The Eyes of History

“If I had my way, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”

Sound familiar? Could almost be a sound bite from the 2016 Presidential campaign or current political discourse. It is a statement one can imagine hearing at Trump’s recent rally in Ohio. But it was made by North Carolina Senator Robert Reynolds around 1939 in response to the growing Nazi threat in Europe.

This was one of the many echoes that struck me as I watched “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” the  Ken Burns’ documentary that aired on PBS last week. It can still be streamed for free.

Today it is appropriate, it is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, to reflect on the lessons that could be learned from Burns’ film. Those lessons could be learned if one watched the six-hour series. Sadly, the people who most need to see it, likely did not. It was hard to watch, painful, but so important because of the reverberations that continue to plague our country now. I will need to write more than one essay to explore it.

So many themes addressed by the film are alive today. I believe there is something to be gained by considering them. These issues are thorny, but we need to be honest and talk about them.

First, a word about terminology. Immigrant, refugee and migrant are all words used to describe people arriving at our borders. Theoretically these words mean different things, though I don’t believe there are agreed upon international definitions. A refugee is generally understood to have been forced from their home, while a migrant seeks another home voluntarily (it has the connotation of not necessarily being permanent and can be within a country, like migrants from the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s). An immigrant, on the other hand, is thought of as seeking permanent status in a new country. However, the ‘voluntary’ nature of the person’s move can be difficult to assess. For purposes of clarity in this essay, I am addressing refugees, though the lessons we take from our experiences from World War II are broader than that population.

One of the questions raised is: could/should the United States have allowed more Jewish refugees into the country in the late 1930s and early 1940s. We face this question today on a myriad of fronts – refugees from Ukraine, from Venezuela, from other war-torn or famine-afflicted states, or people displaced because of climate change (flooding, fires).

In the past people argued that we didn’t understand the risk to European Jewry, but as this documentary makes clear, that simply wasn’t true. It was known and it was known early enough to have acted. However, fear was an obstacle; the fear of spies among refugees – that there would be bad actors even among the Jews who were so threatened. That’s where another theme intersects: propaganda.

The Germans were masterful at stoking the flames of anti-Semitism, portraying Jews as evil, all-powerful, Communists. The image was believed even if it was internally inconsistent. Millions, and that is not an exaggeration, died as a result of that combination of fear and acceptance of propaganda – acceptance not just in the United States but in other developed countries that could have taken them in but were vulnerable to that toxic mix.

What can we learn from this? Maybe, just maybe, we need to be careful about stereotyping. When a whole group is portrayed as one thing – Mexican drug lords, Syrian terrorists – it is incumbent on us to think critically. It isn’t that there aren’t Mexicans who could be connected to the drug trade or Syrians who could be terrorists or Jews who could be communists. There are or were, but to what degree? Were the majority? That’s preposterous. The first question is:  Are the refugees at risk of death? If they are, the second question is: can we help in a way that minimizes the danger to our own citizens?

We have been plagued by the question of who can enter our country since its inception. We can’t keep pretending that it is new or that we don’t have biases that impact our policies. I am not suggesting that we allow unrestricted entry. The dialogue on this issue is so poisoned as to make it nearly impossible to discuss rationally. I am not aware of anyone, certainly not President Biden, who is advocating open borders.

The reality is that the vast majority of refugees are ordinary people trying to escape intolerable, life-threatening circumstances. One of the things the documentary so effectively illustrated is the individual stories – several Jewish brothers came to America in the 1910s, one went back to Poland and was never able to re-enter our country. He, along with his wife and children, died at the hands of the Nazis. The family that remained in the United States was devastated by their inability to help and lived with guilt and pain for the rest of their lives. We can become anesthetized to the pain of the individuals if we don’t take the time to understand their stories. It took years in a displaced persons camp for my father-in-law to gain entry to the United States, at least he made it.

The United States in the lead up to and during World War II, as is true today, didn’t want non-Northern Europeans to enter our country, they didn’t want the majority white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants to be ‘overrun’ by ‘ethnic others’. Semitic people were less desirable. It was chilling, and appropriate, that Ken Burns concluded the documentary with footage of the march in Charlottesville; showing men with tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us.” While that sentiment might not represent the opinion of the majority of Americans, it is frightening that our president was unwilling to clearly and unabashedly rebuke the marchers. It revealed something we don’t want to see, but we cannot ignore. If we want to keep our claim to being a force for good in this world, and maintain our democracy, we must face the demons which lie within. We cannot be complacent in the face of the evil. If a politician, no matter what other positions they take (they may ironically be a supporter of Israel), is unwilling to stand up to white supremacists, we must reject them regardless of party affiliation.

The answer to the question I posed above is that the United States could have and should have done more. Let’s not be in the position in the future of coming up short in the eyes of history.

Surveillance Anyone?

As happens with some frequency, I was listening to a podcast and it got me thinking. It was Stay Tuned with Preet. Preet Bharara interviewed Nita Farahany, someone I had never heard of before but learned that she explores the intersection of law, neuroscience, and technology. She is a law professor at Duke University and has a PhD in philosophy. She has quite an impressive resumé (I looked it up).

They discussed the implications of emerging technologies in brain monitoring, as part of the larger issue of society’s increasing capacity for surveillance. During my first listening (yes, I listened more than once and you’ll understand why in a moment), I was outraged. Why? Because she said the following, “We have cameras in our kids’ bedrooms. Our oldest, who is now seven, she wouldn’t cry, she would look at the camera and wave….”  On first hearing that, I thought she was saying that they had still had a camera in their seven-year old’s bedroom. Most parents these days have baby monitors that include video, but I assumed once the child was able to climb out of bed and come to the parent’s bedroom, the monitoring device would be removed.

Would you find that outrageous, having a camera in a seven-year old’s room? I think children deserve to have some privacy. I don’t think they should be monitored 24/7 unless there are unusual circumstances. I believe we removed the baby monitor, it was limited to audio, from our child’s bedroom once they were out of the crib. Why wouldn’t the same notion apply to monitors that include video?

