Yesterday, I blogged about a bill in the California Legislature aimed, essentially, at creating a Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender History month, akin to Black History Month and Women's day, and whatever other day or month identity politics has co-opted. I've been thinking a lot about that since yesterday, and wondering why it bothers me so much. As I said, I don't have a problem with acknowledging that someone who has distinguished accomplishments did so because of (or despite) pressures against him because of his race, color, creed or sexual orientation. To dig into my discontent, I really had to break down things down into what I think ought to be taught, versus what I think this bill is trying to accomplish.
Like it or not, our public schools are going to teach values. You can't teach any subject but math and chemistry without wrapping it up in subjective content. For example, we're all alive to the battles over history: Was the development of America a Democratic light in the world or was America a genocidal experiment that killed Native Americans and trashed their culture? Is socialism an inherently good thing that was misused by the Nazis, Soviets and Chinese, or is it a doctrine that is inherently evil? And don't even get me started on the battles over Judeo/Christianity and dead white men.
The same, of course, goes for English. We don't quarrel about the need to teach our children to read, but once you get past "the cat sat on the mat," what do you have them read? Shakespeare? Mein Kampf? Dead, white males? Living, oppressed [fill in the blank]?
My point is that, everything our children read teaches them something. Only the sciences have a purity that raises them above values (although, as we know from the Nazis, science in the presence of the wrong values, or in the absence of any values, is the most deadly thing of all).
For all these difficulties, though, there are a few core values that, I think, most people want to see their children learn: loyalty, honesty, respect, bravery, faith, etc. These are abstract values that exist in almost all societies, regardless of specific societal dogmas or practices. (Although some societies place these labels on practices that are antithetical to the same values as practiced in other cultures. For example, in the late 1970s, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about Palestinian soldiers. As part of the training to demonstrate their bravery, they'd use their bare hands to rip the heads off of chickens. I call that sadism, not bravery.)
William Bennett tuned into this idea of overarching abstract values when he wrote his hugely popular virtue series. In his books, he identified a virtue, and then illustrated it with stories drawn from different countries, cultures, religions, etc. "Bravery" might be illustrated by stories about Chinese warriors, black athletes overcoming racism, or Valley Forge. He started with a color-blind, race-blind, sex-blind abstract virtue, and went from there to specifics that demonstrated that the abstract virtue applies equally to all races, colors and creeds.
In other words, Bennett makes it clear that honesty wasn't confined to dead white males who owned slaves. (I'm thinking George Washington and the cherry tree here.) Bennett's approach, instead, is that any given value is universal, and that one can readily find examples of that universal value amongst the various groupings, tribes, self-identifications, etc., that make up citizens of the world.
Identity politics has this bass-ackwards. It essentially says that the "value" is being Black, or being gay, or being Hispanic, or being female. It then goes on to say, almost coincidentally, that if you go digging around amongst those people who inherently possess these "values," you can find some abstract, overarching virtues as well. "He's gay and — wow! — he's brave, too." "She's black and — this is so cool — she's compassionate."
Well, I'm sorry, but being Black is not a value. Being Hispanic is not a virtue. Being gay is not a ethic. Each of these is simply a label to help classify a person, because classification seems to be an innate human need. None of these labels are about conduct (although one could argue that a bit regarding gays, because homosexuality manifests itself through sexual conduct, whereas being black is tied to appearance, not actions).
I want to hear about heroic, brilliant, compassionate, important blacks, gays, women, Hispanics, etc., and I want my children to hear about them too. The focus, though, should be on the "heroic, brilliant, compassionate" parts, which are universal values we want to see all children learn. Only then would we go to the subset idea, which is that, no matter the label you give yourself (or that is given to you), you can aspire to these over-arching values, virtues and ethics.
So, let's do away with Black History Month and the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Month I now see lurking around the corner. Let's have Honesty month, and Compassion month, and Bravery month, and Patriotism month. Then, during those months, let's illustrate that virtue with examples drawn from the myriad cultures, ethnicities, religions, sexes, and sexualities that go towards the melting pot — yes, I used that old fashioned idea — that is America.
UPDATE: If you've read my post this far, you now have to go to Cheat Seeking Missiles and read Laer's post about the Ninth Circuit's latest lunacy: holding that free speech protests gay right's activists promoting themselves in public schools, but that it does not protect a student who responded directly to that protest by objecting to gay conduct. Last I heard, the American concept of free speech was supposed to cover all speech, unless it was an immediate incitement to violence or danger. But you see, because being gay is a virtue, I guess it has to be given special protection. The fact is, folks, speech is often ugly, and we may disagree with opinions. However, the nature of free speech is to allow opinions, especially those with which we disagree, to be challenged, rather than to fester underground.
Filed under: Education