College debt is at the forefront of so many conversations in our time, particularly recently, with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and his (often misrepresented) idea that a university education should be “free” (i.e., taxpayer funded). As a squarely middle class American who has been carrying a small mountain of college debt for the last 14 years running, I believe I’ve got some perspective on this issue. My view is also colored by my experience as a teacher of high-poverty immigrant children, for whom the word “college” represents the dream of a better life, and not a de facto social club in which you spend fifty percent of your time fall-down drunk.
My alma mater (Cornell University) and my choice of degree (history) made my college investment a very risky one to many people. As a white male lacking financial support from my family, an undistinguished transfer applicant from a state school, and someone who did not live below the poverty line, my scholarship and grant opportunities were limited. In the end, despite working summers and living a frugal life, I had to borrow over ninety thousand dollars to complete my degree. I had no plans to use that history degree as a springboard to a “money” advanced education like law or business school. It was liberal arts grad school or bust. I was hearing the classic “What are you going to do with it?” question about my degree before I even undertook any classes, and those questions didn’t stop for the remainder of my time as a student.
If I had truly understood what the next fifteen years would be like (and who does at the age of 18?), I might have made a different decision. As I struggled to define and find my way (grad school went bust after I finished my MA), I lived often in material poverty, sometimes severely. When you are working two jobs to total thirty five thousand dollars (pre-taxes) in one year, and thirteen thousand of those (post-tax) dollars are earmarked for college loan repayment, the future can look pretty bleak.
Headstrong naivete carried me forward, and I’m very thankful that it did. My time at Cornell and in grad school hugely expanded my mind. It connected me with deep and incredible stories from many cultures and their histories, and it gave me expert guides to help me develop my appreciation and understanding in a way I never could have managed on my own. It connected me with deeply intelligent, thoughtful people I would never have met, across campus and across time. It trained me not in “what” to think anywhere near as much as “how” to think: about civilization, history, art, and even just being human. When people ask me what it cost, I always hesitate, because it immeasurably enriched my life. In a very real sense, my education was therefore priceless.
There was a ‘hard dollars’ price, of course, and it has only increased since my graduation. At the time (2001), a year’s education at Cornell was about thirty two thousand dollars. From what I’ve read, in the span of the last 15 years it has grown to the staggering amount of about fifty thousand dollars. There is something wrong in that, certainly; there is no way the real cost of delivering a college education has gone up 60% in that time frame. When I reflect on my own experience, that total would certainly have scared me off. Even my 18-year-old naive self would have been too intimidated to sign on: and that would have been a sad thing, I think.
My education has made me a better man and a better citizen. It enriched my understanding of world, national, and community affairs, but it also enriched very simple things, like a walk alone in the woods during winter time (when I had very few earthly comforts indeed), when I could recall my Thoreau, take a deep breath, and get the fire of my mind going. What if I had been “priced” out of all that? What if my students are decisively priced out of it? Yes, there are scholarships, but not for everyone. Is it truly “radical” to suggest that for the ambitious young mind, for whom “a better life” for themselves and their families is the highest goal, the only worry about higher education in a great country like ours should be the academic standard of admission? Washington politicians spend most of the election year talking about how a thriving middle class is the foundation of any sound economy: what then of the legions of aspiring middle class citizens who are exiting college with the equivalent of a full-blown mortgage obligation?
I am a firm believer in hard work and join my grandfathers in my suspicion of ‘handouts.’ I like the old saying “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Government subsidies cause a lot of heat for that very reason. Why should the anonymous taxpayer be expected to hand out fish left and right? But I feel differently about higher education. My college experience was an irreplaceable kind of training.
When I think of the little good I have managed to do in the world and the mindset that enabled me to imagine how to do it, my education is inextricably bound up with it. I was taught to fish in the richest and deepest waters of all. When I look around my classroom at so many of my students (who are scared already at age 12-14 of college tuition prices), I wonder if it isn’t crazy to suggest that the price of that teaching is a price worth all of us chipping in to pay.
