I recently read an education philanthropist’s piece about how American education is in crisis. Perhaps you will make me out to be a terrible person for this, but whenever people tell me there is a ‘crisis’ in education and that they are shocked by some new situation of injustice in America, I am dubious– and a bit perplexed. Do you not know American history? I want to ask. What’s new?
I wonder if they understand what ‘crisis’ means. A crisis is an immediate, urgent problem that suddenly appeared. When exactly did this education crisis appear? Was it when the first slave child was born in America and denied access to literacy? Was it when reconstruction schools were shut down and lost their financing in the 1870s? Was it when children of color all across our country were denied access to strong schools, acceptable resources, and self-esteem for over a century? Was it when our government decided to fund schools based on local property taxes instead of state taxes? Or did this ‘crisis’ appear when someone wrote an article about charter schools in the New York Times three years ago? Maybe these people who say that education is in crisis just didn’t realize that for the last ten generations, about half of our country’s children were experiencing a ‘crisis’ in education. Which seems to me to delegitimize the use of the word ‘crisis.’
There is nothing surprising about our education system or our government. Both are designed to privilege and provide for certain groups, and if we want to improve the justice they provide, we should use this knowledge of their design to determine our actions. Though our instinct may lead us to react with fiery passion, the response to a sudden removal of justice should be very different than the response to something designed for injustice, and it’s very important to know which one you are dealing with. One response is to fight angrily and violently against your attacker, no matter how much they resist. The other is to change the design, which almost certainly necessitates educating rather than attacking your opponent.
I left off in my last post in the series arguing that we need to remove the pressures of moral imperatives and group acceptance from our politics. A freer conversation should greatly aid our ability to problem-solve effectively around current policy issues. As citizens, we all can try to hold ourselves more accountable to thinking for ourselves and conversing freely across the aisle (and not raining down on our enemies with a firestorm of demonization).
But increasing the quality of debate will only do so much. Unfortunately, we cannot count on a connection between elevated debate and more sensible voting. We need to use design thinking to understand how the system we have built actually works, and that necessitates analyzing the roots of people’s choices. People’s political decisions, much like their economic ones, do not make sense. People vote based on their feelings and their principles, and then they justify these decisions with reason retroactively. You can ask any economics professor if the principles of supply and demand are always perfectly executed and he’d (or she’d) be the first to tell you that humans do all kinds of things that are unpredictable and make no sense. It’s the same in politics.
Several years ago the New York Times published a small piece highlighting the fact that the people in America most opposed to government benefits seem also to be the most dependent on them. And Jon Stewart did a segment recently on Kansas with a similar jibe: even as Kansas enacts laws to shame and restrict its state welfare recipients, Kansas is accepting federal aid itself. For anyone who is looking for logical sense in politics, these moments of hypocrisy would seem impossible to fight. How on earth can you convince poor and middle class white Republicans to stop voting for tax cuts for the wealthy and against government programs that actually help them? And on the other side, how can you convince Democrats to be reasonable about the limitations of the federal budget?
The first step is to accept and understand that Americans do not vote in their own interests. Americans vote based on feelings, beliefs, and principles. It would be simple if Americans simply voted for what they wanted, needed, and used. If Jon and Sally use Earned Income Credits and Susan uses the commuter rail, then there should be 2 votes to keep EIC and 1 vote to keep the commuter rail subsidy. Instead, Americans vote for a distant ideal they think should exist. Jon is voting to get rid of EIC because he thinks Americans shouldn’t need help, and Sally has a dad who used to run a train company and he always told her that the government can’t run anything effectively so she votes against the commuter rail, and Susan is voting to keep EIC because she was always told that the government should help the poor.
This morality sway extends to a million issues today. We develop feelings about issues that come from social pressure and media propaganda and a false sense of our own expertise (because we read an article somewhere about the topic). We can justify our side in an argument, but internally, we have placed a moral value on our side of the issue. We have an irrational feeling that we should vote for this because it is the ‘right’ thing to do. People feel like GMOs are ‘bad’ (but how many of you actually have the biological agricultural expertise to decide that?). People feel like the government is an ineffective institution and should therefore not be allowed to run anything. People feel like government has no right to limit businesses. People feel like the environment should be cared for. People feel like charter schools are good and teachers unions are bad. People feel like only non-felons should vote, or only law-abiding English speaking people should vote. People feel like healthcare will be provided better in this way or that way, and people feel like wealth should be distributed this way or that way. But people’s feelings are very inaccurate problem solvers.
