Jan 262012
 

“What exactly do you know about Thomas Jefferson?” That simple question started me on a quest. It was the summer of 2011, and Congress was in the midst of the debt ceiling debate. I asked that question of my son who had recently completed the 8th grade. We were discussing the debate, and I was amazed by some of the things he did not understand. I began to quiz him about the people and the documents associated with the founding of our country, and my amazement grew further still. I was particularly surprised because he is an avid follower of all things political. He also received history-related awards in the 5th and the 8th grades when the history of our country is a component of the social studies curriculum. His answer to my question? Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence, he was the third president, and he owned slaves. Upon further questioning I decided he knew far less about Jefferson than I expected. Later that day I decided to ask my other children what they knew about Jefferson. My middle child, who had just completed the 6th grade, told me that there was no focus on any individual founder when she was in fifth grade. She could have learned about Jefferson if he was the topic of her independent study project for social studies, but she chose to study the Sugar Act instead. She could, however, recite a dearth of extraneous information about Jefferson which she read in book I bought for her about the American Revolution. My youngest child, who had just finished 2nd grade, responded to my question by asking, “Isn’t he the guy with the kite?”

I challenge you to have the same discussion with each child in your family. Ask each one what he or she knows about an important figure in American History. If you have a child who is in an upper primary grade, middle school, or high school, try to have him or her properly sequence significant events in our country’s past. Then ask your child to detail a few important points from one of the Founding Documents. You, too, may have an unpleasant awakening.

This is not intended to be a condemnation of the public schools my children attend, or any other public school for that matter. My children attend schools which have received California’s Distinguished School Award. The students perform well on state standardized tests, and the teachers who work in those schools are top-notch. In fact, the teacher who taught 5th grade social studies to my two older children is also an attorney. Who could ask for a teacher better equipped to teach about the Founding Documents? The problem lies not in the individual teachers or the local school. The problem is that there are multiple issues which have coalesced to negatively impact the instruction of American history in the public schools across the country. As I examined what and how students learn about the Founders and the Founding, I was shocked as to how the topics of civic responsibility and patriotism are viewed by many educators.

Which issues negatively impact how the history of our country, civic responsibility, and patriotism are taught in present-day public schools? I believe the following issues cause the bulk of the damage, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

The federal government is increasingly controlling the educational process:  The Department of Education was created, and began collecting information, in 1867 in hopes of improving educational practices within each state. It has since mushroomed to employ approximately 5000 bureaucrats who continually spew out new regulations and programs. Federal funding is then dangled, like a carrot, in front of the states in order to promote compliance with said regulations and participation in new programs. If No Child Left Behind has proven anything, it is that when the federal government entwines itself in the process of educating young Americans, well intended ideas can be translated into a bevy of problematic results. Relief from ESEA has been sought by a majority of the states, and Congress continues to argue about how to reform it. Race to the Top has been widely criticized as another attempt by the Obama Administration to nationalize an issue that should be left in the hands of each state. If only President Regan had been able to carry out his desire to disband the department entirely. I might add that each state also has a sizeable education bureaucracy of its own which dictates policies, creates standards, and approves text books for use within each school district.

Each state has developed a plethora of standards which may, or may not, be well written: In that public education is the responsibility of each state, standards for the subject of U.S. History vary greatly across the country. Curriculum specialists, committees, and/or commissions are responsible for creating standards within each state. There has been a long running discussion amongst educators about the advisability of having a large number of standards for each subject. The standards may be poorly written and consequently difficult to teach and later assess. When a bevy of standards are created, there may not be sufficient instructional time to teach the material necessary to cover each one. Consequently, schools, or even individual teachers, are left to sort out which standards should be the focus of instruction. Parents have little input into the formulation of the standards and are often unaware of which standards are driving the content that is delivered in the classroom. While adoption of the Common Core Standards by almost all of the states will improve the consistency of instruction nationwide, there are concerns that the federal government will use it as excuse to further grab power and solidify a nationalized education system.

A minimal amount of instructional time is available to teach students the subject of U.S. History: One of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind is that less time is spent learning about history, science, and other subjects because there are simply not enough instructional minutes in the day to give them the same attention as is given to reading and math. However, there are lengthy lists of standards that teachers are expected to cover for each of the above listed subjects. Material that is connected with only a handful of questions on a state standards assessment test (such as the names and capitals of the 50 states) may be minimally covered because of the limited amount of instructional time. The minimal time given to the study of U.S. history is not limited to elementary, middle, and high schools. While a U.S. History course was once a routine requirement for college undergraduates, this is no longer the case. If future educators are not required to study American history during their collegiate studies, consider what occurs when they later try to teach the subject to others.

History is no longer a stand-alone subject:  The subject of history has gradually been incorporated into the social studies curriculum.  One of the results of this inclusion has been to restructure how the subject is taught. Students study U.S. history in conjunction with a social studies theme. Memorization of content is considered less important than the development of a skill such as creative thinking or cooperation. Material is not necessary taught in terms of its occurrence on a timeline, and the piecemeal delivery can result in students being unable to grasp an event in terms of the context in which it occurred. NCLB has also hastened the movement away from inquiry-based education toward standards-based instruction. Time tested learning strategies such as in-depth research and analytical writing are often replaced with entertaining skits and bullet-filled posters. Such methods are viewed as a means by which to quickly deliver a level of knowledge that is sufficient for responding to questions on a standardized test.

Limited instructional minutes may be consumed by special interest driven content rather than focusing on core facts: In 2011, it became the law in California that instructional time in each grade (from kindergarten to 12th grade) must be dedicated to the contributions of gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans. Such laws further limit the time teachers have to focus on the basic facts, prominent figures, and significant events in U.S. history. The question becomes what information in the already limited curriculum will be replaced, so that the schools can comply with this new law?

Bias and presentism impact the material which is taught: Although no one would think to criticize the Pilgrims for traveling at speeds slower than a modern cruise ship, students are routinely encouraged to judge the actions of their forefathers by our current values and practices. Historians refer to this practice as “presentism,” and it discourages recognition of the historical, political, or cultural context in which a situation occurred. Bias further clouds the subject of U.S. History. The bias of an individual instructor may leave a lasting impression on his or her students. Additionally, political bias may impact the creation of academic standards within a state. This built in bias leads students to perceive events in terms of a particular point of view rather than the context in which they occurred.

The Founders and Founding Documents are seen as irrelevant: I was surprised how little my children knew about the Founders, the American Revolution, and the Constitution until I understood the changes in how U.S. history is taught in the classroom. In light of the limited amount of instructional time, incorporation of U.S.  history into the broader subject of social studies, and the standards-based focus of instruction, just what people, documents, and events warrant inclusion into the curriculum? If the history of our country is something that is plugged into the theme of a social studies unit, how will its relevance be communicated to our children?  If the Constitution is viewed as a living document which evolves over time, then research and analysis of its content seems to be of little value. If the lives of the Founders are viewed through the lens of presentism, then their flaws will no doubt be of more interest than their incredible accomplishments and the events in which they were involved.

Patriotism is considered a controversial issue: Since when is it controversial to be patriotic? I never dreamed that teaching American children to be proud of their country had become a controversial idea until I searched the Internet using the phrase “teach patriotism.” While there was a smattering of websites with ideas about raising young patriots, I found a plethora of articles by and for educators questioning whether children should be “indoctrinated” with such ideas at all. Many authors also questioned whether it was the school’s role to teach civic responsibility. It seems that instead of teaching children to love their country, and understand practices, such as slavery, in historical context, the trend in public schools is to teach cynicism, divisiveness, or even outright distain and hatred for our nation. The resulting consequence can only be ignorance about the history of the United States of America, a lack of interest in civic responsibility, and ultimately a diminishment of a national identity in future generations.

The impact of these issues is seen in the standardized test results for the subject of U.S. History. The sad fact of the matter is that standardized test scores for this subject are dismal. My son was amongst the students who took the 2011 California 8th grade STAR Social Science test. A review of the aggregate scores revealed: 27% of the students scored in the “Advanced” category, 23% of the students scored in the “Proficient” category, 24% of the students scored in the “Basic” category, and 25% of the students scored in the “Below Basic” or “Far Below Basic” categories. Although I have not reviewed similar test results for each state, I suspect that they are not much better. On the national level, the National Assessment of Educational Progress periodically evaluates students across the country in the subject of U.S. History. The scores for students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in 1994, 2001, 2006, and 2010 reveal that less than one-quarter of the students in all three grades performed at the proficient level consistently over time. Although the summary report for the 2010 test pointed out that student scores had improved in this subject, the improvement was meager, at best. It would seem that the combination of limited instructional time, numerous standards, and the manner in which U.S. history is taught all combine to take a toll on what children actually learn about the history of their country.

Any one of above listed issues would be of concern to a conservative-minded parent, but combined they should serve as a wake-up call! If you are a parent of a school-age child, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I expect that my child will learn about the people and events that played a prominent role in the founding of the United States?  Has my child actually learned any of this information? Is this information being placed in the proper historical context, or is my child encouraged to evaluate it according to the practice of presentism?
  2. Will the school my child attends teach him or her about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other important writings related to the founding of our country? Can my child have an age-appropriate discussion with me about the content of these documents? Is my child aware of the three branches of the federal government, and can my child tell me what the Constitution defines as the purpose of and powers held by each branch?
  3. If my child does not learn about First Principles or the Founding Documents, how can he or she come to appreciate the importance of limited government? Who is ultimately is responsible for teaching conservative principles to my child?
  4. What kind of message is the school giving my child about the past, present, and future of our country? Do I believe it is important for my child to become a patriotic American who actively carries out his or her civic duties?
  5. Am I willing to take an active role in my child’s education about the history of our country, the Founding Documents, and conservative principles?

