my professors, a Professor of Philosophy, told me once “a good leader is a bridge builder.” Professor David Charles is a man who has been teaching bright young people, and some slow and old ones like me, the most difficult subject for me, at Oxford and now Yale. He’s been doing this for over 30 years. He is extremely humble and very kind, in addition to being brilliant. I’m motivated by his words and I want to build bridges and lead, in some small way, a new conversation where we stop pointing out the perceived differences in each other, or this group vs that group, and start pointing out similarities. We don’t need more condescending friction in humanity. We need less. One step in the direction of less societal friction is to seek commonalities. Another step, and one that is sorely needed, is respect.
Now before you think I’m preaching, please know that I come from a place where I was distinctly the opposite of this ideal. I looked for reasons to disregard the opinions of those I didn’t respect. I discounted the ideas of people I felt like hadn’t earned the right to share what was in their mind. Particularly when it came to national security issues, I felt that if you hadn’t taken a gun into combat, I didn’t give a damn what your opinion was.
I’d like to count this as my first brick in attempting to build a bridge between the people here at Yale and those like me before I arrived here. We need everyone who gives a damn about this American experiment to contribute and make it succeed. We humans have much more in common than we have different. Thanks Yale, for helping me to become an aspiring bridge-builder at the age of 52.
In our welcome speech at the beginning of this semester, with all of us Freshman sitting in Woolsey Hall, me sitting next to another veteran, one who’d served in the 82nd Airborne, President Salovey said:
“There is so much we do not know. Let us embrace, together, our humility — our willingness to admit what we have yet to discover. After all, if you knew all the answers, you would not need Yale. And if humanity knew all the answers, the world would not need Yale.”
Now back to that bridge. I need to figure out how to actually build one. Good thing I’ve found a place where I can get help. If this place is peopled by “snowflakes” I’m proudly one of them. I’m a snowflake with a purple heart.
The New York Times examined high school history textbooks produced by the same publisher with the same authors credited, but used in two different states: Texas and California. The differences are noticeable.
Hundreds of differences — some subtle, others extensive — emerged in a New York Times analysis of eight commonly used American history textbooks in California and Texas, two of the nation’s largest markets.
In a country that cannot come to a consensus on fundamental questions — how restricted capitalism should be, whether immigrants are a burden or a boon, to what extent the legacy of slavery continues to shape American life — textbook publishers are caught in the middle. On these questions and others, classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters.
Conservatives have fought for schools to promote patriotism, highlight the influence of Christianity and celebrate the founding fathers. In a September speech, President Trump warned against a “radical left” that wants to “erase American history, crush religious liberty, indoctrinate our students with left-wing ideology.”
The left has pushed for students to encounter history more from the ground up than from the top down, with a focus on the experiences of marginalized groups such as enslaved people, women and Native Americans.
The books The Times analyzed were published in 2016 or later and have been widely adopted for eighth and 11th graders, though publishers declined to share sales figures. Each text has editions for Texas and California, among other states, customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities.
“At the end of the day, it’s a political process,” said Jesús F. de la Teja, an emeritus professor of history at Texas State University who has worked for the state of Texas and for publishers in reviewing standards and textbooks.
The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.
Requests from textbook review panels, submitted in painstaking detail to publishers, show the sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.
A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people. A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.
All the members of the California panel were educators selected by the State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The Texas panel, appointed by the Republican-dominated State Board of Education, was made up of educators, parents, business representatives and a Christian pastor and politician.
McGraw-Hill, the publisher whose annotated Bill of Rights appears differently in the two states, said it had created the additional wording on the Second Amendment and gun control for the California textbook. A national version of the pages is similar to the Texas edition, which does not call attention to gun rights, the company said in a written statement.
Pearson, the publisher whose Texas textbook raises questions about the quality of Harlem Renaissance literature, said such language “adds more depth and nuance.”
Critical language about nonwhite cultural movements also appears in a Texas book from McGraw-Hill. It is partly a result of debates, in 2010, between conservative and liberal members of the Texas Board of Education over whether state standards should mention cultural movements like hip-hop and country music. Their compromise was to ask teachers and textbook publishers to address “both the positive and negative impacts” of artistic movements.
Texas struck that requirement in 2018, but its most recent textbooks, published in 2016, will reflect it for years to come.
Publishers are eager to please state policymakers of both parties, during a challenging time for the business. Schools are transitioning to digital materials. And with the ease of internet research, many teachers say they prefer to curate their own primary-source materials online.
This isn’t surprising in the least. History is written by the majority in power, so if you’re living in a state where the legislature is dominated by white Christian men, you’re not going to learn a lot about other people, and even if you do, it’s going to be colored, shall we say, by the view of the majority. And even if that isn’t the case at the level of the states’ Department of Education, the history itself and how it is viewed by the culture and the region will have an influence. Thus, the Civil War is viewed from the Union states as a battle against traitors to the United States, and the Confederates, who refer to it as The War of Northern Aggression, and was their attempt to preserve their economic viability and identity; slavery had nothing to do with it.
Such retelling and reshaping in the classroom isn’t limited to just history. Textbooks in art and theatre history are rife with a tilt toward Western art and performance, giving a cursory glance at the impact and deep traditions of the thousands of years of rich traditions in Asia, India, and even Native America. There’s not a lot of overt political influence in writing theatre history, but the natural tribalism and ethnocentrism that we all have makes it hard for a student in Evansville, Indiana, to learn that there’s more to theatre than Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.
