What Does “Make America Great Again” Mean in Terms of Education?

Over the past five years on three different blogs, I have been tilting at educational windmills for no apparent reason, reporting on and providing commentary about challenges, possible solutions, and known successes that I encounter as I float about the cavernous and diverse echo chamber of Progressive thought. This specific post will examine what “Make America Great Again” broadly means to me in terms of American Education and “the pursuit of happiness.” I will stipulate that while American Education had been proclaimed great by a portion of Americans who skewed white and advantaged when we Boomers were growing up, American Education has not been great for over four centuries for a pronounced portion of children who lived or are living on the land that is encompassed by these United States, especially those—regardless of race or ethnicity—who were or are poor.

Had education been great for American children during we Boomers’ sojourn in America, I would be able to point to behaviors that are evidence of a universal understanding of our civic rights and duties; unfortunately, our current dysfunctional, contentious, and even deadly political arena suggests that tens of millions of Americans are clueless about the fundamental tenets of American Democracy as defined by the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson understood the relationship between education and American Democracy. He may never have declared, “An educated citizen is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” but the following is a sample of Jefferson’s expressed views regarding the importance of education to that very survival:

I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. (Thomas Jefferson on Educating the People)

Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.  (Thomas Jefferson on Educating the People)

Now a government is like everything else: to preserve it we must love it… Everything, therefore, depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education… (Thomas Jefferson/Wikiquote)

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. (National Archives)

It is probable that Jefferson considered mastering as a requisite objective of education what we Boomers (but likely no one younger) came to know as “The Three Rs” (Readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic), but the quotes above suggest a more elevated goal. He seems to have believed that a principal responsibility of American Education, perhaps above all others, is the simple purview of Civics: understanding the rights and duties of citizenship, but a National Education Association (NEA) study seems to suggest that Americans do not have a common view regarding the purpose of American Education.

The lack of consensus regarding the most important role of education, coupled with tribalism camouflaged in designer attire, is the likely origin of the splintering of states’ educational systems. State systems in the South were divided in their delivery of education under Jim Crow’s “separate but equal” policies, and those divisions became institutionalized without legislative or official administrative assistance after Jim Crow was ostensibly put to rest in 1965. Mr. Crow’s influence continued into the 1980’s in the form of real estate practices (e.g. blockbusting) that created de facto, segregated school districts. The existence of segregated communities gave the kitchen racists in advantaged, primarily white school districts the cover they needed to create the Second Coming of Mr. Crow: inequitable funding among school districts that reflects the socio-economic status (and usually race or ethnicity) of their citizens, an increase in the number of private schools and home schooling that allows advantaged (mostly white) parents to separate their children from their disadvantaged peers, and the spread of voucher use and charters under the felonious guise of increasing educational opportunities for the poor when the true purpose is to segregate children by race and class.

Despite an arguably essential role in “America’s” self-proclaimed greatness, education seems to me to be on the periphery of efforts focused on making America great again: both the failed efforts of the previous Presidential Administration, and the efforts of the current administration to undue those failed efforts. Perhaps that is because “Make America Great Again” has a plethora or interpretations. From the time in 2015 when Donald Trump purchased the rights to the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” the overt impression I have accumulated is that we were obligated to behave as a resurrected bully might behave on the playground during recess. Lots of braggadocio and little in the way of specifics, which made it difficult to tease out the truth of the President’s intent, especially in the midst of the cacophony of outraged voices in competing echo chambers.

My non-scientific sample of one informs me that, to many Americans, Make America Great Again is code for Make America White Again. Who some of these Americans are is obvious: white supremacists of all shapes and forms have jumped on the Conservative Bandwagon because of the supremacists’ unique interpretation of the slogan. Other Americans who embrace the “code,” I suggest, are less overt in their endorsement of Make America Great (White) Again because they have friends, neighbors, and family who would be shocked to learn the discomfort these closeted racists have endured because a black man represented all of us to the world for eight years.

Lest you doubt the magnitude of mainstream White Supremacy, consider this: the election of LBJ in 1964 is the last time a majority of white Americans voted for the Democratic candidate for the Presidency. Some hypothesize, as do I, that the reason why began as a likely response to LBJ’s and the Democrats’ support of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, which were enacted during LBJ’s only full term in office. (You may want to verify my claim that a majority of white Americans has not voted for the Democratic candidate in any of the subsequent 12 presidential elections.)

Terry Gardiner in Quora suggests that Make America Great Again is a dog whistle that has more than a racist call, a whistle that calls out …

…all voters who are upset about what has changed in America: gay marriage, expansion of women’s roles including in the military, inter-racial marriage, growth of cities and decline of rural area economies, immigrants, loss of manufacturing jobs, the increasing population of people of color …

In other words, according to Marissa Melton, “Make America Great Again, doesn’t just appeal to people who hear it as racist coded language, but also to those who have felt a loss of status as other groups have become more empowered.”

Melton also cites what President Trump told the Washington Post in January 2017:

“I looked at the many types of illness our country had, and whether it’s at the border, whether it’s security, whether it’s law and order or lack of law and order. Then, of course, you get to trade, and I said to myself, ‘What would be good?’ I was sitting at my desk, where I am right now, and I said, ‘Make America Great Again.'”

