The Right to be Free? Or the Right to be Safe?

Twice when I’ve gone to the grocery store, there is someone in front of me in line–a man–who refuses to wear his mask until he enters the store. I live in a region of the country that is a hotbed of Covid-19, and in my county now, the curve is still rising slightly and not yet flattened. My county requires by law that people wear a mask when they are anywhere in public, with the exception of when they are walking outdoors if there is adequate social distancing. I cannot comprehend why these individuals refuse to do that, even when I politely remind them that it is the law, and why Trader Joe’s takes a cavalier attitude to enforcing it outside. Even inside the store, I have seen women wearing a mask covering only their mouths, not their noses. Needless to say, it makes me livid.

The American ethos is all about freedom, a misguided notion of freedom at all costs. Conservatives and lawless right wing renegades react violently to any discussion of regulation of social behavior. Most of them probably have no idea that in most other parts of the world, people are more highly regulated and in the industrialized West, they are no less free than we are. These foolish, emotion-driven people jump to conclusions with their black-and-white thinking, assuming America will become a Stalinist regime if anyone does anything to curb their liberty. Just look at some of the incidents in the past couple of months: protesters storming the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan and other capitals, kids flocking to Florida beaches for spring break, people flaunting authority and holding parties.

But how about the right to be safe? Why do we never discuss this in America? I would argue that it is due to two things: the lack of a collective mentality/extreme individualism, and because less “aggressive” human rights or more “feminine” and well-being values are not supported in our country. Consider the following:

-During our Covid-19 pandemic/crisis, many governments have not taken strict enough measures for fear of retaliation by their constituents. Yes, there are economic concerns which are very grave. But the longer term dangers to our economy will be a pandemic that continues and/or surges. Also, many politicians have no scientific knowledge whatsoever or are poorly informed. Granted, a number of restrictions could indeed slowly be lifted if people were very diligent and responsible, good about obeying the laws. But I would even go so far as to argue that even during shelter in place, many people have not observed the rules. This kind of arrogant, short-sighted flaunting of the laws can be seen on both right and the left. Some of the educated wealthy people on the left law think does not apply to them, that they are educated and they know better. This is sheer arrogance and entitlement and a disservice to society as a whole.
-Our lack of gun control. Go ahead, cite the Second Amendment about the right to bear arms. Cite the fact that there is violence and we need to defend ourselves, our families, our spouses, our children. Tell me that you are a responsible gun owner, and that you only use your guns for hunting, in which case I would accept your argument as legitimate, though I personally condemn hunting as an animal-loving vegetarian.
But look at the statistics about gun violence in America, And consider the fact that we actually have MORE GUNS THAN PEOPLE in America. Our gun ownership far surpasses that of any other country, including countries that are three times larger than us: India and China. Why should I be concerned for my life just because you are an individual who lives in foolish fear and feels the need to bear arms? How do I know that, if I honk at you when you cut me off on the freeway, you aren’t going to shoot me? Why should I and millions of other educators and students have to read a plaque on the wall of our institutions that give us instructions on what to do if there is an active shooter, along with taking shelter for tornadoes? How many more innocent lives–many of them children–need to be taken by an angry, mentally unstable individual who has gotten a hold of assault weapons? As long as we have the NRA, and our shamelessly unethical politicians who are supported by them, we have no hope for gun control. and our daily lives continue to be potentially harmful instead of safe. And the recent protests have shown how a particular group of people has sadly borne the brunt of gun violence.
-Our lack of universal healthcare. Will we become North Korea if we provide some sort of government-sponsored healthcare for everyone? Does anyone enjoy paying thousands of dollars for procedures that are sometimes inflated due to high malpractice insurance? Or like being in debt for years? Or perhaps you prefer not seeing a doctor, though you are suffering from a serious ailment, and perhaps would rather die? As long as we have this mentality in America (that makes us the laughingstock of the industrialized world) that we need to have the freedom to choose who provides us healthcare, or whether or not we even must have healthcare, no one can live in safe health and freedom from worry about the exorbitant costs. and this impacts people of low socioeconomic status even harder.
-Our disparate educational system. I find it extremely perverse that the quality of a Public school is contingent upon on the wealth of the neighborhood. The fact that people can even vote on whether or not to give money to schools is beyond my comprehension. I understand their criticisms, that school boards may mismanage or mis-spend funds. that it is the efficacy of the funding, not the amount. These are important points, and I don’t deny that there is systemic mismanagement. But to leave education in the hands of people who have no consensus as to what is important, who hold a very Republican perspective on education that claims that other social institutions are more important is completely foolish. And it costs more us in the end.
Children have a right to quality, safe school environments where they are educated, fed properly, and assessed fairly. Teachers have a right to strong resources, supportive administrations and governments, and a classroom free from violence and misbehavior. The burden on our educators is too overwhelming–they must play the role of teacher, social worker, babysitter, psychologist, behavioral expert, parental figure, and more.