Eight years ago, not long after Valentine’s Day, I lost nearly everything important to me, including quite a bit of my sense of self and identity. Grieving for the loss of those things eventually gave way to a long, hard path of reclaiming them in an altered, better form. The progress was not at all linear: five years ago at around the same time, I thought for sure I was losing everything all over again. Progress there was, though. I look back now and I can’t believe how many problems, large and small, have been solved, and how many great things have been built in my little life. So many of my dreams have been accomplished and I have a clear path to accomplish so many more.
Yet it’s come to my attention lately that I am more stressed than I’ve been in quite a long time. How could this be? So much of everything I’ve ever wanted has come true; I fought hard to make that happen over the years. When I reflected on this, however, something rang out for me: “I fought hard.”
Eight years ago, I was facing complete bankruptcy while eking out a living at a car wash and liquor store. I lived alone in a drafty, two room cottage and my remaining friends were not local. My degrees, for which I had borrowed nearly one hundred thousand dollars and spent seven years in steady contemplation, were stuffed in a box. I needed nothing short of a personal revolution, and I knew it.
So began a long period of intense battle: with my own work ethic, which had slipped in the long years as a student, with my provincial hard-headedness, which found it difficult to imagine a life elsewhere than in the Northeast, with my own expectations, which found something less than teaching a room full of excited, willing students to be unacceptable, with my fear of change and saying goodbye to finished chapters of my life, with my ideas of what the best kinds of friends could be, with the many people who doubted me along the way (shiftless, angry thirty year old career-changer that I appeared to be), with my lack of refined skills in any profession, with my own recklessness and inability to see the every-day details that add up to long-term growth, with crushing financial burden that made it difficult to indulge worthy investments in self-discovery, with self-doubt and the nagging feeling that I wasn’t worthy of the life I wanted, with confusing adventure and real life…
The list could continue. You might say that the one thread running continuously through my very fluid life from 2008 to the present was that of deep conflict: externally with the world, and internally to get better. And you know what? Despite many mistakes, defeats, and setbacks, caused in large part by myself, I slowly won every one of those conflicts. I am crazy in love, even after four-plus years. I have accomplished a lot professionally and personally and I’ve seen the proof: the achievement of my students and the lasting friendships I’ve made through my work and adventures over my short career. I have never felt more supported in my job: my school leader has repeatedly developed my skills and rewarded my hard work.
That continuous thread of conflict: could it be that it has finally unraveled? I wonder if my stress now is related to that: the War of Reinvention is finally over, and I’m having trouble coping with What Comes Next. My wife and my school leader both recently had conversations with me that amounted to the same point being made: “Relax. You don’t have to fight anymore.” That really stuck with me. I recall a lot of accounts of war veterans who have trouble re-adjusting to life as a civilian. Many of them cite the thrill of combat and the great sense of purpose they have in doing it for their buddies, even when the overall purpose of the war seems unclear or questionable. When they return, they lack that sense of purpose. It’s certainly a difficult one to top in terms of urgency. Perhaps my own problem is a far less noble and meaningful version of what they feel: the fight itself had come to define my life.
I’m reminded (in more appropriate and silly fashion, maybe) of my time playing the wonderfully addictive game, Diablo II. In this role-playing computer adventure, you created a character and built their skills in a pattern unique to the kind of hero you wanted, acquiring equipment for them that was both fun to use and suited to those skills. The best way to build the skills and get the equipment was through battle and the trophies that came out of it; you got “experience points” through killing monsters and those points could be spent on ‘leveling up’ your character and the individual skills you liked. I noticed a funny thing while playing this game: while it had a compelling storyline, fun graphics and play controls, and clearly defined objectives for victory, these often fell by the wayside. I wanted the leveled-up skills and the cool toys, so each section of the game became about rooting out every last cave and den with monsters and slaughtering anything that moved, sometimes repeatedly. I found it difficult to enjoy the story objectives while I obsessively and monotonously slashed and hacked my way to “level-ups.”
