Comment Of The Day: “What’s Going On Here?”: The 8th Grade’s Speaker Of The House Snub”

At 7:23 AM this morning, veteran commenter Pennagain was sufficiently lucid to Penn this helpful commentary and reminiscence regarding civics, education, debate, perspective  and proportionality. I am duly impressed.

Here is Pennagain’s Comment of the Day on yesterday’s post on the significance of middle school students deliberately disrespecting the Speaker of the House, “What’s Going On Here?”: The 8th Grade’s Speaker Of The House Snub”:

I grew up in a thoroughly corrupt local political community (Jersey City, Hudson County, 1940s) where politicians mostly scared the hell out of us kids. They never hid their opinion of children as nuisances (non-voters, non-party-contributors, non-influential: period); as pawns to gain them applause (recipients of school awards or sponsored – not paid for – say, a week at summer camp or a trip to the carnival); as slaves (untipped or unpaid car washers, runners, leaf-rakers, lawn-mowers, paperboys etc.); or as flat out enemies (boys in particular who set off firecrackers or let their dogs loose at a rally or dared put their dirty, sticky hands on our officeholders’ bright black Buicks).

These refugees from Tammany Hall were no more considered respectable, responsible, worthy leaders than Dick Tracy’s B.O. Plenty and the school-age kids knew it. “Boss” (Mayor) Hague (“Listen, here is the law! I am the law!”), who ruled the city directly from 1917 to 1947 and indirectly for at least another 30 years, was universally hated and often feared, second to none in political corruption. Nonetheless, lip service and stiffly polite behavior was the rule in public, if only because parents were the greater examples; and they held the direct punishment power. Possibly, too, much as peer pressure obtained on the playground, children away from school lacked almost all the authority they would obtain in the next decade. We had an allowance if we were lucky, but no real buying power — we were a marketing force only in terms of breakfast cereal and comic books. Even toys and candy remained pretty much classics. Though we were a widely mixed group ethnically, in the classroom or the gym, we had no separate clubs or meeting places for our particular interests. We attended the afterschool activities, sports, religious observations and social functions dictated by our parents (I was treated to a few weeks of ballroom dancing classes one horrid Fall). Aside from running wild virtually unsupervised during any free time — and we found plenty of free time — we heard the opinions of our parents, ministers, teachers, newspaper-reading assignments, and listened with family around mealtimes to whatever was on the radio.

Civics class, the workings of “real” government, was treated like history, something that happened to other people. History studies, however flawed we see them now, especially as to heroes, attached memorable personalities to specific administrations. We got the blueprints of the machinery — not opinions — but specific knowledge of how our government functioned. Or was supposed to.

Presidents, or rather THE President, FDR, had all the respect due a kind of Greek god (not upper-case “G”). In other words, not everyone admired him — at least one of our neighbors found him responsible for every terrible thing that had ever happened to Mankind, but he … all these masculine pronouns are going to come back to haunt me when some PC friend finds this post … he was given the reverence of his position, strength and longevity (to kids, he had reigned forever and ever, way back before our great-grandparents). Meeting one of his people — a congressman or senator — was considered a great privilege we had as Americans. Even writing a letter (usually a group letter mostly composed by the teacher) was an Important, grown-up thing, an achievement that we were convinced would, in itself, “make a difference.” (That’s where that having-to-do-something got started, I think.) We also learned that when we were adults — at the great age of 21, not a mere teen, laughably, still in school! — we would have A Vote. And that that vote would always “make a difference.”

Most influentially, we had debates — yes, even in elementary school (as some here have already pointed out, 8th grade was the top of that educational component; many would not go beyond it) — and those were about as free-ranging as you could get, barring open Nazi sympathy in these immediately post-war days. Just about anything went, so long as it was delivered in what one teacher called ladylike and gentlemanly speech. We argued back and forth and back again, kids of several races and classes, many ancestries, and opposing, even inimical convictions.