Is there a solution to this tilt of history being fed to our high schools in the several states? Yes. It’s teachers who will use the textbooks not as the source but as a reference and encourage their students to challenge the preconceived ideas, be they liberal or conservative. Simply put, use their brains and their natural curiosity to add the dimensions that reflect more than just what’s written in a state-issued, state-sanctioned and compromised version of history and life. That’s what education is supposed to do in the first place.
I’ve lived in New Mexico — twice, actually — so this story is nothing new to me or anyone who’s lived there, but I thought it was interesting that it has become a somewhat national story.
A New Mexico man applying for a marriage license in Washington, D.C., this month had his state driver’s license rejected as a form of identification because a clerk and her supervisor believed New Mexico was a foreign country.
Gavin Clarkson, a Las Cruces, N.M., resident, said he was at the District of Columbia Marriage Bureau on Nov. 20 applying for a license to wed his then-fiancée when their nuptial plans hit a brief snag. The clerk told him he would need an international passport on the apparent belief that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
“She thought New Mexico was a foreign country,” he said of the clerk as quoted by the Las Cruces Sun-News. “All the couples behind us waiting in line were laughing.”
Clarkson was a recent candidate for New Mexico secretary of state and is a member of the Choctaw Nation. He said he protested the clerk’s decision to her supervisor, who also failed to recognize New Mexico as a state.
“You know you are from flyover country when you are applying for a marriage license, give them your New Mexico driver’s license, and they come back and say ‘my supervisor says we cannot accept international driver’s licenses. Do you have a New Mexico passport?’ ” Clarkson tweeted.
This happens so often that New Mexico, the magazine put out by the state’s tourism office, has a regular feature, “One of Our 50 Is Missing,” regaling readers with tales of people in other places mistaking New Mexico for a foreign country. As a matter of record, it’s the fifth-largest state in area and it’s been a state since 1912, coming into the union before Arizona.
Just to make sure the word gets out, the state’s license plates confirm that the Land of Enchantment is one of ours.
However, given the state of education — don’t they teach geography any more? — and the fear of Others put into the mind by the foolish and the weak in this country, I’m pretty sure that the magazine and the Missing 50 will have plenty of stories to tell for a long time.
Today is the last day of classes here for the public schools here in Miami-Dade County. I hope all the students have a good summer, and I want to thank all the teachers and staff at the schools of the fourth-largest district in the country for their hard work. It is paying off.
For those of us in the administration downtown, it’s been good to see the results, not just in test scores, but in high graduation rates and the number of students going on to college or career choices.
We’ll be here all summer getting things ready for 2018-2019.
Teaching is hard enough in a good school environment with good facilities and decent pay and administrative support. Teaching requires supreme dedication, training, and devotion and it should be treated by our society as one of the most important — and therefore highly-paid — professions. And yet, as we do with other public service officials — police, fire, and first responders — we treat them like they are little more than servants.
So when you have places such as Oklahoma and Kentucky where teachers, including those with advanced degrees, are working two other jobs just to keep up with subsistence living, it’s no wonder that they are unifying and making their voices heard.
I have mentioned often that my father worked as a teacher and administrator in the Worcester public schools in Massachusetts for 35 years. He gave up an attempt at law school to do it. His sister once told me he’d said that, after what he’d been through in World War II, he wanted to be around kids the rest of his life. Which is why I’m somewhat ferocious about attacks on the idea of public education, one of the glories of American civilization. These include the attacks on it leveled by what are popularly known as education “reformers.”
Anyway, what’s going on around the country right now is remarkable evidence of the power of the idea of public education, and of the dedication of the people who work in the institution. Beginning in West Virginia, and now catching fire in Oklahoma and Kentucky, public-school teachers have dug in. They are tired, they say, of being the punching-bags of everyone from tax-cut-drunk state governments to come-and-go dilettantes like Campbell Brown. They are tired, they say, of buying school supplies out of their own salaries, some of which haven’t been raised in decades. They are tired of teaching out of obsolete textbooks that are falling apart faster than are the lessons contained therein. They are tired of hearing about how lazy they are, and how easy they have it, and how there’s always money for stadia and tax breaks, but never enough for copy paper and colored pencils.
So, they have walked out, and they’re raising their voices the way they never have before, and in those places where conservative governors and state legislatures have been using them as convenient scapegoats for the underfunding of public education in the first place. Like, say, Oklahoma. From NewsOK.com:
The thousands of teachers at the Capitol on Monday rallied on the south steps, marched around the building and went inside to talk to lawmakers. Now, education advocates hope for another large crowd on Tuesday. Abigail Woodhead, who teaches at Celia Clinton Elementary School in Tulsa, said she is determined to see the rally continue. “My fear is that it’s going to fade after today, and I refuse to let that happen,” Woodhead said on the first day of the rally…Woodhead wore a hooded sweatshirt with her school name on the front. On the back, it read: “If it is to be, it’s up to me” — something Woodhead strives to instill in her students. “When I had to talk to my precious third graders and break this down for them in kid language, it kind of came down to that,” she said. “Guys, we’re standing up for you. We’re a part of a movement right now.” Woodhead attended Monday’s rally with a co-worker and said they both planned on being there “as long as it takes.”