The Congressional debt ceiling debate in the summer of 2011, as well as the 10th anniversary of September 11th, changed my life. Although I have always considered myself to be a patriotic American, those events awakened my interest in the Founding, and my desire to help restore the principles upon which this nation was founded. Discussions that I had with my children about these events brought about the startling revelation that while I had focused on their academic progress in the 3R’s, I was out of touch with that they learned, or had not learned, about the history and exceptional nature of their country. I decided to take action in order to help my own children and the children of other concerned Americans as well. I will be developing materials and locating resources so that other parents can assure their children will have a better understanding of the American Revolution, the Founding Documents, and the Founders themselves. I also plan to identify available materials, and create a few of my own, that will foster conservative values and patriotism in America’s young citizens.

I hope that you will join me on my quest to raise patriotic young conservatives. If you know of resources and tools which are currently available, please point me in the right direction. If you have suggestions about people, primary documents, significant events, patriotic practices, or conservative values that should be included in the materials which I develop, I’d love to hear them. If you are in need of a specific type of teaching tool that covers these topics, I would love to discuss that with you as well. Please send me an email at: susan@uncommoncourtesy.com.

© Copyright 2012 Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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Nov 212011
 

Did your child have a Halloween party this year? Of course, right? Well, don’t be so sure there will be a feast, party, or even a discussion prior to Thanksgiving at the same school this year. What? That can’t be possible? Have a talk with your child’s teacher, as well as other parents at the school, and you may be in for a rude awakening. After a bit of research, I have come to the conclusion that the celebration of Thanksgiving in our schools is undergoing a fundamental transformation. As with President’s Day, it is becoming a time that is more focused on vacations and sales rather than an opportunity to educate our young citizens about their common heritage and identity as Americans. 

When I was in elementary school, there were separate holidays to celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Before each holiday, we spent time in class learning about what each of those great men contributed to our country. Whether it was coloring pictures in kindergarten, writing stories in fifth grade, or composing an essay in high school, I continued to learn more each year about why each man was exceptional, and how each of them contributed to our exceptional country. Slowly, over time, that pattern has changed. Most schools celebrate “Presidents’ Day.” Prior to the holiday there may be instruction about Washington and Lincoln, all of the presidents, the office itself, or nothing at all. The lesson that is connected to the holiday, if there is one, differs between teachers, schools, and school districts. The school district in which my children attend school incorporates the holiday into a vacation period the district refers to as “Presidents’ Recess”, but most parents refer to as “ski week.” In my opinion, the holiday has little meaning, and there is a minimal amount of time spent educating students about the history that underlies it.

Could it be that the same type of transformation is happening to Thanksgiving? The question occurred to me several weeks ago when I was helping plan my third grader’s Halloween party.  We were discussing the parties that are scheduled throughout the school year, and the room mother mentioned that there would be no Thanksgiving party. I thought that was odd because my two older children had feasts and parties all the way through 6th grade. When my son was in kindergarten eight years ago, the children dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans, sat on the floor feasting until their bellies were full, and learned about William Bradford, Chief Massasoit, and Myles Standish.  I have served as the room parent for several of his classes, as well those of my daughter who is now in the seventh grade. There was no question that there would be a celebration in those classes, and I was repeatedly astounded that someone was willing to cook a turkey or other time consuming dish just a day or two before cooking again in her (yes, most of the time it was a mom) home. Although my third grade daughter had a party in kindergarten and first grade, there was no Thanksgiving party in her class last year. I believe there was instructional time devoted to Thanksgiving, but I do not know what was taught. I learned that this year’s fifth grade classes in her elementary school, which study the colonial and revolutionary periods, will have a joint party. My older children report that there will be little, if any, celebration of Thanksgiving in their schools this year.

I began to wonder how Thanksgiving is celebrated in other districts. Last week, I asked my Facebook friends, as well as various groups I belong to on Linkedin, about the Thanksgiving vacation schedule. I also asked if Thanksgiving would be celebrated, and what was scheduled to occur during the celebration. I was curious not only about what was happening, but whether anyone noticed a change in the instruction that students receive about the holiday.  I was surprised by several things that I learned. Yes, there are still schools which hold traditional Thanksgiving celebrations, but they are few and far between. Many schools are on vacation for the entire Thanksgiving week. Some schools scheduled Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday as inclement weather days, other schools will be on furlough, and still others have scheduled the time off in much the same manner as our local school district’s President’s Recess. The majority of responses had no additional comments and provided only the requested information. Aside from those residents of the State of Massachusetts (where the holiday still seems to be celebrated whole heartedly), I was surprised at how many people responded that there would be no party, and perhaps no discussion of Thanksgiving at all. If there was to be some type of meal or feast, it would primarily occur in kindergarten or first grade classes. One respondent indicated that the feast had been transformed into a gathering of forest animals rather than meal shared by the Pilgrims and Native Americans. However, there were also several threads of anger that ran through the responses. Several Native Descendants were angered by the Pilgrim’s behavior toward the Native Americans (e.g., stealing wheat, etc.), and one individual referred to the celebratory meal as a “purported welfare dinner.” Others were angered not only about changes in Thanksgiving celebrations, but also how Christmas and other the winter holidays are now dealt with by the public schools. One respondent stated that the local school district prohibits teachers from mentioning holidays other than President’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day because all other holidays may be connected to a religion or culture that is not shared by all the students. It seems that in a tacit effort to be politically correct, public schools may be increasingly reluctant to discuss Thanksgiving at all. 

