Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Take Your Country Back

It seems almost trite to say it: Somebody needs to lead Americans in a fight to take this country back. The religious right and the neo-conservatives have led a war against what they have called a “lack of values.” There is no lack of values, but there is certainly a lack of understanding.

Sometimes it looks like the American public is being manipulated. Take the aftermath of 9-11. The Fed’s response was to lower interest rates. The auto industry came to the rescue and sold a gazillion cars and trucks at reduced prices, often with no-interest loans and cash rebates. Note, very few of the cars were particularly fuel efficient.

Toyota makes at least two models of car that get fabulous gas mileage, in the upper 30s and above. Neither of them gets much advertising. On the other hand, most people can name six or seven kinds of SUV, minivans, and pickup trucks, most of which are getting great mileage if they hit 25 miles per gallon.

Gasoline costs $2.00 or more a gallon. Soon the price of oil will drive up electric bills. People who are unlucky enough to heat their homes with fuel oil already feel the pinch. More people talk about fuel-efficient technology than used to, but the big fix endorsed by the president was opening the last unspoiled land in the United States—the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve—to oil exploration. Most of the United States is not an oil-producing region, making most of its citizens innocent of the destruction that accompanies oil drilling and extraction.

In oil-producing Texas, there are basically three kinds of trees: mesquite, oak, and dead. Driving an hour west of San Antonio, and five minutes off the main road will prove it. Making the well is bad enough, but after oil is found, it is pumped to a tank called a shotgun barrel, where the water is allowed to separate from the crude. This water is not clean, and no grass, weeds, or other plants grow around the outlet where workers drain it onto the ground.

Spills are not an aberration, but the norm. When the production of a well starts to decline, very often drillers will truck in salt water and inject it into the wells to force up what is left of the oil. This practice is also harmful to the environment, considering that salt is hazardous to most inland plant life.

Has the entire country forgotten the Exxon Valdez? Soon enough, Americans will see pictures of oil-coated caribou and moose, because they want to drive their Escalades.

The president of the United States is talking to Crown Prince Abdullah of the House of Saud, trying to get some relief for the populace. Why does the populace not wake up and get its own relief? Most of the 9-11 hijackers were Saudis. Why does anyone think the Saudis would help us?

Interestingly, the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, has arrested the head of what may be the world’s largest heroin production and smuggling operation. He became a target because he sold heroin to American citizens, and then used their money to give Al Qaeda guns and ammunition. What a perfect plan. Take the Yankees’ money, and use it to destroy them; get them to pay for their own destruction.

The same people who are appalled at the idea that some women want to have abortions have yellow ribbons tied to their mailboxes and plastered on their cars. Someone in that camp needs to explain how war is pro-life. Why is not-yet-born life more sacred than 18-year-old life?

The list goes on and on. The problems this country faces cannot be solved by one faction taking the helm and going off in a direction that half the country thinks is wrong. Why is conservation the enemy of American society? It does not need to be. Why do business and industry leaders cling to out-moded paradigms for business, when simpler solutions exist?

A prime example is the beleaguered Amtrak system. No other country in the world thinks its rail system should turn a profit from serving so small a segment of its people. Workers on the East Coast have access to Amtrak, but for the most part, it stops there. In order to go from Texas to South Florida, it is necessary to go through Chicago. (This is true.) If Amtrak served a larger segment of the population, it might become self-supporting, or even profitable.
Rather than address the oil problems by expanding public transportation, the policy makers have decided to let Amtrak die its painful death, and leave the country without a passenger rail system altogether. Not such good thinking.

When leaders propose preposterous solutions for problems and ignore the sensible options in front of them, either they are stupid and need to be removed from power, or they are dishonest and stand to profit from the solutions they back, and they need to be removed from power.

In a representative democracy, citizens tell their representatives what they want, and the representatives are supposed to listen.

If a representative does not hear from his constituency, he can only assume that he is doing what they want. The practice among representatives, including U.S. Senators, when they receive letters urging them to take a position on an issue different from the one they hold, is to send out a letter that explains that they are going to do what they darn well please. Fine. Let them send out their letters, telling people that after prayerful consideration they still think Americans should be killing and maiming young people. They cannot ignore the opposition forever, particularly if it comes knocking on their doors with regularity.

Write a representative today. Let her know what Americans really value. Don’t give up. Take this country back.

© 2005

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Attacking the TAKS

My youngest child is taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test this week, and for the millionth time, I am wondering what the point is. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was designed to impose the insanity we endure here in Texas on the rest of the country.

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that all kids should be able to pass the same test to prove that they mastered skills that the teachers were supposed to teach. Standardized testing is not something new. We took standardized reading tests on a bi-yearly cycle. After the test, the students got their papers back with a raw score and a grade level. It was very cool to read on a fifth-grade level in second grade, and even cooler to read on a tenth-grade level in fifth grade.

After the standardized tests were scored and recorded, we were divided into reading groups, by level. This allowed the teacher to give more attention to the kids with problems without making the kids without problems sit through a lesson umpteen times. It seemed to work, and almost all of us learned to read on grade level or better.

And then came the self-esteem crowd. Their thinking was that if children were segregated by their reading ability, those who had lower reading levels might get the idea that they weren’t as bright as the rest of us. So reading groups, and later tracking, in high school had to stop. The thing I noticed way back in first grade was that the kids in the lowest reading group also got in trouble a lot. I connected those dots early on. Back then, I was convinced I knew which was the cause and which the effect. These days, I’m not so sure.

First they did away with the reading groups and everyone read together. When eighth graders must wait for a kid who reads on a first grade level to “get it,” the quicker ones get awfully bored. The entire class can bog down completely depending on the mix and the ability of the teacher to match all the learning styles in the class. Then came social promotion. We can’t have sixth graders driving to school, so they let them become seventh graders without making them master the skills they needed to be seventh graders.

Later, somebody noticed that illiterate kids were graduating from high school, and got their panties in a wad. Oh no! Some children cannot read! We must fix this. And they decided that the problem was that there were no standards. Committees met and brain-stormed. Task forces formed and made recommendations. At the end of all the work and time and millions of dollars, they had a list.

Johnny should be able to read simple sentences and to add and subtract 3-digit numbers at the end of grade one. Thank you, Sherlock Holmes. It took 20 years and millions of uneducated kids passing through the system to learn what all teachers knew 30 years ago.

Onward march the task forces and committees. We must make sure children meet our standards. They must pass a standardized test at certain intervals. Thus the TAKS was born, and I rue the day. The difference between the standardized tests I took and the ones my daughter takes is the use to which the scores are put. When I took the test, the teacher knew where I was. She could place me on a time line with respect to what I knew and what I needed to learn. My daughter’s teachers, on the other hand, think they know whether their job is done or not. The principal thinks he knows how well the teachers are performing by the aggregate results of the test. If a large proportion of the kids pass, the teachers must be great teachers, and if a large portion fails, the teachers are to blame. The superintendent of schools thinks that she knows how the principals are doing by their schools’ test scores; and the state board of education thinks . . . you get the picture.

The net effect of all the prognostication is that the kids get forgotten. The teacher worries about the test and squanders valuable time teaching kids how to pass the test. Who cares if they can pass a test? They need to be able to read. They need to be able to cipher. They need to be able to use reason and logic to solve problems and make decisions. They do not need to know everything about everything, but they should be able to find out almost everything there is to know about anything and present that information in a concise, intelligible manner. Now I’ll let you in on a secret: the test ain’t helping.

Someday, we will discover the other thing the teachers of 30 years ago knew and took for granted. If a child cannot keep up, it is because she needs more time. Keeping her working on the skills she needs to acquire today is not leaving her behind. It is letting her catch up.

© 2005

Friday, April 01, 2005

I Love My Country

The following column appeared in the March 17, 2005 issure of The Cameron Herald:

A funny thing happened when the conservatives decided to take over the world, particularly the United States of America. Suddenly we could no longer agree to disagree. Either one agrees with the conservatives, or one is anti-American. There are plenty of examples in other countries of this same attitude. We call the perpetrator governments fascist and totalitarian; the victims are referred to as dissidents. Note that I did not say that the U.S. government is fascist or totalitarian.

I see numerous aspects about the government that I do not agree with. I also see that the government has grown to such leviathan proportions that changing its direction could take generations. Presumably, if the reports are to be believed, during the last 20 years, conservatives have engaged in just such a monumental effort and succeeded.

But my argument is not with the direction the country is taking, but rather with conservatives questioning my patriotism. I do not, as Ann Coulter would posit, dispute that someone has the right to question it. My argument is that my patriotism is beyond question.

I love my country. How do I prove that? I vote. I pay attention to the news so I can be informed about what the government is doing. I pay my taxes on ALL my income. I listen to different points of view. I understand the culture, the underlying motivations, and the historical currents that have combined to create the United States as the world knows it today. I contact my representatives in government (national, state, and local) about issues that I can discuss intelligently and let them know what I think they should do. I teach my children that it is a duty to vote as well as a right, and that it is their duty to inform themselves on the issues beforehand.

I place my hand over my heart when I recite the pledge of allegiance. I do not, however, remove my hat then or when the national anthem is played because I am a woman, not because I do not respect the institutions. Nevertheless, I do nothing to disrespect my country or its government.

I have been to Carpenter’s Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was written, and I have visited the Liberty Bell. I have traveled all over this country, and I keep my yard decent out of respect for my neighborhood. I have a copy of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution in a file in my desk. I refer to them regularly. I love my country.

I love my country enough to speak out when I think we have taken a wrong turn. Our country was founded on the principle of self-determination. That means that the people of this country have the right to determine their future political status. It means that our government is guilty of hypocrisy (and sometimes worse) when it attempts to force sovereign nations to adopt its form of government. I love my country enough to take the heat for saying so.

I question whether the representatives in Washington are listening to us, because they have been known to ignore their constituents before.

I love this country, but I have no illusions about it having an ideal or perfect government. Politics is by nature a game of getting and giving favors. One advances in proportion to one’s usefulness to others. The others, who have done favors for the rising politician, now have credit with him or her, and when it comes time, will cash in by asking for another favor. By the time one has risen to any power, he or she is beholden to myriad people, all of whom cash in on their favors on their schedule, not the politician’s.

This is reality, but it is not necessarily good for the people of the United States, who are by rights the ones who give politicians, indeed governments, power.
Considering the tone of political dialog today between the left and right, it might be important if every liberal could defend him- or herself against persons who accuse them of not loving this country.

I am perfectly capable of defending myself against charges of lacking patriotism. Are you?
© 2005

About Me

I love my country, that is why I criticize its absurdities; I love my freedom, that is why I do it publicly.