Poore Richard's Really Poore Almanack

The last two years worth of “hometown newspaper” columns from Dahlonega, Georgia
that led to Richard Van Ingram being banned from the only news and opinion organ in the county.

A Lesson In Education and Politics
May 2006

A great poet named Horace famously once wrote, "Art is long, life is short." Our creations, our words, and our deeds may well outlast us. It is almost certain they will, no matter how grand, banal, or shoddy they are – for some stretch of time, what we make and do will outlast us.

My life is far too short at this point to waste on anything I do not find at least amusing and productive. I am 40; soon, if I live, I may be 41. My life is at the very least half over. Soon enough, I will be gone like vapor burning off in the morning sun. If anything is left behind of me, it won’t be a name – it will be the echoes of my thoughts, my art, my actions, my writing. And soon enough these will fade as well, their ghosts perhaps speaking to someone whom I will never know and who will never know me.

I set out an open challenge a couple of weeks ago by stating as plainly as I know how some of my political beliefs and a few of the reasons behind my beliefs. In the course of stating my ideas, I attempted to show why voting for Republicans has turned into a terrible idea on many levels: economically, morally, legally, practically.

I did not expect agreement; when anyone agrees with anything I say I feel both honored and bewildered. I grew up in Lumpkin County – I have never been her favorite son. I rarely associate with the right people; I’ve always had a problem standing up when I’ve been told to sit down; I speak my mind, have my own ideas, and I pay the price. I don’t expect any better. But whenever I challenge others’ beliefs and am not writing comedy or satire, I address their beliefs -- should others decide to defend their beliefs, I expect them to address my beliefs and give good reasons why I am wrong.
Indeed, I expect far too much.

Of course, what I received in return for my labors and honesty were two males, probably over the age of 21, putting into writing the literary equivalent of picking your nose, blowing spit bubbles, and passing gas in public. "Wheee! Look at me, look at me!" Okay, I looked. My response is, if you want to play with the big boys come out and act like one of the big boys. Otherwise, excuse my yawn.

I threw out a challenge; I got back nothing worth wasting my time on. So I guess I will have to continue by simply addressing some of the points I originally made in a little more detail.

I think the state of education as it has "progressed" over the last 26 years of extremist conservative rule is a nice place to start.

And why start on the national level? After the article in the 28 June New York Times article that really put Dahlonega on the map in a way no one should be proud of, education in Lumpkin County is a good place to begin. (To see the article for yourself, the web address is: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/28/education/28education.html)

In a nutshell, a biology teacher who by all accounts is one of the best teachers in the school system was harassed by parents and her principal for daring to teach biology. Of course, the parents, evidently misinformed about the nature of science in general and biology in particular, assumed one can be taught biology without its central theory, the one that holds the entire science together. Unfortunately, that theory is called evolution, and many people have been so thoroughly propagandized about it by people who neither understand it nor modern science (and, no, I am not impressed with the Ph.D.s that one may cite who don’t understand the basic concept, either), that when they hear the very word their minds shut down and emotions run high.

And then there was the principal who went a little further. For some reason, the principal got real interested in the teacher’s religious beliefs asking whether she believes "every word in the Bible is true" -- one supposed "literally true." One supposes this implies that the six-day creation story is what the educator should have been supporting, not all this far-fetched nonsense about evolutionary change, natural selection, nor the geological evidence that the Earth and her inhabitants reached their present form in billions and billions and billions of years. Not six days. The teacher, unhappy that the question was asked or even pertinent to her task, wished the superintendent, a Mr. Dewy Moye, to do his job.

This would have required Mr. Moye to "run interference" with the parents and discipline the principal. Yes, parents have a right and duty to ask questions about their child’s education. But, unless a teacher is presenting material to a classroom that is truly bizarre and completely outside the accepted understanding of the subject, parents need to be talking with their school board and superintendent who should be able to explain the curriculum, the laws, why classes are the way they are. And in the science of biology, evolution is an accepted theory and is so common to the entire enterprise that to call it "bizarre" is itself odd. To become upset because evolution is "merely a theory" is exactly like someone becoming upset that physics teaches "the theory of gravity." These theories are the best scientific explanations we have for certain phenomena; these theories have passed and continue to pass examination and prove very useful. We have no reason to discard them. If we discarded everything that is a "mere theory," we would know nothing outside our immediate intuitions – we would cease to be humans.

Mr. Moye did not run the interference. The rest of the story can be read in 28 June New York Times and in the 5 July Dahlonega Nugget. So what’s my point in retelling the story? That the bare fact there are brick buildings called schools scattered all over a county does not guarantee that teaching or learning is going on inside them. It doesn’t guarantee that the people in charge of the schools, from the funding to the management, care about anything except staying in positions of power. Or know a damn thing about what a decent education might look like. Since the conservatives took control nationally and locally, the dropout rate has gone straight through the roof; we graduate lass than half our students in America. "No Child Left Behind?" It looks more to me like "Run-All-Students-Out-Of-School-Who-Might-Reflect-Poorly-On-Test-Scores."

A school that has given evidence that it does not trust and listen to its hired expert – that would be the teacher – and perhaps is willing to slide in a fundamentalist fantasy in place of law-ordered standards and scientific theories is liable to do the same in any subject where similar fantasies could be inserted. No, something like algebra is quite safe at the moment. Fooling around with math is difficult. But what if the subject was history or political science? Maybe we quit talking about Nixon and Iran Contra and the destabilization of the Middle East. Or the First Amendment. Maybe we start teaching that the Founding Fathers were mainly Puritans and interested in founding a Puritan-oriented "Christian State."

Believe I’m being far-fetched? I received in the mail a book endorsed by and quoting many, many authors and preachers from the Religious Right who cry this is exactly what needs to be done in our public schools. That along with abolish the teaching of "Godless Atheism" and something they call "Humanism." Go look up "Humanism" – that’s that nasty, rational way of looking at things that prevailed amongst the Ancient Greeks and returned with the Renaissance. It sits firmly at the origins of Protestantism, oddly enough.

Forgive the digression. My point is, there are people who want to turn the public schools into houses of neo-conservative and fundamentalist propaganda. Simultaneously, many don’t want to pay any taxes to support public schools that teach things like evolution because "they don’t believe in it" nor do they believe they have any responsibility to educate children capable of thinking on their own, logically, clearly, able to read and interpret books, with some idea of what the world they live in is like. In other words, they don’t believe they have any responsibility to support the education of a good citizen.

Perhaps none of this is what is going on in Lumpkin County’s schools. Perhaps we’re just looking at ill-considered misuse of power and the public trust. Maybe this isn’t a few people in authority influenced by ideas they need to go put into effect in a private, not a public school. But it resembles what is going on around the country. It is what has been going on starting 26 years ago and it will not stop until the Republicans lose their death-grip on state legislatures, on governor’s seats, on Congress, on the White House, and on the Judiciary.

You are not going to end one party rule and the extremism it engenders by continuing to vote for Republicans. And the education of our children will continue to suffer for it.





Richard Van Ingram
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved