An Exceptional America

Posted October 13, 2014 by billpeach
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The subject of American exceptionalism has been the recent focus of controversy about the content of History textbooks in public schools. We believe this refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. This is derived from our political institutions founded on the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, and the Constitution.

There is a counter argument that there is also a negative connotation that we have been exceptionally immoral, racist, and violent. We tend to exaggerate and politicize both extremes as we reevaluate the incremental recognition of rights and the violence involved in the denial or acquisition of those rights.

We began as a group of independent colonies which found the necessity of national unity to gain our independence from England and “to form a more perfect union.” We debated the need for a standing army, or reliance on a system of well-regulated militias. Our Tenth Amendment allowed states to practice or prohibit slavery, later resolved by a bloody war. Our entrepreneurial spirit enabled us to achieve the American dream, and also gave us industrial giants and the financially elite. We ran our factories with low wage and child labor, and workplace tragedies. We created unions, suffered acts of violence in our coal mines, walked picket lines, and eventually found ways to regulate commerce and monopolies. We denied voting rights and access to social equality on bases of gender, skin color, and national origin.

We cited the wisdom of our founding fathers to determine whether we were a Christian or secular nation. We attached labels of Christian or Deist to measure the spirituality and secular wisdom of those who wrote our Constitution and formed our government. We speak of and fear moral decline, or impending theocracy.

On two occasions we deployed our military to save humanity from Facism and Imperialism making the world safe for democracy. Since then we have found reason to invade a dozen or more countries to impose that democracy on unwilling cultures, petty dictators, and radical ideological and ethnic genocidal insurgents. We have come to be the self-appointed arbiter of religious conflicts in the Middle East. We wonder if we will be listed among the great empires of history, as conquerors or liberators, as exploiters of our natural resources, or the eventual eradicators of human suffering.

Our History textbooks include a chapter on the turbulence of the 1960s and the anti-war and civil rights movements. We condemn a generation of drugs, protests, and sexual promiscuity. Then we cite a decade of freedom of assembly for redress of grievance, and the vision of racial and social equality derived from the conflict and violence of that period.

We include a chapter on immigration. We tell the story of the English, Spanish, and French who discovered, settled, and built a new nation. We include the history of the Irish, Catholics, Jews, Asians, and Native Americans whose seat at the table of democracy and religious equality was reluctantly and belatedly acknowledged. We recite the celebratory phrase “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores” and we appeal for a higher wall and more security on our borders.

Our History books accurately define our exceptional America in democratic ideals, free enterprise, religious freedom, military superiority, family values, our historical founding documents, and human rights. Yet there should be a few paragraphs or pages to document and learn from the times and events in which those have been denied to some, or unwillingly and violently imposed on others.

Unexpected Heroes at School Board Meeting

Posted October 7, 2014 by billpeach
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This is a letter to the editor printed in the Review-Appeal that I saved, written by a parent who lived in Brentwood. I do not know the date. It had to be between 1992 and 2002, the interim between my service on the two boards. The Williamson County school board had recently changed the two school breaks from the Winter and Spring designations to Christmas and Easter. One of the members requested that the Board reconsider its position because in retrospect he believed that his vote was not what he should have cast. The current board, six of whom were just elected in August, is considering a vote on this question. I am posting this to my blog, because I shared this evening with two of my spiritual heroes—Bob Cowperthwaite and the Rabbi from Congregation Micah.

To The Editor:

Every once in a while there are unexpected heroes. There were a few on Monday night who deserve thanks and recognition. The county school board opened its meeting with Brentwood Middle School students reminding us”…how good it is when people live together in peace…” and public comment speakers arrived at the podium to ask the board to reconsider its hastily made amendment to rename school breaks for religious holidays.

The first unexpected hero was Bill Peach, a self-identified fundamentalist Christian and former FSSD school board member who reminded the board of their special responsibility to celebrate all of the children enrolled in the public schools, leaving none out. Then there was Rev. Robert Cowperthwaite who asked the board to remember that it was better to give than to receive and that the Golden Rule is just as important if you are a majority as it is when you may be in a minority. To the student who pleaded with the board not to hurt the spirit of unity in her school by alienating her friends who were not Christian, you showed great thoughtfulness and caring.

