I'm Aaron Greenberg, a rising senior at the University of Chicago and a life-long Californian (and Angeleno). This summer I'll be adding my voice to the debates that occupy this blog.
I don't mean to be presumptuous, but it's my hope that my opinions might help clarify those of "my generation."
American and California politics often fracture along lines of race and class. But it has become increasingly clear that 'age' and 'generational' politics are also at work. The discourse of hope, imagination, change, etc. and the image of Obama (itself emulating youth culture's visual vernacular) clearly distinguish him as the 'youth candidate' of the 2000s, following through with young peoples' excitement over Howard Dean in 2004.
What is it that about Obama that gets us so excited? That makes his culture, personality and politics so appealing? (Even when promises of progressive change prove fickle). If Obama is an image, an avatar for something that "we" can believe in, what sorts of political concerns are behind that belief? Is Obama calling forth his own youth constituency? Or were they there before, waiting for the right candidate?
I hope that my posts -- even if they concern only local politics -- can help illuminate some of these questions, both as they relate immediately to Obama and to our larger, changing political culture.
From my own experience education and law enforcement (which seem to go increasingly hand-in-hand) are the most important political issues to young people. The political dividing looks something like this: conservatives want to "make government smaller" (reversing the public services they see as "entitlements"), while progressives want to strengthen public services like education in order to fashion a more enlightened citizenry.
The way these things have panned out, conservatives (especially during the past eight years of Bush) have set educational policy. Progressives find themselves again on the defensive. The No Child Left Behind legislation of Bush's first term has effectively framed criteria for "success" around federal testing standards. Schools that don't meet those standards are financially punished; those that excel are rewarded.
Match this with Proposition 13 type funding procedures (native to California, now spread across the nation) and the sort of circular poverty takes hold in deep, structural ways. Poor neighborhoods produce underfunded schools that lack the resources to meet federal testing requirements. Meanwhile school curricula aggressively 'teach to the test,' threatening once sacred elementary school rituals like the field trip.
What's politically interesting about a curriculum tailored to tests? (Tests and their preparations created by private publishers).
The Spring 2008 editorial in the magazine Rethinking Schools gets to the bottom of what's politically and socially so toxic about these teach-for-the-test programs:
"... the standards-tests-punishment trinity has led public schools even further from their democratic promise and turned them into profit machines for multinational publishing corporations and other private interests. And they are a testament to the resistance and search for alternatives that has been building throughout these hard times."
But there's even more that progressives need to think about. In reforming and amending legislation like NCLB and Proposition 13, progressives should pretend to be high school students who have spent their entire lives in public education. They need to think about what kinds of attitudes the average high school student will have towards education, and what kinds of attitudes they want public services (i.e. the state) to foster.
For most young people, public education and law enforcement are their two most important contact points with government. In light of the reputation and reality of law enforcement (at least in urban centers), it will be difficult to turn around attitudes toward police -- and given the way that policing often violently enforces institutionalized state racism, the state will have to fundamentally change before we could even begin to focus attentions on a kinder, gentler police force.
Public education, given its current form, seems remote from any positive vision of it. How does education today help young people engage with democratic processes? Or even prepare them to be citizens in a multicultural republic? When educators are constrained to a curriculum covering only the most rudimentary lessons, what hope is there for developing an intellectual, creative and most importantly, critical electorate?
Conservatives would say that these aren't the right questions. They want education private, or only nominally public (i.e. charter schools) because they don't see government's role or mandate as covering basic social services. (The most successful conservative activist on this front is anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, who has said that he wants to "reduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." The (mythical) "market" or "competition" are supposed to develop the institutions (medical, educational, municipal) that people need in order to live together. Government exists for inter/national security only. (And even there, given Blackwater's rise, conservatives are even pushing the limits of their own ideology. Government doesn't seem to have any role for them anymore.)
Progressives should work for education not simply because it's such an important function of the democratic state, but because, from the perspective of its beneficiaries (young people) education is their main engagement with that state. It's uncommon for anyone under 18 (or even 25) to have much involvement with federal employees. Teachers are government's greatest asset, its most important ambassadors. That's not to say they should represent an administration's political line. Instead, they most deeply represent the aspirations of a democratic government that values equality, service and civic engagement.
There are many reasons that public education should focus less on testing and more on a holistic pedagogy -- field trips, extracurricular activities, creative arts, physical education, community service, etc. Those are all valuable endeavors on their own. But making school more involved and less like a (testing) prison will also produce citizens who care more about their community. Better schools make better citizens who care about government, and who don't see it as something to be subverted on the way to "progress."