Hidden within those speeches (and their after-arguments) were Politics. Politics conservative and liberal to the alt-degrees, in rough outlines, communism to capitalism, xenophobic to xenophilic. Moderates didn’t have a chance. We didn’t know they had names, much less the parties to which they arbitrarily belonged. Many of the subjects spoke virtually to economics, world food distribution, city planning, taxes, animal protection, labor, deregulation, lawmaking, health care, women’s rights … ( I once spoke on “Ladies Can Be Bus Drivers Too” thinking it would be taken as humorous – never heard the end of that one, but strangely enough, the pragmatic argument before the days of power steering “they’re not strong enough” is raised every few years in San Francisco when the question arises: “Where are the women cable car workers?” .The answer is San Francisco’s 2nd female gripman in 140 years began in 2010 operating the various hand and foot controls that propel and stop the 15,500-pound vehicles. The job is there for anyone who can do it.)

What I (we) learned in elementary school translated into more concrete information in high school, including the reasons for behaving with respect towards the members of our government, regardless of whether we agreed with them or not. By college, I was able to stand against McCarthy’s burning in effigy, glad that I was that he was no more. but aware that he hadn’t stood alone, and that insulting his memory was not going to make dialog any easier.

This is the foundation of opinion: Civics and Debate. This is what seems to be missing now … so we get kids mouthing their parents’ slogans, making public gestures of refutation without understanding the way our country functions much less respecting the people who make it run, however jerkily.

We learned one thing – clearly and absolutely – way back in grammar school, without even being aware of it, that bi-partisanship was the only way to go. From that base it was inevitable to see that one way of thinking didn’t hack it, whatever the church or manifesto said: that it was dangerous NOT to understand what the other side was thinking, and NOT to be willing and able to debate; that it was fatal NOT to continue to inform that opinion for our lifetime. Those people and those governments that have only one side eventually tip over. Some days in the USA, I feel I am losing my balance . . . .

6 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “What’s Going On Here?”: The 8th Grade’s Speaker Of The House Snub”

  1. Good Post. That last paragraph in particular is one I wish more people would take note of and follow. It seems both sides are having a hard time getting out of the “us vs them” mentality and actually even attempting to see what the thought process is for those not following the party of choice. We try to show our daughter a bit of both. My wife is a Democrat, but fairly moderate, I’m a Republican, but really lean more towards Independent. So fortunately we both aren’t extreme in our parties. I think it’s helped to try and even out some of her thinking on events. Unfortunately there are a lot of children out there who don’t have that kind of balance, and will only hear what their parents speak about.

    But she has her own mind as well. I have found kids experience more of the world then they used to when we grow up. For us free time was going out and playing sports on the block with friends, now they’re engaged in social media, including hearing about world events and what is happening in the city around us. When I was young something could happen two blocks down and I wouldn’t hear about it. That doesn’t happen anymore.

    Maybe because we live in a good neighborhood, her school gets involved in many things. There was debate in elementary school, civics was a class for much of her year this year, which included how the government functions and why it works the way it does. There were monthly current event projects, and items such as that. She’s into dance and drama, and last year in 6th grade she went on a 5-day trip to NY with the school to see broadway shows, tour RCMH and the Apollo theatre, do tours at Julliard and Tisch. Throw in museums, classic cultural icons, etc. These trips were unheard of in my day, especially for a 6th grade class. (Yes, we had to pay for it, but it was still not something available. We were lucky to go to a science museum back then).

    People also travel with their kids more. Vacations were going to the beach, summers spent at home playing with friends. Now people go on international trips and cruises.

    It’s really let her see more of the world, and what is out there in it. Being a kid doesn’t mean you know nothing. Unless you have parents who let it be that way.

    • I had the same thoughts, as I read. Being a good story teller really IS a talent.

      And posts like this are why Ethics Alarms is daily must reading for me. Congrats on the COTD, Pennagain.

  2. Pennagain, it sounds like you are just a little bit older than I am. (Eisenhower was president when I was born.) I remember a lot of the same things. I was brought up in a rural western conservative state, so the politics was different, but my school experiences were substantially the same. People were openly patriotic and not afraid to include God in public discourse. There were a lot of things wrong with the way the nation was then, but there were a lot more things that were right. One of the things that was right was respect for political offices. My dad was outspoken in his disgust for the actions of certain politicians, but never wavered in his respect for the structure of our government and respect for the offices of elected officials. The thing I remember hearing from him over and over again was “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And he, as a purple heart veteran of WWII, had the gravitas of his actions. I sometimes feel glad he died before he had to watch what has happened to this country.

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