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, the teachers have taken to inconveniencing not only the state legislature, but also Matt Bevin, one of America’s least-excusable governors. They have many of the same issues as the teachers in Oklahoma, but they also are angry that, as is the case of many public employees around the country, their pensions have been underfunded and/or looted. From The Louisville Courier-Journal:
“We are fed up,” said Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association. If (lawmakers) don’t pass a budget that protects the public services of Kentucky, if they don’t pass a budget that provides adequate funding for the public schools of the Commonwealth, then we’re going to vote them out,” Winkler said. Monday’s events began with a march that shut down Capitol Avenue as sign-waving teachers estimated in the thousands moved up the broad boulevard toward the statehouse. Side streets were jammed, and Frankfort’s two exchanges off Interstate 64 were briefly clogged as people poured into town.
The promise of taking out anger at the polls is a sign that this movement is as savvy as the other ones that have sprung up recently in reaction to the election of this particular president* and the party that has chosen to sustain him. It is always nice to have a defined goal, to know where the next immediate finish line is.
Our first instinct, both individually and as a nation, should be to teach the children. To raise them to a higher standard than where we came from, to give them what they need not just to compete for a good job but to become a better person than the people that raised them. Education is the silver bullet that cures the ills of poverty, distrust, paranoia, and raises us up. I am sure there are studies and hard-core evidence that proves that the more money that is spent on education at all levels, the lower the crime rate, the higher the potential for productivity in the workplace and in the home, and fewer people falling by the wayside and becoming a drain on both resources and optimism about our future.
Amid a wide gap between modest teacher salaries and Miami’s high housing prices, the county has a new plan: build apartments on school property and let faculty live there.
A preliminary proposal includes constructing a new mid-rise middle school in the luxe Brickell area for Southside Elementary, with a floor devoted to residential units, and several more reserved for parking and the classrooms on top. If that goes well, Miami-Dade wants a full-fledged housing complex next to Phillis Wheatley Elementary, with as many as 300 apartments going up on the campus just north of downtown.
“It’s an exciting idea,” said Michael Liu, Miami-Dade’s housing director. “Land is at a premium in Miami-Dade County. It’s difficult to come by, especially in the urban core.”
Though preliminary, the joint effort by Miami-Dade’s school system and housing department has momentum.
When Apartment List last year matched teacher salaries with rents in 50 of the country’s largest real estate markets, Miami ranked 47th; only New York, Seattle and San Francisco had larger gaps. With a first-year teacher earning about $42,000 and raises coming slowly, Apartment List found even established teachers could expect to spend as much as two-thirds of their incomes on a two-bedroom apartment in Miami.
“When you look at teacher salaries, it’s just impossible for them to get into the housing market,” said Ned Murray, associate director of Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center, which studies the gap between income and housing in Miami. Using school property to create housing for the school system’s workforce “is a good idea, because land is such a difficult piece of the puzzle.”
Rather than come up with some housing plan that basically makes the school system the teachers’ landlord — which has some unpleasant connotations for some people — here’s a simple solution: pay the teachers more.
Speaking of toadies (see below), Lesley Stahl’s “60 Minutes” interview with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos revealed that she doesn’t know jack about public education other than the best way to make a school better is to take away all its funding and give it to some fly-by-night charter operation.
STAHL: Why take away money from that school that’s not working — to bring them up to a level where they are, that school is working?
DEVOS: Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in school, school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems.
STAHL: Okay. But what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working? What about those kids?
DEVOS: Well, in places where there have been, where there is, a lot of choice that’s been introduced, Florida, for example, the studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually, the results get better, as well.
STAHL: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.
DEVOS: Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.
STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?
DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall, I, I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.
STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.
Interesting that Ms. DeVos would cite Florida as a shining example of how her alleged ideas work; the state is cutting funding again in the counties that need it the most, and the successes of the public schools have been achieved in spite of the best efforts of the legislature to screw them over.
I’ve never met or interviewed Donald Trump, though like most of the world I feel amply exposed to his outlooks and styles of expression. So I can’t say whether, in person, he somehow conveys the edge, the sparkle, the ability to connect, the layers of meaning that we usually associate with both emotional and analytical intelligence.But I have had the chance over the years to meet and interview a large sampling of people whom the world views the way Trump views himself. That is, according to this morning’s dispatches, as “like, really smart,” and “genius.”In current circumstances it’s relevant to mention what I’ve learned this way.
I once spent weeks on interviews for a magazine profile of a man who had won a Nobel prize in medicine while in his forties. Back in my college days, one afternoon our biology professor passed around Dixie cups full of champagne before beginning the day’s classroom lecture, because of news that he had just won the Nobel prize. In decades of reporting on the tech industry, I’ve interviewed people—Gates, Jobs, Musk, Page—whose names have become shorthands for their respective forms of brilliance, plus several more Nobel winners, plus others who are not famous but deserve to be.
During a brief stint of actually working at a tech company, I learned that some of the engineers and coders were viewed as just operating on a different plane: the code they wrote was better, tighter, and more elegant than other people’s, and they could write it much more quickly.I’ve had the chance to interview and help select winners of fancy scholarships. Recently, in Shanghai, I interviewed a Chinese woman now in her early twenties who became the women’s world chess champion at age 16—and we were speaking in English.If you report long enough on politics and public life, even there you will see examples of exceptional strategic, analytic, and bargaining intelligence, along with a lot of clownishness.