Next, I began to consider some of the negative comments and publicity that has been attached to the Thanksgiving holiday. In 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) declared Thanksgiving to be a day of mourning. There are many examples of objections to elementary school children dressing in costume for Thanksgiving. One particularly poignant example was a 2008 conflict between kindergarten parents in Claremont, Ca. For more than 40 years, children from two different elementary schools had taken turns feasting at one another’s school while dressing in costume. Eventually, the school district decided the tradition could continue, so long as the costumes were eliminated. There are endless websites devoted to disputing various aspects of the Thanksgiving narrative including whether the Pilgrims actually wore black clothing, which year the meal took place, the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, and the culture of the Wampanoag people themselves.

What does this all mean? Before drawing any conclusions, it is important to recognize that I have no way of knowing if the responses I received are representative of the practices at public schools as a whole. However, it is enough information to suggest that each reader should take the time to inquire exactly what is, or is not, being taught to his or her own children. Will there be any discussion of the significance of Thanksgiving? Will the students be made aware of the historical events that the holiday commemorates? How will those events be described? How will the Pilgrims be characterized? How will the Thanksgiving meal be portrayed? Will historical events be ignored in favor of an ahistorical forest animal feast, or will the meal be ignored all together. Is it possible that Thanksgiving may be written off as just another myth associated with the founding of our country?

Why, you might ask, is it important for our school children to learn about Thanksgiving at all? After all, No Child Left Behind, as well as other state and federal programs, has heavily shifted instructional minutes onto the subjects of math and language arts. From my perspective, Thanksgiving is important because it is the holiday celebrated during the school year that is most directly tied to the subject of American History. That subject has received a decreasing amount of instructional time with each passing school year. Not only are our children not being taught important facts about the history of their country, but those facts are not being reinforced across the time of their elementary and secondary education. When will they come to understand the struggles of our Forefathers and Founders to establish this nation, if they do not learn about them in school? 

Another question is whether the Thanksgiving meal will be yet another American tradition that is dissected, demeaned, devalued, and discarded? Why does Thanksgiving seem to be under attack? It appears to me that the debunking and deconstruction of American historical events, figures, and traditions unravels the sense of identity and national unity once shared by most Americans. America is an exceptional nation. Its citizens enjoy individual liberties and freedoms not enjoyed elsewhere in the world. However, there is an element within us that insists on picking apart our leaders, our common history, and our traditions. For example, although not connected to Thanksgiving, I have read articles questioning whether Abraham Lincoln actually wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. Many of the “myth busting” type websites imply that is not so, and I profess that I have not researched the subject. However, the speech is memorable nonetheless. Short. Succinct. Brilliant. Given at just the right moment in our nation’s history. Isn’t that what we should focus on? Isn’t that what is important? Is the speech any less significant because it might have been written somewhere other than on the back of an envelope? Could it be that the true underlying reason for such an attack is to demean the character of one of our greatest presidents? Picking apart the character of our leaders, or events such as the Thanksgiving meal, undermines the pride we feel for our country and diminishes our sense of a common heritage. Interestingly, what is under attack are the actions of Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving meal itself, but not the reason that two presidents proclaimed national days of thanksgiving. How would those who are unhappy with the commemoration of a feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people react if they were aware of what Washington and Lincoln wrote in their proclamations?

The United States officially celebrated its first Thanksgiving in 1789 after a proclamation by George Washington (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/GW/gw004.html). Washington ordered a “day of public thanksgiving” to acknowledge God’s favors upon the nation including the peaceful establishment of a government for the citizens’ safety and happiness, as well as “for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.” In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation instituting an annual day of thanksgiving in this country. He also praised God for blessings bestowed upon the nation even amidst the Civil War. He asked that the American people “implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union” (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=013/llsl013.db&recNum=764). And in reality, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is really all about? It is not about whether or not the Pilgrims wore black. It is not what year the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people shared a meal. It is the thanks that we should have that the Wampanoag gave aid to the Pilgrims. It is the thanks we share that our Founding Fathers sought to create a nation like none other. It is the thanks we share as Americans that our nation has survived a civil war, global conflicts, societal change and natural disasters for more than 200 years. It is coming together to give thanks for our past (imperfections and all), as well for what we share with our family, our community, and our fellow citizens.

