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There’s no escape. The pending 50th A-HL high school reunion has embedded deep and dark in the brain cavern. I think it’s the number. Fifty is too big, like having to pay fifty for a gallon of gas. It’s not right, plus I’ve never much liked numbers. A long line of dead math teachers would bear witness. An open book of arithmetic before me had the effect of hypnosis. I saw, heard, and comprehended nothing other than a bleary daze that would not go away until I scuttled off to do something more real and tangible. I stared at my share of math, algebra, geometry, and trig books with the same result: blank incomprehension. Oh, a few vague notions seeped slowly in, but barely enough to carry me across from D to C minus. Math was my academic downfall, so it’s no wonder fifty is a worrisome figure.
Well, maybe it’s not worry, so much. Instead I’ll call it reflection and save myself. Worry and reflection may be the same, but there’s less stress if it’s looked on as contemplation or meditation. So anyway, here I am contemplating the bejebers out of myself as I muse at the relentless march of the storm troopers of time. I remember The $64,000 Question. Good God, that was a huge sum of money, enough for a new car for every day of the week plus a remainder sufficient to buy any house in town. I won’t turn mawkish and call those good old days. The different old days will do. A great deal has changed in fifty years in both technology and attitude. In most ways the changes astonish or impress, but there are areas where I wonder how we got from there to here all with the intention of heading elsewhere. How did that happen?
Part of the reunion will include a tour of the old school. This will sound silly, but I wonder if the washrooms will still have urinals the size of a small shower booth and thick marble slabs separating the stools. I mention those features because they indicate how much value was placed on all areas of our education. Each boy’s room was a monument of colossal fixtures set in marble rows. Our school wasn’t done on the cheap. It was built and run on the premise that education was of great value to both students and society. Education was important enough to warrant solidity and commitment in stone.
That was before Reagan told everyone education had failed America and had to be fixed. Exactly what was wrong with the system that brought quality basic education and led to the highest standard of living on the planet wasn’t entirely clear, but the leading lights all saw failure and decided the Department of Education had to go. That was the first plan. When they realized having no uniform education policy for a large nation with a mobile population wasn’t such a good idea, the next plan was to devise various ways to punish education by choking off funds. Had the conservative Reaganites built A-HL, instead of progressives with a vision of a strong and unified future, we’d surely have gone without marble in the washrooms. DFL liberal as the Range was, I suspect the Reagan conservatives would as soon sent the boys to pee outside behind a fence as a cost-cutting measure, which surely it would be.
It strikes me as strangely and sadly ironic that we’ve lost that “public” commitment to education for all. I know there are reasons for and behind diversity in education, but I think the more we divide, separate, and specialize into interest groups, the less we become as a people. I recognize that the value of personal belief or special interest is important. But so is being a people, being citizens of a nature and inclination to come together. I think a requirement of citizenship means accepting individual responsibility to help make the system work, not rip it to parts so you have your piece. In the 1860s, this nation underwent a great struggle over the very idea of union, of being unified as a nation. To deal with slavery, union had to be preserved. When union is weakened there are risks, among them separation and division that leads to separations that are unfair and discriminatory. Because what is separation or separateness if not discriminatory? It’s certainly not unifying.
A good many in my generation see in multiculturalism a leading cause of turmoil and tensions among us. There’s some validity there, but it also depends how you define it and on how a multicultural stand is implemented. Where multicultural policy weakens the secular state by setting religious or ethnic standards that separate us from the common or secular state, then I think it’s doing the wrong thing. If individuals need or wish to observe certain rules, then let them do so as individuals. If one child is allergic to peanuts, it shouldn’t mean an entire school body will be deprived of peanut butter at lunch. If one student can’t wear zippers, the rest of the kids need not give up theirs. If a group wants to observe their cultural norms, I say let them. They’re free to do so as the Amish and others manage. In my view that is not multicultural. It is activity outside secular society and should not fall on the public plate. Be as separate (within reason) as you wish, but then pay your own way. Call it the price of being special.
Is that fair? Well, no, but then neither is asking the rest of us to support a separatist, discriminatory ethic that runs contrary to secular society. I’d add, too, that every group that wants to be special and separate should still be held accountable to abide by common law where ritual sacrifice of animals is not allowed, nor is wife beating or theft. The same laws and rules apply, and if their children attend their own private schools they darn well better leave school with a reasonable command of our common language and a firm basic grasp of U.S. history. And, oh, by the way, don’t let separatist groups get away by sticking in a few words about interfaith or openness. I say baloney. If they were those things, they wouldn’t be separatist, now would they?
Gads, I wonder what I’ll have in my craw if there’s a 75th reunion.