In that might be the key to my own stress and the stress of others who have attempted to “level up” in this great RPG of life. This is the only life we’ve got, after all. I’ve got so much for which I’m grateful. Maybe it’s long since time to bask more in those things. I’ve got a beautiful wife with a baby on the way, a beautiful little house, great friends and neighbors, an incredible job in which I get to make a positive difference in the world, and people at that job who know and appreciate that difference when its made. There was a time in my life eight years ago when I felt lucky to come home to my little cottage, exhausted from ten hours of labor in 90 degrees on black pavement, flop down on the floor with a cold beer, and smell the ocean air as it came through my window from the beach a ten-minute walk away. “Not everybody gets to live close to the ocean,” I’d say to myself, feeling grateful despite all the legitimate doubt and worry in my life.
Good call, old self. It’s a sad thing when a life has become almost entirely defined by fighting, after all. Those ocean breezes: that’s where it’s at, even through the toughest days, to say nothing of the blessed life I live now. It’s time to ease off on the quest for ‘skill points’ and trophies, and to realize that ‘progress for life’ does not have to equal ‘fighting for life.’
As a Teach For America alum and KIPP teacher of seven years experience, I’ve gotten to a point in my career where I can honestly say I’m no longer fucking this job up. For a few years in a row, I’ve been able to look back and see definitively (whether you judge by state tests or by other less tangible means) that my students have learned quite a bit with me in front of them. During the journey, I’ve seen many, many teachers burn out for various reasons, and either move on to other professions, or (worse) hang on and deliver bullshit in the classroom, content with the benefits, decent pay, and their own excuses for why students don’t learn.
A lot of these people worked harder than I ever have at various aspects of our craft. I can count several who aren’t burned out yet, but are well on their way from burning up countless hours of their lives, agonizing over lesson plans, trackers, data, and student engagement. This is especially true among our brethren who are trying to do right by underserved kids who live in poverty and often arrive in our classrooms years behind. As a veteran of those same classrooms, I salute their effort and I feel their urgency, but I don’t like the tone of embitterment and victim-hood I hear from a lot of them after time spent in the grind.
“So many hours! I have no life! I can’t get them to understand that education is important!”
I shake my head at this stuff.
Education in recent years has become very results-focused: have the kids measurably learned? This is a very good thing in general, but I think we can get so wrapped up in it, that we forget the human element in this game. Ultimately, we are a part of the village that is raising the hundreds of kids whose lives we touch; these kids are not little learning machines that churn out high numbers for our own sense of personal validation.
Along that line: nearly all of the kids know very well that ‘education’ is important, as a big picture concept. Ask any one of my middle schoolers what they’ll be when they grow up, and the ones who don’t say some kind of professional athlete (a subject for another blog), will almost always say some career that requires a degree, and will talk about college as a way to get there. They’ll say that even as an English Language Learner who is four years behind in reading comprehension, nearly that far behind in math, and not even close to being on track for entry into college. Why? Because they don’t truly comprehend the process of how they’ll become these things. After all, they’re kids. The day-to-day work they have to put in for a far-away life goal is completely beyond most of them. Even me: I was a pretty smart kid who understood the importance of education, but as a young teen if I could get my mind off girls and sports long enough to truly connect with school for even a little while, it was a win for my ‘education.’ I can’t imagine how much harder that would be if I were facing the same challenges a lot of my students face.
Duh, ‘education’ is important. Do your kids know your subject is important? Do they know that it’s awesome? Do they know that out of all the things you could do with your life, you chose to come and share it with them? Do they know that you are 100% invested in what you are teaching them– not whether you are invested in them necessarily, or education, or student achievement, but invested in what you are teaching them?
Hell, do you know that your subject is important, awesome, and every bit a worthy addition to their lives?
I can’t tell you how many reading and writing teachers I’ve met who neither read, nor write– not really. Blowing through a YA novel once every few months and reading a series like “50 Shades of Grey” every couple of years doesn’t count, by the way. Then they want to bitch that their students aren’t invested in reading. Kids always respond to modeling, good and bad. Those of us in high-poverty education see all too often what bad modeling does for students in their home lives, neighborhoods, and classrooms. By contrast, kids who develop a genuine love of reading are rarely ever behind in reading comprehension, irrespective of their socioeconomic background; I’ve seen it every year I’ve been in this game.
