Paula S. Fass: Young Americans need required national service

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Hillary Clinton has advertised her concerns for children and has a long track record of supporting policies on their behalf, and almost all Democratic candidates as well as President Obama have urged that college be made more affordable. But no candidate has addressed a critical question: What do young Americans between 18 and 21 need? Indeed, the absence of the problems of youth from the campaign is notable. But youth’s increasing frustration with business as usual has emerged in this long campaign season in a variety of ways, not least in their unhappiness with establishment candidates. Candidates who are even semi-conscious of the problems faced by America’s youth have all put their emphasis on more schooling (President Obama), free tuition at public colleges (Bernie Sanders) or more generous Pell Grants (Hillary Clinton). I want to propose that this presidential election cycle is missing the point and seriously out of touch with the problems of youth.

Schooling is not the solution and while the current proposals may create slightly more opportunity, it is still the same game – a schooling game that is in many ways the basis of the problem. Most young people today see schooling as rigged; something to be manipulated by them or against them; something that often leads nowhere. Schooling goes on forever and makes them dependent on their parents for a long time. It does not necessarily lead to jobs they value.

Young people – let’s call them young adults—are eager for meaning, for something to help define them as mature. They are eager for work. Yes, work. Only in the last one hundred years have we assumed that work is bad for young people. And certainly for seven or eight year olds or even fourteen year olds, to work in factories or sweat shops is very bad. But work that brings a sense of personal reward, camaraderie, and a means to cut through what many young people see as the boredom of school-based abstraction, is just what most American young people need.

Of course, it has to be the right kind of work that will result in more equality, not less, the kind that gives its participants a sense of genuine achievement. So I am proposing that our presidential candidates consider two years of required national service for all young Americans between 18 and 21 years of age. Some of these youth will elect to go into the armed forces, some could help to preserve and enrich the natural environment (as they did during the New Deal); others could serve as tutors in schools and community centers. Some might even feel that their time and energy might best be served by building houses for the poor or good water pipes in communities whose infrastructure is crumbling (think Flint). Others could help old people learn how to use the web. We know that we as a society need these services. I would argue that young Americans would be given a sense of maturity and competence by providing them. Instead of sending high school students out to do community service to pad their resumes, or juvenile prisoners out to clean the highways, let’s give young people a sense of common purpose.

This service should, of course, be paid. Young people like to earn money and this would provide them with a means to gain a certain measure of independence from their parents. They could then use the money to pay for tuition, invest in a business, save for a down payment on a house or apartment – all things that will give them independence. But the monetary benefit is only one of its many results. Young people would meet others from very different class, racial and ethnic backgrounds. National service would help to level the field (away from advantages provided by parents) and make the young much more aware of what they share with those who are not privileged. This was one of the objectives behind the development of common schools. Today’s young inherit too much from their parents – both advantages and disadvantages. National service would serve as a leveler of parental advantages and a liberator from dependence on parents.

There is another type of equality that national service would provide too often overlooked: It would allow non-academically inclined students to shine in ways that today’s emphasis on schooled skills has completely obscured. Many young people have real talents though they are not good at sitting still. No amount of Ritalin can deal with the differences of temperament and inclination that are common to youth. Active work in which building a house is seen as quite as valuable as tutoring math or writing would allow for talents of all kinds to be acknowledged as a social good, and rewarded at a point in life when this can be an extraordinary boost to personal growth.

I know that many people will contend that there are all kinds of obstacles to this plan, but I think it is so important to address the many serious problems of today’s young people – some of them the result of the way we have organized schooling—that these can be overcome with enough imagination and skill. National service will benefit young people, our society, and our future.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of Kidnapped and Children of a New World, she recently edited The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. Her most recent book is The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. Fass lives in Berkeley, California.

Jonathan Zimmerman: Hillary Clinton and the Perils of Authenticity

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Bernie Sanders thumped Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, winning almost 60 percent of the vote. But among voters who said that the candidate quality mattering most to them was “honest and trustworthy,” Sanders took an astounding 91 percent of the vote.

What’s up with that? Clinton critics will point to her long record of secrecy and dissembling, from Whitewater right up to the recent email-server scandal. But I’d like to suggest a different explanation: Clinton’s own generation made personal honesty and authenticity into a sine qua non for politics itself. And now it’s coming around to haunt Clinton, especially among voters in the generations after hers.

To get a sense of this, have a look at the 1969 commencement address by Wellesley College’s first-ever elected class speaker: Hillary Diane Rodham, later to become Hillary Rodham Clinton. Rodham had been preceded at the podium by Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, who denounced “coercive protest” on college campuses. He also chided student demonstrators as a “curious hodgepodge” of radical elements, “irrelevant . . . to the realities of American society in our time.”