It is possible that I misunderstood what she said. She was making the point that children growing up today are accustomed to being watched. In the comment above she explained that by the time her daughter was one, she would wave at the camera to get her parents to come get her, she didn’t cry. For her it was normal to be watched in that way and that could have implications about how they felt about it as they got older.

Thinking that she was still surveilling her daughter with a camera, though, my immediate reaction was, “And you are an ethicist?!?” I then thought that I didn’t really want to hear the rest of what she had to say, and I turned it off.

Upon further reflection, I wondered if I heard right, perhaps I misunderstood. And then, as I thought more deeply about it, I wondered if, given the emphasis on security these days, if cameras in children’s bedrooms and throughout the house are common and are simply a given. If that is the case, what does that mean for privacy? Who is watching?

Recently when our daughter was pregnant and putting together her baby registry, she explained something to me that her brother, who’s child is now four, explained to her. When you buy a video monitor you can choose one that is wifi enabled or not. Our son and daughter-in-law selected one that was not, in other words it worked over a certain distance in a house but didn’t utilize the internet. Our daughter and son-in-law made the same choice, believing that it reduced the risk of being hacked or monitored by uninvited individuals. Our children face parenting decisions that we didn’t dream of. I don’t envy them.

Realizing that I may have misunderstood Dr. Farahany, I decided to listen to the entire podcast, and to replay the part that got me so angry. I was calmer and realized I may have leapt to a conclusion. I also realized that perhaps it wasn’t so crazy, though I stand by my belief that children deserve privacy, too.

I’m glad I listened. First, it was not clear that cameras were still in use in her older child’s room. I would love to ask her to clarify and hear her thoughts on the idea. Second, they discussed a lot of important subjects that we need to consider as science and technology evolve.

One area they discussed was use of brain monitoring on long-haul truckers, and this technology may not be limited to that job. We might agree that monitoring truck drivers’ level of alertness, which can be achieved using several different types of surveillance technologies, is a good thing since drowsy driving is the most frequent cause of accidents on our roadways. The issue gets stickier when you think about what other data might be collected along the way, who might have access to the data and how else it might be used. If we can be sure of the narrow use of the information, to inform the driver (and the employer?) that they are sleepy, then the intrusion on privacy is warranted. One can imagine a whole host of possible misuses of the information, though, especially if the monitoring isn’t limited to tracking wakefulness. And even in that limited application, what does it mean for employer/employee relations? Does the trucker get disciplined? Hopefully, these issues have been worked out before the technology was implemented. Sometimes that planning doesn’t happen, and the horse is out of the barn before the implications have been considered.

Privacy is a sensitive subject, especially when balanced against safety. In many areas of our lives, including in our own homes, we make calculations about what is more important to us. We are often willing to sacrifice privacy for security, but we need to be mindful of unintended consequences. And, like many things, we won’t all agree on the proper balance. It is an important conversation to have, especially as parents of young children.

Our Promise, Our Obligation

It is the 4th of July. It is a beautiful, warm, sunny day and we will do one traditional thing – barbecue some burgers and hot dogs. Otherwise, the holiday doesn’t have much meaning this year. I’m not taking much pride in being American, sad to say.

I am a baby boomer – slipped in under the wire, being born in 1959. I don’t know who decides these things, who defines the generations, but I meet the criteria. As a product of that time, I believed in American exceptionalism. The lessons learned at school, and the broader culture, taught me that this country was special, born of an idea that we were all created equal, and we were free in ways other citizens in other countries were not. I was born into the Cold War – people in the Soviet Union could not criticize their government without fear of imprisonment, they did not enjoy the riches and abundance of the free market, they weren’t allowed to practice religion (I was especially aware of this as a Jew) among many other rights. But, not only that, I thought we were better even than England where people were born into a class and couldn’t rise above it. When America won gold at the Olympic games, my heart swelled with pride when our national anthem played. I believed we were the good guys.

I came to understand that we weren’t always the good guys in foreign policy. We sometimes supported regimes that were repressive or corrupt because we thought it was in our economic interests. As I became more educated and experienced in the world, I didn’t dismiss these instances, but I accepted that there were some limits to our choices; our country existed in a real world with bad actors. I still had faith, though, with effective leadership and if our values informed our policies, we could be a force for good.

As I grew up, and became more educated about our history, I came to understand that we weren’t quite as exceptional as I thought. I still believed in the essential values that were our foundation, freedom and equal opportunity, but I realized that we had not fulfilled those promises. Race riots and the women’s movement made me aware that we didn’t all have equal opportunity. When the founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, they used the term ‘men’ purposefully. We needed to expand the concept. We had work to do to make that a reality. But, I accepted that this was something that could be achieved through new laws and improved education. I believed that the majority of Americans wanted to realize that promise.

Today my faith is shaken. It seems that a powerful portion of the American people don’t share my understanding of the foundational values that I thought inform our institutions. I thought freedom meant that people could worship as they chose, if it wasn’t infringing on others or violating laws, but that religion was not endorsed by the government. Increasingly it seems that our Supreme Court has thrown that idea by the wayside. A coach, an employee of a public school system, can lead his team in Christian prayer in the middle of the football field. A Christian concept of when life begins dictates a woman’s right to reproductive choice. The right to bear arms outweighs sensible limitations. If polls are to be believed, though, the majority of Americans don’t agree with these policies. So, where does that leave us?

The very idea of democracy, that the will of the majority of people determines the government’s course of action, is being thwarted. Everything I learned, that we have a “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” is at risk. I just re-read the Gettysburg Address, from which the phrase I quoted above derives, and I remind myself not to give up. I highly recommend refreshing your memory by reading it (here).

These ideals are worth fighting for; all is not lost. These Supreme Court decisions need not be the final word. Congress can act. State legislatures can act. Governors make a difference. Local school boards are relevant. We need to be vigilant, and we need to vote – in primaries and in November. Perhaps this holiday, this 4th of July, can help to remind us of our promise and obligation.

Okay, I’m feeling better about the holiday. I hope you are too.