When I taught English Language Arts, I read out loud with my kids every day: even 8th graders. I chose stories that I thought were awesome and powerful, and chose the moments to model the critical thinking skills the kids had to learn. The stories and the reading dictated when those skills were taught; not the other way around. I chose curriculum to fit my style and passion; not the other way around. If I didn’t have a class set of books for the stories I wanted, I set up a Donors Choose, explained why the stories were great, and got the ones I needed. Did this make teaching more fun for me? Yes! Did it make reading more fun for students and lead to higher gains? YES!
Look, I’m as skeptical of our current cultural focus on test scores as the next teacher, but I think we can all agree that they mean something, even if they certainly don’t mean everything. I’ve had classrooms full of kids with the full range of learners: everything from four years behind in reading comprehension to kids who were ahead. The 165 eighth graders I had one year, most of whom lived in broken homes below the poverty line and displaying this full range, grew an average of over two years in reading comprehension. Nearly fifty of them had failed their seventh grade state English Language Arts test (despite a pathetically low passing standard): 22 of that number passed or achieved an advanced score in their eighth grade year. The following year, in a similar class environment (and with some improvements in my teaching method), all of my 8th graders passed, with over a third of them achieving and advanced score on their state test (85% or higher). Many of my former students who will be graduating high school this year still keep in touch and talk with me about those stories and those authors. It lights me up every time!
A couple of years ago, I switched over to history and did even better from a state testing standpoint. I improved my targeted daily objectives and what exactly I wanted students to learn and practice every day, but honestly, my time spent working at school or at home didn’t go up. There is also the unfortunate fact that social studies education has been fucked over so badly here in Texas (thanks to 8th grade now being the only state-tested year in a true social studies class), that many students effectively get zero true social studies education before the eighth grade.Despite this, for two years in a row, my school earned a state “distinction” star in that category (putting it among about 10% of all middle schools in Texas). Why? My sadly under-used Word Wall and Mastery Trackers had nothing to do with it.
I can tell you right now that my student results (and the lasting relationships I built with my kids) weren’t because of some amazing lessons I had spent hours planning, or student investment in a complex skills-tracking system that I had made, or constant messaging of the importance of higher education, or my school’s investment in some program or curriculum. I sucked at that stuff. Real talk: although I’ve gotten better in some important and necessary ways, I still suck at it. I love history and literature, enough that they are an active part of my life in and out of the classroom, and that definitely made a difference.
In my class, I geek out every day. History and literature are alive to me, they are important, and I am 100% invested in their stories and their relevance to today’s world. My kids experience that passion every day; they know that there is truly nothing in the world I’d rather be doing than sharing the awesome power of history and literature with them, every day. I’ve always placed modeling at number one on my list as a teacher. Actions speak louder than words, after all. If you don’t love reading (or at least do some actual reading of your own), how can you expect a different attitude from your students? If history isn’t truly important to you, how can you expect it to be so for your students?
Love and passion are some of the most powerful drivers in human achievement and fulfillment: far more so, I think, than rational appeals to good sense. Stop with the lectures about college and education. Slow down on scouring the internet and highly-reviewed books for the best “strategy.” Look in the mirror and ask yourself: is my subject awesome and fun? If the answer is no, get the hell out of the classroom, friend. You don’t belong (I’m looking at you, TFA climbers who are burnishing your resume for law school, even if it’s for ‘social justice’; you too, burned out public education teachers who think the world “owes” you for your service). If the answer is “yes, but…” then we’ve got something! Do you live how fun and awesome it is, in front of your students? Do you choose your favorite things about it, and make them an important part of your teaching? Do your students know that you are pumped to talk all about it with them? This is an incredibly powerful builder of that elusive thing we call “student engagement.” Don’t forget it.
I love how art can connect us with something so much bigger than ourselves. It’s been ten years since Hurricane Katrina; I can vaguely remember following the news, especially in the aftermath, and feeling so disconnected from what the people of New Orleans were feeling and going through. I was in Austin at the time, in the middle of a scorching hot, dry summer, and had never been touched by natural disaster in any meaningful way. It was to sympathize, of course, but much harder to empathize, which I think is far more important.