Nonsense, Rodham replied. Campus protest actually contained a strong “conservative strain,” which called the country back to its “old virtues”—especially, the student said, the ideal of “human liberation.” By protesting America’s deviations from that goal, both at home and abroad, student protesters had revived—not rejected—the nation’s founding principles. And they had even set an example for the rest of the globe, which was likewise struggling to implement the universal ideals at the heart of the American dream. “It’s such a great adventure,” she said. “If the experiment in human living doesn’t work in this country, in this age, it’s not going to work anywhere.”

At first, Rodham’s speech seems to highlight the differences between her generation of campus activists and our own. Rodham doesn’t flinch from criticizing America (or from calling out a patronizing U.S. Senator!), but her remarks communicate a sense of national possibility—even, of national greatness—that’s often missing from today’s college conversations. What drew people to Rodham then—and, I think, now—is her unwavering optimism, her cheerful insistence that Americans could build a better country and a better world.

But there’s also a part of her speech that’s concerned with individual identity and especially “authentic reality,” as she called it, not just political power and social justice. To Rodham, it isn’t enough to bring down the poverty rate or to help more minorities go to colleges like Wellesley, two goals she mentioned in her speech. Americans needed to develop a whole new way of being, she said, rooted not in greed and accumulation but in honesty, trust, and respect. “Our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the university, is not the way of life for us,” Rodham explained. “We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”

That raised the stakes considerably, because you needed to be good rather than simply act good. And, ironically, it has also become a stake in the heart of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Polls show that even people who share her politics often don’t believe in her. They think she’s a poser, a fake, a phony. She isn’t what she seems..

With Sanders, of course, it’s the opposite. Whether they agree with him or not, almost everyone thinks Sanders is real. Bernie is gruff, Bernie is rumpled, Bernie is plain-spoken. You might not like what he says, but you don’t doubt that he means it.

Sanders was a product of the student Left, too, but he came of age a few years before Hillary Rodham did. And timing is everything in these things. In the early 1960s, when Sanders was staging sit-ins against segregation, there was less overall concern with questions of individual authenticity. The most urgent task was to fight social injustice, not to find new forms of interpersonal communication and connection.

But the late 1960s had a different spirit. If you look again at her speech, you’ll see that Hillary Rodham was in some ways more radical than Bernie Sanders was. She urges us to fight injustice, too, but she doesn’t stop there. She imagines a society with more honest and meaningful human relationships, not just with a more equitable distribution of resources.

But it’s hard to create a stable or meaningful politics on those terms. How do you know what’s really going on inside of someone else? The quest for authenticity in some ways harkens all the way back to the Puritans, who said that political leadership should be reserved for people who had cleansed their souls. And their own society became unglued (see: Salem Witch Trials) when nobody could figure out—for sure—who was truly holy, and who wasn’t.

You can hear a similarly Puritan tone in some of the recent campus protests, which likewise insisted that our universities purge themselves of sin—mainly, the sin of racism. In “listening sessions” and other events, stone-faced administrators proclaimed their commitment to “diversity,” “inclusion,” and so on. But many protesters demurred. Their leaders were empty suits, students said, mouthing platitudes and homilies to placate the crowd. They weren’t real.

Hillary-haters who read her Wellesley speech will probably focus on her comments about acquisitiveness and corporate greed, and then say something snarky about her Wall Street speaker fees. But I think they’re missing the main point here. The reason we’re arguing about who Hillary Rodham Clinton “really” is has nothing to do with her politics, as we used to understand that term. It’s because her own generation made authenticity the measure of all things. And we still haven’t figured out a way to measure it.

zimmerman jacketJonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which was published in 2015 by Princeton University Press.

Jonathan Zimmerman: Sanders’ Judaism matters

zimmerman jacketJonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, recently posted an op ed in the Los Angeles Times. Though Zimmerman has often written about sex education as one of the most divisive issues in modern schooling, this time he zeroes in on what has been perhaps the most surprising “non issue” of the 2016 presidential campaign: The lack of talk and excitement surrounding Bernie Sanders as a Jewish candidate.

Zimmerman notes that “Americans yawned” in response to the news when Sanders won the New Hampshire primary. Trying to find a reason for the lack of publicity or discussion, he writes that:

. . . Clinton plays up the first-woman deal, while Sanders downplays his Judaism. He has never belonged to a synagogue, his wife isn’t Jewish, and he hasn’t been to Israel since a volunteer stint on a kibbutz in the early 1960s. But there’s more to the story of our collective insouciance. Perhaps we can’t see what a big deal Sanders’ candidacy truly is because we’ve forgotten how much prejudice Jews encountered for most of our political history.

According to Zimmerman, Sanders’ presidential run can’t be appreciated without a look at the Jewish politicians who have gone on before him. Read the rest of the piece here for an extensive look at the history of Jewish politicians and the slander and backlash that have historically followed their appointment to various positions in the American government.

Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of education and history at New York University. His books include Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications. His most recent book is Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Rand Paul’s failed appeal to black voters

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Racial Blunders and Disappointment Surround
Rand Paul

By Leah Wright Rigueur

Rand Paul was supposed to be different.

But now, with news of Paul suspending his struggling campaign in the face of disappointing Iowa caucus results, an uncomfortable question looms large: what happened?

There are many well-documented reasons for Paul’s political disappointments – namely Republican voters’ rejection of the Kentucky senator’s brand of libertarianism. But aside from his tea-party-ish approach to politics, Paul’s appeal was also supposed to be rooted in his two-year effort to broaden the Republican tent.

The “unconventional” Republican candidate, pundits and scholars alike touted Paul as the politician that would finally bring black voters into the GOP fold. African Americans, Paul often argued, were an integral part of his strategy to reach the White House. Since 2013, he has publicly courted black voters, using his policy positions on mass incarceration, criminal justice reform and the militarization of the police as entryways into broader conversations with black communities. He’s been outspoken about the Republican Party’s need to court racial minorities, criticizing the GOP’s repeated failure to speak and listen to black voters.

But “Big Tent” rhetoric is nothing new; calculated GOP strategists have been endorsing minority outreach since 1936, when Republicans first lost the black vote. Embracing this trend in 2013, the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report observed that the party had to perform better among racial minorities, or it risk losing future presidential elections. When pressed, most of the Republican presidential candidates will admit as much, even when their policies and talking points undermine their claims. As ridiculous as it may sound, Donald Trump’s campaign, for example, has declared that he intends to win “100% of the black vote.”

These are relatively superficial endeavors, however. In contrast, Paul has emerged as different for two reasons: first, his willingness to play the long game – he’s been actively pursuing the black vote for over two years. Second, he’s gone beyond shallow rhetoric by sponsoring actual policies like the REDEEM Act, which he co-introduced with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Paul’s work in this regard has drawn praise from a diverse cross-section of black communities, from grassroots activists to political elites. The NAACP, which once challenged Paul to a debate over his controversial comments over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, applauded Paul’s outreach efforts and met with him in Ferguson, Missouri in late 2014. Less than two months ago, Paul grabbed headlines for an on-the-ground meeting with black clergy, chief among them Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME in Baltimore. Paul, Bryant has repeatedly declared, is a politician that “gets it” (the other candidate to earn high praise from Bryant? Bernie Sanders).

And to some extent, black voters seem to be far more receptive to Paul than they once were. Take for instance, a spring 2014 poll from Kentucky: 29 percent of black respondents indicated that they would support Paul over Hillary Clinton if he were the Republican presidential nominee. But local politics – especially in one’s home state – is a far cry from the national stage where polls tell a very different story. One national survey from spring 2014 found that only 17 percent of black respondents viewed Paul favorably, while 44 percent held unfavorable views. More than a third had never heard of him. Another poll, this one from 2015, seemed to suggest that Paul would gain a mere 3 percent of the black vote if pitted against Hillary Clinton. Polls are notoriously fickle and there may be many reasons for this perplexing information. For one, few pollsters actually asked black voters about Paul; another explanation may be that black voters – like the rest of the country – simply couldn’t imagine Paul as president.

But I’m more convinced that Paul’s inability to translate outreach into tangible black support has to do with his actual programs and policies, beyond criminal justice reform. Among black voters who know of Paul, there’s an obvious wariness. Most of the black people who praise Paul’s outreach are also quick to list the areas where they disagree with him: abortion, gun control, vaccines, minimum wage, voter ID, taxes, healthcare, discrimination law, and much, much more. According to PEW, 78 percent of African Americans believe the federal government should play an active role in reducing poverty – a position directly at odds with Paul’s limited government approach. In this respect, Paul is not unlike his father, Ron Paul; in 1978, a black Republican consulting firm shied away from helping the elder Paul, privately railing that his “positions on the welfare system, minimum wage, and health care were too far to the right to offer the type of sensitivity Black voters were looking for.”

And though Paul has clearly distanced himself from his father’s abhorrent racial history, the younger politician continues to have his share of public racial gaffes; the Baltimore comment in April, the Cliven Bundy meeting in June, and the “All Lives Matter” moment in August are just a few of the recent incidents that come to mind. These are not insignificant incidents; for many African Americans, moments such as these make Paul’s previous outreach efforts appear insincere. Racial blunders add a layer of mistrust and confirm pre-existing skepticism. Whenever Paul stumbled, it was easy for critics to suggest that his behavior was part of a long pattern of anti-black hostility. Or in other words, to accuse Paul of being just another “typical Republican.”

Therein lies the central dilemma: in order to win over black voters, Paul would have had to fully transcend black suspicion and cynicism about the modern Republican Party. That’s a herculean task, not only because of the party and Paul’s history, but also because of the GOP’s present-day antagonisms on matters of race. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and Paul still has time – and opportunity – to rehabilitate his image and strengthen his relationship with black voters. He is, after all, an active candidate in the Kentucky senatorial race, where black voters will surely play an important role.

The Loneliness of the Black RepublicanLeah Wright Rigueur is assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.