The Hardest Job

I visited with my mom the other day. She is 88 years old. I asked her what she remembered about becoming a first-time mother.

I had just come back from helping my daughter, who recently gave birth to a baby girl, her first child. Caring for my newborn granddaughter, changing her diaper, soothing her when she fussed, brought back powerful memories of my own introduction to motherhood. I was curious how my mom remembered her early days after her firstborn, my older brother Steven, arrived.

Mom gave birth to Steven in an Air Force hospital in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1955. When I asked her how she felt at the time, she responded, with some hesitancy, “I was frightened.”

I was surprised by Mom’s response, and, at the same time, I wasn’t. If asked how I felt upon being released from the hospital in 1987 with my newborn daughter I would have said, ‘Terrified.’

We don’t usually admit to those feelings. We are supposed to be overjoyed. For me, at least in the beginning, the fear outweighed the joy. It felt like such a huge responsibility; one I had no previous training to take on. I felt woefully inadequate.

Mom went on to tell me a story, one I had heard before, but was eager to hear again. Before they sent her home, the nurse showed her how to diaper the baby and gave her other instructions. While explaining, the nurse took Steven by his feet and flipped him over on the bed! He appeared unfazed by the motion, he landed safely. “He isn’t as fragile as you think,” the nurse told my stunned mother.

It is hard to imagine a nurse doing that when I had my daughter in 1987. Though Mom took some comfort from the nurse’s demonstration, she couldn’t help but wonder about her ability to meet the needs of the tiny, living, needy creature entrusted to her care.

In the 1950s women were not encouraged to breast feed. My brothers and I were bottle-fed formula from the get-go. During that recent conversation Mom told me the idea of nursing made her uncomfortable, she didn’t consider the possibility. Since bottle-feeding was the norm in that era, I don’t think she felt any guilt. When I became a mom, it was expected that you breastfed. It was assumed that unless you were physically unable to, you did it. I could be remembering wrong – it is possible it wasn’t quite that black and white, but that was my perception. I received some guidance from the nurse while I was in the hospital to get me started, and fortunately, I was able to successfully do it without much physical complication. That doesn’t mean there weren’t other complications. I remember being exhausted, on the edge of depletion. It seemed as soon as I finished a feeding it was time to do it again.

Tired anyone? Me holding Leah – at least one of us was sleeping

My husband and I decided, after two weeks, to introduce a bottle of formula so that he could take a middle of the night feeding. Despite hearing something about ‘nipple confusion,’ we decided to risk it for my sanity. Though I believed we did the right thing for us, I didn’t widely share our approach given the prevailing attitudes of the day.

I don’t recall getting much guidance or support navigating these issues. In a way, I envied the fact that my mom didn’t have to deal with the question of whether to breastfeed or not. She had confidence that a formula-fed baby would be just fine. By the 1980s the decision became fraught – there are extremists (as there are about everything in our society these days) who insist that a woman must do it given the evidence that breast milk helps the baby’s immune system. It is only in the last year or two that there is recognition that we should not be so dogmatic. So many things come into play. Nursing can be unbelievably time consuming. In the first days and weeks after birth it can be every two hours, leaving little time for sleep or physical recovery. Some women experience pain or have supply issues (some women who produce milk worry ceaselessly about whether it is sufficient). Others are fortunate to find it relatively easy and experience the emotional reward of bonding with their baby – but most women I know, though they ultimately may have felt fulfilled by doing it, had a bumpy road getting there. The process can be hard without adding the collective judgment of society.

Writing this in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe and deprive women of their right to choose, I see a consistent theme. Women shoulder huge responsibilities in bringing forth new life, but we are not supported in that work (yes, I called it work, labor is called that for a reason).

The myriad ways in which our culture fails us is breathtaking. From inadequate access to health care (from prenatal to aftercare for mother and baby), to the history of failing to research women’s health issues, to the lack of understanding of the demands of those first few months, and finally, on a fundamental level, not valuing us, women often feel alone and overwhelmed. Though I am well past new motherhood, all of those feelings come rushing back as I watch my daughter go through it, especially in the context of the court’s repudiation of women. I feel the anxiety and weight of the responsibility in the pit of my stomach.

Being a mother is the hardest job I ever had (and still have). I believe, from what I know of my grandmothers and mother, they would agree. Our society needs to reprioritize its values. Mothering, and all forms of caretaking, must move up many rungs. It deserves better pay (sort of a joke since mothers aren’t paid, but we should assign it value). Childcare should be far more financially rewarding. But, perhaps even more than that, the work of mothering deserves more respect. Mother’s Day is a trifling excuse for the recognition that is due to those who take on the role.

It goes without saying that the government has no place in deciding whether a woman becomes one. I am well aware that some are not up to the task; all the more reason to support reproductive choice and change the way we view and assist mothers. It does take a village to raise a healthy child. When will we accept that and make policy decisions accordingly? I hope for my granddaughters’ sakes we begin the change now.

‘Things Are Being Said…’

Here is an excerpt from an article in my local paper the day after school board elections were held last week. [ Note: North Colonie is a suburb of Albany, New York.]

“In North Colonie, some voters said they agree with the “parents rights” movement, though they declined to give their names. ‘Things are going on the parents aren’t aware of,’ said one North Colonie voter. ‘Things are being said in the name of equity.’”

This sounds like the sentiment expressed at the Meet the Candidates forum that I watched for my home district, Guilderland. The idea that ‘things’ are being slipped into the curriculum under the guise of equity without parental knowledge was a concern of more than one candidate. This notion fits in with the larger conspiracy narrative that plagues our nation. It is alleged that unnamed forces are in cahoots to indoctrinate our children.

I have so many questions about this line of thinking. When I watched the candidates express this thought, I wondered first who was slipping this material in? Was it a teacher, a principal, the superintendent, the state education department? No names or titles were offered when they made their argument.

What exactly was being slipped in? One candidate mentioned a math problem where the pronoun used was he/she. The candidate suggested this was needlessly confusing. I thought to myself, it could be clunky, but is it really that big of a deal? What harm would it do? Would it actually lead a 7 year old, for example, to question their gender identity? They probably wouldn’t even notice it unless an adult brought it to their attention.

