I had coffee recently with a friend who is a generation younger than I. He’s thoughtful, broadminded, and optimistic. He’s also a creative entrepreneur, having started three highly successful businesses in succession. He’s accustomed to confronting serious difficulties and obstacles, and finding workable solutions.
We were talking about the sorry state of American democracy and the fractured body politic, the apparently growing and seemingly unbridgeable rift between the political left and right, and he asked me what I would do — if I could — to get this nation and its governmental systems functioning rationally again.
I told him that if he really wanted my honest opinion, I don’t think there is any workable solution to the problems this country is faced with. I said there’s no historical reason to think that the U.S. is not in a state of permanent decline, mentioning that Pax Romana lasted some three centuries, but eventually ended, and reminding him that the sun never used to set on the British Empire.
He conceded that things are looking bleak, but feels that positive change could eventually come from all this turmoil and conflict. I told him what I often tell people who are less pessimistic than I am: “I hope you’re right. I really do hope you are right.”
When I got home, however, and turned on my computer, the first thing I saw was an email from a childhood friend that included an article about the Pennridge School District where we both grew up. The school board voted to require teaching of a variation of the “1776 Curriculum” developed by Christian arch-conservative Hillsdale College and written in part by the district’s recently contracted consultant, Jordan Adams, of Vermilion Education LLC. Adams, who is being paid $125 an hour with no cap on the number of hours, has no traditional public school curriculum development experience.
It badly soft-pedals such issues as slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and other less-than-flattering aspects of U.S. history.
This is a school board that has already removed such books as Leslea Newman’s “Heather Has Two Mommies,” Ibi Zoboi’s “American Street,” and Tiffany Jackson’s “Allegedly.”
In 2018, the same district school board supported punishing students who went outside to stage a peaceful gun violence protest in the wake of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School massacre by giving them Saturday morning detention.
Instead, the board’s approach to addressing gun violence was to hire two armed security officers to protect students in two high school buildings, three middle schools, and seven elementary schools located miles apart.
This is a school board that has forbidden teachers to display any image or object in their classrooms that does not relate directly to the subjects they are teaching. That has actually banned Banned Books Week, ending a 15-year tradition at the high school.
And very recently, an attempt to change the voting system for school board members to make elections more democratically representative was rejected by the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas.
The school district I grew up in has been commandeered by — sorry if you don’t like the term, but it’s true — right-wing radical extremists who think looking at American history through an honest lens is unpatriotic.
And this is just one small school district in a very large country where millions of people think four separate indictments against our former and possibly future president are just political witch hunts; white men are a persecuted minority, Black people, gay people and immigrants get all the perks; the 2nd Amendment was chiseled in stone by God’s hand; facts are irrelevant; elections are only fair if their side wins; and free speech is only free to those who agree with them.
Which brings me back to the friend I had coffee with who thinks our presently dysfunctional political system and the torn and shredded fabric of our body politic may yet result in positive change and a brighter future. As I said to him, and I’ll say to you: “I really and truly hope so.” But I’m not holding my breath.
W.D. Ehrhart is a 1966 graduate of Pennridge High School and a 2003 Inductee to the Pennridge Wall of Fame.