From grade school on through high school, history was always my favorite subject. I carried this into college where I was a double-major in government and history (with a concentration on U.S. History). After college, I taught both subjects for over two decades.
Since I turned 18, my political views have been all over the place. After having logged time as a registered member of both major parties, I seem to have come full circle, finding myself back where I started as an Independent. I started out that way at 18 because I really didn’t know the difference between the two major parties. I’m back at the same spot — at least for now! — because I just don’t see anyone (or any action group) out there who speaks for me. (A few Independents probably come the closest.)
On the one hand, as an educator, I have always felt honor-bound to try to present an air of optimism when I talk with high school kids about politics. On the other, I feel less than honest if I don’t acknowledge that I have never felt as cynical about goings on in Washington as I do now. And to qualify myself, I am no stranger to cynical times, having lived through 1 assassination, 2 additional serious attempts, 2 impeachment hearings, Watergate, Contragate, sex in the Oval Office, the WMD affair, etc.
So, why should students and teachers, to say nothing of “normal” people (!), remain optimistic in the face of so much discouraging nightly news? One thing that helps me is to remind myself of the positive national attitude changes that have also occurred during my lifetime, perhaps in spite of the above scandals and setbacks. Given that such a claim begs specific examples, here are five:
1) Public smoking. When I was a kid, not only did my parents and all of my friends’ parents smoke, they all smoked anywhere they damn well pleased. (To grasp the mood, watch any episode of Mad Men.) Looking out my New York cab window, I almost feel sorry for those huddled masses puffing away on the cold sidewalk in front of the skyscraper. (Somehow, it’s hard to imagine Don Draper joining them.) Heck, I even remember smoking in mid-70s Hyde faculty meetings. Maybe someone should try that some time…
2) Drinking & Driving. It used to be macho to brag about how you managed to steer the car home after a night of drunken revelry. Not cool today. (NRBQ, one of my favorite bands ever, even has a song about it. Download “Designated Driver.”) Best of all, most young drivers I speak with seem to have gotten the message.
3) Racial Jokes. Also, not cool – anywhere in the USA – but standard fare in my youth. As a kid, the only non-whites I saw on TV were athletes, entertainers, or actors in roles of subservience. After Dr. King helped turn the tide (to say nothing of Bull Connors’ fire hose), my kids grew up channel surfing through Obama and Cornel West in search of their favorite shows. I’ve witnessed a similar evolution regarding jokes about gender and sexual orientation. (See Eddie Murphy’s retraction of his homosexual jokes in Delirious, his 1983 blockbuster video.)
4) Special Needs. When I was in elementary school, all the Special Needs kids were partitioned off from all of us so as to ensure that we would never cross paths. I’m ashamed to say that we derisively referred to them as U.G.s, an abbreviation of their coded designation: Ungraded. Today I have a son on the autism spectrum. I recently watched him sing in his school chorus….. along with all the other kids. That never would have happened during the Great Society Years. (Come to think of it, maybe those years contributed to this development?)
5) We Recycle. A friend of mine calls environmentalism “the new opiate of the masses.” (See: The blue “We Recycle” box on my front yard every Monday morning.) I don’t remember seeing the Nelsons or the Cleavers recycle.
So, whether inspirational or troubling, there is ample evidence to show that national attitudes definitely can and do change. If we take the lead, maybe our national leaders will follow.
Onward, Malcolm Gauld