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On the Ground in Wisconsin

Children hold signs at the Wisconsin protests
Dear Diane,

I am trying to stay angry, so I won't be overcome by sadness, Diane. But last Saturday I found a way to overcome the sadness in another way—by joining a public action.

Writing about what's happening to our country (and our world) doesn't do it for me, and I have no daily responsibilities for educating our youth to keep me hopeful. But on Saturday I went, quite by accident, to Madison to join the demonstrators. It was the end of a fascinating week "on the road"—from southern Ohio; Chicago; Mundelein, Ill.: and Wisconsin. In the midst of the annual North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) gathering in Mundelein, Bob Peterson (of Rethinking Schools) came to talk about events in Wisconsin; when he finished, we all rose to applaud him and within 15 minutes we cancelled the day's remaining sessions, climbed into whatever vehicles we could find, and headed off to Madison—a two- to three-hour trip.

It was an amazing day as you can see from the two photos in this blog. (The photo below captures me—holding a phone—in the crowd.) You'll also be able to see the scene through the eyes of the folks from the NDSG by going to their site (NDSG.org) or to my website in a few days and see it—plus, on my sight, my own footage. Some of that footage includes the sounds: chants and songs, speeches, drumming and bugling. You'll also see ingenious signs held high by a joyous crowd of somewhere between 55,000 and 80,000 people (plus a few thousand Tea Party-ers paid for by the super-rich Koch brothers). And many show the vastness of the crowds inside and outside the state Capitol. Fortunately, unlike Cairo, there were no "Cossacks" on horses and camels rushing through the peaceful crowds with whips, or racing cars running down protesters; or, as in Libya and elsewhere, guns and bombs raining down upon the peaceful protesters.

The crowd was motley, although overwhelmingly white. It included women and children and men in firefighter uniforms, teachers, nurses, and members of other unions and just-plain-indignant citizens.

Protesters in WisconsinIt's the beginning of a nationwide response to the well-funded campaign to eliminate public-employee unions (the private ones have already been destroyed, along with our manufacturing industries). It's part of a general orchestrated drive to the bottom, basing itself on their hope that if they can appeal to our worst instincts they can divide us: the desperation of those a step above, still hanging on to their jobs.

It's amazing, given that the legislators themselves (Republicans included) haven't turned down their healthcare packages or cut their wages or the pensions that come with their jobs. And the real criminals—those who stole our pensions through fraudulent investments in junk stocks and bonds—are hardly feeling generous enough to pay their fair share of taxes. They have less and less of a stake in the American economy since money travels easily from shore to shore.

Lots more college graduates won't end this race to the bottom. Nor, of course, will having more wars. World War II saved us from the Hoover depression, but Iraq and Afghanistan can't save us from the Bush depression. Especially if we don't recognize it as such. Today's rich—unlike those in 1933—are doing better than ever, while they scold us for not tightening our belts. We must accept austerity, they lecture us, for the sake of future generations. Luckily for them, their great-great-great-grandchildren will be well taken care of (although not protected from a warmed-up Earth). They already go to schools where 15 kids in a class is ordinary, while the children of the unemployed in Detroit will soon be attending schools with class sizes of 60. I'm not kidding.

Those who created this financial crisis and are its beneficiaries have risen to the occasion to put old-fashioned late 19th century capitalism back in the saddle, thus undoing a century of struggle.

Last Saturday, I caught a glimpse of the possibility that we shall not go down without a fight and might even overcome if, as you say, we "do not mourn, but organize."

I am nervous about our avoiding our disagreements. While we have so much at stake in keeping our sharp focus on the anti-union-privatization agenda, the less controversial idea of a sequential K-12 grade plan of learning scares me. Every school I was involved in (and the ones you sent your kids to) benefited by their freedom to invent ways to approach the endless lifelong task of making sense of a puzzling world. For Central Park East and Mission Hill, like Dalton, what has been critical is the ability to organize, and re-organize, a vast body of knowledge in ways that engage teachers, students, and their families. How sad that in recent years so many schools ignored the economic crisis that surrounded them and these past few weeks dared not shift their attention to what's happening in the Middle East. Why? For fear that they won't cover the prescribed curriculum.

I wonder how my friends at Mission Hill, where we study ancient Egypt twice during K-8, are taking this in. (I recall how the little kids at Mission Hill inquired about visiting Ancient Egypt.) They will now have an opportunity to connect the land of the pyramids, pharaohs, and mummies, and the land that they can see on TV at night.

If we see our task as promoting passive textbook observations of a world made by others, we have failed in our educational mission. The job of public education is to create a public. (Thank you, Thomas Jefferson.) To create one, we must ourselves see and be a part of that public life—and maybe even enjoy it!

What's next, Diane?

Deborah


Photo credit: Nicholas Meier

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