Wednesday, June 29, 2011


“Enjoying your retirement?”

Having taught more than 3500 students for more a third of a century in the same small community, many people know me and I hear that question many times a day.

I smile and shrug. “It hasn’t sunk in yet,” and that’s true. It’s been more than a week since I cleaned out my classroom and got an engraved glass plaque from MSAD 72 thanking me for my years of service. Early summer feels about like it always has, however - going around the the properties I manage, shooting red squirrels, making sure everything works, reminding contractors about various repairs and maintenance. It’s only when I walk by the boxes of books and files from school on the floor of my garage where I unloaded them from my truck on the last day of school. That’s when I remember I’m a former history teacher now. I’ve got to update the profile on my web site this week to indicate that.

The academic calendar has ruled my life for more than fifty years. Early on, we Catholic school kids got out more than a week before the public school kids did. I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood but the others in a neighborhood filled with young baby boomer kids were still in school. I remember feeing good realizing that I had no more homework for a few months. I could slip out of the house with my fishing rod before my mother could think of something else for me to do and have Round Pond all to myself. Digging worms and fishing alone was different though. With no one to talk to, I was much more aware of the sound of wind, birds and insects and the feel of the sun on my body. I enjoyed all that up to a point. I was alone with my thoughts and feelings. If I caught a good-sized bass or pickerel there was nobody to share the experience. By mid-afternoon I’d find myself waiting at the bus stop for my public school friends to come home and try to get a baseball game going. When they finally got out for the summer I wouldn’t think of school again until those first cool days in August.

Later, as a teenager and then as a college student and teacher, I’d work summer jobs and savor the weekends. After I was married and with a growing family, I’d have building projects, the honey-do list, and planned recreational activities. I was very aware that there were about ten weeks to get everything done. Each week that was counted off, I’d measure against what there was still to do. Come August, I’d have to triage because I’d never get done all I planned before school started again. This year, one week is already in the can but I don’t feel that pressure. Though I’m just as busy as I’ve always been in late June, I feel more relaxed because my schedule will remain flexible for the foreseeable future and I won’t feel the crunch come Labor Day weekend. School will start for others, but not for me, I won’t have to jam work on unfinished chores into weekends in the fall. This time, I’ll be able to get all my work done before the weekends come, maybe even before.

Juggling three jobs for so many years put me in hurry-up mode most of the time and it became an almost permanent state of mind. Bumping into friends and acquaintances at the post office or the store, I’d have to be aware of the time because I was usually hurrying from one job to another. I’d drop off my briefcase and my car, change clothes, put things in my truck and go off again. When home, I was dealing with phone calls and emails. As my wife would put it: “You’re a human doing - not a human being.” That stuck in my mind when mulling the decision to retire last February.

As I said, my first week of summer was busy as usual, but I’m getting caught up. I should have it all current soon and then I’ll again become a human being, if I can remember how.

Correction: In my June 16th column I referred to the author of “The Forgotten Man” as Emily Schlaes. Her name is Amity, not Emily. My apologies.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Teaching the Dismal Science

Attitudes toward President Obama have changed drastically since last year here in western Maine. I just finished correcting my final batch of about six dozen elderly interviews which I’ve been assigning to students around here for thirty years. There will be no more since I’ll become a former history teacher after Friday. Students select someone seventy years old or older. ask the twenty questions I give them, and then ask ten they make up themselves. One assigned question asks who their favorite president was and why. The other asks who their least favorite president was and why.

Answers to the first question have always varied widely with no president getting a majority. However, a plurality each year for the entire thirty years has gone to Franklin Roosevelt. As for why, the typical answer has always been that “He got us out of the Depression.” Last year, President Obama got quite a few endorsements for favorite president - about fifteen or so if I remember correctly. Most people said things like: “He’s turning the economy around,” or “He’s going to help the little guy,” or “He’s very smart.” This year, however, only three people indicated that Obama was their favorite president. Instead, he got about fifteen votes for least favorite - second only to Richard Nixon.

For the past three years or so, George W. Bush was selected by about fifteen people for least favorite president but he was only mentioned three times this year. Evidently people in western Maine hold Obama responsible for our weak economy, even though he’s has been blaming Bush for nearly three years now. The bloom is definitely off the Obama rose if my informal annual polling is any guide.

One lesson from all this is that James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid” advice to his client Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign sustains today. More recent histories like Amity Schlaes’s “The Forgotten Man,” question the enduring myth that President Roosevelt “got us out of the Depression.” She makes a strong case that his New Deal policies worsened and prolonged the Great Depression rather than ended it. Roosevelt surrounded himself with big-government control freaks who were fervent believers in the ideas that came to be known as Keynesian economics after the late British economist John Maynard Keynes. They borrowed and spent with the notion that they were priming an economic pump, or jumpstarting an economic engine which would rev up under their hyper-regulatory direction. They went off the gold standard and set the value of money by fiat. The Federal Reserve went along, just as it is going along with Obama’s new-New Deal now.

None of it worked, but Roosevelt seemed to be doing something. He convinced enough people in his fireside chats that happy days were here again, even if they weren’t. President Obama and his economic team are using the same tactics and getting the same results. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Roosevelt and they didn’t work for Johnson, Nixon, Ford, or Carter either. What’s it called when someone tries the same thing over and over, expecting a different result?