Or, was there more to it?

I decided to look for myself. Could I find examples of the types of material being used as part of this indoctrination? When I started doing the research the first thing I found was that some of the ‘new’ language being included in math textbooks was because social-emotional learning (SEL) goals were being incorporated into those texts. Furthermore, some commentators seemed to be conflating the use of SEL with critical race theory.

Apparently an analyst at the conservative think tank, Manhattan Institute, said the following about social emotional learning in a New York Times article and it has gained traction: “The intention of SEL is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology,” said Chris Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the Times reports.

“Reinterpret normative behavior”? What does that mean? I googled it and normative behavior is that which we think should be normal.  Hmmmm. Is he saying that schools are trying to change norms of behavior? Perhaps reconsidering norms of behavior would be a fruitful effort in view of the state of the world – and I am not just referring to the current state of affairs. Reflecting on my school experience and that of my children, I think school climate (the health of our relationships as they play out in school) could have been better. We might have a more well-adjusted adult population had we addressed this earlier.

And what left-wing ideology is he referring to? Let’s take a closer look at what SEL offers.

I am familiar with social emotional learning from my years serving as a member of the New York State Dignity for All Students Task Force and from research and work done as a writer of policy for school boards across New York State.  One of the organizations at the forefront of the research and implementation of SEL was, and still is, CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning – casel.org). I refreshed my understanding by reviewing some of their summary material. This is the statement from their website:

“We define social and emotional learning (SEL) as an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

In that statement there are five core competencies:

Recognize and manage emotions

Develop caring and concern for others

Establish positive relationships

Make responsible decisions

Handle challenging situations

One might read that list and think either that all sounds exactly right – this is what we want for our children, as much as they need to read, write and do math, they need to know how to cope in the world. Or, a person might look at that list and wonder what the public school’s role is in developing those competencies. I hope we can agree that it is impossible to read this list and see how it teaches critical race theory – it would take monumental leaps to get there.

Over the course of my life, ideas about SEL have evolved. When I was in elementary school, in the 1960s, little time was spent teaching us to manage our emotions. The assumption was that children just figure this stuff out – you pick up on social cues, you make mistakes and go from there. Unfortunately, not everyone was successful at that. When I started my professional career, families and schools were still thinking of aggressive behavior among children as ‘boys will be boys,’ and ‘kids need to toughen up’  and other dismissive adages, without appreciating the price we were paying for that approach. We had normalized that behavior. As we became aware of the dangers of bullying, including the rise of cyberbullying, more enlightened thinking emerged.

Not to go into a whole history of the evolution of this, but societal changes have meant that public schools have taken more responsibility for supporting the whole child, meaning not just their academic needs. Some might argue that this is misguided or that it is asking too much of schools, but needs must be met. Children who are hungry, fearful, or unhealthy can’t learn (certainly not at the rate of their peers who are fed, stable and healthy). If children arrive at public school unprepared to learn, how can a school be successful? If our goal is to graduate citizens ready to contribute to our society, it behooves us to do what we can to meet their needs. Academics can’t be neatly separated from other aspects of their lives. If only we could, things would be much simpler.

I guess the question is: have ‘things’ gone too far? I’m not sure I know what that would look like. I can imagine some satirical sketch on SNL of children spending the day in a circle singing Kumbaya instead of learning to multiply. But that isn’t what SEL advocates, nor is that what is being described by unhappy parents.

One of the places where this controversy is playing out is Florida, which made the news recently when it removed 24 math textbooks from their list of approved texts because they included social emotional learning goals. I tried to find examples of the objectionable text. The New York Times found some examples (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/22/us/florida-rejected-textbooks.html). The Florida Education Department released four pages of offending material.

According to the material released, when SEL is incoroporated it might  involve calling children’s attention to their feelings when solving a difficult math problem – a thought bubble on the side of the text might remind the student to persevere, or might remind them to be respectful when disagreeing about how they solved a problem in discussions with a peer. In a high school textbook they used statistical data on implicit bias as the basis for an exploration of data analysis and statistics. The data came from Project Implicit (https://www.projectimplicit.net/).

What is the problem with these examples? Are the messages softening our children up in a damaging way? One of the recognized barriers in developing math skills is students’ preconceived ideas about it. Encouraging a more positive mindset seems at worst harmless and at best helpful.

Is the data set used in the high school textbook on implicit bias controversial? Why not ask high schoolers to assess the quality and ideas introduced by the data? What a great opportunity for discussion. Those who disagree with the findings might take a deep dive into the methodology and find it flawed, thereby advancing our understanding. If a student is troubled by the conclusions suggested by the data, what a great opening for discussion with parents.

This takes us full circle, back to the original quote from the voter in North Colonie. What ‘things are being done’? Education and society are evolving. This has ever been so.

A lot of issues are getting tangled up and making it more difficult to talk about. Social emotional learning is not an agenda to make children gay or trans, or to make them feel guilty about being white. It is about learning to manage emotions. Somehow racism, gender identity and expression, and the whole history of the United States, have all been tied up together in the culture war and SEL has been offered as the problem. It would be a tremendous loss if SEL was sacrificed on the altar of our current politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I have to believe we can have meaningful dialogue if we focus on the heart of the issue (what do our children need), without the accusations and fear of vicious reprisals.

Schools are caught in the middle of all of this. They serve students, parents and the broader community. Sometimes those interests are not aligned. It can be very hard to find common ground. We are not helped in finding that space if people assume the worst about each other, if they use inflammatory rhetoric or rely on sound bites for information instead of looking more deeply into the facts. We must do better. Our children and our democracy demand it.

Parents and Public Schools

Tensions were running high during the public comment period of a school board meeting.  A parent was addressing the Board. “I expect when I send my son to school, when I put him on the school bus in the morning, that he returns home at the end of the day in exactly the same condition – not a hair on his head hurt!” The parent was pleading for more safety measures. He was yelling at us, so great was his fear.