As for my children, we’ll be talking about Thanksgiving in the time remaining until our holiday dinner on Thursday.  We’ll discuss who the Pilgrims were, and what their lives were like in those first years after settling in a new land. We’ll focus on facts and try to flesh out some of the people in historical context.  We will talk about the Wampanoag people, why they were reluctant to interact with the Pilgrims, and how their existence changed after settlements began to spring up across their homeland. We will connect the generosity of those Native Americans with the American tradition of giving to those in need in times of trouble. We will remember that America would be a different place if those settlers had not sought a new beginning in the “New World,” and they might have perished if not for the assistance of the indigenous population. We will also discuss the presidential proclamations of Washington and Lincoln that are so often ignored, and why these men thought it befitting to thank God for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, at this late date, the discussions will be rather limited. Next year, I will take steps, and have materials ready, to deepen my children’s understanding of and appreciation for this holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

 

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Nov 142011
 

   If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.” –James Madison

That title sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not particularly humorous, unless you believe that the legislation and programs proposed by elected officials and bureaucrats are a joke.  At a time when members of the legislative branch seem unable or unwilling to decrease spending, they are certainly able to propose, and sometimes pass, bills that seem out of touch with today’s dire economic circumstances. Bills that cost money to develop, propose, and become law. The frosting on the cake is an administration that endlessly seeks to institute regulations and programs unless a public relations nightmare ensues. Looking for the punch line to the title of this article? Read on my fellow citizens. Here are some fine examples of your tax dollars at work.

In the state of California, it is now possible for a minor to receive an abortion without parental knowledge or consent, but the same minor is prohibited from using the services offered by her local tanning salon. Earlier this year Governor Jerry Brown signed SB746 which prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from using an ultraviolet tanning device at a salon. Who is punished for violating the law? The minor child who visits the salon? His or her parents who should be assuring the child’s safety and well being? No, personal responsibility seems absent from this law. As with alcohol and tobacco, it is the business that is punished without so much as a one dollar fine or a consequence (such as writing a term paper about the unintended consequences of his or her actions) to the minor. SB746 states that the tanning facility, however, could potentially be liable for $2500.00 per day for each violation in addition to any other penalty that may be established by law. That’s a fairly hefty fine for one tanning session. Don’t you think? The penalty seems particularly harsh when you compare it to the consequences for selling tobacco and alcohol to a minor in the same state. California Penal Code 308(a) states that the fine for the server, and or the business, who sells tobacco products to a minor is $200.00 for the first offense.  I found conflicting answers as to the punishment for selling alcohol to a minor, but the first offence for any server or establishment may be as little as a warning or $500.00. If alcohol or tobacco is sold to a minor, and the minor uses a fake identification card during the sale, there may be no penalty at all.[1]

While there may be other penalties I am not familiar with, the initial fine for selling tobacco or alcohol to a minor indicates that exposure to ultraviolet rays is perceived as more of an immediate danger to a minor’s safety, at least in California. It also appears that the majority of the California legislature, as well as the governor, believe that a minor is of sufficient maturity to choose to terminate a pregnancy but not to tan her skin by artificial means. I might add that the child’s parents have been completely removed from both decisions. It is just my opinion, but I believe it would be a far better use of the citizens’ tax dollars for the state legislature to spend its time focusing on the state’s current financial crisis than other, seemingly esoteric, issues.

I know what you are thinking: “That kind of crazy legislation just happens in states like California.” Well, you are wrong. Despite the fiscal crisis on the federal level, it seems that at least one congressman has devoted his time (subsidized by your tax dollars) to undermine something that is somewhat of an American tradition. Do you have fond memories of watching tigers and elephants at the circus? Well, your children won’t share those memories if it is up to Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia. He recently introduced legislation, which if passed, would prevent exotic or wild animals from performing if they had traveled in mobile shelters within 15 days before the performance. That translates to the end of many of the acts that are traditionally included in a traveling circus. Feld Entertainment, owner of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, stated the prohibition would cost more than 750 jobs at its company alone. That does not begin to address the number of jobs that might be lost at local venues as a result of this proposed law. If you are opposed to this legislation, you can send a letter to your congressman and senators, as emailed to me by Feld Entertainment, by clicking here. Please don’t send me emails about my lack of concern for animal rights. Anyone who knows me can attest to how much I love animals. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus website states that it is involved in the conservation of Asian Elephants. You can visit its website, www.ElephantCenter.com, to decide for yourself whether or not their efforts are sincere. However, it is unconscionable that this, or any other, congressman puts effort into discussing, designing, and sponsoring such legislation in light of the current budget disaster in Washington. The average salary for a congressman or senator is $174,000.  Add to that the salaries of their staff members, and the cost of a simple piece of federal legislation from conception to being signed as law. How many tax dollars has Congressman Moran, and his staff, spent on this legislation so far? Rather than focusing on how to increase employment in his district, or proposing legislation that will decrease spending, Congressman Moran seems to believe that the best use of his time is spent in shepherding legislation such as this!