Our society favors individualism and freedom to a degree that is near-pathological. Look at countries where there is a high degree of social welfare and government assistance and regulation such as Iceland, Germany, France, South Korea, New Zealand. Even our culturally-similar neighbor, Canada. In none of those countries would you say people lack freedom, that they don’t have the right to protest, that they don’t have free speech, religion–any basic human rights we expect in the developed world. And they all have prosperous economies. We have got to put an end to our fear-based mentality in our culture that says, “If I can’t have everything be 100% free and how I want it, then we are all trapped in a totalitarian regime.” And then we must create social policies and laws with common sense. People overseas often regard Americans as “the teenagers of the world,” people who can’t bear to have any rules and will act out if any are imposed. And just like a parent might tell a teenager, I would conclude by saying, “Let’s leave a good impression of ourselves on other people and learn how to behave properly.”

School Craze: Arming Teachers is a Bad Idea

Just a couple days ago, I read an article not in an American news site but on the BBC:
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40353408
about Colorado’s policy to train and allow teachers to carry guns at school for protection – protection for the students. Naturally, I was horrified to hear of such a scheme; my immediate thought was about what might happen if a teacher happened to be angry and took out his/her anger on a student. I forwarded the article to a friend who is a teacher in America’s heartland, in Dexter, MI. Dexter is a small community outside of Ann Arbor, MI, a famed college town and home of the University of Michigan. Dexter is quite homogenous, lies in the countryside outside and Michigan has, according to a 2013 survey discussed in detail on a major Michigan news site, mlive.com
http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/04/michigan_gun_ownership_by_the.html
an estimated 29% gun ownership by adults.

Here is what my friend, who is an elementary schoolteacher in Dexter, wrote in response after reading the article:

This is exactly what should NOT be done.

First, on the average day at school, you don’t have a school shooter (I made it through my whole school career without someone shooting up my buildings). I’ll bet you didn’t have one either.

Second, arming teachers means there is a weapon in the classroom on ALL those days when there isn’t a school shooting (read: EVERY day of most every student’s school life). A pistol in a classroom? What could possibly go wrong?

Third, if there ever WAS a shooter, would the teacher have their weapon handy (will they carry it every day on their hip)? Or, will it be in their desk, where a student could possibly get to it? AND, if they do decide to shoot the intruder, will they hit the intruder? Teachers are in the business of motivating children to read, practice their math facts, properly punctuate and capitalize in the their writing, and not bully other students. They aren’t trained in marksmanship! Do we need more bullets flying around a school?

Fourth, our school is trained in ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) to counteract any intruder. This is a safe and effective way to deal with the unlikely event of a school shooter. Life happens and we can’t be 100% safe from EVERYTHING that will happen to us as we navigate this life, but having teachers packing heat can only lead to more problems.

This was a very detailed response that I found fascinating, and wanted to share with my readers. Gun violence has indeed been hitting our schools and educational institutions in the recent past, in ways that are extremely disturbing and tragic. In addition to information on posters for how to take safety in case of fire, tornado, and natural disasters, campuses now feature strategies for what to do in case of an active shooter. But countering these shootings by arming teachers is not a viable option. We need gun control at a very high, strict level in situations with our most vulnerable members of society – children. But we also need to educate people on anger management and provide services for mental health. In these mass shootings at schools and other public places, the shooters had a host of mental problems and disorders that were not always adequately addressed. Therefore, gun control begins with mental health. And schools should be teaching and providing resources for mental health to nip these horrors in the bud when minds are still young.

The Role of Education in Different Cultures

This is not an empirical study about education around the world. Rather, it is an observation and impressions of how different countries regard the purpose of schooling. Given my own background working in education (international and postsecondary, as well as a little bit in primary), Master’s degree in higher and postsecondary education, as well as my undergraduate degree in anthropology, I am always fascinated by how people learn around the world. I have worked with students from a wide range of cultures, and have also traveled to a number of countries.

What I have observed from Asian cultures is that education is of primary importance, that it trumps almost all other core values. Many of these countries have civilizations that are thousands of years old, and great scholars are revered–Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu is still read around the world today, despite the fact that he wrote in the 6th century BC. Being educated and intelligent means being highly respected.

Education is also, nowadays, a tool for betterment in society. Education is the competitive edge, the social currency in which people trade. If you do not study hard, you will not do well in school. If you do not do well in school, this will have dire consequences upon your career. To a certain degree, this is true all over the world. However, the way in which families and individuals place importance in this belief is probably higher in Asia and elsewhere. This leads to another important point–parents are very involved in their children’s education. Beyond the “tiger mother” archetype written about by Amy Chua, parental involvement and simply caring about one’s child’s learning makes for better learners and fewer behavior problems. Statistics from countless studies prove this point.

One key explanation for the competitive, even “dog-eat-dog” climate is a high population. China and India lead the world (and then add in the other former Indian countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh), Indonesia is number four, and then the highly developed Japan and Korea which are also ranked highly in terms of population. Therefore, doing well in school is, at the bottom of it all, a survival strategy. When there is so much competition, and often not enough resources, one has to outdo one’s peers. Anything that is concrete and measurable is the best way to determine this when there are so many students to evaluate; therefore, anything that detract from this is seen as “fluffy” and useless. A great emphasis is placed on completion, jumping through hoops, and where one studies. India has, sadly unbeknownst to many Americans and Westerners, a system of universities in technology and management (Indian Institutes of Technology, or IIT, and Indian Institutes of Management, or IIM). These schools are directly pipelines into graduate programs at Ivy League and other top-ranked schools.

