woody_zimmerman_118Public schools have been political training grounds since the 1930s, when leftists began to enlist students in the “long march” of converting America into a “workers’ paradise” of socialist thought and practice. Initially, this effort was not as open as it is today, nor was it particularly alarming. I was a public school student from 1948 through 1960. Maybe some teachers leaned left, but I can recall no evidence of it. Most Democrats didn’t think of themselves as “lefties” in those days, even if they believed in Big Government. I heard occasional dark comments at home about “commies” in Truman’s government, but at that age I barely knew what a communist was.

What I remember of politics, wars, and the like, as taught at school, are mainly: (1) a thorough (if boring) explanation of the Taft-Hartley labor act; (2) a very detailed unit on the First World War (taught by a teacher who probably served in the war); (3) a fairly impassioned attack on Senators Borah, Smoot and Lodge for keeping us out of the League of Nations (thereby indirectly causing World War II); and (4) numerous affirmations of how we saved Europe’s bacon in both world wars. Our junior high school Principal talked to our 8th grade history class about his wartime experiences in the Pacific – especially noting the flies and anthills in Australia. Another teacher showed films of the Nazi attack on Warsaw, which he had experienced as a boy. The confused political handling of Korea was little noted. The only mention of Vietnam I can recall was a reference to the 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, in French Indo-China, as it was then called. (I had no idea where French Indo-China was, or why it had any particular significance.)

My 5th grade class was all excited about the first election of which we were fully aware, in 1952. Nearly everyone “liked Ike,” although there was clearly some sentiment for Adlai Stevenson, the Democrat candidate. Most of us didn’t really know who Mr. Stevenson was, but we all knew about Ike and his famous smile. We knew he had done something great, but The War was still a little fuzzy to us, most of us being war babies. The fact that the general was 62 years old, and bald as a billiard ball, bothered us not at all. FDR had died at 63; Mr. Truman was 68 when he left office. Both had lots of gray hair. We thought presidents were supposed to be old. A hip, young president – maybe something like Frank Sinatra or Nat Cole – was beyond our imagination.

“Back in the day,” as old codgers (c’est moi) like to say, kids could say nearly anything they wanted to (about politics or the like), but we could do hardly anything. Today, kids can do plenty that we never dreamed of, but they can hardly say anything – particularly in school. When I was a student, our “speech code” mainly dealt with cuss words we weren’t allowed to say. (There wasn’t really a written “code.” Everyone knew what you couldn’t say in school or in a teacher’s presence.) Today, cussing is pretty much OK – especially if you’re really impassioned about the homeless or global warming – but you can’t say the same words in a religious context. You also can’t criticize anything that might offend anyone. This is called “offensive speech.” You’ve got to watch your step politically, too, in case you stray off the party line of the school’s teachers.

I don’t want to run too far down the rabbit-trail of what you can or can’t do now, contrasted with my own day. Suffice it to say that in the nifty ‘50s, you weren’t supposed to smoke, drink or fool around. That standard doesn’t appear to have changed, but what has changed is the emphasis. Today, drinking is widespread among students over age 14 – perhaps even younger. Its incidence has risen significantly since my time. Draconian laws have been passed, but young fools are still getting smashed and smashing themselves up in cars on Saturday nights.

Sex is still officially frowned on, because of the high rates of teen pregnancy, but many educators accept it as a reality of modern life that can’t be controlled. Indeed, schools have bought into the “safe sex” campaign, which tacitly accepts sexual activity among teens. Homosexuality has also been added to the mix, with some schools encouraging students to find their “sexual identity.” In my day, sex was far less common – not for lack of interest, but because of the fear of pregnancy and disease. Homosexuality was far out on society’s fringe, not mainstream as it is today. Also, churches exerted a strong moral influence against pre-marital and homosexual sex. That influence is absent from the schools now.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, smoking was common – not necessarily condoned, but accepted, to some degree, as a passage to adulthood. Churches inveighed against the “filthy habit,” but hardly anyone else did. Today, teenage smoking is (arguably) considered worse than either teenage drinking or sex. Indeed, adult smoking is considered almost the moral equivalent of drug use in today’s peculiarly inverted society. Evangelical Christians who now regularly drink wine or beer – and see nothing wrong in it – would not dream of using tobacco. We live in curious times.

During any of those years – with the Cold War at its height, commies under every bed, and regular air raid drills in case of atomic attack (we sat against inner walls in the cloakroom, the better to survive the blast) – the idea of listening to (or watching) a piped-in address from the president, during a school day, would have seemed fantastic. We should never have imagined such a thing, unless he were announcing a war, or some similar emergency. The only TV watching at school considered worthy of students’ time was the World Series during a free period, if you had one. Presumably, the president had better things to do than talk to a bunch of kids. Certainly, we had better things to do than listen to him. He was who he was, and we were who we were. Our lives were about being kids. It was his job to look after wars, politics, speeches, etc. We had no pretensions about “helping him.” (Ike was already a pretty good golfer.)

