by Victor Davis Hanson
The Pride of Solvency
I think the American people are not only scared of collective state and national debt, but sick of it as well. I mean by that abhorrence in the psychological sense — of reading that their governments are broke, of seeing public fraud and waste daily, of realizing that as they pay down their own private debts after 2007, so too they believe their governments could as well. Solvency has now become a matter of national pride.
Much of the elite trumpeting of “decline” and a “new multipolar world” and the “end of the American influence” derives from collective depression over owing $13 trillion in national debt, overseeing the Chinese posture with their trillions in American notes, over being typecast abroad as a spendthrift, out-of-control profligate culture. In other words, if my hunch is right, there is going to be increasing public pressure to balance budgets and pay off debt. Bill Clinton, fairly or not, remains popular today — despite the philandering, Monica, the disgraceful pardons, the serial petit corruption, and the unacknowledged role of a stingy Republican Congress after 1994 — because as president he oversaw a few balanced budgets.
The desire for solvency will only grow even as we start to see progress: the more government is restrained from spending, the more we will want it to cut back even more. Too often we talk of debt in terms of GDP percentages, of only reducing the size of the deficit, rarely of simply balancing the budget in real dollars and paying down aggregate debt to ensure surpluses — if only for the psychological effect on a depressed populace. The first governor of California to achieve a balanced budget without raising the nation’s highest sales and income taxes will achieve celebrity status; the first one to cut the income tax to 8% and the sales to 7% and balance the books will be deified.
I think the American people are ready for a radical break with the sixties past and would welcome an end to multilingualism in government messaging, voting materials, documents, etc. It is not just that receiving documents in the mail in duplicate or even triplicate, or being put on telephonic hold while another language starts up, is wasteful, but such repetition contributes to error and misinterpretation. What helps some in theory, hurts most in fact. There is also a growing collective feeling that creating a climate in which one can function without learning English is divisive, promotes sectarianism, and ultimately is deleterious to the non-English speaker. In private, please learn and use ten languages, from modern Greek to Mandarin; in government commerce and transaction, try English.
English only in matters of government communications would promote unity, save billions in government administrative costs, improve the employment skill sets of the immigrant, and remind our increasingly diverse body politic that we are committed to a single language. Bottom line: we have had over thirty years of separate but equal linguistic policy; it has been a dismal failure in causing unnecessary expense and confusion for the majority, disunity for all, and balkanization and second-class status for the minority speakers. It is time to go back to a single language before we start to resemble Europe around 600 AD when Latin broke down and a multiplicity of languages emerged in the general chaos.
The Problem Is the Student — Not the Teacher, School, or Administrator
We hear the usual reasons why our public schools are failing: poor schoolroom facilities, top-heavy administrative costs, teacher incompetence and unions, education department tyranny, and feel-good, “I-am-somebody” therapeutic curricula. All these pathologies surely conspire to thwart learning. As a professor for twenty-one years, who usually teaches somewhere each year as a visiting professor, I can attest to such contributory factors. But all that said, I think our greatest problem is simply today’s student and the familial environment that has produced him.
I went to largely Hispanic and impoverished elementary schools from 1959-67. The teachers, by today’s standards, were probably insensitive and unduly harsh. None of those classrooms had any of the glitz we see today. In September and May the non-air-conditioned rooms were often over 90 degrees. I can remember our second grade class was 44, with 5 folding chairs that we rotated in and out of, given the absence of desks. Instruction was mostly by rote, with ruler slaps for poor cursive penmanship. Art class consisted mostly of “drawing” in the sense that to the degree the finished product did not resemble what the eye sees, so we were berated for “bad” work. I could go on, but you get the picture.
And yet there was almost no violence on campus — and no counselors, psychologists, or teacher aides. Students from dire poverty arrived clean, polite, and ready to study. Parents came to school night classes to learn English and meet with teachers. Back to school night was packed. I can remember one Mexican-American mother carrying her daughter on drizzling days on her shoulders to ensure her white leather shoes were not soiled in the mud. Another student, a child of the Oklahoma diaspora, had a privy in his yard, a shower on the porch, and yet addressed our teacher in 19th-century style as “ma’am.” Yet another (her name was Yolanda, I’ll skip the last name since she probably still lives in the area) wore beautiful starched hand-made print dresses, a different one each day, all made by her mother, with matching-color hair ribbons. Her mother was there at one minute before school ended and would not allow her to loiter a nanosecond. These were representative, not atypical cases. The metal detector or attacks on faculty or f-wording staff were unheard of. A student’s detention was considered a family catastrophe.
Sure, the principals had autographed paddles and public spankings, but the students came to school largely well-behaved and enthused. By junior high there was often brutal fist fighting in Blackboard-Jungle- or Up-the-Down-Staircase-style, but no knives, much less guns. Mr. Tow, our sixth grade science teacher (there were giants in those days), was our hero — we wanted to dress as neatly as he did, to walk as uprightly as he did, to speak as well as he did. And most over the years did.
What am I getting at? This is not just reactionary “those were the good ‘ole days” mythologizing. Students really were better behaved and more ready to learn when they arrived at school — and that did more than anything to make public education work in a way it often does not now. It was as if, in Hesiodic style, with material progress came moral regress.
In contrast, today’s families, parents — whatever we call them — are sending large numbers of dysfunctional students to schools (and colleges). Perhaps they are raised by single- or foster- or no-moms; perhaps they are the targets of abuse; perhaps drugs have taken their toll; perhaps they are wards of the entitlement industry; perhaps they are outsourced at home to television and video games; perhaps their sneakers are now more costly than their predecessors’ entire clothing; perhaps they have never had to work and are spoiled by leisure hours consumed with cheap electronic gadgets. All these tragedies perhaps create predator-like students in our schools.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But the bottom line is that — aside from all the therapeutic, politically-correct, sociological mishmash in our schools — a large percentage of students comes into the system at an early age, and continues throughout it, as anti-social, prone to rude behavior and language, disruptive, and from environments where illiteracy, criminality, and furor are not uncommon. This is by no means the majority of students, but there are still enough who fit that profile to consume the resources and attention of the bullied staff and faculty to such an extent that our schools simply become dysfunctional.
Answers? I have none, given that postmodern society itself is the culprit — other than one: Please, no more “No Child Left Behind” sort of Manhattan-Project-like initiatives. We do not really need more per capita spending, new rules, new theories, new paradigms. Charter schools and vouchers might help, but are not the solutions (we had neither when I was a tyke). Instead, just a word to families and parents: do not send a child to school who is anti-social, disruptive, or criminally minded. We need to create a shame culture in which the worst sort of social transgression (far worse than smoking) is to burden the public schools with children that were neither raised nor tamed.
As a small start, might we end anonymity and return to the old shame culture of identifying youths by name, at any age, once they come into contact with the criminal justice system? As in: “David Smith, age 15, of 302 Broad Street, Selma, was arraigned today on charges of aggravated assault.”
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson