Why Schools Should Really Re-open (When It’s Safe)

July 2020

“Reopening schools should be a priority because schools fulfill many roles beyond providing an education,” says a report issued by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Dr. Enriqueta Bond, the report committee’s chair, says “It’s child care, it’s nutrition, it’s health services, it’s social and emotional support services.” Dr. Anthony Fauci concurs, saying opening schools is important for “the psychological welfare of the children, the fact that many children rely on schools for nutrition,” and because of “the unintended downstream ripple effects on families,” who otherwise have to interrupt or stop work to homeschool kids.

It’s an oft-repeated refrain: educational institutions should re-open because of the important non-educational services they offer. Something about these appeals strikes me as curious, and deeply troubling.

The thing is . . . in all the attempts to persuade parents and teachers to open schools, almost nothing is said about the essential function of schools, for all children: intellectual growth. Failing to focus on the intellectual life of young people means that we miss out on something critically important in these debates. Learning is underappreciated, and, potentially, undermined. It is certainly not portrayed with the depth and beauty it deserves. Yet it easily could be.

In schools, students see things for the first time: in math, how wholes can be divided into fractional parts, and how every line on a graph can also be expressed as an equation. In literature classes, they come to appreciate the way a short-story author foreshadows, and a roomful of children write a play together, learning to be constructive critics of their own and each other’s work. School is where students dig a hole outside their classroom and see revealed previously hidden layers of soil, and where they learn to do experiments to see how each layer holds water and supports life. With classmates, they learn about both the richness and the suffering of ethnic and racial communities, helping them to become better citizens. School is where students learn about money and the basic mathematical operations, building financial literacy. In schools, students learn to see patterns in nature, whether in the rings of a tree or the bracts of a pinecone. They come to see how things are connected, like water temperatures and the ratio of male-to-female fish.

In schools, minds are opened, and ideas are made exciting. History comes alive, and young people actively participate in the fine arts. They reenact and discuss famous speeches, learn what it means to hold an election, find themselves on a map, and write about their lives. They learn from more than what is blatantly obvious, and build intellectual skills invaluable in families, workplaces, and politics.

The absence of focus on young people’s intellectual lives, in the endless parade of reports, guidelines, and recommendations urging schools to reopen, is remarkable. It reveals how, unintentionally but unmistakably, we underestimate and undermine the intellectual lives of the young. Young people deserve to be stimulated intellectually, and to be aided and encouraged in their progress. All of us—as friends, family members, and neighborscan show more respect to their intellectual lives and capacities.

There is a second gap in the reports urging us to throw open the doors of schools, and it is related to the first: the expert role of the teacher is under-emphasized. If we only needed schools to deliver meals, we could deliver them to children’s homes, as we do pizzas! And parents are not only frustrated with home-schooling because they are often trying to combine it with working from home–the problem is that they are not trained teachers! Let us, in these reports, name and celebrate teachers’ skills and contributions. These, too, can be rather easily conveyed.

A teacher’s questions help students to see the importance of an historical event, and to understand even the concept of time. It is teachers who grasp the process of learning to read and can take students through the stages. Teachers are trained to pick out inspiring children’s literature to share with kids, and to identify the unique interests of each student so that they can pick just the right book for each to encourage a love of reading. Teachers are the ones who build bridges between the school and the community, hosting a holocaust survivor, and sending water samples collected by the students to a local environmental agency. Teachers educate about root systems and ecosystems by building a school garden that the children tend, a garden from which they prepare a meal. Teachers know how to visually demonstrate the amount of the world’s water that is potable, and build knowledge and passion that leads students to advocate for clean water. Teachers practice the scientific method with students, show how Algebra I can build to Algebra II, and demonstrate the distinct periods of Picasso’s art and of art history.

Teachers are doing their jobs when they light students up intellectually. Teachers are trained to help young people learn to distinguish, categorize, question, dissect, criticize, rethink, express, compute, induce, and deduce. We need to acknowledge and reward this!

Schools do indeed fill many social functions—more, in fact, than they are staffed or funded to carry out as well as they could. But first and foremost, schools are where students learn who, how, what, when, where, why, and more, aided by skillful educators. Let’s celebrate that function of educational institutions more, and that hunger in children to learn. We want students to have confidence in their intellectual and creative capacities!

Let’s agree that the capacity of children to learn and to learn how to learn is so important, to our young people and to society, that we will do everything we can to get COVID under control so that schoolhouse doors can, as soon as possible, safely re-open.

Conversations with Hannah Swaden and Brennin Weiswerda were helpful in developing this essay.

Co-vid and Care Work: Being “For Others”

July 2020

I teach at Saint Louis University. SLU prides itself on helping and encouraging students to become “men and women for others,” and having its employees model being “for others,” as well. In many ways, since I have a strongly communitarian bent, I appreciate this aspiration and the positive effects it has on the ethos of the institution.

There has always been an invisible gendered dimension to this call, one I have never seen SLU acknowledge, despite the centrality to its mission of being “for others.” Most of the care work in the world—being there, for others—is, in fact, done by women. This has not only been true historically, but continues to be true today, as statistics on childcare and the caring professions, for example, abundantly demonstrate. Due to COVID-19, the already unequal situation has gotten more unequal, and the consequences for women are severe. SLU has an opportunity to rectify its inattention to unequal care work at a moment when that attention is more sorely needed than ever.

Women should be explicitly recognized for the work they do, and have done: the care they provide, and what that care means to the health and welfare of families, workplaces (including universities) and societies. We should look to them to learn about what being “for others” really means in practice. They offer a stunning model of citizenship that is usually ignored in favor of a male model of military service. But that recognition is not enough.

This unequal care-giving situation has more than its fair share of problematic features. Women’s care work in the home is unpaid, of course, and for most constitutes what has been called an unrecognized “second shift” of work. It is not only unpaid, but underappreciated, despite how demanding it is, the skills it requires, and what is at stake in the work. And women have been expected to give up too much to provide this care, to sacrifice other interests, other relationships, and other aspirations, in order to carry it out. This is dramatically unfair, and undesirable, and constitutes an unreasonable ask to which too many have never had the option of answering “no,” or “not this way.”

In addition to performing unpaid care work in the home, being employed in the caring professions means being doing work that is underpaid. Among the most poorly paid jobs are those professions where women make up the majority of the workers: teachers, childcare workers, nurses, home health aides, and social workers, to name some of the more obvious examples. All of these are professions where more could hardly be at stake for both individuals and societies.

COVID is playing havoc with care work. Closed schools and day care centers mean more childcare and education in the home, still primarily provided by women, whether they or their partners still have jobs or not, whether or not they are skilled educators with access to and comfort with technology. Fewer visits from endangered home health care workers means more care work by family members, still primarily provided by women. And underpaid “essential workers” who are putting themselves and their families on the line are primarily women, whether in grocery stores, on farms, or in hospitals. They are being disproportionately asked, yet again, to sacrifice.

Care work and care workers deserve not only recognition but also remuneration. More, men need to step up to the plate: more of them need to consider themselves the primary caregivers for their children, and for the ill and elderly and needy in their families and communities. More of them in positions to determine who gets paid what need to advocate for predominantly-female professions to be paid wages reasonable for those who hold the health and well-being of so many in their hands, or who are themselves put at risk through their jobs. More men need to consider seriously their place and opportunities in the caring professions.

COVID provides a stark reminder, too, that workplaces need to better accommodate workers with care responsibilities; instead, too often, we pretend employees exist, and show up to work as the unencumbered, isolated individuals neoliberalism wrongly assumes them to be. At SLU, we so value being for others that we make it our mission, but we not only fail to recognize or pay people for it enough or at all, we also don’t actually accommodate it institutionally. As care responsibilities will continue to be especially heavy for the next year or two of this pandemic, workplaces and educational institutions must adjust.