Critics of Asian education complained that it is rote and does not value critical thinking and creativity. These are certainly fair criticisms, especially when compared to education in America and other Western countries. Looking at Asian philosophies of education from a non-relative (read: American) point of view, and having worked with many Asian students, I have to say I concur that there is less flexibility and originality. But advocates say it works for them, and their booming economies are proof.

But there is a dark side to all of this: This pressure on students can sometimes lead to dire consequences: depression, low self-esteem, and at its worst, suicide. Parents can be unrelenting and unyielding, have unrealistic expectations of their children and push their own unfulfilled dreams on their offspring. The extreme emphasis on education, frankly, is a two-edged sword.

Europe is a fascinating area to analyze, because it is not homogenous. Continental Europe differs within itself, and then it also differs from Scandinavia which differs from the United Kingdom. What strikes me most is that Europe often tracks or separates students from a young age. This is positive as well as negative. There is a recognition in many European countries like Germany that a “bookish” education that stresses academic and intellectual learning is not always suitable for everyone, and vice versa. Vocational education is not frowned upon, and often those with such educations do quite well financially and in their careers. Critics of American education often lament that our one-size-fits-all system does not help many students, who are really wasting their time as well as our resources on education that will not help them in the future. Many European countries, such as Italy, therefore can make academic schools more relevant to the students who are qualified enough to attend: they can attend a high school for classics, sciences, etc. Finland, which was recently featured in Michael Moore’s film “Where to Invade Next,” does not believe in cramming students with information and homework, giving them a chance to develop as whole people and as equals. Various folk schools in the Nordic countries and Germany and Austria provide lifelong learning opportunities for adult learners. In the United Kingdom, there is a mix of private schools (ironically known as “public” schools) favored by the upper classes and international elite in addition to state schools. There are universities funded by the state, but like in the United States, ranking is more of an issue. A university like Oxford or Cambridge is world-class, but then there are numerous universities both public and private that provide higher education to a large number of people.

There are many criticisms to be made here. Tracking students early on seems, to an American educator, extremely detrimental, especially if in a country where there is very little opportunity later for career mobility or changes. Many students do not bloom till later, do not find their calling our passion till they have left secondary school. This favors a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” philosophy where the best students are earmarked quite early and therefore university education is not accessible to anyone but the top few percent. In Belgium, however, higher education is open to everyone (with the exception of a few fields), but we must remember that Belgium’s population is nearly 11.2 million people–far behind the larger countries of Germany, the United Kingdom, and France. Same for the Finnish system – a holistic, less-competitive education can work when there is little competition. England’s education system is still, like the country itself, very class-based and becoming costly. Loans are often necessary, as in the United States, to go to university.

The United States is much maligned for this reason, and for many others. The quality of one’s education depends on the wealth of one’s neighborhood. Standardized testing has killed a teacher’s intuition as to what will work best for his or her classroom, leaving it in the hands of authorities. Teachers have to serve as students’ psychologists and babysitters, due to poor parenting. Many educators and curricula emphasize touchy-feely, “Mickey Mouse,” boost-your-self-esteem models that make our students embarrassingly behind in global rankings such as PISA. Sports and prom are high priorities in some schools, as opposed to new lab equipment and music programs. Violence and drugs threaten schools in lower SES areas. On the flip side, there are children who are under pressure, overcommitted to extracurricular activities and punished when their report cards do not show all A’s. These are children–yes, children–and more and more of them are on medications to deal with their anxiety. Their parents call the admissions offices of Ivy League universities did not admit their children. Each year does not go by without hearing of at least a handful of suicides by children who did not get into their top choice of college. And this is for the people who can actually afford to go to college. Each new generation bears more and more debt, and one wonders if these students will ever be able to become debt-free. Is there anything good about the American education system?

Despite all these significant shortcomings, I would argue yes. Despite the fact that America desperately needs K-12 school reform, as well as radical changes in college tuition and loans, there are a number of things to admire. The American system is fundamentally based on openness and positivity. Students are encouraged to try. They are encouraged to challenge ideas, to assert their own opinions, and to be creative. Having a well-rounded education in academics as well as extracurriculars such as music, sports, debate, etc. is considered ideal. Our education system also wishes to address diversity, both in the classroom as well as in the curriculum. Children are taught from an early age that everyone is equal, and to treat all people and races as equal. Different educational needs, from gifted children to special education, are acknowledged. The can-do spirit allows for exceptional individuals who want to return at the age of 60 to finish high school diploma. It allows for students to change their mind from being a statistics major to becoming a premed and eventually a psychiatrist. The best universities in the world are in America, and there is fierce competition worldwide to attend them. Great innovators, scholars, dissident writers–there is a place for them in American academia. Our task is to bring that dynamism into K-12 education to make it accessible to everybody, where a high quality American education is as vital as liberty and justice for all.