This was in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, during my tenure on the Guilderland School Board, a suburb of Albany, New York. Speculation that terrorists might hit ‘soft’ targets like schools was in the news and Columbine had happened less than 18 months prior.  We had, in fact, taken steps to secure our buildings and were reviewing procedures and options for cameras, to see if more should be done. As always budgets were tight.  It was a fraught time.

I had two children in district schools at the time. As much as I sympathized with the parent’s fears, I thought his demands were impossible to meet. We could not guarantee the kind of safety he was looking for, no matter what we did. Children fall on the playground. They get into tussles with their peers – never mind guarding against a determined gunman. If we are lucky children will come home from school with some minor bumps and bruises – either the physical or emotional kind. I knew we could do more to protect children from intruders and from fellow students who might turn to violence – prior to these tragedies school doors weren’t even locked in our district. No one wore I.D. We could pay more attention to student mental health. There were lots of steps to take, but the essential truth was, and still is, that there are limits to what can be done. We can only protect our children so much.

I was reminded of that challenging time when I read a quote last week from a school board candidate in my district who was running under the banner of parental control. Elections are coming up in one week. The gist of what the candidate said was that she did not accept the premise that the school system was a partner in raising her child – instilling values and guiding her child was her responsibility. She went on to say that schools should stay away from those controversial topics that strayed into morality or hot button political issues. This may seem on its face to be unrelated to the safety issue described above, but I believe there is a common thread that connects them.

Both reflect the desire for parental control. We want our children to be safe and we want to be the ones imparting values. We want to ward off undesired influence. I would argue, though, that when you send your child to public school you relinquish some of that control. Once a child boards a school bus, they are hearing all kinds of things. If you aren’t comfortable with that then home schooling or sending the child to a private school that is in accordance with your philosophy and approach is probably a better option.

I am not suggesting parents don’t have a role in public schools – they have a critical role. For one thing, parents serve on school boards. I did –  for 9 years. I wanted to represent other parents by bringing forward concerns I heard about or experienced myself. That’s the main purpose of the board: to serve as a conduit between the community and the administration, sharing information and facilitating two-way communication. As a board member, though, I was one of nine – I did not have power as an individual. I had input, but majority ruled, as it should in a democracy. It is a well-calibrated system of checks and balances. Board members, as parents themselves (though not all members are parents) or as representatives of parents, shape policy and set the big picture course for the district. Individual board members are effective to the extent that they can convince colleagues of their position.

Aside from presence on the board, parents are essential partners in the success of public school systems– from the highest level (district-wide excellence) to the achievement of individual students. Contrary to the belief of the candidate in my district, schools are also essential for the development of our children. Our children should not grow up in a vacuum. I would argue that schools should not avoid those issues. They should not purposely seek them out, but often they emerge as a natural outgrowth of innocent conversations about current events or sharing of family stories. When a child hears something that is inconsistent with lessons from home, it provides parents with a teachable moment. They can either explain how/why we differ or consider another perspective and perhaps adjust. Either way the child’s life is enriched, and the family’s bonds are strengthened. Children are capable of understanding that different rules apply in different spaces – they figure that out pretty quickly when their parents take different approaches (ask dad first?) and/or grandparents, not to mention different teachers, or behavior in a house of worship versus the playground.

One last point that is essential to understand if one advocates for ‘parental control.’ School boards operate in the context of federal, state, and local laws and regulations. The pandemic, with its mask mandates, was another flashpoint for those angry with school boards. Initially boards may have been free to make their own rules, but once the federal, state or local health department stepped in, there was no choice. Railing at school board members was pointless. But, even when (or if) school boards are not constrained by those rules, think about this: Boards are faced with many parents demanding masks (or some other policy counter to your own), and masks are of limited use if they aren’t universal. It isn’t as simple as ‘you want your kid masked, so mask them.’ The effectiveness relies on widespread use. This is true in other contexts too – in most cases curriculum can’t be divided up so that groups of children in a given classroom learn different things. So, which parent voice wins? Whoever yells loudest? And what about staff risks and attitudes?

Add to that the fact that districts have their own ‘medical directors,’ a position designated by the board – a person who meets state licensing requirements who is giving guidance in just this scenario. If the medical director advises that children and staff should mask, the board shouldn’t substitute its own judgment. If they did, they would open themselves up to legal liability. In the case of non-health related issues, the board will have likely received input from other experts (educators, engineers, architects, accountants – depending on the topic). Those considerations, the well-being and wishes of the entire community, expert guidance and the legal context, weigh heavily on board member decisions – and they should.

Parental control may sound good, but in the real world it has limitations. In my experience, parents have many opportunities for input and influence in public schools. And they receive lots of information (though districts can always improve in outreach). Those parents that are not willing to accept the constraints (and in some cases even welcome them) are probably best served by home schooling or choosing a private option.

The Slippery Slope

In the wake of Trump’s presidency, I have been very concerned about the loss of respect for truth and integrity. The discussion I had with my accountant, which I wrote about in my last blog post, did nothing to allay my fears – not because my accountant is without integrity, but because he was unwilling to acknowledge a difference between Biden and Trump when it comes to that quality. My accountant said, “They all lie.” And since they all lie, he concluded, not in these these exact words, “Democrats are being unfair to Trump, Biden is just as corrupt.”

I do not accept that. I believe all politicians ‘spin.’ They present things in a way that reflects most positively on their ideas and actions. They leave out counterarguments. They cherry pick facts. Politicians of all parties do that. We need to distinguish that practice, which is distasteful (but apparently an effective communication strategy in a world beset by short attention spans), from lying and corruption. I will grant that there can be a slippery slope between spin and lying, but we need to examine the rhetoric and call it out when it crosses the line. We cannot throw up our hands and say, “They all do it,” and accept it.

