Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Kindergarten Kronikles

From Left in the West, via I-forget-where, there is a lively debate in the Montana state legislature over the volatile issue of all-day kindergarten. What, you didn't know this was a volatile issue?

If you read the Billings newspaper accounts (here and here) the lawmaker sponsoring hearings on expanding Montana's public kindergarten program, was utterly taken aback when opponents raised charges of "anti-Christian teachings and a socialist agenda," as well as "a threat to family values" and a lot of other stuff. I share the guy's bewilderment. We sure went from "extra three hours of kindergarten" to "promoting abortion and gay sex" in an awful hurry.

Obviously, the debate is way out of proportion to the proposed policy, entailing a modest increase in the reach of the public school system. (All-day as opposed to half-day kindergarten would be non-mandatory and offered in only a handful of communities.) The point is, the mere idea of the public schools represents to conservatives a whole constellation of bad values: same sex love and sex ed and other offensive examples of government intrusion into private lives. So the family-values crowd jumped on this initiative--well justified and mild as it appears--as an opportunity to air ALL their gripes (or paranoia) about public education.

I can't find a link now, but I believe I read recently that the Bush Administration tried to suppress a study that showed the benefits of federal Head Start programs. That's another symptom of the same problem. Wingers can't conceive of the value of big-gubmint programs aimed at our precious pre-schoolers. And they can't be looking at evidence that conflicts with their theology. Does not compute.

When I was kindergarten-aged, I lived in West Virginia, which at that time had no public kindergarten. My folks sent me to private half-day kindergarten, though they were NOT legally bound to. (This was 1969, incidentally. Smartass.) WV does have K-12 today, but now I'm curious about the history there. Was there a culture-war skirmish over this in WV? (It sure wouldn't shock me to learn there had been. After all, WV closes schools for the opening day of deer hunting season. And I know they've had flaps about teaching evolution.) Have many states had protracted fights over extending public education, mandatory or otherwise, into the years before first grade?

You gotta love the fact that in the outcry that six hours kindergarten = promotion of abortion, the loudest voice belonged to a Montana Republican who happens to be a physician. Would you accept treatment from this man? It puts me in mind of Henry Aldridge, the notorious North Carolina dentist-legislator, who contributed to the abortion debate by stating that it was a scientific impossibility for a female rape victim to become pregnant ("the juices don't flow").

Did one of the wingnuts say out loud that he opposes diversity? I guess it's good that we have states like Montana where they don't bother with code words. On the other hand, supportive as I am of the pro-kindergarten position, it sure is unfortunate that one of the pro-kindergarten people, a school superintendent, was quoted in the news story saying that "we can't control what happens to them before age 5." That language might fuel a couple of paranoid fantasies.

Actually, as a godless liberal social engineer, I can tell you, you can promote promiscuity and socialism among five-year-olds just as much in three hours as you can in six. It's all a matter of scheduling and priorities. Teach Betty Friedan first, then Dr. Seuss only if there's time later. Try making the kids recite "My body, my choice" before they receive their Graham crackers and Hi-C. And don't call them Graham crackers, call them Chomsky crackers.

Monday, February 14, 2005

50 Books (ha!)

No way in hell, unfortunately, will I read 50 books this year. But I'll do what I can. Inspired by a lively online discussion I eavesdropped on a few weeks ago, I picked up Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.

While I enjoyed the book, the discussion I was party to hinged on the question of "co-optation" of rock music and other cultural product by cynical corporations. And unless I'm missing a point somewhere, I don't think the book actually addresses that question. It looks at things from the point of view of advertisers and marketers, not at all from the view of musicians and artists. And there's never a gotcha moment when, say, a Nike executive, twirling his mustache, hatched his plot to sell sneakers over John Lennon's dead body. Corporations in the 60s weren't being cunning, they were merely being open to possiblities, and stumbled on the realization that hippie and protest culture, as commonly apprehended at least, were quite amenable to selling stuff. The hucksters just set their sales (oops, Freudian slip) for the way the wind was blowing.

There are two main things I took away from the book. One is, as Frank admonishes in an early chapter, that historians ought to pay more attention to business practices and culture. Lefty academics may view business studies as dull and unilluminating--trailing indicators of people's private or political behavior, where the REAL action is. The Conquest of Cool suggests to me that in some ways, marketers understand pop culture better than it understands itself; in any case, Frank mines some terrific material from sources such as old trade journals in advertising, men's apparel, and other industries.

The other is a new way of looking at the cultural flowering of the 1960s. There is a view of American history that maintains that the 50s were the age of contented conformism, and the 60s saw a revolt against cultural norms that was entirely hostile and antithetical to the prevailing consensus. This line of thinking emphasizes the famous Generation Gap as stark and absolute. The truth isn't quite that simple. Many Americans of all ages were grateful for a loosening of cultural straits and responded in practical ways. For instance, appeals to youthfulness and quasi-rebellion were themes that could be employed even in a campaign to sell denture adhesive to gray-hairs. I was very taken by Frank's examination of the advertising business, which showed creative people chafing under the rule-bound scientism that ad agencies enforced in the Gray Flannel Suit period: finding the unique selling proposition and flogging it several times within one ad. So quite a few people in the business world were starving for the cultural earthquake of the 60s, rejoiced at its arrival, and embraced rock music and bell bottoms and recreational drug use with great enthusiasm.

On to Frank's latest effort, What's The Matter with Kansas. (Once again, I get around to a book many months after the cool people have already conquered it.)

Oh, I better take credit for another title that was a pretty easy read but by God was an honest-to-goodness book betwen hard covers: The Punch by John Feinstein. It examines the background and echoes of an incident in pro basketball in 1977, when Kermit Washington punched and severely injured Rudy Tomjanovich during an NBA game. (The punch could be characterized as either an assault or an accident.) I enjoy a well-executed jock bio, and particularly the inevitable career twilight when the athlete transitions from stardom back to "regular life." Feinstein's book is essentially a dual bio of two players, both of whose careers were derailed by the punch incident, both of whom struggled to escape the stigma of the event. I wouldn't say the book transcends sports, but if you like basketball to begin with, I recommend it.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Keeping 'em Down on the Farm

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial Observer: Keeping Iowa's Young Folks at Home After They've Seen Minnesota

Love this writer's name: Verlyn Klinkenborg. This piece is about Iowa's efforts to retain its bright young people. There is a proposal to eliminate the state income tax for Iowans under 30. (I'll reprint part since the NY Times link will go behind a pay wall.)

"But $600, the average yearly state income tax for Iowan 20-somethings, is not enough to undo decades of social erosion. The problems Iowa faces are the very solutions it chose two and three generations ago. The state's demographic dilemma wasn't caused by bad weather or high income taxes ... It was caused by the state's wholehearted, uncritical embrace of industrial agriculture, which has depopulated the countryside, destroyed the economic and social texture of small towns, and made certain that ordinary Iowans are defenseless against the pollution of factory farming.

"These days, all the entry-level jobs in agriculture - the state's biggest industry - happen to be down at the local slaughterhouse, and most of those jobs were filled by the governor's incentive, a few years ago, to bring 100,000 immigrant workers into the state.

"Business leaders all across Iowa have been racking their brains to think of ways to spur economic development. But nearly every idea leaves industrial agriculture intact. That means a few families living amid vast tracts of genetically modified soybeans and corn, with here and there a hog confinement site or a cattle feedlot to break the monotony."

Klinkenborg writes that North Dakota and Iowa and Nos. 1 and 2 in "brain drain." I would have thought West Virginia would have been ahead of Iowa (West Virginia is actually losing population, along with North Dakota). WV may have fewer "brains" to begin with, however brains are counted.

North Carolina is the number 2 hog raising state, behind Iowa. NC is fortunate to have some growing urban areas, but parts of the state resemble this picture. Factory livestock farming seems to create a few big winners and a lot of losers (the neighbors of these huge stinking hog or poultry houses). A different wrinkle here is tobacco farming, which under the allotment system allowed small landowners to make a living as farmers. But the allotment system is on the way out, and it remains to be seen what will replace it.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Happy Groundhog Day

In today's major local news story*, Sir Walter Wally did glimpse his shadow, portending six more weeks of winter.

Hopefully, Sir Walter did not bite the hand of mayor Charles Meeker, the way he did last year. I'll have to ask my wife for the lowdown. Not to brag or anything, but my wife knows Sir Walter personally.

* The real major local news stories lately have been (1) the paramedics in Franklin County who pronounced a man dead and zipped him into a body bag when in fact he was still alive, and (2) parents in the high-priced Wakefield subdivision of north Raleigh who are up in arms because public school overcrowding may force the county to send their kids to a temporary modular school in (gasp) an African-American neighborhood in the town of Wake Forest. I choose to highlight the groundhog.