One of my favorite bands changed that for me in a pretty unexpected way. Down started in 1995 as a bunch of dudes who had grown up around each other in New Orleans and now each had their own self-sustaining metal bands. Pepper Keenan had been the face and chief songwriter for Corrosion of Conformity, “Beard of Doom” Kirk Windstein fronted and played guitar for the unique Crowbar, Jimmy Bower had helped form a cult favorite in Eyehategod, and Philip Anselmo was (by this time) world famous as the voice of Pantera, who were selling millions of records almost purely on word of mouth and the strength of their live show. Over the years, each of the band members would take a break from their main bands to get together and record an album steeped in their mutual background, with other members of those bands pitching in on bass, production, and other things.
Each of them individually (and all of them collectively) did a lot to found what’s called “sludge metal:” deeply downtuned and distorted guitars that moved slowly, with a rock sensibility and groove that provided a marked counterpoint to the high-speed thrash and relentless pounding of more common heavy music at that time. Down’s sludge has a particularly “New Orleans” feel to it: it’s got a boggy, bluesy, distinctly Southern character. Their relationship with their city and region is deliberately woven into their music; their second album notoriously involved all of them holing up in a converted barn “a tank of gas from civilization” in Louisiana and recording an entire album from start to finish. Down riffs truly come from below sea level, in a way even the guitar riffs from the members’ other bands do not.
Hurricane Katrina hit Down hard in more than one way. The band lost instruments, equipment, and homes. When they released their third album, “Over the Under,” two years later, I had a window into Katrina that no news coverage could ever have given me. The storm touches nearly every song, from the angry, defiant tunes through the jubilant rebuilding riffs and the moments of quiet, reflective jams. Many of the song lyrics deal with the storm’s impact on the city and on their lives, but the music itself does the same thing even more expressively. I could swear I hear (or feel) the water: rushing and roaring in “Three Suns and One Star,”, washing things away in “Beneath the Tides,” and standing in giant pools or drifting in riffles through the aftermath of “Nothing in Return.” The southern, ‘rebel’ human spirit, soaked in whiskey and dirty flood runoff, shines through in “March of the Saints” and “In the Thrall of it All.” The guitars are sludgy, badass blues as usual, but there’s something more special going on here than old friends jamming together. Even Phil’s voice sounds appropriately ravaged. Lyrically he struggles with the irony that the destruction and isolation may have saved his life: bassist Rex Brown has since asserted that it was the only thing that got Anselmo off heroin for good.
It all makes “Over the Under” a remarkable listening experience for me, and a reminder that art can reflect truth and the human heart in a far more powerful way than the ‘pure facts,’ as important as those are. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, I’m no more a “Louisiana” person than I ever was, but I’m thankful for the connection to it that Down made for us to understand… and it sounds damned good when it’s blared from my speakers while I’m cooking for the afternoon!
Since I returned from the mountains out in the Big Bend, I’ve been thinking a lot about Far West Texas, and thought I’d re-post this piece I wrote awhile back. It’s still just as true to me.
It was almost funny, really. Here we were at a Border Patrol checkpoint all the way out in Terlingua, Texas, our car stuffed with our bags. Evening was closing in, and we were trying to explain that we were just two road-weary travelers who were making our way for the full 8 hours back to Austin that very night. No, we hadn’t been over the border today. Yes, we live in Austin, even though the car has Kansas plates, doesn’t belong to either one of us (it’s her mom’s, you see), and I’m showing you an Oklahoma license.
Sir, please step out of the car…
It wasn’t the best of circumstances in which to be, that was for sure. But as I quietly endured my pat-down with the nearby drug dog, I noticed something. The sun was going down on the mountains of West Texas, and every passing minute changed…
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Competition among people is underrated. I feel like I understand why: for too many people, competition is viewed entirely through the end result of the game, as in “winning” is the end result on the scoreboard, or the bottom line of the sheet and nothing else, which opens the door to bad behavior of all kinds. I don’t undervalue the “bottom line,” but the true value of winning is in being champion, not in just being perceived as the champion. Take the U.S. Women’s World Cup Team for example. If by some magical process, they could have been offered a chance to face the Japanese in the Final without any of the Japanese starters on the field, would they have taken it? I would like to think they wouldn’t. The title “champion” doesn’t mean a whole lot if you haven’t beaten the best. It’s likewise on a smaller scale for the guy you have to watch all the time at a simple table game to make sure he doesn’t cheat. It’s a real eye-roller. What does winning matter when it took absolutely no skill to get there?
But I think we’ve gone too far in the other direction when it comes to competition and winning. To lessen the sting of losing, we’ve told ourselves a few lies that have become commonplace in our culture. I hear them on playing fields all the time, especially with kids. Disclaimer: there are some games, especially for kids, that are purely to be played for imaginative fun and social interaction. I don’t knock those at all: I just don’t like the idea that all competition, especially in games and sport, serves only that purpose. It’s a weak idea, perpetuated by phrases like the following:
“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you try your best.”
Bullshit. Giving it your all on game day and getting blown out of the water should be cause for reflection. I played hard and got my ass kicked: why? Is it because my opponents got lucky or were invincible supermen? Of course not. Supermen exist in comic books only, and no amount of luck in the world will produce a 4-0 score in soccer, or a 35-7 score in football. When you are completely out of gas in round 3 of a mixed martial arts fight, “trying your best” rarely produces much. You get your ass kicked when you haven’t put in the preparation and the practice time like your opponent has. A couple of years ago, I watched a high school football game in which a few of my wife’s students were playing. I couldn’t believe these jokers. They got the ball shoved down their throat from start to finish. They were out-executed, but even worse, they were just pushed around at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They went hard for big hits like they undoubtedly see on Sports Center, and they were playing with the hope of winning, but you could see what the previous three months of preparation must have been like: half-assed training in the weight room, low effort in practice, etc. The final score was something like 44-10.
Getting beat because you are outplayed is one thing; losing because you didn’t prepare or hold yourself and your teammates accountable is another. If the latter is true, you fucking suck.
“You’re taking the fun out of the game!” shout the naysayers. “That’s terrible for self-esteem!” I disagree. When people put in the prep time and do the little things that matter in practice, and when the game is a test where they display their skill and grit, they have very real and tangible things with which to bolster their self-esteem, even in a loss! Therein is what really matters when we play these games. We like to put this in soft terms for some reason, and the message gets lost: “the real joy isn’t in the end result; it’s in the journey!” Translation: what you get in the end only matters in relation to how much you invested in the process. The top of the mountain is far more exhilarating for somebody who had to climb up than someone who got dropped off by helicopter. How many lottery winners does our society admire? By contrast, how many champions does it admire? Why shouldn’t people, especially kids, learn this about life? “Trying your best” on the playing field means making the decision to put in the effort, day by day, to be the best you can be, or at the very least, showcasing a skill that you’ve made your own. That’s what eclipses the scoreboard. When you haven’t done that, and you’ve justly earned a 44-10 ass-kicking, you shouldn’t be told “good game,” no matter how “hard” you played on the field. It wasn’t a good game. It was a shitshow from which you need to learn.
Failure is ok, after all. Skilled people in business, sport, and other aspects of life will tell you so. Failure can be a very powerful tool for getting better. Did you get knocked backwards all year long by one lineman after another? You need to hit the weights harder. Were you gasping for breath in the 70th minute? You need better conditioning. Were you consistently in the wrong position to make plays? You need to pay attention in practice. Every day. Failure lights the way to success, if we don’t dismiss the opportunity for growth. Failing spectacularly against other people is extremely powerful in that way. I’ve always thought of it as a blessing, and that’s something that can be taught. It’s not about telling a young athlete or a teammate that they sucked, and expecting them to dwell on the shame of it. It’s telling them exactly HOW they sucked, so they remember enough to prepare better for the next big test. But…
“The only person you should really be competing with is yourself. The key is to be a better person/athlete/whatever than you were— it’s always more about the process than the destination.”
I’ve heard that quote (or something very similar) from a lot of coaches and leaders I really respect. I see the value in it. To completely invest in the process of improvement, you need to continue step by step, whether or not you get external validation or the reward of the “win.” But here’s the thing: we know ourselves and the context of our lives so well. Without laser-like focus, we can forgive less effort in ourselves on a given day, or a missed training session. We might improve over time, but was it worthy improvement, really? It’s tough to tell when your only reference point is your own training log.
