ANOTHER VIEW #72
Peter Huidekoper, Jr. Dec. 4, 2010
Note to the Gov.-elect, Kurt Vonnegut’s “son”
“My dream of America was great public schools. I thought we should be the envy of the world, with our public schools. And I went to such a public school, so I knew that such a public school was possible. …My god, we had a daily paper, we had a debating team, we had a fencing team, a chorus, a jazz band, a serious orchestra… and all of this with the Great Depression going on. And I wanted everybody to have such a school.” Kurt Vonnegut, NOW on PBS, Oct. 2005
1. Vonnegut’s “son” enters the Governor’s Mansion? - “Welcome to the Monkey House”
Weird, isn’t it, to think a fan and friend of Kurt Vonnegut—one of our heroes back in the day, voice of the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, anti-war counterculture, cynic extraordinaire, sweet and sour prophet of doom, satirist of government, business, and science, and socialist (?!?)—that this friend, John Hickenlooper, is about to become our next governor!
The affection Mr. Hickenlooper showed for his father’s old Cornell fraternity brother was matched by the generosity that one of America’s favorite novelists of the late 20th century demonstrated for John shortly after he became mayor (see the hysterical 2004 Youtube video – “Is Denver Mayor Hickenlooper Kurt Vonnegut’s Long-Lost Son?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ME3ggwdN_I0 ). We laugh—and yet we wonder: was it Vonnegut’s description of a mayor as “almost as low comedy as a dog-catcher” that fed John’s desire to seek higher office? Was the novelist inspiring his young friend to take after Jerry Springer, once a lowly mayor, “but now,” he said, with a straight face, “that man is like a god in the firmament of American culture”? Do we praise/blame Vonnegut now—he who mocked power so deftly—for urging John to climb the ladder to the highest position in our land?
[A brief interlude: Wasn’t this a bit harsh on mayors? If Mayor Hickenlooper could laugh off his “other” dad’s dismissive joke, I cannot. Some may have noticed a similarity between what Vonnegut called John’s “preposterous family name” and my own: 4 syllables, Dutch, begins with H, ends in per. (And yes, thanks to those of you first meet me and ask: John?) Can I take you back to the homeland for a second? I proudly point out that a relative once served his country quite well in a similar role: see Wikipedia’s list of the mayors (burgemeesters) of Amsterdam:
1836–1842: Willem Daniël Cramer (1788–1856)
1842–1849: Pieter Huidekoper (1798–1852)
1850–1853: Gerlach Cornelis Joannes van Reenen (1818–1893)
So sorry, Mr. Vonnegut, poke fun at presidents all you want (e.g. Cat’s Cradle), but don’t ask me to look down on lowly mayors!]
The bond between the author and our next governor invites—no demands—psychologists and literary critics alike to grapple with the question: what does it mean for the future of our state?
How, to be more direct, can we trust a leader who admires this sad comic for whom life seemed but a joke—with more than a few doubts about its Author? Who struggled so to warn/predict apocalypse, even as he wished we could step back and appreciate love and beauty whenever we see it—and remind each other, as Uncle Alex would do, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
A man who gave us Bokonon’s revision of the Biblical injunction: “Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s really going on.”
A man who created Trafalmadore, and other bizarre fantasies, that seemed preferable to real life for Billy Pilgrim (and more than a few readers), as reality gave us bombs over Dresden, Hiroshima.…
And finally, a man who in Timequake speaks of John and his dad and offers such a childish joke: “Are you a member of the Turtle Club?”—in which the required answer was a little off-color for this family newsletter, “YOU BET YOUR A _ _ I AM!” (And they call this literature?) I can see the seeds of a future brewpub owner there, but our next GOVERNOR?
2. More seriously … where listening to Vonnegut can help
“There is no more pressing priority for Colorado than providing our children with the best education possible. The stakes are even higher today because our kids are facing a more competitive global economy with the rise of China and India.”
John Hickenlooper, Denver Post, “If I were governor…” Oct. 17, 2010
This fall I worked on a project grading gubernatorial candidates across the country on their education positions (see Making the Grade, produced by Education Reform Now (ERN) and Education Equality Project). I began to cringe every time I heard would-be governors reduce schools to being institutions here to serve the economy. I understand that, in our economic doldrums, with nearly 10% unemployed, candidates for political office will connect everything to jobs. But my hope is that a governor who has felt the influence of Kurt Vonnegut’s gentle humanity will be less inclined to speak of education as merely a stepping stone to “productive careers … in the modern labor force.”
Yes, Gov.-elect Hickenlooper—see quote above—noted the connection between the quality of our schools and our economic future. And it makes sense, given his success in business, that he can relate to those who will bring jobs and “grow the Colorado economy.” Fine. But the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut will not allow him, I hope, to start yapping like those who see teachers and classrooms as part of some state-wide assembly line preparing the next generation for the workforce. Education is richer and broader than this. I understand the Chamber of Commerce using such phrases, but please, Gov.-elect, keep Vonnegut’s larger vision in mind when you speak of schools. Articulate a more powerful definition. I trust you will never use language this constricted, this offensive, as we read on the websites of these gubernatorial candidates in September:
Arkansas—Mike Beebe: “Cultivating the Relationship between Education and Job Creation – Gov. Beebe believes that education and job growth are inseparable.”