Here are three traits I would report from a long trail of meeting and interviewing people who by any reckoning are very intelligent.
They all know it. A lifetime of quietly comparing their ease in handling intellectual challenges—at the chess board, in the classroom, in the debating or writing arena—with the efforts of other people gave them the message.
Virtually none of them (need to) say it. There are a few prominent exceptions, of talented people who annoyingly go out of their way to announce that fact. Muhammed Ali is the charming extreme exception illustrating the rule: he said he was The Greatest, and was. Most greats don’t need to say so. It would be like Roger Federer introducing himself with, “You know, I’m quite graceful and gifted.” Or Meryl Streep asking, “Have you seen my awards?”
They know what they don’t know. This to me is the most consistent marker of real intelligence. The more acute someone’s ability to perceive and assess, the more likely that person is to recognize his or her limits. These include the unevenness of any one person’s talents; the specific areas of weakness—social awkwardness, musical tin ear, being stronger with numbers than with words, or vice versa; and the incomparable vastness of what any individual person can never know. To read books seriously is to be staggered by the knowledge of how many more books will remain beyond your ken. It’s like looking up at the star-filled sky.We can think of exceptions—the people who are eminent in one field and try unwisely to stretch that to another. (Celebrated scientists or artists who become ordinary pundits; Michael Jordan the basketball genius becoming Michael Jordan the minor-league baseball player.) But generally the cliche is true: the clearest mark of intelligence, even “genius,” is awareness of one’s limits and ignorance.
On the other hand, we have something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more limited someone is in reality, the more talented the person imagines himself to be. Or, as David Dunning and Justin Kruger put it in the title of their original scientific-journal article, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”
Odds are that the world’s most flamboyant illustration of this dangerous mis-perception, despite his claimed omniscience, would not even recognize the term, nor its ominous implications in his case.
Crumbling Schools — Edwin Rios in Mother Jones on the state of school buildings in America.
This week, as the “bomb cyclone” ravaged cities along the East Coast, schools across the northeastern and southern United States were forced to shut down due to inclement weather and freezing temperatures. But Baltimore schools remained open during the first half of the week despite broken heating systems that caused some classroom temperatures to dip below 40 degrees. And although schools closed on Thursday and Friday, the debate over who’s responsible for the inadequate heating and water systems in the city’s aging school buildings—and how to fix the underlying problem—rages on.The plight of Baltimore students first reached national consciousness on Wednesday, when a video of students discussing the conditions withformer NFL linebacker turned elementary school teacher Aaron Maybin went viral. “What’s the day been like for you today?” Maybin asked. “Cold!” the kids, some in jackets and hoodies, shouted together. Parents and teachers shared images of kids bundled in coats and thermostats on social media.On Wednesday, after the district closed four schools and dismissed two others early, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in a Facebook video that 60 school buildings—a third of the district—reported problems that included broken boilers and water pipes. The decision to close schools, though, wasn’t made lightly. Santelises noted in the video that in the district, where nearly 87 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, administrators were forced to try to find a balance between the students’ need for food and safety with an impossibly cold learning environment.
It didn’t take long for local politicians to start sparring over the issue: On Thursday, when Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford tweeted that if his kids were in Baltimore’s schools, he would be at the superintendent’s office “seeking answers,” former NAACP president Ben Jealous, a Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, shot back, replying that “all Maryland kids” are Rutherford’s kids. “Will we see you at the Superintendent’s office seeking answers for your kids?” he tweeted. Jealous wrote later on Facebook that Rutherford didn’t show up, adding: “Had he, I would have told him our administrators and teachers are not to blame and that it’s time we fully fund our schools.”
In a statement to CNN, Santelises expressed frustration with the lack of funding for school infrastructure.
“[T]oo many of our buildings have outdated heating systems, poor insulation, and aging pipes as a result of years of inadequate funding for maintenance and facilities improvements,” she said. In an op-ed for Teen Vogue, Kimberly Mooney, a teacher in Baltimore, also argued that the schools’ faltering pipes were just one example of the minimal financial support from the state to resolve Baltimore’s “crumbling infrastructure.”
In 2012, a report commissioned by Baltimore City Public Schools found that 69 percent of the district’s campuses were in “very poor condition,” and it would take an estimated $2.5 billion to bring buildings up to adequate standards. The Baltimore Sunreported on Thursday that the city’s schools have had to return $66 million in state funding to fix heating systems and make building repairs after they delayed projects for too long or the projects became too costly. Lawmakers called for changes to how money was awarded for projects, and Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan said he was “outraged at the failures in Baltimore City” and blasted officials’ “ineptness and mismanagement” regarding the funding.
The debate in Baltimore reflects longstanding infrastructure woes schools face throughout the country. Beyond roads and highways, these 100,000 public schools—many of which are housed by aging buildings in desperate need of repairs and modernization—make up the second largest infrastructure system in the United States. Yet the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) concluded in its annual report card last year that more than half of the nation’s public schools needed investments just to bring the building conditions to “good.” High-quality school facilities have been linked to better academic achievement for students, fewer suspensions, and better staff retention.