What might schools like mine be able to do, and what should they do, to model appreciation for and accommodation of being “for others” in the fullness of their lives? Here are some first thoughts. Perhaps they could lobby so that the number of courses that constitute the “full-time student” load, the load required to obtain financial aid, could decrease for those with increased care burdens, so that their education doesn’t have to come to a halt. Perhaps standards for retention and promotion can be adjusted for those trying simultaneously to work full-time and educate their own children, and/or care for elderly parents, and they can be excused from all non-essential service demands (service: where women again carry most of the underestimated and underappreciated load). Perhaps space on more college campuses and in more corporate buildings can finally be allocated to affordable childcare, so that employees with young children or sick children can come to work. Other workplaces nearby can subsidize the centers, so that their employees can use them, too, or, in reverse, universities can subsidize off-campus childcare centers and reserve places for their employees. Perhaps there can be a sick day bank for workers who fall ill, or need to care for those who are ill. Some of this is what it looks like to care for the whole person who is your employee, especially those employees with caring responsibilities.

Let us use this moment to exercise our imaginations to the fullest, and come up with a new vision of a responsive and responsible educational institution and, more generally, workplace. Each site should ask employees for ideas, and assess their needs. SLU and other universities cannot pretend that nothing much has changed for students and employees. In the new world of COVID, it will take more than hand sanitizer stations and face masks to live up to our mission.

Trump’s Tweet about the Fab-Four: Racist, but More

I hit every single possible red light this morning on my way into work. Naturally, this got me thinking about the Trump presidency. It happens: You think you’ll be able to gain some speed and then, sure enough, the next light turns, too; before you can even finish reacting to one horror he has committed (shortchanging Puerto Rico, effectively handing over court nominations to the Federalist Society), he commits another (separating families at the border, obstructing justice). You’re stopped in your tracks again. A little dumbfounded. Will this never end?

Trump’s tweet telling four targeted Congresswomen to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” the latest of his last-minute red lights, has received a torrent of responses on Twitter and elsewhere. The counter-arguments have been thoughtful, plentiful, and as quick as the original tweets—but they might be missing the point.

Trump was furious that these representatives are “viciously telling the people of the United States . . . how our government is to be run.” At one level, his argument is fairly easily refuted by showing that these Congresswomen mostly have as much history in the U.S. as he does, that all are citizens, that dissent is patriotic, that it is actually their job to fix what’s broken.

But his core objection is worth more sustained reflection than it’s received. We’re countering Trump’s statements by fact-checking them, not by questioning the foundations upon which his arguments rest. This time, sitting at this red light, I am speaking up. I am boiling over.

What gives Trump the right to criticize how our government is run, but not these others he derides? Trump certainly feels free to lash out at everything from our trade deals and our climate accord to our Federal Reserve and our judiciary’s decisions. He thinks these uppity women don’t “belong” here the way he does, that this country is “his” in a way it is not theirs—and that belonging and possession entitle only him to criticize.

While he is factually wrong about who “belongs” here, Trump is giving voice to a deeper problematic if familiar idea that we play out daily in our families, workplaces, religious institutions, and communities. We get very protective of what we deem “ours,” of “our” way of doing things, and neither expect nor appreciate outsiders’ comments about how “we” might do better. We even warn that people shouldn’t wash their dirty laundry in public, that what happens among “us” should stay among “us.” That is an admonition to insiders to keep private matters private, and simultaneously a caution to outsiders not to butt in.

People are defending the Congresswomen by proving that they’re insiders. They are, but we shouldn’t deny the fact that “outsiders” often have unique and invaluable perspectives that “insiders” simply don’t have. The standpoint of outsiders, their perspective, is sometimes different. Having multiple perspectives on a problem is indisputably crucial to coming up with sound solutions. That should be our priority, not some mistaken sense of self-defense.

So much “private” injury done to or by insiders—from interpersonal violence to child sexual abuse, on the one hand, and family separation and withdrawal from the Iran accord, on the other—has been protected by such an edict to stand firmly by what has been said or done, especially against external criticism. Once decided or done, the decision or action is “ours,” to be protected, or correctly quietly, if at all.

In addition to opening up our sense of whose country this really is, we also need to be a little less protective of what is “ours,” whoever we think it belongs to, and a little more open to the knowledge of outsiders. In our conversations with them we will, no doubt, all learn something, and perhaps the divide between insider and outsider will even become less mountainous and less threatening.

The light does eventually turn green. I’d like to know the fastest route to get to work, with the fewest traffic lights (in a city notorious for having excessively long lights). No matter who gives me the information.


Trump’s Gag Rule

The Trump administration continues to worsen its already deplorable record on women’s rights. This time, the target is a familiar one: abortion. We are awaiting a renewed Reagan-era “gag rule”—the prohibition of speech itself about abortion or abortion providers in any agency receiving any federal funds. “The proposal would not bar non-directive counseling on abortion, but would prohibit referral for abortion as a method of family planning,” the Health and Human Services statement reads. The president already reinforced the global gag rule last year, which blocks U.S. aid to international non-governmental organizations providing family planning services if they, likewise, provide abortion counseling or referrals. Note, these organizations have not been able to receive federal money to provide abortions since Title X was enacted in 1970—the change is about speech. Most attention has, understandably, focused on the consequences of this recent move for Planned Parenthood, where millions of women receive primary care, and where some also get abortion referrals or abortions. But there is another angle to this controversy worth considering—the insecure nature of women’s rights.

In 1876, the National Women’s Suffrage Association wrote a “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States.” The document was distributed during the nation’s centennial celebrations, and was meant—its contents were framed as articles of impeachment—to show where the republic fell short, based on its denial of basic rights to half the population. One paragraph in the document importantly talked about how “the privileges already granted in the several states are by no means secure. The right of suffrage once exercised by women in certain States and Territories, has been denied by subsequent legislation.” The authors continue, emphasizing the significance of this shift: “Laws passed after years of untiring effort, guaranteeing married women certain rights of property, and mothers the custody of their children, have been repealed in States where we supposed all was safe. Thus have our most sacred rights been made the football of legislative caprice, proving that a power which grants, as a privilege, what by nature is a right, may withhold the same as a penalty, when deeming it necessary for its own perpetuation.”

How unfortunately spot on were Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joselyn Gage, writing on behalf of the Association. There is no end in sight to the “years of untiring effort” spent on trying to secure women’s rights. We think we have made progress, and yet a mere shift in the party of the occupant of the Oval Office overturns something as basic as the right to the information essential to making a free and informed choice. In 2018, our rights are still not safe. The rights being rolled out and then rescinded change over time, but there is no reason to think any are inherently invulnerable to the whims of legislators and executive office-holders. Women’s rights remain fodder in every election, they remain “the football of legislative caprice” in my home state, Missouri, where the legislature tries to outdo itself every year by coming up with more restrictions on women’s reproductive choices than they did the year before.

The U.S. is not alone in playing this male-dominated football game. For example, in 2000, the Taliban militias revoked the rights of Afghan women to work, to freedom of movement, to health, and to education. The Roqia Center for Women’s Rights, Studies and Education in Afghanistan called this “total cancellation of rights . . . a first in the history of the world,” and noted that the revocation of rights caused the rending of the whole social fabric. In another case, Spain had relatively liberal abortion laws as of 2010, but then the government decided to replace them with what would be among the world’s most restrictive. Women’s right to decide would be replaced with professionals’ right to decide about terminating a pregnancy, and the time and conditions under which anyone had choice would be severely diminished. Over three hundred Spanish groups joined the 2013 “Deciding Makes Us Free” Platform to oppose the change. In the end, the president announced that the restrictive reforms would be withdrawn. For how long? Our rights are not safe. And where else could those three hundred groups have placed their amazing energy, if they did not have to work to re-win rights we thought were secure?

How important it is that no one have the power to force women to become mothers, or to deny women that option. Yet reproductive issues from birth control to parental leave to abortion remain contested political matters, seemingly resolved but challenged again and again. Women’s freedom and autonomy are linked with our sexual and reproductive rights. If you can silence speech, in this case about a well-established constitutional right, what is next? People should not stand for this. Let’s come down on the right side, and then call an end to this dangerous game.

