This essay began as a response to a friend who told me America was in decline. I asked for specifics and this was the response, “Looser morals, more bitterness, more racial tension, less respect for those who hold different opinions, more persecution of Christians, etc.” I may agree on three of the five. Other friends suggested it would be more optimistic to write about what is right about our country. I decided on the words rightness and wrongness. This is not as much about the country as it is about us.
The introduction of sixteen, so far, Republican candidates for President and maybe five Democratic candidates confuses the dialogue with the attempt to interchange right and left and right and wrong, to identify liberal and conservatives political positioning. Left and right seem to be more than directional and relative, but have become standards for absolute ideology and mutual exclusion.
I have been distracted from national politics by our local school board events. In a live interview on Channel 4, prior to the board work session, I made a reference to “mean” people who were trying to terminate the contract of our superintendent. The use of connotative subjective words should have no place in rational debate. Someone asked me if I would have been as emotional if we had a “right leaning” superintendent being opposed by detractors on the left. The “right-wing, or mean people” reference only included the people trying to run off our superintendent and would not include the majority of our parents who are Republican and conservative.
I think it is true that not only the United States, but Williamson County now suffers from “more bitterness, and less respect for those who hold different opinions.” The history of school board elections in Williamson County has usually been one at a time challenges to incumbents considered less competent or less responsive to parents and students. One year, 1992, the entire Franklin Special board was defeated by an angry electorate over two emotional issues. The 2014 Williamson County school board election is hard to explain. The right wing Americans for Prosperity, with or without permission from six candidates, introduced Barack Obama into local elections throughout Tennessee to demonize Common Core State Standards. “Why is our school board letting Obama run Williamson County Schools?” The intent to remove Dr. Looney was prominent in an email circulated among the inner circle of right-wing activists and the candidates. The parents, teachers, and community and business leaders responded and rallied in defense of the schools and the Superintendent. So far the candidates have not been willing to offer any public disclaimer of the mailers.
When President Obama was elected in 2008 we all acknowledged that some people voted for him only because he was black, and some people voted against him because he was black. The accusation of “more racial tension” may be less relevant than “disrespect for those who hold different opinions on race.”
Activists who believe the United States is in decline frequently attack public schools as the cause. This movement is nationwide, but most volatile in southern and conservative state legislatures. One of our school board members warned of a potential “progressive track much of our education has taken.” Some people would make our children crucibles for the forging of young minds in shaping the future of our country. Our teachers and schools, and our superintendents, are under attack. Even Williamson County the highest performing school district in Tennessee, with an upper middle class, highly educated Republican electorate, lost much of its prestige in one election, and is at greater risk of future partisan elections that could diminish our quality of education.
I approach the religious accusation in the original paragraph with moral trepidation. This is not about religious freedom. Religious freedom is alive and well in Williamson County. In one or more incidents following the election, the new board members introduced establishment of religion into school board discussions. In the speech by the board member who resigned there is a reference to “the diminishing influence and positive effect of the Judeo-Christian ethic/principles upon which much of the greatest nation in history was founded.” Much of the conservative opposition to and exodus from public schools, began in the 1950s, and accelerated in the 1960s, and has found a new commonality with advocates of vouchers, charter schools, and home school parents in school districts across the country. Opposition to Common Core Standards was a rallying initiative. Public schools are under attack in 30 or more states, under the label of education reform, cutting funding and transferring funds to non-public schools.
The religious right has had a major impact on conservative politics. Their effort to impose a fundamentalist and literal religion into academia has put at risk the integrity of scientific and historical accuracy and reasoning skills among our students. There is no increase in religious persecution in the United States. I would even argue there is no decline in morality from former times I have known. There is less respect and more bitterness for persons who hold different positions, and don’t know how we get past that. This may be a sufficient identifiable wrongness from which we rally to find our rightness. I was dissuaded from repeating the claims of “what is wrong with our country.” My daughters are teachers in public schools. My grandchildren are students in Williamson County schools. They wear t-shirts that read “Be Nice.” We teach moral values, and ethical behavior. If you believe the United States and Williamson County are in moral decline or mired in wrongness, you probably won’t convince many people in Williamson County. It serves no beneficial purpose to demean the educators, business leaders, people of faith, and creative thinkers who are taking this country and this county to new greatness and rightness.