The problem has been brewing for decades. The Government Accountability Office concluded in 1995 that America’s schools needed a collective $112 billion to “repair or upgrade their facilities to good condition.” That number has ballooned to an estimated $145 billion per year, including an additional $46 billion each year on construction and maintenance to bring facilities up to modern standards, according to a 2016 “State of Our Schools” report.
Currently, the federal government spends little on improving school infrastructure, leaving the bulk of the financing to come from the state and local governments. In fact, local taxpayer dollars account for, on average, only 45 percent of funding toward maintenance and operations. But budgets are tight: After the 2008 recession, most states reduced school funding, putting pressure on local districts to make up the difference. In 2015, 29 states still had less overall state funding than they did in the 2008 school year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, even as student enrollment grew.
Meanwhile, the capital funds, which are used to renovate and build new schools and to shore up technological infrastructure, dropped 31 percent from 2008 to 2015. The ASCE 2017 report card noted that the constricted budgets have led to “accelerating deterioration of heating, cooling, and lighting systems.” And much of the capital construction investment on school facilities—82 percent—comes down to how much school districts can raise from taxpayers, the 2016 “State of Our Schools” joint report noted. “Because the large majority of capital construction is funded by local taxpayers, the ability of school districts to pay for major renewals or new construction is tied to the wealth of their community, perpetuating inequity in school facility conditions,” the authors wrote.
One 2006 study found that projects at schools in wealthier areas spent three times more capital funds than projects in schools in poorer areas—where infrastructure investment is needed the most. In the 2012-2013 school year, 60 percent of schools with some of the poorest student populations, where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, needed repairs. That’s 12 percentage points higher than those in wealthier communities, according to theNational Education Center for Statistics.
It’s unclear whether President Donald Trump, with his long–promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan, will keep his pledge to “rebuild our roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, airports, schools, and hospitals.” Last January, Senate Democrats introduced their own 10-year infrastructure proposal that included $75 billion toward shoring up schools, and it’s been lying dormant in Congress ever since. For now, some citizens are taking action—a college student’s GoFundMe campaign to provide space heaters and jackets for the Baltimorestudents far exceeded its $20,000 goal.
“Hamilton” In London — Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in The New Yorker takes in the show back in the land that sparked it.
The night that I saw “Hamilton” on Broadway, in 2015, the Vice-President at the time, Joe Biden, happened to be sitting down the row. It was a mixed blessing: his entourage jammed the bathroom lines at intermission, but his presence lent the musical, about the American Revolution and its aftermath, an additional thrill. Watching Alexander Hamilton rap against a series of antagonistic Vice-Presidents—Adams, Jefferson, Burr—with Biden just a few seats away felt as close as I’d ever come to seeing “Macbeth” in 1606 with Banquo’s supposed descendant, King James I, at my elbow.
Two years and one Presidential election later—and a little more than a year after Biden’s successor, Mike Pence, attended the show and was beseeched from the stage to represent “the diverse America,” as the musical’s multiethnic cast aspires to do—I saw “Hamilton” in London, on its opening night, at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The mood was similarly charged, with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the much heralded son of a Pakistani bus driver, shaking hands in the lobby. It felt like a long way from the Obama-Biden years. American and British electorates didn’t follow Lin-Manuel Miranda’s script, voting against the inclusive immigrant narrative and cosmopolitan cultural energy that “Hamilton” had come to embody for many (though not for some left-wing critics, who have labelled the show “Founders Chic” and said that it merely dresses up the Great Men of American history in hip-hop robes). Would it be the same show across the Atlantic, in the era of Trump and Brexit?
Miranda has a knack for cultural synthesis; in a press conference before the London opening, he placed his verse drama in a tradition that runs back to Shakespeare and noted that he’d made a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Bard’s birthplace. He has also played up Hamilton’s ties to Britain’s current orphan hero: Hamilton’s first encounter with Aaron Burr “is basically Harry Potter meeting Draco Malfoy,” he wrote in his notes to the published script. On her way to a post-show reception, Helena Bonham Carter, who played Bellatrix Lestrange in the Potter films, said that she’d like to play Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, powerfully incarnated at the Victoria Palace by Rachel John. On the day of the opening, the London “Hamilton” company released a promotional video that features a mashup of Angelica’s showstopping “Satisfied” with the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” At intermission, I had to step over the long legs of Keith Richards, who sat next to the Miranda family.
There were a few tweaks: Miranda said in an interview that he’d rewritten a joke about the Vice-Presidency for a British audience that might not know that John Adams once held that office. He also replaced references to Weehawken and the Potomac, since even general geography lacked local purchase. (A line about duelling across the Hudson because “Everything is legal in New Jersey” didn’t get the laugh it earned in Manhattan.) But a “Macbeth” allusion played better in the U.K. than it did Stateside: when a beleaguered Hamilton, “son of a whore and a Scotsman,” sings to Angelica, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day / I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play,” the audience chuckled in appreciation.