The Backlash Against #MeToo

The backlash has begun. From the French Petition accusing the #MeToo movement of being anti-male, anti-sex, and anti-art, to more general charges that we’ve “gone too far,” the onslaught has started before we’ve even finished speaking. This is neither unexpected nor original stuff. Anti-feminism has looked basically the same for centuries now, calling out feminists as male-hating, strident, masculine women who want to turn the world upside down. So be it. There is another, better story of petitions and declarations that we should all know about.

The 1848 “Declaration of Sentiments,” written at a women’s rights convention held at Seneca Falls, New York, reminds those who resist to be ready, to “anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule.” On this point, their declaration was unfortunately prescient, given the negative public reactions (though even Elizabeth Cady Stanton expressed some surprise “that what seemed to us so timely, so rational, and so sacred, should be a subject for sarcasm and ridicule”). Knowing that “every allusion to the degraded and inferior position occupied by woman all over the world, has ever been met by scorn and abuse,” Stanton recommended that women “buckle on the armor that can best resist the keenest weapons of the enemy—contempt and ridicule.” Good advice, still.

Ever since women began sitting down together to write about their condition and to imagine something better, a phenomenon dating at least to the 1649 English “Humble Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women” and the 1789 French “Petition of Women of the Third Estate,” the importance of bringing women’s stories to the fore has been central. Women forcefully expressed a desire to be heard as political actors, as workers, as mothers, as students, and as full human beings. Today, in documents like the 2013 “Women’s Climate Declaration,” there is a call for women, Indigenous Peoples, and those living in extreme poverty to be major actors addressing the climate crisis. Similarly, declarations from groups like Women in Black call for women to be “full partners in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, and in the negotiation and implementation of peace agreements.” The common thread? We need to hear more from those who are usually silenced, not less. Whatever the basis of the appeal, the cry is for an expanded and critical public role. When women are people, too, their voices simply must be heard.

We live in the long and inspiring shadow of collectively authored declarations, petitions, charters, and manifestos, which lay bare the numerous problems women of various regions, classes, religions, castes, and races confront around the world. Despite the fact that systems of oppression have the effect of impoverishing our imaginations, these documents offer rich, context-specific alternatives to the status quo. Above all, like the #MeToo movement, they make central the importance of listening to women’s voices and learning from their experiences. The French Petition, like the backlash in general, contributes to their continued silencing. This we cannot tolerate.

Feminists have long been devoted democrats, believing that democracy requires hearing from everyone, and that our own movement be democratic. We want to hear from all ages, from people all along the gender spectrum, from every class and caste and race. And we want to speak in and through organizations that are transparent and accountable. #MeToo is just the tip of an iceberg, the first volleys in a conversation that could go on and make a genuine difference, if only we will push it forward past the resistance. And the resistance to feminism goes beyond the dreadful French Petition, to include racist, right-wing, nationalist, and anti-immigrant parties and platforms, as well as neoliberal and neocolonial practices that displace and disconnect. We have so much work to do.

We need to be coming up with more ways for more people to participate and be heard. “A broad and inclusive anti-racist feminism is the answer,” the Swedish Feminist Initiative’s “Election Platform” proclaims, not the problem. And the 2010 Peruvian “Manifesto: Men against Gender Violence” specifically calls on men to help in this project, asking them to promise to “promote the fight to eradicate gender violence, through an active stance in my personal, professional and social life,” and “not [to] be a silent accomplice, or justify such violence.” That’s progress, not worrying, as the French Petition does, that we feminists are somehow bringing forth the end of art by calls for greater depth in portrayals of female characters.

Bringing new voices into established conversations is not easy. It does not just mean adding more people around the table, though it certainly does mean that, too. It means changing the rules of dialogue and changing the agenda, too. It means looking to new sources of information (like manifesto-writing groups such as the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, Widows for Peace through Democracy, and the Asian Rural Women’s Coalition) and allowing them to change our priorities. This does require making some air space in places where others are already used to taking up all the available time, and that can indeed feel like turning the world upside down. But the more it feels that way, the more is revealed about just how much else has been shut down and left out. And it is time, past time, for those doing all the talking to listen. So, let’s buckle on that armor, and continue the fight.