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Commentary

When “Fairness” is No Longer Fair

When a girl was denied admittance to her school’s gifted program because her family’s income was too high, it exposed the inherent unfairness of certain policies designed to redress economic inequality in public school.

In February 2010, Hannah Workman, a fifth grader and straight-A student in Florida’s Clay County School District, was denied entrance to her elementary school’s gifted program because she did not score high enough on the entrance exam. Remarkably, her mother later learned that Hannah would have scored high enough to enter the program if her family earned less. 

The standards on the entrance exam, she discovered, were based on income level and English proficiency. Students who qualified for free or reduced lunch or who spoke limited English only had to score in the 90s to qualify, while other children needed to score at least 130.

Though seemingly a minor footnote in the story of America’s public schools, the testing policy of this Florida school district cuts to the core of the philosophical debate over the role of education raging among educators and policy makers. It reveals much about the changing definition of “fairness” and the problem with using publicly-funded education to redress social inequality.

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Commentary

Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are

Every dollar spent at a locally owned business pays dividends in your community. If you wish to see a viable economy, choose local businesses over chain stores.

In 1895, educator and author Booker T. Washington cajoled members of his community to “cast down your bucket where you are” instead of seeking labor or employment somewhere else. Likewise, I believe more can be accomplished for the benefit of our community by casting our talents and our dollars where we live by buying and producing locally, as well as abandoning a “there’s nothing I can do” attitude.

It’s tempting in the face of seemingly intractable problems to uproot and leave, convinced that nothing can be done. Individuals and families make this choice every day. I spoke to dozens of friends and acquaintances who have left Illinois for greener pastures over the past several years, and I can count myself in that number. 

For a community to be successful, however, a collective effort is needed to bring the kind of entertainment, businesses, and recreation you want to see, as well as support those places already in existence. Supporting local businesses means using your dollars like votes in favor of the businesses you want to remain. 

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Saudade

How Life Has Changed in 30 Years

As I approach my 40th birthday and the birth of my first daughter, I’ve been thinking about how life has changed since I was a kid. What will the world in which she grows up be like?

Growing up in the 1980s and early ‘90s, my family didn’t have a home computer (not until I was in high school). There was no Internet, and if I wanted to play with a neighborhood friend, I just walked over to their house and knocked. There was no texting.

I asked my friends and family how many things they could think of that were commonplace 30-40 years ago that either aren’t around anymore, or wouldn’t be around in the next ten years or so. The list was long. Here are just some of the things I got to see/use/experience that my daughter will not:

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Commentary

Leadership we Can Believe In

With trust in government and other institutions at historic lows, only a leadership renaissance from bottom-up will restore public confidence.

What people most look for in a leader, whether he or she is in politics, sports, or any other profession, is honesty, competence, and a positive vision for the future. When leaders are performing at their best, they are doing more than just getting results, they are also responding to the expectations of their constituents. 

When times get tough, people expect these authority figures to give an honest assessment of the situation, determine the root causes of the problem, and act in the best interests of everyone to solve that problem. Good leadership depends on individuals who are willing to take that responsibility seriously. 

We are currently experiencing a severe leadership deficit at all levels of society and government. That deficit has led to a crisis of confidence in America in which poll after poll has demonstrated that public confidence in institutions like government, banks, churches, and corporations is at historic lows.

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Commentary

Why Politeness Matters

Politeness is important, not only because it makes other people feel good, but because it changes the way people perceive you as well. It means you hold yourself to a high standard and expect the same from others.

Have you ever stood in line to order food and heard the person in front of you say, “I want a…” or “Gimme a…” or “Let me get a…”? I have, and although I admit that I’ve probably used those words before, it bothers me every time I hear them.

I can just imagine that clerk standing behind the register being bombarded by those kinds of requests all day, every day, as if working in a burger joint for minimum wage were not bad enough as it is. On top of the stress, the low pay, and long hours, employees are also subjected to the rude and sometimes abusive requests of their patrons.

Your choice of words matters. For that clerk, hearing these impolite requests makes him or her feel unworthy of respect, shamed, and will probably result in rudeness in return. For some people, being rude to others is a way of feeling better about themselves. They believe that it puts everyone else beneath them. Most people are rude simply out of habit, or because they never learned how to be polite.

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Commentary

What is Totalitarianism? Part II

If the United States devolved into a totalitarian state, would we recognize it? Maintaining a free society requires knowing these warning signs.

In Part I, we defined totalitarianism as state-orchestrated control over all public and private life by an ideologically-driven political organization. In the words of the father of Italian fascism, Giovanni Gentile, the totalitarian state seeks “total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.”

While this control is most obvious and pronounced under a dictatorship, democratic republics are not immune. A legislature may vote in favor of a totalitarian state just as easily as a dictator may impose one.

This is totalitarianism in theory, but what is it in practice?

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Commentary

What is Totalitarianism? Part I

If the United States devolved into a totalitarian state, would we recognize it? Maintaining a free society requires knowing these warning signs.

“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Benito Mussolini

Public anxiety over loss of civil rights and civil liberties in the United States has become increasingly common. According to Pew Research, 85 percent of Americans say it is very important that the rights and freedoms of all people are respected, but only 41 percent believe that describes the country very well or somewhat well. Concerns about “authoritarianism” and lack of respect for democracy are openly expressed.

But if the United States devolved into a totalitarian state, would we recognize it? The trouble with diagnosing our condition is that most people are unaware of what totalitarianism actually is. Even among the most politically astute, there is little consideration for the possibility that a state in the process of becoming totalitarian might lack the most brutal and outward signs of oppressive regimes portrayed in popular culture.

Because of our rather simplistic frame of reference (picture black and white images of National Socialist Germany or the Soviet Union) we recognize a country as either being in the advanced stages of totalitarianism or not at all. But just because a state maintains the trappings of democracy, for instance, that does not preclude it from being totalitarian.