Idaho – Keith Allred: “Finally, education is a powerful tool of economic development. Only an educated work- force will attract the businesses that can grow Idaho’s economy and sustain it through economic downturns.”
Michigan-Virg Bernero: “Virg Bernero’s Plan for Arming Michiganders to Succeed In a Global Economy - Virg has always said that education is economic development …. (For example) - High quality Pre--‐K for disadvantaged students, according to Timothy Bartik, Senior Economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute, results in a $59,625 increase in earnings per individual in Michigan.”
Oklahoma-Jari Askins: “Education programs need to meet the workforce needs and engage students so they see the benefits they’ll receive with their hard work. Make education have value that is gauged by an effective workforce, not just test scores.”
South Dakota-Dennis Daugaard: “As early as seventh grade, students begin to make choices that will affect their career options when they conclude their education…. I will urge schools to require every student to adopt a Personal Learning Plan that selects courses to align with career goals. … Students need to know what career opportunities are available in South Dakota, which fields are in high demand. … We will utilize annual market surveys to determine the best career opportunities for our high school and university students, and we will share these results with parents and students.”
Vermont-Brian Dubie: “Strengthen Education and Training - Vermont has a highly motivated, skilled and educated workforce. Employers often cite the quality and reliability of Vermont workers as the most important asset to their businesses. But in this globally competitive and mobile economy, we cannot rest on those laurels; we must continually improve our system of education and training for the benefit of all Vermonters.”
If you attend a liberal arts college—for years not knowing what career it might lead to—and then get a master’s degree in of all-non-utilitarian-subjects, liberal education, you are guilty, of course, of thinking education is first and foremost about being human. Being free to think, to understand, to question—and to find where your talents and interests take you. Not primarily about preparing for a career. You are guilty of believing education is about strengthening good habits, building values—character; of believing, in fact, that education is exactly what the dictionary tells us: “the act or purpose of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, 1996). (See also origins, Latin, educere-to bring up, raise, lead forth).
Guilty as charged.
Accuse me, too, of not being practical. Of course candidates today are going to make the connection between education (and almost everything else) and the economy. What’s wrong with that?
The harm, as I see it, is that it understates the importance of what we hope takes place in our schools. It cheapens the meaning of education. It is condescending. It recalls the division between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington 100 years ago: the former seeking equality, a liberal arts education for all; the latter content to let Tuskegee Institute and other education institutions train young African-Americans to be cooks and carpenters—trades where they could use their hands “to dignify and glorify common labor”—not to expect them to be doctors, lawyers—or the President. The words of Du Bois—a challenge then to Washington’s submission to the prevailing winds of the day (separate and unequal)—still ring as a challenge to us: “Education is the development of power and ideals. We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be, and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate black boys and girls … simply for the use of other people. They have a right to know, to think, to aspire.”
It is frustrating when our leaders reduce the classroom to merely a slice of a sound economy. It confirms for educators that policymakers operate on a different plane and have little feeling for the ambitions we have when we go to teach in the morning—where we hope to make a bigger difference in the lives of our students than just to provide them with the skills needed to compete in the global marketplace.
Education as a tool of economic growth. What fun Mr. Vonnegut would have had with such language!
3. Perhaps 40,000 Colorado students in low performing schools. So it goes?
Hickenlooper wrote ERN he sought policies that “allow all parents to select excellent public schools for their children…” (Response to Education Reform Now’s questionnaire, Aug. 17, 2010)
As mayor of a city with enormous challenges in its public school system, Mr. Hickenlooper has often seemed more comfortable in the role of salesman than objective critic. (“… I am confident,” the mayor said in 2004, “we are on the brink of being one of the top urban school districts in the nation.”) But just as he championed fundamental change in how the city addressed homelessness, he would do well to bring that same voice in making the pitch for how we can better serve our students, rather than overstating the progress we have made. Sure, as mayor he may have been constrained by his friendship with Superintendent Bennet for several years. He may have felt it was incumbent on him to offer a positive spin when so many (like me) have perhaps focused too much on the negatives in DPS.
And yet—like a certain brave writer—let’s be willing to confront some hard realities. No, we’re not talking about being seeing Dresden destroyed, or 130,000 dead. But we must admire Vonnegut’s determination to find words to capture the awful truths he witnessed in WW II. (And anyone who thinks education is merely job training should have been in the classroom with me, 40 years ago this winter, listening to ninth graders wrestle with the themes in Slaughterhouse-Five. Bigger issues were at stake.)
The hard realities as they pertain to our schools—low achievement and growth, unsatisfactory graduation and remediation rates, and much more—demand change. The Colorado Department of Education just released its findings that among the 230 schools that need priority improvement or turnaround plans, almost 100 are within 30 miles of the state capital. “Excellent schools”? Hardly.
96 Metro-Area Schools with Priority Improvement or Turnaround Plans
DPS - 44
Westminster 50 - 12
Jefferson County- 9
Douglas County - 8
Adams 12 7
Mapleton 1 - 6
Adams County 14 - 6
If nearly 5% of our schools are in “academic trouble,” my guess is that at least 40,000 out of the state’s 800,000 students are in schools classified as “turnaround” schools, in dire need of major improvement. Policymakers under the golden dome this winter should think of those 40,000 boys and girls.
A Vonnegut reader in the state capital seeking inspiration—unwilling to accept the fatalism of So it goes—hopeful of change, might recall the subtitle of Slaughterhouse- Five—“The Children’s Crusade.”