I worry about our capacity for discernment especially after listening to Bill Browder’s assessment of Putin’s reign of terror in Russia and the war in Ukraine. Browder was interviewed by Preet Bharara on his podcast Stay Tuned. I highly recommend listening. Browder has 22 years of experience working with Russia and has seen first-hand Putin’s brutal management style. He described a Russian state hollowed out by Putin’s corruption. In setting the tone at the top, taking his percentage from all the oligarchs the way the head of a crime family does, Putin has not only robbed the country of assets and resources, but has created a culture where everyone along the line does the same. Everyone takes a percentage up the chain of command. In doing that, the essential structures of governance, the paving of the roads, the maintenance of fighter jets, the stores of fuel, have been compromised. Browder suggests that the poor performance of the Russian army is related to this culture.

One of the ironies of the war in Ukraine is that Zelenskyy was elected on a platform of fighting corruption. Ukraine was recognized as having a major problem with it and the people were fed up. Zelenskyy offered a different message. Putin is more comfortable with neighboring countries that either have a puppet as its leader or at least someone corrupt enough to be manipulated.

Corruption in the United States is also a problem, but I don’t think it is endemic to the system. Influence peddling has always been practiced. We have not rooted it out, but politicians have been forced out of office, they have been charged and jailed for their offenses. We have laws against it. I am worried that corruption can become the norm if we aren’t vigilant. I see a straight line between the practice described by Browder, that approach to aggregating power, and Trump. I believe Trump subscribes to a philosophy aligned with Putin, he has as much as admitted it. It is entirely about individual power and wealth – there is no concern for the greater good. Trump cloaks his desire to be the most important, powerful person in the world in patriotic rhetoric. Nothing he has ever done suggests that his patriotism is genuine or reaches beyond his narrow self-interest. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Trump is a murderer, as Putin is.

Some of Trump’s self-interest resulted in policies that benefited the economy, at least according to some analysts. To the extent that this is believed, those folks support Trump. But the grave danger isn’t in those policies (I would argue that those policies aren’t good for the country either, but that is not my point here). The greater long-term danger is in the underlying culture. Policies can change relatively easily. A tax cut can be reversed. Culture is more difficult to meaningfully transform.

In my academic and professional life, I took courses and training in internal auditing. The purpose was to give us tools to evaluate whether existing policies and procedures ensured the integrity of a given operation (in my case the efficacy of New York State funded programs). In every training that I received or delivered, the main message was the importance of ‘tone at the top.’ This was management’s essential responsibility – modeling the behavior and setting the expectations. That’s why I put so much emphasis on this when assessing the risk that Trump represents. The Republican party must reject Trumpism and instead nurture new leadership – people that offer core values of honesty and ethical behavior. I believe that many in leadership positions in the Democratic party do that, most importantly, Joe Biden – but not all of them. When Democrats fail to meet that standard (i.e., Sheldon Silver, Charlie Rangel, etc.), they too need to be cast aside. If you are a Republican and believe that Democrats are as guilty of corruption and lying, then I implore you to not accept that – make sure the Republicans put forward a worthy presidential candidate so that person can be elected. Please cast Newt Gingrich aside – I don’t know why he still merits attention, he gets trotted out on national media platforms as a spokesperson as he was just this past weekend. Why does he still get to weigh in when he has no standing to comment on issues of honesty and integrity?

My accountant asked me about Hunter Biden. I replied that if Hunter Biden did anything illegal, he should be prosecuted. If there is evidence of criminal behavior, he should be investigated. The investigation should follow the evidence and if it implicates Joe Biden, then he too should be prosecuted. The Bidens and Trumps should be held to the same standard. I would like to hear Trump supporters say the same thing about Don Jr, Ivanka and Jared – and about the January 6th insurrection. It is important that we continue these investigations until we uncover the truth and assign accountability. We can’t just sweep their actions under the rug and say it is time to move on. The precedent that sets, the message that sends, is dangerous to our country’s future as a democracy.

We cannot close our eyes to corruption and lies. We cannot let it become the norm. We need to redouble our efforts to expect and enforce ethical behavior at all levels – in government, in business, in media, in our relationships. We must be truthful, and we must call out lying. This is the slippery slope that allows authoritarianism to creep up on us.

Burnout

I have a running joke with the guy who prepares our taxes. When I call to make the appointment he responds, “Now I know tax season is done! I am in the homestretch,” he says with delight in his voice.

The joke is that I am almost always the last of his clients to call, usually with only a few days to spare until the deadline. This year I called on April 5th, a little early for me. Last year he was in shock when I called, and it was still March.

We have been working with the same guy for roughly 30 years, since Gary went into private practice and our taxes became too complicated for me to do myself.

Anyway, the point is not that I am a procrastinator, though I am that. My point is actually the conversation he and I had when we met this time. Over the years we have had many discussions, including an annual update on our respective families. I have always enjoyed our session – as much as one can when the ultimate purpose is to figure out our tax bill.

In all those years, we both understood that we do not share the same political affiliation. He is aware of the organizations I donate to – the usual laundry list of liberal causes, though they are mainstream compared to some of the more leftwing groups out there.  I know he is more fiscally conservative, befitting a CPA.  

Somehow during this visit our conversation strayed farther into the political realm. The Covid relief program came up and he shared his perception that it was ill-conceived, with folks who didn’t need assistance getting it. His message was, “if you saw what I saw, if you knew what I knew, you would agree with me.” I acknowledged that it is entirely possible that the program wasn’t designed appropriately – I know little about it, and I have no personal experience with it. I don’t doubt that our government is capable of mismanaging a program. The difference between our perspectives is the motives we ascribe to it and the conclusions we draw.

I think he sees governmental ineffectiveness and believes it is proof that there is corruption at the root, that inherently it will be flawed, and we shouldn’t support those programs. I see ineffectiveness and I want us to try harder, do better, build oversight mechanisms to ensure the money goes where it is supposed to go.  

What was interesting to me about our interaction this year was that it was more pointed but fortunately it didn’t get unpleasant. We agreed that we have different priorities. As a bottom line, I am more concerned about civil rights (including reproductive choice) than I am about our economy. He is more focused on our nation’s finances and what he perceives as a diminishing work ethic among our younger generations.