But perhaps it was the comments of board members themselves that become the most unexpected of heroes. It takes a special kind of integrity to say publicly that something you had done was perhaps not the best decision you could have made. That came from Ralph Ringstaff who made the formal request as a member of the prevailing side, that the Board reconsider its decision because he believed that his vote was not what he wanted it to be in retrospect. There was courage in public admission. It was echoed by George Badon who said he may have been hasty in his vote as the last-minute amendment had been and that the board was now in a position of changing itself because an earlier vote was ill-conceived. That took integrity.

There was Horace Spoon who unexpectedly shared with the board his personal heritage which reflects the melting pot of America and the spirit upon which our nation was built. Sharing that private information gives us new insights into Mr. Spoon. And while his family reunions are probably spirited and lively in their diverse fabric, it took leadership to make public that private information.

For Janice Mills, a new board member, this was her first potentially controversial issue. Thank you for keeping the focus on what’s best for kids. To Joe Johnson, who told me that you have to include all kids and leave nobody out, thank you, there was great compassion there. To Sina Miller and Gary Anderson who have always kept careful stewardship of all our county’s children, you have stayed vigilant. And to Jean Keith who showed great patience and trust in her board that it would, in the end, do the right thing, you showed great faith.

To the children of Williamson County, you won last Monday night. You saw a diverse adult community walk the walk of its life skills and do the right thing for all of you.

On Amending the Federal or State Constitution

Posted October 5, 2014 by billpeach
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In 1789 the Congress submitted 12 amendments to the Constitution to clarify individual and states’ rights not named in the Constitution. The reason given was, “The conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adoption of the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added, and as extending the ground of public confidence in the government will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution.” In the years hence, 27 amendments have been added. With the exception of the 18th Amendment, Prohibition, all have enhanced individual freedoms or restricted the powers of government.

The Constitution of Tennessee is intentionally difficult to amend. Many believe a Constitution should be a defining document leaving most issues within the jurisdiction of the State Legislature. This year there are four proposed Amendments on the ballot in November. Amendment 1 has drawn the most interest attracting a proliferation of yard signs and tee-shirts encouraging voters to “Vote Yes on 1” or “Vote No on 1.”

To get on the ballot, Amendment 1 had to pass both houses of the Tennessee legislature, the General Assembly and the state senate, not once but twice, the first time by majority vote and then by two-thirds, and in consecutive years. With Republicans a super majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, victory was assured by 2011 with the vote scheduled for this November. It is the state’s marquee race, with both sides understanding Amendment 1 could be a model that could extend far beyond Tennessee should it pass. Passage of Amendment 1 would enable the State Legislature to close most or all facilities that perform abortions. This would probably be found unconstitutional if passed. This legislation could put women at risk of seeking abortions illegally in unregulated facilities with conditions similar to those prior to the Roe v. Wade decision.

It reads, “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”

Amendment 2 is an anomaly. It is worded to change the Constitution to be consistent with current practice. It provides for, as I understand it, the appointment of the State Supreme Court by the Governor, which is now the retain-or-replace method as on the ballot in August. Most people agree that appointed judges vetted by their peers bring more judicial integrity than those elected by partisan vote.

Amendment 3 would prevent any future State Legislature from passing legislation enabling a state income tax. While nobody seems to favor an income tax, most people question the logic of tying the hands of future legislatures should the need for additional revenue arise. Amendment 4 has drawn little attention in that it only applies to veterans’ groups and gambling.

There is another complexity in this process. For any Amendment to pass, it must receive a number of affirmative votes equal to fifty percent, plus one, of the total votes cast in the race for Governor. With Governor Haslam a certain winner and a Democratic nominee that no Democrat admits to have voted for in the Primary, there is limited interest in the Governor’s race. Those who oppose any or all of the amendments are encouraging voters to vote for somebody, or anybody, in the Governor’s race.

The Limited Freedoms of Choice

Posted September 29, 2014 by billpeach
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As we debate the labels of religion and politics, one thing that everyone favors is freedom of choice. In theory we all advocate the right, power, and liberty to choose. In reality there are some exceptions—religion, speech, books, assembly, guns, education, health care, drugs, voting rights, environment, immigration, military intervention, taxation, reproductive rights, and marriage.

We define liberty as, “being free from restriction or control; the right to act or believe as one chooses.” Early in our history we decided that the right to freedom of belief was inviolable, while the freedom to act was limited when such action infringed on the rights of another. Politics at all levels of government have been drawn along liberal and conservative lines, except maybe those who identify with the ambiguous term libertarian. By definition that would include everyone who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state.

In our county, the Catholic Church has distributed signs advocating voting yes on Amendment One. The opposing forces are wearing t-shirts advocating voting no. Ironically, both come as promoters of women’s health and rights under the labels of life and choice.

School choice has evolved into a debate that is primarily a liberal and conservative debate over a right that does not exist since private and sectarian schools have the right to deny admission to undesirable students.

The Second Amendment debate includes the absolute right to keep and bear arms, while athletic associations and parents attempt to deny guns in parks and playgrounds. Grocery stores and other retailers struggle with the right to deny access to open carry patrons in fear of losing customers who will choose to shop where guns are restricted.

We search for ways to allow same-sex couples to enjoy basic equal rights while legislators and churches define traditional marriage, and the terminology of marriage and civil unions.

The First Amendment guarantees the right to peaceably assemble for redress of grievance but is limited when it creates risks for public safety, destruction of property, or theft.

Our list of banned books grows as more and more books are published. The individual right to write, publish, or read something judged by community standards as obscene is often opposed by those who would suppress the distribution of dissident expression. This has become a focus of censorship by school boards and pressure groups, creating a conflict between religious and ethnic groups, schools boards, parents, teachers, and students.

We are embattled over our real or imagined conflict between the production and use of fossil or renewable energy and pollution of air and water. States and areas promoting extraction, transportation, and consumption of coal and oil view government regulation as “job-killing” while environmentalists push legislation that protects air and water quality. Government subsidizes and regulates industries proportional to pressure from lobby groups, while members of Congress and State Legislators cater to the majority of voters in the district. The war on drugs is incrementally liberalizing either medicinal or recreational use of marijuana. We were told we could keep our healthcare coverage if we liked it; everyone had the right to health care; that neither government nor private insurer could come between you and your doctor.

A policeman can stop you for not wearing your seat belt or riding in the back of a pickup truck. Subdivision restrictions and neighbors may not let you erect a tall flagpole or post a political sign in your yard.

Almost all of the controversial issues are not clear battles for individual rights, but rather a conflict along ideological, political, and religious lines in determining which rights and for whom.

Teaching Students How to Think, or What to Think

Posted September 26, 2014 by billpeach
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There are 35 college-level Advanced Placement courses available to high school students in 19 different areas including biology, chemistry, foreign languages, and history. If a student passes an end-of-course exam, he or she may earn college credit. In school districts in several states the curriculum of Advanced Placement courses has become a battleground between some Boards of Education and AP teachers and students.

In Colorado, in two high schools, teachers and students have taken to the streets to protest disputes over a new curriculum. One Board chairman said, “It’s a shame we see kids in the streets instead of in classrooms. I am disappointed that the message coming down from the teachers is to get kids to protest something they don’t have any facts about.”

The curriculum controversy seemed to focus on whether the AP classes were intended to teach students “how to think, or what to think.” The new curriculum, in Colorado schools includes one page which reads, “Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Contents pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.”

One PTA president asked, “Does that mean we’re going to eliminate slavery from class discussions, because that wasn’t a particular positive time of our history. Hiroshima didn’t look too great. How do we deal with Japanese interments, segregation, the depression, McCarthyism, Vietnam and Iraq?

I remember a conversation I had with a superintendent many years ago about the role of our school board to protect the students against “brainwashing.” We think of brainwashing as an intense, forcible indoctrination aimed at replacing a person’s basic convictions with an alternative set of beliefs, which then becomes fixed.”