Although the executive branch cannot pass legislation, let’s not forget about the Obama Administration’s seemingly endless parade of new regulations and programs that raise the cost of doing business (which is passed along to the consumer), slow economic growth, and otherwise negatively impact the citizenry of America. A notable example last week was the USDA’s publication in the Federal Register (November 8, 2011) of a program that would add a 15 cent assessment on each Christmas tree sold in the United States in order to establish a “national research and promotion program for Christmas trees.” Although not actually a tax, this charge would fund a program that was proposed by the Christmas tree industry to spruce up (so to speak) the image of cut Christmas trees. My question is: why does the federal government need to be involved in such a program at all? The National Christmas Tree Association reportedly worked with the USDA for two years to develop the program. Why did the association believe that the program was necesary? Because some of its members would not voluntarily support the association’s own promotional program. The NCTA could have chosen to increase its yearly membership fee to cover the missing funds for the program. Yet, they sought out governmental assistance to force all of the growers, members or not, to participate. When the USDA becomes involved, the cost is not just 15 cents per tree. I can only imagine the tax dollars that were spent on USDA employee salaries, as well as the cost of each employee’s workspace, work related technology, and other costs related to this program during those two years. Because of the public outcry about the “Christmas Tree Tax,” the USDA announced on November 9th that the program had been placed on hold. If the tax dollars spent developing the program would not have been considered frivolous before, they can now be thought of as wasted completely.[2]

At a time when most consumers are tightening their belts, the good folks in Washington, as well as the state legislatures, are focused on issues other than budgetary matters. I am only one voice, but I have a suggestion for the people who were elected by us, purportedly represent us, and who supposedly have our best interests at heart: it’s time to focus on the basics! Instead of creating new laws and  programs, how about removing or rolling back regulations, programs, and laws that prevent the private sector from expanding and creating jobs? Why not work on restructuring our tax laws so that everyone contributes at a low and reasonable rate via a flat tax? Isn’t it time to cut spending and live within the budget that already exists through ideas such as Connie Mack’s Penny Plan (H.R. 1848)? Please reduce your spending and get out of our way so we grow the economy. It is just a suggestion from a citizen, entrepreneur, and mother of three young Americans….

What do you believe it the worst, most ridiculous, or absolutely offensive law, regulation, or program of 2011? Unfortunately, there are a plethora of examples at the local, state, and federal level. Please email me at susan@uncommoncourtesy.com, and I’ll post some of the more egregious examples in my patriot blog at: http://www.bingoforpatriots.com/patriotic-blog/

Oct 302011
 

Ah, Christmas! A time for family, friends, faith, and almost limitless festivities! It’s a wonderful time of the year. It warms my heart to wish everyone, “Merry Christmas.” Better yet…I can’t help but smile when someone extends the same greeting to me.

As this Christmas season commenced, I began to read posts and articles opining that it should be “okay” to extend Christmas greetings to others. I’ve always wondered about the reasoning behind such writings because, of course, our First Amendment guarantees us the right of free speech.

The First Amendment of the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” Although Christmas can be celebrated as either a religious or secular event, it would seem that each individual citizen has the right to speak freely, as well as to practice the religion of his or her choice.  I would think that should be the end of the discussion. Yet, in the era of throwing individual liberty under the bus, I notice that even I have begun to think twice about wishing anyone anything unless I know what religious belief system that person follows. 

The phrase “Happy Holidays” is thought to be a more inclusive greeting, yet I find it bland. It celebrates little, if anything, in particular just as we, as a nation, are giving increasing emphasis to holidays and events with no religious underpinnings at all. I was completely caught off guard, while researching my recent article about Thanksgiving, to learn that many schools no longer educate children as to the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday because of its religious undertones, as well as its potential to “offend” one of the students. The celebration of Christmas, another federal holiday, has also been watered down or eliminated from many public schools. Christmas programs have become holiday programs, classroom parties reference only winter themes, or perhaps there is no celebration before the winter recess at all.

I’m not sure how it has happened, but merely extending the greeting “Merry Christmas” to strangers on the street has become a bit controversial. How is it possible that a greeting, which is connected to a holiday celebrated by so many of my fellow citizens, could have become contentious?  Perhaps more importantly, how could my individual liberty, as well as my First Amendment right, have become infringed upon by political correctness run amuck?  America has become a nation which overzealously attends to the cultural, ethnic, and racial differences that exist between segments of the population. While the traditional holidays celebrated by Americans since the birth of our country are minimized or shunned, great effort is put forth toward acknowledging some holidays heretofore celebrated elsewhere and others with little purpose other than to promote sales in stores. For example, consider the increasing emphasis on Halloween in schools and on television, while Thanksgiving is slowly fading from view. Also, how many of us have been to a winter holiday party at a public school where parents and teachers feel uncomfortable even mentioning Santa (let alone Jesus), but multiple centers at the same party are devoted to educating children about other holidays which are celebrated during  the winter season.  It seems that while we stridently seek to accommodate patterns embraced by different cultural and ethnic groups, we are somehow expected to turn a blind eye to anything that remotely involves an individual’s religious beliefs, particularly if that person is a Christian. I am sorry to say that somehow a nation which once embraced individual freedom and liberty has become a nation where the recognition of diversity, marginalization of common customs, and minimization of religious beliefs is of the upmost importance.

Why has this happened? Let me suggest a few of my own ideas. George Herbert Mead, a prominent social psychologist at the turn of the 20th century, created a theory of social development that is somewhat akin to Freud’s id, ego, and superego. Mead observed children playing games and noted how various aspects of socialization evolved as a result of their experiences. He suggested what factors impact the development of the “self,” and how children gain the ability to understand another person’s perspective. He also suggested that eventually children develops “the generalized other” which enables them to understand, predict, and respond to all the different members of a group. A classic example of this development comes from comparing children of different ages who play baseball. A young child who is on a t-ball team interacts with the other players very differently from an older child who is more likely to anticipate and fluidly adjust to changes in the game and the other members on his or her team. Children go on to develop a more global generalized other after being exposed to different social groups at home, in school, and in the community. As they evolve, they internalize the norms, customs, and laws of the society as a whole. If you find yourself unable to pass a red traffic light at 3:00 a.m., even though your unobstructed view indicates there are no other vehicles in the vicinity, Mead’s theory would suggest that the generalized other internalized within you is prompting you to follow the rules rather than break the law.  

How, might you ask, do Mead’s ideas relate to whether or not you wish others a “Merry Christmas?” Well, it has become increasingly popular during the past century to challenge the traditional structures, values, and ideas which have been common place in America since our nation’s founding.  In no small part, this has been driven by a pattern of divergent thinking which is taught in our universities. The emergence of this type of thought can be partially credited to a group of Marxist intellectuals who founded the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt University in 1923. They combined the ideas of Marx and Freud to develop a philosophy known as Critical Theory. Many of the members of this group fled to the United States after the rise of the Nazi party and began to teach in American universities. Consistent with its name, this theory criticizes concepts such as authority, tradition, conservatism, capitalism, and ethnocentrism. It also criticizes many traditional elements of our society including the family, patriotism, and Christianity. Critical theorists advocate that traditional social structures should be challenged and discarded. Their ideas became increasingly popular in conjunction with the events of the 1960’s.

It is out of this mindset that political correctness developed. Although there are no “thought police” as predicted in George Orwell’s 1984, we have become a nation of self-censoring individuals who choose not speak out of fear of offending someone. Freedom of speech has been transformed into freedom of speech so long as what is said will not upset or insult various segments of the population.  While Congress has passed no law regarding this issue, I wonder if the generalized other which we have internalized has increasingly discouraged us from wishing those in our midst a “Merry Christmas.” As our thoughts have changed, our behavior has followed suit. In the past, we might have offered Christmas greetings, and then modified our statement upon learning that the recipient did not celebrate Christmas. At present, we are more likely to pass others by without extending any salutation because it avoids to possibility of conflict altogether.  It would then be a logical assumption that we also sanitize statements that we might make concerning a variety of subjects, including our common culture and heritage, for fear of being viewed as insensitive, thoughtless, or confrontational.

Could it be that my reluctance to wish everyone around me a “Merry Christmas” is the internalization of an unspoken societal norm?  Am I more likely to wish a stranger “Happy Holidays” in order to avoid conflict which might arise from my greeting? If this is the case, then I can choose to take action and change my behavior starting today. If I change one particular behavior, eventually my interactional patterns with others on a day-to-day basis will change as well. Therefore, it is my resolve to use the greeting “Merry Christmas” unless I specifically know that the recipient of the greeting celebrates a different holiday. If the recipient is somehow offended, I will take the time to learn about what he or she celebrates during the winter season. I will then extend that person a happy, merry, or joyous wish rather than the all encompassing salutation of “Happy Holidays.” In light of my decision, I created a series of buttons that say, “I Welcome Christmas Greetings.” I am going to wear one of them this holiday season. It will signal others that I celebrate Christmas and encourage them to wish me “Merry Christmas” as well.

You may not think that one woman wearing a button can make a difference. Maybe not, but I can make a difference if others join me. If you, and other like-minded people, make your own button, we as a collective body can make a difference. Please join me this Christmas season in spreading good cheer. Wear a button. Tell everyone you know that you welcome Christmas greetings. Wish everyone around you “Merry Christmas.” If someone objects, then inquire as to what holiday is celebrated in his or her home, and what words you can use to extend holiday greetings to that person.  

If you celebrate Christmas, and want others to extend Christmas greetings to you, I suggest you make your own button. You can also obtain one of my buttons by visiting uncommoncourtesy.com,  bingoforpatriots.com, or bingoforchristmas.com and clicking on the “I Welcome Christmas Greetings” button near the top of the page. If you see me on the street, please feel free to wish me “Merry Christmas,” and I will respond in kind. No matter what holiday you and your family celebrate this season, I hope it is merry, happy, joyous, festive, and wonderful!

Oct 282011
 

“Work and save, work and save, work and save…” I heard my father repeat that phrase so many times during my childhood and adolescence I thought my head would explode! Yet, it is one of the most valuable lessons he ever taught me. My parents began their marriage with virtually no savings. They liked to tell the story of how they had no money to open a bank account after their wedding because they spent their last nickel on my mother’s wedding bouquet. They met and married while my father attended graduate school and eventually taught at Cal Tech. He went on to launch a small company with several colleagues after World War 2 ended. My mother kept a home that was immaculate and consistently placed the needs of her children ahead of her own. Both were very hard workers. My father often began working before dawn. My mom joked that painting was one of her hobbies. Of course, she was referring to painting our house rather than landscapes. She died in 1985, and my father passed away in 1988. During their lifetime they purchased three homes, paid for their children’s college education, and helped us out financially along the way. Their homes and cars were purchased without loans, and they never carried a balance on their credit cards. They lived comfortably within their means, and died with a surplus that they passed along to us.

As I reflect on my youth, I realize how consistently my parents modeled fiscal responsibility for me. Our vacations generally involved visiting relatives. They did not waste food and for the most part maintained or repaired their home themselves. They used coupons when they shopped and purchased items on sale whenever possible. I watched them entertain at home rather than dine with friends at restaurants. During my adolescence, I worked part-time for my father during the summer. My parents insisted that I save most of what I earned, as well as any money I received from relatives for my birthday or Christmas.  I worked part time while I attended graduate school, and my father encouraged me to contribute to an IRA. He firmly believed that I should plan for my own retirement because Social Security was doomed to fail. As an adult, I have worked hard, lived within my means, and remain debt free. I attribute both my work ethic and my desire to care for myself and my family to the lessons that I learned from my parents.

How different those patterns I observed were than what most of America’s youth witnesses today. The ease at which credit has been granted to members of my generation, as well as the generations which have followed, has led to staggering amounts of personal debt and a housing crisis. Many people continue to live beyond their means even though unemployment rates soar, and the threat of inflation looms before us. They continue to spend impulsively rather than saving for their children’s college education, retirement, or even the rainy day which we all experience. They feel they are owed maximum levels of income for minimal amounts of work. On the macro level, children witness governmental entities on all levels that seem unable to trim budgets and unwilling to decrease spending levels. Omnipresent regulation impedes business start-ups and small business growth. A significant portion of the population is dependent upon entitlements. Perhaps most disturbing are cries resonating at all levels from the Wall Street protestors to the president of our county. They argue that economic redistribution should occur because it is “fair,” and they seek “change” which would further damage our economy. 

My dad’s “work and save” mantra is the embodiment of the American spirit of rugged individualism. It is the articulation of the idea that because of our liberty we are free to work hard, achieve success, and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Any American can achieve greatness no matter how humble his or her beginnings might be. Steve Jobs is the archetypal example of that possibility. It is also a reminder that once success is achieved, it is our responsibility to care for ourselves and our children. Each individual who takes personal responsibility for his or her own success and financial stability increases the likelihood that our will continue to enjoy the liberties that we take for granted. How can you teach your child(ren) about the opportunity that we, Americans, are fortunate enough to enjoy? How can you instill a sense of personal responsibility within your child(ren)? Think of the role model that you provide and the expectations that you create within each child in your family. Consider these questions:

Do you model a strong work ethic for your child, or do you teach him that he only needs to do the minimum of what is expected?

Do you strive to improve your level of success each day, or have you thrown up your hands and decided success somehow accidentally happens to others?

If you are struggling, lost your job, or are experiencing other difficulties, what is your child learning from your attitude? Are you confident that things will improve somehow, or is your anger preventing you from seeing a way to move forward?

Do you talk to your child about the importance of working hard and being self-reliant as an adult, or is that a discussion you will have someday?

Are you teaching your child the skills necessary to achieve that self-reliance, or are you counting on the school or someone else to do it for you?

Are you taking responsibility for your health and well-being, or do you think your health has no impact on what you can achieve in the future?

Are you living within your means, or are you spending impulsively?

Do you believe it is ultimately your responsibility to provide for yourself and your family, or do you anticipate that you will always receive assistance from elsewhere?

Are you moving toward a self-sustaining future one step at a time, or do you expect that you and your family will always be reliant upon governmental support?

As individual citizens, you and I cannot control what happens at the federal, state, or even the municipal level. However, as parents we are very powerful indeed. We can model a strong work ethic and fiscal responsibility for our children. We can educate them about past successes of their fellow Americans, and the country as a whole, and instill within them the mindset that they too can achieve success. We have the opportunity to internalize that American spirit of rugged individualism within our children. It is not “fair” to send them into the world with the expectation that the government will care for their every need when it clearly cannot. The “change” that we need is for every child in this country to be trained to strive each day to be responsible for himself or herself, to work hard, and believe that self-reliance is the key to success.

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© Copyright 2011 Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D. All rights reserved.