I make these comments in the context of recent reports that the president plans to address the nation’s schoolchildren, via television, on the Tuesday following Labor Day. Eager-beaver White House staff sent instructional “kits” to schools, suggesting that students be tasked to write a self-addressed letter listing ways in which they might “help” Mr. Obama. This, it was said, would help students feel “engaged” in the great issues the nation is dealing with in this historic epoch of “hope” and “change.”

Naturally, the response from parents and educators has been politically polarized. Educators – being significantly slanted toward Mr. Obama and his leftist agenda – see no harm (and perhaps a deal of good) in students watching the speech and crafting a thoughtful response to it. But some parents see a dark conspiracy to politicize their children, and want no part of it. Many have threatened to withdraw their children from school for that day. One commentator said the speech has a creepy Dear Leader feel to it (c.f., Kim Jong Il). Fred Barnes, conservative commentator and Executive Editor of the Weekly Standard, said kids “will be bored to death.”

The leftward drift of public education happened after I left school. But my kids were there when it occurred (1968 to 1987). They got their entire primary and secondary educations in the public schools of Montgomery County, Maryland – self-proclaimed as one of the finest school systems in the country. I wouldn’t try to argue the “finest” point, one way or the other. There were many fine aspects of MCPS, but all three of my children – who were no dummies – speak of having “overcome” their public school educations. My own public school education, in Allentown, PA, was top-drawer. I never had to overcome any part of it.

One of the aspects my kids had to overcome was intense politicization. Various forms of politics – including Political Correctness – were omnipresent. Identity politics was the rule, not the exception, and officials were very sensitive about certain ethnicities. When black students formed a Black Caucus in the high school, one of my sons asked officials if he and his buddies could form a White Caucus. The request produced an angry administrative reaction that came just short of a disciplinary action. Being kids, they didn’t realize what a sensitive topic race was. Other incidents are too numerous to mention. Montgomery County public schools were a mixed bag.

Schools, I realized long ago, are the most curious enterprises in modern society because they treat their paying customers (i.e., students) so badly – contrasted with most other businesses, which treat their customers well. School janitors get better treatment than students. Imagine a business that makes its customers park blocks away, in a remote lot, while employees get the best parking places. Seems absurd? Add an expensive parking sticker for customers, and you’ve just described high schools where I live. ($200 a year for a student-parking sticker.) These are amazing enough, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

What really has happened to public schools, I believe, is that educators lost respect for students somewhere along the way. Not all educators, of course, but enough to make a difference. Maybe it happened when students became political pawns. By “respect” I don’t mean anything related to being a member of an ethnic group or a “protected class,” but the genuine personal respect afforded by a business to a customer whose money is as good as the next guy’s. Educators no longer think like that because they know their funding doesn’t depend on pleasing customers.

Public schools are a business where failure actually pays. (I know we think that about banks and car companies now, but that is a recent anomaly for them.) In most school systems, schools with the lowest student-achievement rates usually get additional funding to bring up scores. Neither teachers nor administrators are penalized for the school’s substandard performance. Instead, additional staff is hired, and the pay of all staff is increased as stipulated in union contracts.

The cycle is repeated, year upon year, with little or no call for accountability or change. For every problem identified in schools, educators’ proposed solution is always the same: more money. Who cares about customers when the money just keeps flowing? The No Child Left Behind legislation tried to break this cycle by penalizing poorly-performing schools and ordering payment for students to transfer. It’s a chief reason why educators hate the legislation and have fought it to the bloody last.

Mr. Obama has come into office making a lot of noise about education. That’s good, as far as it goes, but making speeches to the nation’s students is, well… just talk. I’m not the only commentator to say we need to watch what he does, not just hear what he says. An early indicator along those lines was Mr. Obama’s thundering silence when the student voucher program in Washington, DC, was cancelled. That very successful program allowed some students to attend prestigious Sidwell Friends School, where his daughters are students.

Although both conservatives and liberals called for Mr. Obama to reverse the cancellation, he did nothing. The program, which had allowed many students to escape the disastrously incompetent DC public schools – worst in the nation – will no longer accept new students. This raises the question of whether Mr. Obama and his political allies really want students disadvantaged by poor public schools to succeed. Is this the “change” we hoped for?

Educators’ lack of respect for customers lets them treat students as objects – marginally useful for achievement of political goals – but not as valuable consumers of their educational product. This is not universally true, but it is true more than it should be. If educators were serious about giving customers good value, they would be making sure students received the best education possible, without any distractions from politicians. There was a lot less money in education when I was a student, and we never heard speeches from the president. But most educators were clear about what they were trying to do. Maybe that’s the real difference between then and now.