There is a cultural clash between public schools and alternative private, parochial, or home schools. To try to align this conflict along liberal and conservative or Republican and Democratic lines is an oversimplification. Some of the debate focuses on the separation of church and state in the often negative connotation of “secular” education. Some parents with fundamentalist religious traditions see the exclusion of religious content as a factor in the moral decline of our culture. Christians with a more liberal interpretation of faith-based morality, resist the inclusion of fundamentalist church doctrine in public schools.

This becomes a microcosm of our liberal and conservative divide, which often parallels our voting patterns, our television channel options, and our church affiliation. There is an effort to convey the idea of a monolithic pattern in American history of conservatism, Christianity, and capitalism. Consequently, many families feel this has come to mean right-wing fundamentalism, and corporate economics.

What is as risk is the innocence of children and the imperative of public schools to not challenge or question traditional family values. School districts encourage parental review of textbooks prior to adoption. School districts also resist ideological advocates of revisionist history from either bias. Teachers have the challenge of answering questions from elementary and middle school students consistent with family values and also consistent with textbook instruction and within the pitfalls of changing social values. These questions and answers become even more complex in high school.

Beyond that is the world of Advanced Placement in which we encourage in our classrooms and with support from parents, teaching students “how to think, not what to think.”

A Biography on Seven Bricks

Posted September 22, 2014 by billpeach
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On June 3, 2011 we celebrated the reopening and lighting of the Franklin Theater. I spent the evening in front of Ben & Jerry’s at 400 Main Street, former home of Pigg & Peach.

It is hard for me to know where to begin to tell my story. The Streetscape project which began its serious construction in 1989 included celebratory and memorial brick pavers and other aesthetic artifacts on Main Street. The opening of the theater celebration gave me about five hours to sit on my corner of the world that I enjoyed from 1975 until 2003. My relationship with Main Street has now spanned approximately 75 years. I came to Main Street at the age of two. My mother, widowed by the accidental death of my father at the age of 21, worked at Rose’s 5 & 10 and later at Jenkins’ Ben Franklin store. She left Main Street at the age of 65. There is a brick paver on Main Street that reads: Gladys House; Bill Peach: 80 Years on Main Street. At the time she had 41 years of retail on Main Street and I had 39. When I closed the store 2003, I had 52 years of continual employment in three locations on Main Street, not counting my days from toddler until my first paycheck at the age of fifteen.

There is a brick paver in front of the 400 Main Building that reads: Pigg & Peach; 400 Main Street; Established 1949. In the 300 block there is another paver that reads: Downtown Franklin Association; Bill Peach, President; 1989-1990. Those were two years of historic transition and rebirth in Downtown Franklin and I was honored that it happened during my watch.

There is also a personal side to this biography. Let me explain the philosophy of the brick pavers. We sold these as memorials for a nominal fee, not so much to raise funds, but to involve the community in the project. The original order was almost 1000 pavers, in many cases placed strategically near a landmark of significant attachment. The collective message of the Main Street bricks is a lesson in history. Names that may go unnoticed by tourists and shoppers include tributes to retailers and their descendents. While I was sitting outside at the theater lighting event, I talked to Albert Posnack, whose parents owned two shops on Main Street; to Jerry Barker whose parents had a Western Auto store; and to J. A. Reynolds, whose grandmother did our alterations. They were among the approximately 200 people who stopped to talk to me.

Main Street has a personal story that I must share. My three daughters went through high school and college with 400 Main Street as their only mailing address. Our home had no mail box. Retail on Main Street is a consuming life style.

When we were taking orders for and purchasing the brick pavers we had a discussion about the phrasing and the names to be placed on each brick. My daughters, jokingly, asked for some inscription that designated each individually as our favorite daughter. If you walk Main Street from Fourth Avenue (then Ben & Jerry’s) to Fifth Avenue (Starbucks), you will find three bricks, all on the same block, but carefully and distantly spaced, which read as follows: (1) Rebecca Peach Piggott; Bill & Emily Peach’s; Favorite Daughter (2) Lucie Peach; Bill & Emily Peach’s; Favorite Daughter (3) Dea Peach; Bill & Emily Peach’s; Favorite Daughter. Each daughter delights is showing friends proof of favoritism. Many locals expressed concern, not knowing the full story, and not understanding that each daughter is our favorite.