Before we got to the point where we concluded that we would agree to disagree, we touched on a wide range of subjects in addition to Covid relief,  such as police, U.S. support of Israel, Hunter Biden, Ivanka and Jared. Don’t you talk about that stuff with your accountant? With each topic, we quickly came to a dead end. We shrugged and kind of laughed. We were not going to come to a meeting of the minds. In between we returned to the task at hand – my (and Gary’s) 2021 tax return. We ended on a reasonable note, appreciating that we could have the conversation since so many could not.

Naturally, as I drove home, I pondered our divide.  Aside from understanding that much of it came down to differences in our respective priorities and foundational beliefs, I had another thought. We are creatures of our environment and experience. Being an accountant for all these years, watching the endless (absurd? irrational? circular? targeted?) changes to the tax code, interacting with a certain segment of the population, would shape one’s perspective. My accountant may not have seen the people for whom the Covid relief program was a lifesaver. This is true in all professions – high school teachers, doctors, police detectives, the list goes on. When you do a job for a long time, you may not even realize that your view has narrowed. You may think you’ve seen it all, but it is still a narrow slice of humanity.

I think about Gary, who is an endocrinologist (he treats many diabetics). He has patients who are non-compliant – maybe they drink too much, eat an unhealthy diet and/or don’t exercise. There is a danger that he could become cynical about people’s ability to manage their disease – I don’t believe he has. I believe he has maintained his compassion, but it would be understandable if that faded. It would not be acceptable, and it wouldn’t be good for his relationship with his patients if he were to prejudge them, but I can imagine it happening.

Or take another issue that all doctors face: insurance and the bureaucracy that has developed around medicine. Having negative experiences with insurance companies, where they look for loopholes to deny coverage, could color one’s perspective. It could lead to giving up more easily before getting the patient the treatment they need. The quality of care can be compromised if one isn’t vigilant.

Both challenges can lead to burnout among practitioners.

I think about my dad who was chair of a social studies department of a New York City public high school. He retired as soon as he was eligible at the age of 56. Not because he was tired of teaching or because of the students – he still enjoyed being in the classroom. It was all the red tape, all the obstacles, and the lack of resources that drove him to end his career. I think it is fair to say, after over 30 years in education, he was burnt out. Today we see educators leaving the field in droves, long before getting their 30 years in.

Every profession is susceptible to it, and if not burnout per se then being so entrenched in the negative that it becomes the lens through which you see the world. I knew it was time to leave school board service when my frustration intolerance got the better of me after nine years. But that was a volunteer position – I could step back without consequence to my family’s well-being. Not everyone has the luxury that I or my father enjoyed. He had a good pension; he could move on.

In some instances that jaded, cynical perspective can be dangerous. I’ve written before about the hazards police officers face, on many levels. Police officers see us at our worst. The consequences of approaching a new interaction with a citizen expecting the worst is problematic. I imagine, after years on the job, police officers may not have the most balanced view of humanity. I’m not blaming them, I think it comes with the job.

The question then is: what can we do about it, if anything? How do we keep our perspective broader than our circumstances allow, whatever profession we practice? How do we guard against the creeping cynicism that may be inherent in any work we do? Self-awareness may be the first step. We need to admit to ourselves that we are susceptible to the bias in the field in which we work, and then we need to pursue professional development or other experiences that keep us fresh. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one.

When I got home and told Gary about my visit with our accountant, he looked at me incredulously. “You had that conversation with the guy who is going to tell us how much tax we owe?” I nodded. I choose to maintain my faith in humanity.

Upward Mobility

Note: The following essay was written by Gary Bakst, my husband. Thank you, Gary, for you thoughtful, insightful piece.

The American dream is you work hard, and you get ahead.  Your children should have a better life than you have.  Their children should have a better life than theirs.  And, to be fair, this country has lifted millions of people into the middle class over the years, especially during the post-World War II years.  While there are all kinds of questions about how you measure this, the middle class is mostly estimated to comprise over 50% of our total population and has been over 60% at times. 

That is the dream.  Then there is reality.  Many people are struggling to achieve that goal.  Many others are struggling to hold on to that achievement.  The share of Americans in the middle class has gradually diminished over the last 5 decades according to most estimates and the percentage living in poverty has gone up.  People have fallen out of the middle class showing us that mobility can go down as well as up. Income inequality has risen.  The wealthiest Americans have seen their share of wealth grow ever larger while most people struggle to meet their expenses for food, fuel, heat, medicine. 

The myth of upward mobility is the real world for so many people.  Not that nobody is able to achieve a better life, a more comfortable financial situation.  Some do.  But, I am writing this because I am thinking about the people I see every day.  I see patients and I see staff working in our office.  So many make decisions about their care that would be different but for the cost of their medications. 

So many patients tell me about their children.  Some are doing amazing things and it is so nice to hear those stories.  I think about the kids who are accomplished professionals, or well on the way to becoming that.  Children who have their own lives, homes, families and are such sources of joy and pride to their parents. 

But it feels like many more of my patients describe children who live in a different reality.  They are dealing with unstable job situations, unstable relationships.  Some deal with addictions, depression.  Some have children but need help taking care of those children.  Many are adults living in their parents’ homes. 

As I have thought about these people, I have tried to make associations.  What is the common denominator that explains who has done well?  Of course, there is no perfect predictor, but I do think that stability in the parents sure does help the children.  I think of some of the married couples I take care of who are just such fine people.  Maybe they are not particularly wealthy, but they are terrific role models.  It seems to me that this, along with the expectation that their children will get a college education, goes a long way. 

But some other people are also fine people, hardworking and with wonderful values.  But life perhaps has just not gone the same way for them.  Perhaps they have had children but a relationship that did not last.  Perhaps they have had career setbacks.  It seems to me that it is so hard to recover from those setbacks in this country.  I know these people hold their children just as close to their hearts as others do.  But I wonder if their expectations for them are different. 

I remember when I graduated from high school, there was a mother who was crying with joy saying she never imagined she would have a child who would graduate from high school.  I recall thinking how different that was from my parents’ expectations and from my own.  Perhaps the child internalizes those expectations, and their goals and decisions are likewise impacted.  My parents had little education, but they sure did believe in its power and were determined that their children would go to college.  