“Macbeth” has had a decent run outside the Jacobean court, and “Hamilton,” too, looks poised to thrive through future administrations. When the newcomer Jamael Westman, as a laser-focussed Hamilton, a head taller and a decade younger than Miranda, rapped, “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists? / Give me your position, show me where the ammunition is!” the audience erupted. The ovation for the veteran Giles Terera, a canny Burr, stopped the show after “The Room Where It Happens,” his declaration of lust for insider politics, and Obioma Ugoala brought down the house with George Washington’s preacherly farewell address, “One Last Time.” Alex Lacamoire, the show’s music director, said, at intermission, “I thought about changing a few things, but then I decided, nah, it’s pretty good.” The one difference, he explained, was the speed with which the London actors learned the score. They’d all listened to the original cast recording—the highest-débuting Broadway album on the Billboard 200 chart in half a century—and came into rehearsal with the music memorized. The same seemed to be true for the audience, which obeyed King George III’s command to sing the chorus to his catchy number “You’ll Be Back” along with him. “It’s not common for an audience to come to a première already knowing all the songs,” Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer, told me. “Spotify changed everything.” (Seller added that he expected “Hamilton” to be translated into Spanish and, perhaps, German.)
King George, the home-town antihero played by Michael Jibson, resplendent and glowering at his errant subjects in the audience, got the biggest cheer of the night. (“We did spiff up the King’s outfit,” Miranda said. “He’s got a much bling-ier garter because we were in the shadow of Buckingham Palace and he was looking a bit dingy.”) But Hamilton’s complaint that “Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly” sparked a loud laugh, too, and the revolutionaries’ victory over the British forces at the Battle of Yorktown prompted mid-song applause. “It seemed a bit double-barrelled,” the Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, whose book is the basis for the musical, reflected after the show. “The audience cheered for King George and then enjoyed the satire.” A British fan, waiting for an autograph from Jason Pennycooke, who plays a gleefully showboating Thomas Jefferson, said that the King wasn’t a villain—“he’s just comic relief.”
The most knowing laughter came at King George’s caution to the newly independent colonies: “Oceans rise / Empires fall / It’s much harder when it’s all your call / All alone, across the sea / When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.” Was this a prophecy of Donald Trump’s spiralling isolationism—the travel ban, the broken accords, the looming wall—or an admonition to Brexit leaders fumbling after the British Conservative Party’s recent electoral setback? Miranda made the connection explicit before the show: “When you see the King singing about ‘You’ll be back; it’s harder on your own,’ given what you’re going through with Brexit, those lines ping off in all these different directions.”
A three-star review that ran in the right-wing Daily Mail, an outlier among widespread five-star rapture, asked whether Hamilton, as an architect of national sovereignty, might have actually supported the Leave vote; the other skeptical review, from the Sunday Times, compared Hamilton’s economic élitism to the leadership of the European Union. Barack Obama used to joke that “Hamilton” was the only thing that he and Dick Cheney could agree on; what sounded like a bipartisan endorsement also served as a reminder that works of art are susceptible to more than one ideology. “Hamilton,” after all, is a reflection on the contingency of historical narratives—its final chorus sings, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Chernow said that he hoped the show would remind Britain that, even in the age of Trump, America could represent diversity and inclusion, a force for good.
CNN reports on the impact of Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland after Hurricane Maria.
In the wish lists of Democratic strategists, one imagines the arrival of tens of thousands of Democratic-leaning voters to Florida, seemingly overnight, ranks pretty high.
Two months after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island, new data suggests that’s exactly what’s happened.
Figures on school enrollment provided to CNN from the Florida Department of Education suggest that well over 50,000 Puerto Ricans will have moved to Florida and made it their residence heading into the midterm election next year.
These voters are likely to be strong Democrat supporters, as an analysis by Dan Smith, a University of Florida professor, found that heavily-Puerto Rican districts only gave 15 to 35% support to Trump.
Counting the number of school children arriving from Puerto Rico is a good way to understand how Florida’s electorate will change due to Hurricane Maria. “School enrollment is the best indicator for long-term settlement,” said Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.
More than 6,500 Puerto Rican children have enrolled in Florida schools as of November 14. The data shows a strong continuing trend: A week earlier, the figure stood at 5,600. A week before that, it was 4,300. The evidence suggests that substantially more children are enrolled at this point as this kind of data can have a lag and has reporting gaps, Melendez said.
With a colleague, Melendez found that if 9,600 Puerto Rican children enroll in schools, that means a total of about 41,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to Florida. On the high end, if 15,400 students enroll, an estimated 83,000 Puerto Ricans migrated. There is a very high probability based on the current trend that the lower estimate will be surpassed by next November.
Migration at this level will mean Republicans face an even harsher demographic shift in a state already trending away from them. Hispanics constituted an estimated 12% of the eligible voter population in Florida in 2000. Before the Hurricane, that number was expected to double by 2030.
“It’s a little more headwind for Republicans who were already grappling with an increasingly Democratic population,” said Rob Griffin, director of quantitative analysis at the Center for American Progress and contributor to the States of Change project.
I can report that Miami-Dade County Public Schools is already accommodating the arrival. We’re sadly accustomed to this; after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 we took in a lot of new students and made room for them.
As for the impact this could have on the elections in 2018 and 2020, it’s highly unlikely that the people who were basically ignored by the Trump administration until the public outcry forced them to do something — like toss paper towels — while they did everything they could for Texas (although it wasn’t nearly enough, according to the people in Texas) will forget what happened in the aftermath of the storm. They were not just ignored; they were mocked, vilified, and set up for a con.
The reason for this treatment is simple Republican logic. Puerto Ricans can’t vote in the presidential election and even if they could, they’re largely Democrats anyway. Texas, on the other hand, is very Republican and also the home of one of Trump’s possible primary challengers in 2020, Ted Cruz. You go where the money is and where you can score electoral points.
