Wednesday was the first day of the new school year for our 3rd-grade grandson. Our 7th-grade granddaughter began a day later.
The first day of school is magical, although I’ve yet to adjust to a pre-Labor Day start. Squinting from 70 years away, I can still see my first new school outfit, feel the excited anxiety and smell the unmistakable scent of sharpened pencils.
Much of the magic of each new school year is the chance for a fresh start. “This year,” I promised myself, “I will maintain an organized notebook, a pristine school desk and do all my homework.” Like a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers, the optimistic blooms were soon to wilt. Within weeks, the notebook would be neglected, the desk would be a cluttered mess and homework would be delayed by outdoor play until nightfall, then postponed until morning, which never allowed time for even a piece of toast, much less homework. And so it went, year after year . . . but the bouquets never failed to appear – briefly.
The beginning of this school year is fraught with ugly politics. In Florida and elsewhere, allusion to race, gender and sexuality is outlawed, great books are banned, good teachers are quitting in droves and, courtesy of voucher programs and schools choice, the common educational ground from which prior generations sprang has been subdivided into highly partisan plots (dual meaning intended).
As with nearly all else about education, these shenanigans are orchestrated by adults, for adults, and without the slightest regard for the effect on children. And, apropos of the beginning of school, my optimistic view on the effect is, “not much.”
Admittedly, my observations may be distorted by the middle/upper middle class rose-colored lens through which I view this particular start of school. Certainly there are seemingly intractable problems faced by children, especially children of color, in poor communities. But these problems are far from new. Neglect of poor children is a long, shameful tradition in our country.
But the so-called culture wars, played out at high altitude far above children’s daily lives, are political sound and fury, signifying far less than you might fear.
Whether banning primary school books about same-sex parents or whitewashing history in Advanced Placement courses, the culture war train left the station some years ago. Although the overall verdict on popular culture and social media is not positive, the sensitizing of young folks to diversity, gender variability and acceptance is undeniable. Kids are constantly presented with difference and its celebration. For the vast majority of children, young and older, racism and homophobia are unacceptable. I don’t minimize the pain caused when incidents occur, but the cultural norms among children have shifted dramatically and are not going to shift back because a few nasty Republican governors are trying to score points with their shrinking base of voters.
In principle, parents and politicians are committing acts of intellectual, artistic and constitutional violence by removing truth or controversy from school libraries. If only teenagers spent enough time in libraries to notice! But as has been true since time immemorial, the best way to get kids to read a book is to ban it. And I’ll wager that most kids are already fluent in whatever content their sanctimonious elders are trying to hide.
No, America’s children are not going to be deeply scarred (or scared) by the “culture” wars.
The assault on the institution of public education is a much more serious threat, as neighborhood schools are under-resourced and public dollars are diverted to bible-based travesties and online parasites. But here too, I sense a momentum change. The sensible backlash to nonsensical political maneuvers is growing, led by wonderful groups like the Network for Public Education. School choice is being exposed as, for the most part, a partisan, corporate scheme. The blatantly unconstitutional public support of religious schools will not stand for long in an increasingly non-religious society.
All of these political manipulations are the last gasps of a diminishing minority in our country which resists the inevitability of a beautiful, pluralistic, secular republic. Most of America’s children are already there, often waiting for their parents to join them.
So here’s to a new school year and fresh starts! I’m going to go organize my desk. I promise.