Again in Quora, Gardiner quotes a Tennessee real estate agent who supported Trump. The man’s interpretation of Make America Great Again does not mirror but does approximate Trump’s view:

Making America Great Again to me means at least the following things: less national debt, more secure borders, more freedom of speech, more gun rights, more job opportunities across the country (but especially in rural areas), higher GDP, stronger national security & a stronger military, more money in every American’s bank account.

Academicians and policy makers seem to have a more intellectual view of Making America Great Again that attacks the foundation of Progressive thought. According to Deion Kathawa in American Greatness, the villain is the administrative state, which, he suggests, holds Americans under siege by encouraging globalization, free trade, and by tolerating a permeable border with Mexico. The origin of this evil kingdom is:

The eruption of legislative activity in (Franklin) Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office (that) is widely assumed to form a partition separating a long period of limited national government from one of concentrated central authority…birthed by some favorable emergency—the Great Depression.

Unlike FDR, who Kathawa believes was a “power-hungry opportunist” …

Trump has given Americans a great gift by offering us a chance to claim once more our multi-faceted birthright as Americans” (attaining which will Make America Great Again): a government constrained by the rule of law, our God-given right to liberty, the Constitution’s structural commitment to federalism, and our own rightful claim to be a sovereign people. We have been given an opportunity—We the People have—to try to see to it that the “Blessings of Liberty” are secured “to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It is difficult for me to imagine Donald Trump attempting to explain, with examples, Kathawa’s academic view of what it means to Make America Great Again, perhaps because the 1920 prediction of the rancorous and unpleasant but sometimes perceptive H. L. Mencken rings true, but which if true, is an indictment of American Education:

As democracy is perfected, the (Presidency) represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

According to Tom Engelhart in The Nation, Donald Trump is…

The first American leader or potential leader of recent times not to feel the need or obligation to insist that the United States, the “sole” superpower of Planet Earth, is an “exceptional” nation, an “indispensable” country, or even in an unqualified sense a “great” one.

This is not offered as a criticism of the then President; rather, it is merely an observation that sheds light on our Nation’s boastful, and I believe, adolescent and still self-conscious alter ego. As a Progressive coming to maturity in the face of assassinations and a President that was, indeed, “a crook,” I don’t believe I considered America to be great, or at least insofar as the degree to which it was fulfilling its stated ideals.

I suppose I have been like Charles Dickens, who, in response to his first visit to America wrote in a letter: “I am disappointed. This is not the republic of my imagination.” In his American Notes, Dickens declares that American politicians, like everyone else in America, are motivated by money and not ideals. Washington, he wrote, was the home of “despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers.”

That was America in 1842 and that is America now.

All my life I have rejoiced when confronted with evidence that our American ideals are plausible, but to my non-scientific sample of one, the preponderance of evidence accumulated during during my Boomer’s lifetime supports my personal verdict that America “is not the republic of my imagination.”

I wish it were.

To my mind, it is Education that has the responsibility, at present collectively unfulfilled, to provide all American children with the knowledge and intellectual skills needed to pursue the American Promise as outlined in our Declaration of Independence. I believe a case can be built that much of the world has seen America’s greatness in our actions that reflect those ideals: our generosity in times of disaster, our formerly open arms to immigrants, our massive economic engine, our military might, and our freedom of expression.

Born at least partially of the need arising from a flood of millions of immigrants deemed to be in need of indoctrination in The American Way, the burgeoning welfare state, shortly after the beginning of the last century, supported the creation and expansion of public school systems that educated my immigrant forebears and ultimately me, and managed to create the engineers and scientists who, armed with intellect, training, and little more than slide rules, managed, among other impressive achievements, to put humans on the moon. That achievement suggests “greatness” in the past, but what is the “great” to which we are to return that is being fought over today?

As suggested in an earlier post, The War Between Equality and Liberty, the Progressive Army of Equality is fighting to insure greatness in this context:

…the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.

The Conservative Army of Liberty, I suggest, is fighting to insure greatness in this context:

The state will not be responsible for the equitable distribution of wealth or for assisting those that are unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life; rather, the mere promise of equality of opportunity suggested in the Declaration of Independence is sufficient to allow every American “the pursuit happiness” without formal guarantees from the state, and any American unable to engage successfully in “the pursuit of happiness” is solely responsible for his or her own failing.

Equality of opportunity is the foundation for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I believe it is education that can provide a solid foundation for all—but only if policy makers ensure equality in the delivery of educational best practices to all American children. It is clear to me that many (most?) advantaged American parents, regardless of varied political persuasions, wish to marshal as much as they can of available but limited resources for the delivery of educational best practices to their own children, even if it means corrupting the intentions of the Constitution.

Failing to understand the importance of helping the many who are poor—in this context, by insuring that all American children have access to the best educational practices—is, as John F. Kennedy stated in his Inaugural Speech, the only way to ultimately save the few who are rich. Such a view sounds noble, but it is self-serving from the perspective of the advantaged among us.

The noble stance is to ensure that all American children have access to educational best practices because “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Education is the essential key to achieving these self-evident truths.

American Educators and our fellow citizens should be working hard to make American Education great for all American children. Period. Our motivation should not be a collective, narcissistic need for world-wide or self admiration; rather, our motivation should be to fulfill the expectations of greatness that were spelled out at the very beginning of our American experiment in Democracy.

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