It seems to me that community has an awful lot to do with these expectations.  I see people who live in small towns and may not have the same opportunities that others do.  There may not be a tradition of people going on to higher education there.  That same issue can often be true in urban areas.  While we are nearly all connected virtually, we still live in a concrete world that we see, walk on and experience.  It is a powerful message about what is possible.  

I did not intend this essay as a dissection of American public policy, but I do think that we need policies that encourage that upward mobility and the factors that promote it.  I think we should look at what personal characteristics and family dynamics are most helpful and do more to encourage them.  And I believe we need to break down barriers that prevent people in specific localities from reaching their dreams. 

I am not suggesting that money is everything.  There is so much more.  We should not equate money and success, money, and happiness.  And there are surely lots of paths to a happy and fulfilled life.  It does not have to be, it really cannot be, the same path for everyone. 

But it is hard to imagine that having the means to live a healthy and comfortable life is not better than not having those means.  Money for many of my patients is a direct barrier to health.  It seems like that ought to matter to somebody.  

It is also worth pointing out that I am not suggesting upward mobility means everyone should be richer than their parents.  For one thing, some parents are already doing quite well and there may not be that much room to go up.  How rich would a child of Bill Gates need to be if we used that definition?  For another thing, the goal is surely not endless wealth.  That seems like a bizarre set of values. We are hoping for people to be secure and happy; healthy and safe.  Money is part of that but is not an end in itself.  

I wonder if anyone else out there has thought about this issue.  What factors do you see as positively or negatively affecting these outcomes, be it at the family, neighborhood or even at the public policy levels?  How do we make the dream attainable for more Americans?

Am I Paying Attention?

The last public event I attended before the pandemic shut everything down was an appearance by Scott Simon, the NPR broadcaster, sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute. He talked about his career in journalism and the book he had recently written. In the course of the discussion, he said something I made note of and continue to think about. He said, and this may not be an exact quote, but I believe I got it, “If you have the same convictions at 42 as you had at 22, you aren’t paying attention.”

Hmmm, I wondered, do I agree?

As I sat in the auditorium, I think I construed convictions as equivalent to values. And, my values have not changed over the years: honesty, integrity, kindness are steadfast principles and always will be. So, at first, I rejected his premise. Subsequently, I looked up the word conviction: a firmly held belief or opinion. Ahhh, that is a different question. Have my opinions changed?

What were my convictions when I was 22?

When I was 22, I had just graduated from the public administration master’s program at Columbia University. It was 1982, an important year in my life that I have written about here. What did I believe?

I was a Democrat and, though Ronald Reagan was popular, I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 (it was the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote). I didn’t believe in Reagan’s message – he campaigned on small government, tax cuts, trickle-down economics and the whole ‘greed is good’ mentality. I didn’t buy it. I still don’t. That is one conviction that hasn’t changed.

Over the many years since then, even with the disappointments in our government, all the instances that corruption has been uncovered and scandals revealed, I still believe in the potential for good governance. I was 12 years old during the Watergate hearings; old enough to understand the implications.  I knew big corporations were just as problematic, though, if not more so. Over the years my understanding has become more nuanced, but I grasped early on that the common denominator was human nature. People could abuse power and money in any setting. Justice and fairness are best served by checks and balances. I stand by the notion that elections and oversight from journalists and governmental entities are more effective mechanisms to ensure the greater good than the “free” market. The market has its benefits, and I still call myself a capitalist, but a strong government is essential for the common good. That opinion has not changed. 

In 1982 I believed in Gary, and our future together. That hasn’t changed either. I believed in the importance of family. My thoughts on one aspect of that has changed. Forty years ago, I thought I could be a career woman and a mom at the same time. I no longer believe that, at least for myself. In fact, I had to let go of that conviction to maintain my sanity. I honestly think I was headed for a nervous breakdown if I didn’t adjust my expectations. It took a long time, a solid decade or more, to not blame myself for not achieving the dream of a successful career and happy, healthy children and husband.

As time passes, I see just how challenging it is for women to balance the competing demands of career, motherhood and all the other roles we play (wife, friend, daughter, etc.). I was not able to – at least not at the same time. Sequentially it might have been possible, but not all at once. Perhaps the particulars of my circumstances conspired against it. Gary’s career was, and is, all-consuming. I didn’t see how both of us could be pursuing work that demanded so much of our respective energy and still attend to our children appropriately. We weren’t rich enough to pay for nannies or housekeepers. We didn’t have a support system of family and friends that could substitute either. Something had to give. Maybe I could have sustained a job, but not a career. I was fortunate in that I could make a choice. I left the workforce, except for some freelance assignments, for ten years.

I also had to come to terms with the fact that my career wasn’t what I envisioned anyway. When I graduated with my MPA, I hoped to make meaningful contributions to public policy. Early on I found myself working for Pittsburgh’s Department of Finance and a decade later I was at the Department of Tax and Finance for the state of New York. This was not what I had in mind. I believed in the importance of an efficient and effective system of taxation, but when I thought about ‘public policy,’ I wanted to help people more directly by improving the quality of community life or helping people move up the economic ladder. That was quite a stretch from what I was doing buried in the bureaucracy. My career path was unfulfilling. It made sense to step off it. I am very glad I did.

I think there is truth in what Mr. Simon said. Our convictions should evolve. We need to be paying attention – to other ideas, to new information, and other perspectives. We need to test our beliefs to see if they hold up. Sometimes it is painful to let go of a closely held belief. Unfortunately, these day too many of us don’t do the work of examining our opinions. We are entrenched in our ideas, stuck in our echo chambers. One constant for me, at 22, 42 and now as I approach 62, is I am always wondering, questioning and thinking. In answer to the question I posited in the title of this post, yes, I am paying attention. Many of my opinions have remained, some have evolved.

Have your opinions changed since you were 22? Which ones? Care to share? It would be interesting to hear how and why your beliefs evolved.