For better or for worse, this is the psychology of the political process that shapes our lives. And once we accept that voting is a process based on feelings, we can begin to consider where those feelings come from, which is a far more interesting question.
The beginning of a new country always holds a unique kind of promise. With the language of mission and vision, and with the hope that comes with power, the creators of a country can imagine an ideally functioning society and governing body. They see what has gone wrong before, what needs they are facing now, and they problem-solve.
I truly believe that the founding fathers of the United States had this same hope and imagination as they created our country. They saw legitimate problems in previous governing structures they had faced, and hoped that their creation could solve those problems. They had seen a government rocked by reckless policy change, so they created a government with checks and balances. They had seen how nobility excluded newcomers and fought for the legitimacy of wealthy men who had earned their way to power, rather than being born into it. They recognized both the powers and failures of republics, of taxation, of various economic policies and tried to enact solutions. I think they were very excited about the ways they solved the problems they faced. I think people were excited about voting for such a responsive government.
Of course, that group of men were solving problems they faced. They lived in a world almost wholly stratified by race, class, religion, and gender, and they interacted solely within the bounds in which they stood. They saw the problems of their own time period; they were not envisioning the problems of the future.
Despite our tendency to insist that “liberty, equality, and democracy” means our country was made for liberal policies, the founding fathers were not acting on a progressive agenda from which we have since regressed. Any such nostalgia for a lost vision of equality in America is false; it’s a misinterpretation of the founding documents of our country. Our country was created by wealthy white Christian men for wealthy white Christian men. Liberty, equality, and democracy under God were words that applied to these men. The masses—the uneducated, the poor, the laborers, the marginalized, the women, the natives, the immigrants, the slaves— would simply have to adapt to whatever happened.
I think this is crucial to understand. Today, our government’s policies must apply to and provide for all these people groups, but our original government did not do any such thing. Our government now leads an exponentially larger and more diverse population than the founding fathers could have even conceived. Though our personal concepts of justice and logic may indicate what our government obviously should be doing for these people and how our society should function, there is a missing step. We cannot simply expect our government to do what it is not designed to do, without our active participation in its redesign. So we need to figure out what has changed in our society, why it has changed, and how our government should be changing in response. This vision of our society– and our unity to support it– is what is driving how people feel, and how they vote.
“Who is an American?” is perhaps the most essential, unsaid question we face in politics today. There is no question that is so important to understand if we want to clarify both policy creation and voting patterns. Those who “count” as “American” are the ones who define what “American” means. They are the ones who get a say in the government. They are the ones who benefit from the government.
At its founding, the United States considered white landowning men to be Americans, with few other exceptions. Americans were soldiers who fought in wars. Americans were hard working, independent, a bit rough around the edges. Not noble or royal by birth. They were problem-solvers. They were involved in their own governance. Then the middle class began expanding. Pioneers set out. They too became “American.” If people have a nostalgia for this America, they have a nostalgia for its simplicity: in a government that claimed freedom of religion and equality of all men, the society was overwhelmingly homogeneous. There were no significant conflicts about who counted as an American.
The first real conflict exploded in the mid-1800s, as the black petition for membership and acceptance boiled over into the Civil War. This would be a huge change in society; a people group on whose oppression our economy actively depended wanted to be seen not as a chattel labor product but as human members of society. At the end of the bloodiest war in our history, Blacks were finally allowed some nominal ownership over the country. And— though few people remember this now— for a few years, it seemed all was going well: Blacks served as political figures, civil servants, and seemed on track to be fully accepted as “Americans.” During the first years of Reconstruction, in a shift that has never been repeated since (we could argue these years were our governments only legitimate attempts at reparations, and they were wildly successful at first glance), Blacks moved toward economic independence, got access to education and property ownership, and were leaders in society. But it was short-lived. Too many southern whites agreed that such acceptance wasn’t part of their vision of their society, so, with the help of the KKK, a violent backlash threw the South into a spiral of racist exclusion. Because southerners did not adjust their concept of America to match a new, more diverse society, the Jim Crow era began.
But history has other moments to teach us too. A huge influx of European immigrants began to fill American cities around the turn of the 20th century. Like today, it was controversial. How many people should we be letting in? Are they really American or are they changing America? Are they good for our country or ruining our country? America’s foremost reaction was seen in its education policies. Schools became the front lines of an assimilation battle. To be “American” meant speaking English, behaving in a certain way, preparing for a job in the American economy. It meant being white– which at first meant not Irish and not Eastern European and certainly not Jewish; at that time, to be white meant to be of Western European protestant descent.
But society actually shifted to accommodate many of these types of white people. Perhaps because the diversity of immigrants increased, and general society wanted to exclude Asians and Latin Americans and Blacks even more (see the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example), they began to feel that they could relate to these ‘pretty much white’ folks. So over the following decades, more and more groups— including Eastern Europeans and Irish people— were allowed to belong to this ‘American’ label. As long as they conformed and fit in and helped defend the prominent vision of white America, they belonged. This reached a height in the 1950s, when the government began actively promoting the detailed interactions of an “American” white suburban life (See a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyEo6hHnoq4). So even as immigration had altered American society, the concept of an “American” was solidified in defense. Being American meant being polite, popular, pretty, cool, and social. It meant not being communist. It meant being middle class or wealthy. And it definitely meant being white.
These examples highlight the importance of our subconscious imaginations in political struggle. People have an understanding of the society they belong to and what it should be like, and that feeling deeply affects how our government functions. If we want people to vote more effectively, we must do the necessary work to alter our internal vision of our country and create a new language and imagination of what it means to be “American.”
If when I think of America, I imagine nothing short of a Disney Channel movie—wealthy white families with token diverse characters sprinkled throughout the suburban, all-English, heterosexual love story, then that is the image I will expect on the news and on my streets every morning. When I am faced with realities that don’t fit into this vision— poor and minority enclaves; other languages; economic failure, other lifestyles that make me feel uncomfortable and less at home— I will become angry and defensive. My expectations aren’t being met. Someone is at fault. Things have ‘changed.’
This is what people will feel, even if the narrative they hold is totally false. The narrative for many people in this country is that our country was doing just great, everyone had access to education, middle class suburban life was widely available, people were moral and faithful to God, and people got along. And then it all went downhill. Now there’s violence in cities, our borders are overrun, immigrants are stealing our jobs, white people are under attack, English is under attack, people have no social skills any more, religion is losing its place in society, etc. So we must blame someone. There must be a reason America has ‘changed.’
As a U.S. history teacher, I wonder how much our U.S. history classes are to blame for this. Children are taught the Civil War, industrialization, immigration, the roaring twenties, more wars, and the protests of the 50s and 60s. But this history is wildly unhelpful when we are trying to define the society and struggles we face today. It leaves out the history of a huge part of our population. Only 64% of our census population is white (non-hispanic). And if you assume that a good portion of those whites are impoverished, even fewer match our concept of suburban America from the 1950s. Being generous, perhaps our narrative tells the story of half of our country. Only half.
We desperately need a better narrative and a better vision.
Part of our struggle is that U.S. history classes haven’t caught on to what happened in the 1960s, so neither have our kids— or their parents. Two crucial changes occurred in the mid-sixties that altered our country’s makeup: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. In my (admittedly few) years of studying, teaching, and talking about American history, no one seems to realize what these laws collectively did or just how earth-shattering they were. The Civil Rights Act is usually taught as the successful end of the Civil Rights struggle; it is not taught as a cause. And the Immigration Act is not taught at all. But no two pieces of policy change have altered the makeup and culture of recent American society or have as much impact today as much as these two pieces of legislation.
These two acts, passed within two years of each other, redefined who counted as “American.” They forever altered the privilege of 1950s suburban white families and wealthy capitalists to have more of a claim over America and its government than other groups. The Civil Rights Act declared that the government really was for all the people— especially blacks and minorities. And the Immigration Act said that people of all races and nationalities had an equal right to join this country and become ‘Americans.’ It is crucial to understand that these acts, combined with Brown v. Board and the Voting Rights act of 1965 and a number of similar decisions, were the beginning of an entirely new way to understand the American government. Before this, the government didn’t function on the principle that it was obligated to not-in-power people groups. But now our white male Christian government from the 1780s would be for everyone else too. [I might argue that the New Deal was the first step in this direction (the government was forced to provide for the poor because most of its previously ‘legitimate’ citizens were now poor), but that is a longer exploration than we have time for.]
So a generation or two later, we face a completely new society, and a completely new concept of government. Our demographics are changing, and our expectations of government are changing. Women, Black Americans, disabled Americans, Latino-Americans, poor Americans, first, second, and third-generation immigrants from all countries are claiming they have legitimate rights and demands on this country’s government, that they legitimately belong to our society and should not be excluded.
We need to understand the gravity and magnitude of this change. It cannot be changed back, so everyone needs to accept it, progressive or not.
Our country since 1965 is a completely different beast than it was pre-1965. We can’t let the old design work for a new problem. We have a country set up to take care of the middle-class and wealthy, to provide legitimate membership to whites who speak fluent formal English. We have a country based on the idea that assimilation is possible. We were given a vision of America based on suburbia, homogeneity, two parent households, soccer moms and car ownership and vacations abroad, patriotism when we are winning world wars, newly paved roads and manufacturing companies and an education system that culminates in Ivy League schools. We expect everyone to have a job, we expect to understand and be understood anywhere we go. We expect that the ultimate American myth will be true for us: if you work hard enough, then you too can make it.
But that is not a true picture of America anymore. A true picture of America would include plenty of people who don’t speak English, who aren’t white, who have never owned a car or a house or even been to a suburb. It would include vast swathes of unemployed and disabled people. It would include meth addicts and pot smokers. It would include refugees from abroad, and immigrants. It would include the incarcerated population and the trailer park population. It would include black fear of the police and white privilege. It would include the complexities of young adulthood and old age. It would include the diversity of what parenthood, neighborhoods, culture, family, and experience could look like. It would include gangs and crumbling infrastructure. It would include admitting that the job market isn’t providing for all people, that it isn’t true that everyone has fair opportunities, and that making it in America is a matter of luck and privilege as much as hard work. It would include admitting that there is no single American Ideal left to assimilate to.
That is not a simple vision to understand, and it is a hard one to sell with hope and positivity. But I think it’s a conversation worth having. Whatever we change our vision of America to be, we cannot keep the old one.
I wonder if changing this concept of America is in fact our primary task today, especially with the current right wing bloc of American voters. We dedicate far too little time today to developing the uniting rhetoric that defines our country, but never has it been more important. To too many people in America, the old vision of America lives on in their head. They are oblivious to what changed in 1964 and 1965 and how their world was going to alter as a result. They developed no sense of pride over what America chose in those years; only a sense of crisis as they saw their world changing around them in the years that followed. They didn’t know why. They panicked.
It’s going to be a hard sell. There are a lot of barriers to developing a new language about America, not the least of which is many Americans’ distaste for anything resembling patriotic rhetoric. But it’s my hope that we can recapture some sense of that idealistic promise on which our country was started if we take the time to redefine America’s purpose post-1965 together. Sometimes we just need a starting point to recognize a new narrative. So what could it mean to be a New American now? Couldn’t this be a conversation we have across parties?
Maybe it will mean a massive, globally entrenched military or a completely deregulated capitalist economy spinning toward irreparable income inequality. I fear it will mean a culture of selfishness and unjustified arrogance. I’m worried it will mean ineffective leadership, incorrigible governance, and a constant slide toward gun violence and test-based education. But perhaps it could mean a deep commitment to care for refugees. Perhaps it means to be an economic leader. Perhaps it means to be the center of creative and intellectual thought in the world. Perhaps it means to have an authentically multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-religious society. Perhaps someday being American will imply being multi-lingual. Perhaps American could aim for being the leader in human rights and opportunity (that would take some serious policy change). Or maybe we will be known for the high quality of policy debate in our government. What else could it mean? Maybe it will mean being non-judgmental and inclusive? Maybe it will mean being educated? Could it mean being peaceful? Would it be possible to have a highly functional infrastructure?
It seems silly, but I think vision-making might be more important than we think it is. At the end of the day, we don’t face a moral problem. We don’t face a set of enemies. We didn’t lose something. We merely face a societal design issue that people seem not to have noticed. In this case, the design is in how we narrate our history and identify ourselves in what is essentially a new country. We need an ideal to reach for, a belief to be proud of, a vision to unite us. People need something to feel strongly when they vote. People need a sense of purpose.
And we really need to consider changing how we teach the history of the American people.