Reagan, by contrast, believed in the ideas of Frederick Hayek, who suggested that government should stay out of business affairs and let markets work things out. My students studied the conflicting economic ideas of Keynes vs Hayek this year and how they’ve played themselves out in the 20th century. John Papola and Russ Roberts put together a clever rap video outlining the conflicting ideas of the two economists, the refrain of which states: “They’ve been going back and forth for a century. ‘I want to steer markets [says Keynes];’ ‘I want them set free [says Hayek].’”

My students loved it so much they were singing it in the hallways by their lockers after class and showed it to their parents on Youtube. Then last month, an equally clever Round Two was produced. Lots of ideas were packed into the lyrics and imagery in each and both moved very fast, but they were great motivators in my quest for students to learn principles of what many refer to as the “dismal science” of economics.

My hope is that at least some of my charges will go away with a conceptual understanding of what government’s role in the economy should be. Maybe that will at least partially offset the enduring myth that Keynesian economic policies worked under Franklin Roosevelt.

Voters, meanwhile, are trusting their own judgement on how those ideas are working out under President Obama. Let’s hope that’s reflected in the 2012 election results.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Gender-Bending Lesson

After studying the 1960s, including themes of the sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movement, I gave follow-up lessons on legacies of those and other issues in American culture today. This is one.

“Feminists and homosexual activists use the words ‘genders’ and ‘sexes’ almost interchangeably. They’ve been pushing an idea that there are more than two genders since at least the 1990s,” I told them. “They’ve been trying to pass a United Nations resolution that instead of two genders, there are five.”

“What would those be?” asked a girl with an incredulous look.

“They claim that male and female are out on the edges of a spectrum,” I explained as I wrote on the board. “That inside the female on the extreme right are lesbians. That inside the male on the extreme left are homosexual men, and than in the middle are ‘transgender’ people who go either way.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “A lesbian is still female. She’s not another gender.”

“That’s crazy,” said a boy.

“To them,” I explained, “it’s another battle in the Sexual Revolution.”

“Well I hope they lose,” another girl said.

“Remember last month when a speaker came in to discuss bullying at an assembly in the gym?” I asked.

There were nods all around. “Last year it was a football player,” said a boy.

“Yes,” I said. “What did you think of those lectures?”

“They were good,” he said.

“What do the rest of you think?”

Most indicated the lectures had been interesting.Joel Baum Fox News

“Well, in Oakland, California, students get different kinds of bullying lessons,” I said, wheeling the LCD projector into position and plugging in my laptop. “Watch this.”

It was a “bullying” lesson on “gender diversity” in which the lecturer told fourth grade students they could be a girl or a boy or both. Joel Baum told students: “They can feel like girls. They can feel like boys. They can feel like both, and they can feel like, as I said, kinda like neither.”

Baum is educational director for Gender Spectrum, an activist group pushing the idea that the two sexes - male and female - are too rigid. Students can move around on the “gender spectrum” depending on how they feel. They can change whenever they want.

“They’re way too young to be listening to that stuff in the fourth grade,” said another girl.

“They shouldn’t teach that stuff,” said a boy. “It’s crazy. Those kids are going to believe it now. They believe anything the teacher tells them.”

“Would you think it was all right to teach this,” I asked the the girl, “if the students were older?”

“Yes,” she said.

“At what age then?”

“I don’t know - high school maybe.”

“It’s mandatory for all students in Oakland to take it from kindergarten to twelfth grade,” I said. “Mandatory means they have no choice.”

“That’s brainwashing,” said a the boy. “Those schools shouldn’t be doing that. It hasn't got much to do with bullying.”

“What if it were taught only in high school and students could choose to take the 'gender spectrum' course or not to take it?”

“That would be okay,” he said.

“The California Teachers’ Association, the CTA, is paying for this. That’s the teachers’ union,” I explained.

“Why?” he asked.

“Teachers’ unions all over the country are very left-wing,” I said. “They think this stuff is wonderful, and teachers’ unions are the most powerful groups in the Democrat Party.”

“You’re not left-wing,” said a girl.

“I’m unusual,” I said. “There are very few conservatives in this profession.”

“And you’re retiring.”

“Yup.” “This kind of gender-bending stuff is happening all over the country,” I explained. “The Maine legislature, for example, is about to vote on a bill that would prevent males who claim to be females from suing when they’re not allowed to use the ladies’ room in middle school or in a restaurant. In two cases, a boy’s parents and a man have sued a school and a restaurant and the Maine Human Rights Commission has agreed with them. Now the Orono Middle School is being forced to allow a boy to use the girls’ bathroom. A Denny’s Restaurant was forced to allow a man dressed as a woman to use the ladies’ room there.”

“In both cases here, the newspaper article refers to the boy and the man with the personal pronouns of ‘she’ and ‘her’ as if they were indeed females,’” I explained. “I don’t do that.”

“If you were in the Maine Legislature, how would you vote?” I asked. “How many of you would vote ‘yes,’ which would allow schools and restaurants to prevent males from using female bathrooms or locker rooms?”

Five or six hands went up.

“Who would vote ‘no’?”

Two hands.

“Who isn’t sure?”

Another five or six hands went up.

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll see what the legislature does.”