But the story continues. As I sat on the corner, thinking about some ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s, remembering the days before malls, and Wal-Mart, and big-box retailers, and designer-labels, and discount grunge apparel, I shared with friends the nostalgia and memories of my former customers for the days we miss.

Those of you who know me, often laugh that I carry a heavy book bag, with books for reading and books for selling. Following an earlier visit to Merridee’s and a lengthy reading session after dinner, I laid the heavy book bag on the wrought-iron table and took my place as self-appointed custodian of the corner and point-of-reference link with history. A friendly woman whose name I did not remember at the time (my friend, Kris Sexton) stopped at my table, tapped me on the arm and said, “I love your writing. Where can I buy one of your books?” I felt some guilt about taking her $15, but the joy of selling a book on that corner, a literary creation from my mid-life career, on the evening of the celebration of the re-opening the Franklin Theater, was in many ways a moment of re-birth, and maybe in the future another brick paver to continue the tradition.

As an addendum or footnote to the story, my three favorite daughters purchased and gave me for one of my birthdays, my seventh brick paver, now inlaid on that corner, which reads: Bill Peach; 400 Main Street; Writer and Philosopher.

Testing, Teaching, Learning, Assessment, and Censorship

Posted September 18, 2014 by billpeach
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My introduction to Common Core State Standards was at a public meeting sponsored by the school district to explain Common Core to the parents and to the community. In response, the 9/12 Project organization scheduled a meeting the following evening in opposition to Common Core. At the school district meeting, some of their members were offended that there was no provision for public comment, and became very vocal with outbursts from the audience. I chose not to attend their meeting.

For whatever reasons, Common Core has become a battleground between the conservative groups who opposed it at its inception and members of the education community charged with the implementation of those standards. Much of the confusion over Common Core is based on fallacious information about content.

I spent several hours with our Assistant Superintendent for Testing, Learning, and Assessment to learn why some political activist groups opposed the new standards. To some extent it was erroneously perceived to be “Obamacore” or a national standard adding another controversy and creating a conflict between State Legislators and local school districts.

In Tennessee, Americans for Prosperity spent a lot of money opposing Common core and funding campaigns for local school board members and state legislators. Their success has created a new conflict in our schools. Our teachers and professional educators have the challenge of teaching the new standards while some school boards and state legislators are committed to repealing those standards.

Schools have a long history of textbook controversy. Most of the opponents of Common Core cite isolated content in textbooks, rather than objecting to more rigorous expectations from student performance. This comes at time when we seem to dislike standardized tests, while arguing that our students are not being held accountable. Most changes in public education are controversial between the advocates of change and opponents of change.

From what I have learned from professional educators, aside from the politics, was that high-performing school districts would be affected very little by Common Core. School districts, schools, and students with lower current standards would find it more challenging. There are some changes in methodology in mathematics, which has caused some parental concern. Mathematics is still based on addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Common Core adds some demands for reasoning skills to better understand and explain calculations beyond memorization and multiple choice testing.

While I was in the Assistant Superintendent’s office he showed me a stack of textbooks books that were being considered for adoption. He had tabs on pages that had content or references that he felt could be targets for parental objection from members of liberal or conservative political activist groups. It is difficult, and really not academically practical, to encourage parental input for textbook content. The difficulty is that we have to adopt textbooks with content for which all students will be held accountable, regardless of ethnicity, religion, cultural and political family values. Literature which English teachers assign, and books available in the library are optional reading. Textbook content is for all, conveyed by professional classroom teachers to elementary students as traditional knowledge, and in middle and high schools often presented for questions and discussion.

There is concern that some state legislatures may exploit the controversy of Common Core to impose political pressure on textbook selection committees. Most parents respect the integrity of professional educators, but politically we have different interpretations of the intent of our founding fathers, the causes of the Civil War, separation of church and state, equal rights, environment, economics, science, religion, and arithmetic. It is difficult for teachers to teach in an environment of political and sectarian censorship.


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