But once Puerto Ricans are on the mainland and registered to vote, they will vote. And they will remember.
Today is the first day of classes for the 2017-2018 school year at Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Best wishes to everyone for a great year; we’ve got your back downtown and are ready to lend a helping hand.
Based on what we’ve seen so far from Trump and DeVos, it’s going to be an interesting year.
More than three-quarters of a century after the delegates of the Second Continental Congress voted to quit the Kingdom of Great Britain and declared that “all men are created equal,” Frederick Douglass stepped up to the lectern at Corinthian Hall, in Rochester, New York, and, in an Independence Day address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, made manifest the darkest ironies embedded in American history and in the national self-regard. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass asked:
I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
The dissection of American reality, in all its complexity, is essential to political progress, and yet it rarely goes unpunished. One reason that the Republican right and its attendant media loathed Barack Obama is that his public rhetoric, while far more buoyant with post-civil-rights-era uplift than Douglass’s, was also an affront to reactionary pieties. Even as Obama tried to win votes, he did not paper over the duality of the American condition: its idealism and its injustices; its heroism in the fight against Fascism and its bloody misadventures before and after. His idea of a patriotic song was “America the Beautiful”—not in its sentimental ballpark versions but the way that Ray Charles sang it, as a blues, capturing the “fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top.”
Donald Trump, who, in fairness, has noted that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job,” represents an entirely different tradition. He has no interest in the wholeness of reality. He descends from the lineage of the Know-Nothings, the doomsayers and the fabulists, the nativists and the hucksters. The thematic shift from Obama to Trump has been from “lifting as we climb” to “raising the drawbridge and bolting the door.” Trump may operate a twenty-first-century Twitter machine, but he is still a frontier-era drummer peddling snake oil, juniper tar, and Dr. Tabler’s Buckeye Pile Cure for profit from the back of a dusty wagon.
As a candidate, Trump told his followers that he would fulfill “every dream you ever dreamed for your country.” But he is a plutocrat. His loyalty is to the interests of the plutocracy. Trump’s vows of solidarity with the struggling working class, with the victims of globalization and deindustrialization, are a fraud. He made coal miners a symbol of his campaign, but he has always held them in contempt. To him, they are luckless schmoes who fail to possess his ineffable talents. “The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son,” Trump once told Playboy. “If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination—or whatever—to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it.’ ”
Trump is hardly the first bad President in American history—he has not had adequate time to eclipse, in deed, the very worst—but when has any politician done so much, so quickly, to demean his office, his country, and even the language in which he attempts to speak? Every day, Trump wakes up and erodes the dignity of the Presidency a little more. He tells a lie. He tells another. He trolls Arnold Schwarzenegger. He trolls the press, bellowing “enemy of the people” and “fake news!” He shoves aside a Balkan head of state. He summons his Cabinet members to have them swear fealty to his awesomeness. He leers at an Irish journalist. Last Thursday, he tweeted at Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, of MSNBC: “I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came . . . to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” The President’s misogyny and his indecency are well established. When is it time to question his mental stability?
The atmosphere of debasement and indignity in the White House, it appears, is contagious. Trump’s family and the aides who hastened to serve him have learned to imitate his grossest reflexes, and to hell with the contradictions. Melania Trump, whose “cause” is cyber-bullying, defends the poisoned tweet at Brzezinski. His righteously feminist daughter Ivanka stays mum. After the recent special election in Georgia, Kellyanne Conway, the counsellor to the President, tweeted, “Laughing my #Ossoff.” The wit! The valor! Verily, the return of Camelot!
Trump began his national ascendancy by hoisting the racist banner of birtherism. Since then, as candidate and as President, he has found countless ways to pollute the national atmosphere. If someone suggests a lie that is useful to him, he will happily pass it along or endorse it. This habit is not without purpose or cumulative effect. Even if Trump fails in his most ambitious policy initiatives, whether it is liberating the wealthy from their tax obligations or liberating the poor from their health care, he has already begun to foster a public sphere in which, as Hannah Arendt put it in her treatise on totalitarian states, millions come to believe that “everything was possible and that nothing was true.”
Frederick Douglass ended his Independence Day jeremiad in Rochester with steadfast optimism (“I do not despair of this country”). Read his closing lines, and what despair you might feel when listening to a President who abets ignorance, isolation, and cynicism is eased, at least somewhat. The “mental darkness” of earlier times is done, Douglass reminded his audience. “Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” There is yet hope for the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and “the genius of American Institutions.” There was reason for optimism then, as there is now. Donald Trump is not forever. Sometimes it just seems that way.
Every traditional public school in Miami-Dade County made the grade, and not one of those grades was an F. It’s a gratifying and hard-won accomplishment for schools chief Alberto Carvalho and his team, School Board members, educators in all capacities, parents and, of course, the students. And it’s a first.
The achievement is the result of a slow but steady march to the day when the state Department of Education would release the annual school grades and every school in the county would receive a passing grade. That glorious day arrived last week.
Success came despite the challenges — or maybe because of them. There are schools with large numbers of students living in poverty and low parental engagement. About 70 percent of students district-wide get reduced-price or free lunch because they come from low-income families. And more than 72,000 students are learning English. All are indicators of students facing the most hurdles to academic success. The district amped up the focus on them. “We put in counselors and coaches,” Carvalho told the Editorial Board. “ We put in new supports for fragile schools.”