Now, getting your ass kicked: that’s a GREAT reference point! You don’t know the life story of your opponent or how they train, and it doesn’t matter: you got dominated. It’s an instant reminder every time you want to sandbag it in training, let your mind wander in practice, or otherwise miss an opportunity to improve. The next time you meet, what will be the result? When there is a next time, a next test, you don’t just improve, you improve as fast and as well as you possibly can. I applaud the people and the coaches who preach the benefits of this approach to improvement, especially in this unfortunate age of “everyone’s a winner.” No. There are losers.
That’s the great thing about a competitive game: it’s a definitive moment with a result. These can be hard to find in regular life, with the endless variables, complications, and other things beyond our control, with one thing flowing into another. We know that the right focus, practice, preparation, and learning from mistakes will often lead to success and fulfillment, but we rarely get definitive “wins.” Competition builds those habits, and in the miniature world of the game, can give us that win, and emphatically bestow the title of champion. When the United States defeated Japan in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, a reporter asked Carli Lloyd, fresh off her incredible hat trick and MVP honors, what it felt like. She didn’t say anything about the actual title of World Champion, or how it was something wonderful that had happened to her. “I’ve been working my butt off my whole career for this moment,” was her reply. Raise that arm in triumph, champ. You earned it.
Quite aside from the horrific and unquestionably deep racism at the root of the old “Confederate” cause (extremely well-documented for easy reading and reference by the Atlantic here: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/ ), I have always thought that the Confederate flag flying over U.S. government buildings was foolish. If the “stars and bars” symbolized anything in a pure and vibrant way, it was, first and foremost, a flag of treason and violent, illegal rebellion. After the total defeat of the South in our Civil War, part of the terms each Southern state accepted as a precondition to returning to the Union was forever disavowing the concept of that rebellion. Representing an attempt to destroy the United States is about as “un-American” as it gets, after all. As a practical issue, it doesn’t matter how southerners emotionally felt about the reasons for their rebellion or why they began it: loyal state government buildings have no business flying a rebel flag.
Although I wish more people would augment their case to get rid of rebel flags with that kind of thinking, I’ll bet it would run into the same wall. “This is a matter of Southern heritage,” goes the familiar reply. “It has nothing to do with racism, being un-American, hate, or anything like that.”
Why would otherwise sensible people embrace that kind of blatant falsehood?
I think it’s got a lot to do with our need for heroes, especially those that look and sound like we do. For thousands of years, we have appreciated the “hero” in a very particular way: taking a stand against enormous odds, fearlessly exposing themselves to risk, defeating enemies with skill and strategy, grasping life with a sense of fierce adventure, and leading others by example. When Achilles finally gets off his ass on the Trojan beach, when Beowulf lies in wait for Grendel and goes to fight the Dragon in his old age, when Hannibal crosses the Alps with his elephants, when the Vikings set sail: we cheer. Ask the average person who the “most badass” Roman was, and he’ll probably say Julius Caesar. Never mind that Caesar was a serial liar, a faithless traitor, a shameless adulterer, a mass murderer, and a vastly overrated military mind. Caesar brought the Roman world to its knees with a series of brave, dashing thrusts for which he was prepared to pay the ultimate price. Achilles was too self-centered to help his dying friends because he wanted (another) woman to own. Beowulf left his kingdom in shambles because he never fought for more than his own glory. The Vikings were the most frightening murderers, rapists, and arsonists (all done for ‘fun’) of their age. We often forgive our heroes their human limitations and the unfortunately barbarous aspects of their times and culture.
As a history major and humanities graduate student, I was taught to do this very early. When we look at history and historical cultures, we do our best to avoid anachronism: imposing our values on the past and judging history accordingly. If you asked just about any prominent (and even most minor) figures in history for their views on race, property, freedom, government, and gender roles, you’d get a joltingly offensive answer, by modern standards. Do we then just throw out all of our cultural history for being authored by hopelessly racist, sexist etc. people? George Washington himself owned slaves. I certainly hope we wouldn’t do such a thing (whatever arrogant fools like Chinua Achebe might say about it). Future generations will look back with distaste, I think, on plenty of things about our culture quite aside from civil rights. Our idiotic wars with no clear objective, our relentless rape of the earth’s resources, our shallow materialism, built on the backs of wage slaves in other countries. We take for granted quite a few disgusting things about America. Give us a break, we say. We can’t solve everything at once, nor do we understand even where to begin half the time.
