As a nation, we have seen eroded critical ingredients of our decency and our obligations to each other. This diminishes us both in our own eyes and that of others. These elements are: civility, critical reasoning and personal responsibility.
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All around me I witness the lack of civility. I recently saw a teenager cursing at his teacher because he had confiscated his skateboard on school grounds. This after repeated warnings. Trust me, if I had used that kind of language as a kid, my father would have ensured I would not have reached adulthood. And you know what was most egregious about this? When the student complained to the principal, the teacher was reprimanded and the kid got off scot-free — no suspension, much less a detention.
Or when during a presidential election, I was standing on the side of a major road at a traffic light, holding a campaign rally sign. A minivan slid to a stop at the light, and four kids under the age of 10 had their noses pressed to the windows. The driver rolled down his window and brandishing his middle finger started yelling, “F… you! F… you!” When in the near future his kid says the same thing to him, he will probably reply, “Where did you learn that from?”
We can establish a zero-tolerance drug policy that can get a kid thrown out of school for giving another a cough drop, but not enforce a code of honor requiring civil behavior and respect to one’s teachers and peers.
If you can stomach the incivility of the far-right shock jocks you should sample Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh or, my personal favorite, Ann Coulter. Their fury and hate-filled vindictiveness are sickening and often racist and misogynistic.
Two books that dissect hate speech are Rory O’Conner’s “Shock Jocks” and Jeffrey Feldman’s “Outright Barbarous.” They posit the need to exonerate oneself (for the sorry state that has be-fallen our society) by blaming others and the need to continuously ramp up the rhetoric so as to top the previous spew of filth.
Moving on to critical reasoning. In a time when the volume and the velocity of information have increased exponentially, critical thinking and judgment are essential to making decisions that materially affect our lives. Not the least of which are those we elect to public office.
To make such judgments we must filter the flow of information (that which is pertinent from the noise) and reduce it to a manageable, digestible size. Additionally, we must use inductive and deductive reasoning skills, which are often poorly taught in our schools. I have seen people simply give up when faced with this process — “What is the difference, all politicians are the same.” No they are not! You are simply too lazy or distracted to focus on this important decision.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman quoted an international investor who said, “Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges … This loss of competitiveness has weakened the American worker’s production of wealth, precisely when technology brought global competition much closer to home.”
But how can we teach critical reasoning when we spend so much time teaching to the test? I am far from alone in castigating our public education system. And I hasten to add I do not simply blame the teachers. They are burdened with administrative timidity, politically correct policies, chronically low pay and limited resources.
If we direct our classroom teachers to teach to the test there is no time or energy left to teach reasoning and critical thinking. If you have seen the film “The History Boys,” you will know what I am referring to. If not, it is a must see and you are in for a treat.
As for taking personal responsibility, the answer is the blame game: Exoneration by shifting the blame to someone else, often by suing someone, anyone, so much so that litigation has become our national sport and has been proposed for a future spot in the Olympics.
When these blame-game behaviors extend to our elected representatives and military leaders, we have got to stop and ask ourselves if we are bringing our kids up right. This reflects directly on parenting skill. We should stop blaming others and look to what we are enabling and condoning.
I am reminded of the old Bill Cosby commercial when he mimics a child who broke a toy and tries to avoid blame — “The melephant did it.” Well folks, there are no melephants; we stood by and watched it break and our decency decline, so own up to it.
Gene Altshuler is a resident of Cameron Park and a community activist interested in economic development and local government.