The district earned a B average overall; two-thirds of all schools received a grade of A or B. Almost 20 years ago, there were 26 F schools in Miami-Dade.
School grades are weighted most heavily toward students’ scores on standardized tests, with graduation rates and the number of students taking advanced courses also factored in. What makes the school district’s no-F achievement even more remarkable is that since 1999, when the tests were first administered, state legislators have tinkered and rejiggered and generally messed around, making the test always more difficult — arbitrarily setting back some students’ progress — and harder to administer. The introduction of computers, for instance, was a disaster, plus many poor students had little experience with such technology in their homes.
In fact, the only failure in the district’s good-news story is that of the state Legislature — again. As reported by Kristen Clark of the Herald/Tallahassee new bureau, because of the new education reform law, Senate Bill 7069, passed during the session, 650 charter schools throughout the state, privately managed and independent of schools districts, could be entitled to receive as much as $96 million from school districts’ taxpayer funds for construction and maintenance. At the very least, lawmakers imposed certain financial and academic standards before many of these for-profit schools can receive funds.
There’s more: Superintendent Carvalho rightly laments new restrictions placed on the use of federal Title 1 funds. Public-school districts are expected to distribute this funding for schools with poor and at-risk students to private and charter schools, as well. In addition, under a new state-imposed formula, the Title 1 money that remains with the district must be spread further throughout the district, clearly with the potential to dilute the beneficial impact these funds have when concentrated in the neediest schools.
“SB 7069 rewards publicly funded schools that don’t have a track record of lifting failing students,” Carvalho told the Editorial Board. He later added that “These funding levels and restrictions will endanger the progress we have made.”
It’s a legitimate fear. For this sweeping law that will likely undermine hard-won gains like those in Miami-Dade, lawmakers have earned an F.
Mary Lou Whitehorne was at a work conference in 2007 when her colleagues surprised her with an asteroid.They were at an annual meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in Calgary. Whitehorne, a member of the organization and a longtime science educator, was standing outside of a pub, engaged in a conversation, when a coworker called her inside. He had a special announcement to make: A small asteroid, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, had been named after Whitehorne.“I was completely floored and completely speechless,” Whitehorne says.
Whitehorne’s colleagues had waited about two years for the name to be approved. Asteroids can’t be named for just anything or anyone; there’s a careful selection process with lots of rules, managed by an international organization in charge of collecting and sorting observational data for asteroids. The organization is the Minor Planet Center, which is run out of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts, and under the purview of the International Astronomical Union, an organization of professional astronomers.
The first asteroids to be discovered, in the early 1800s, were named for figures in Roman and Greek mythology, like Ceres, Pallas, and Vesta. Astronomers ran out of those options fairly quickly, so they started looking elsewhere. Today, most asteroids are named for people, both real and fictional, and the rest for places, animals, plants, and other natural phenomena. The discoverers of asteroids are responsible for proposing the names—but there are rules, and their proposals can get denied.When a new asteroid is first spotted, the Minor Planet Center gives it a provisional designation composed of the the year of discovery and two numbers. If astronomers successfully study and confirm its orbit, it gets a permanent numeral designation that corresponds with the object’s place on the chronological list of previous discoveries. The discoverer then has 10 years to suggest and submit a name for the object, including a short pitch for why the name should be accepted. A 15-person committee at the International Astronomical Union judges the name and, if it approves, publishes it in a monthly newsletter.The names should be “16 characters or less in length; preferably one word; pronounceable (in some language); non-offensive; and not too similar to an existing name” of an asteroid, according to the Minor Planet Center’s website.
There are guidelines for certain kinds of asteroids. Objects that cross or approach the orbit of Neptune, for example, must be named for mythological figures associated with the underworld, while objects right outside of Neptune’s orbit get named for mythological figures related to creation.
Asteroids can’t be named for pets, but there’s at least one named for a cat, allowed perhaps because the cat itself was named for a Star Trek character. In 1985, an astronomer received approval to name his asteroid Mr. Spock, after the cat that had kept him company during long hours at work.Discoverers can’t sell the chance to name their asteroid, but naming contests are allowed. In 2012, NASA asked students to name (101955) 1999 RQ36, a near-Earth asteroid and the target of a robotic mission, OSIRIS-REx, which launched last year. They picked Bennu, for the Egyptian mythological bird resembling a heron.Whitehorne’s asteroid was among a number of asteroids discovered by three astronomers doing comet surveys in 2004. Her colleagues knew of the trio and their work, and asked them whether they could claim one in Whitehorne’s honor, to celebrate her years of contributions to the field. Whitehorne started out 30 years ago as a volunteer amateur astronomer at a small planetarium in Halifax, her hometown. Not long after, she jumped into astronomy and science education, working with students and teachers and developing programs and curricula for schools across the country. In 2015, she became the first female fellow at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, a position created to recognize the contributions of long-serving members.
Whitehorne has seen only a photograph of her asteroid, which is about three-kilometers across. It’s too faint to see with her backyard telescope. She calls it her “orbiting tombstone.”
“I am mortal and I am going to die, but my name is going to be on the asteroid as long as there’s human civilization and society on this planet,” she says. “Every once in a while I think about that and think, my goodness, what have I done?”