We forgive our heroes the things we don’t like about them (most of all the cultures in which they lived), because bravery, dash, cleverness, grace under pressure, a sense of adventure, and leadership are qualities all of us can appreciate, and in a very real way, they transcend the cultural junk around them. We don’t have to love their cultural surroundings to love things about them. In our desperate push of the last couple of generations to only honor the “right” things, we’ve gotten this wrong in multiple ways. In our cultural guilt (justifiably felt) over the extermination of the American Indian way of life, we’ve almost come to gloss over things about them (like the fact that indiscriminate murder, rape, and destruction were hallmarks of most Plains tribe raids) in a way that gives a distorted idea of their history. I wonder if the South has met the same fate in reverse.
It can be tough to think of a recognizable hero that is distinctly Southern, after all. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were all Virginians, but we tend to associate them with genteel Enlightenment, so much so that many people are surprised to learn that they were all slave-owners. Frontier heroes like Crockett, Bowie, and Boone began as Southerners, but very quickly became associated with the “Wild West,” where I presume their natural savagery had a context that made it easier to swallow. Look around Southern history, and some of the only people who loom large for heroic exploits are wearing Confederate uniforms.
If we are being truthful, there is plenty of that transcendent bravery, leadership against great odds, dash, and cleverness on display in some of those Southern officers. Robert E. Lee may very well be the greatest American general who ever lived (not to mention a man who opposed slavery, but served his home state of Virginia out of a sense of duty). Stonewall Jackson repeatedly confounded Union forces two or three times the size of his own. A.P. Hill, with his red calico hunting shirt, always showing up at the right place and time to save the day; John Bell Hood, riding to battle with one arm and one leg, his Texans driving back superior union divisions (in one case just because they were cheated of their first hot breakfast in weeks). There are legendary exploits by the dozen. The Southern armies were vastly outnumbered, outgunned, outsupplied, outtransported, and outfunded from the very beginning, and still managed a large number of decisive victories in the field of battle, thanks precisely to those heroic traits in their officers and men that we so universally admire.
I think this is what a lot of people from the South are talking about when they use the oft-maligned phrase “Heritage, not hate.” While there are many who undoubtedly harbor racist feelings, I’ll bet there are many more who simply admire those living examples of Southern chivalry and bravery, and admire too some of the rural, ‘country-centered’ culture of the historic South, which, like a baby in the middle of so much bathwater, has been tossed aside by American culture on the whole as hopelessly racist and “redneck.” People don’t like it when a dominant culture seeks to erase or destroy their cultural heritage: it’s traumatic. Just ask the small handful of people in this country who still speak their native ‘Indian’ languages from the nineteenth century.
It’s no wonder, maybe, that we see so much rebellion in favor of the Rebellion. It even goes as far as dramatic and totally nonsensical attempts to assert that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Folks, it was (Once again: see article at the top for the quick version with most of the best quotes). I have a tough time believing that most of the people saying this (especially the young ones) are deliberately attempting to rewrite history in a way that affirms hardcore racism. I see it more as an attempt to be allowed to appreciate Southern history and some of its heroes without being instantly dismissed. Because we do instantly dismiss them most of the time. I don’t think I’m alone in observing that any time something positive about Southern history and culture is socially mentioned, someone (with another example of justifiable cultural guilt) feels obligated to discredit it by awkwardly bringing up slavery. Even is this weren’t dubiously selective (the Northern industrial boom of the nineteenth century benefited greatly from the South’s slave-produced cotton, and race hatred was nearly as prevalent– many people rallied to the anti-slavery cause not because they respected black rights, but because they didn’t want white workers competing with cheap slave labor out West), it still wouldn’t be fair. Jackson’s Valley Campaign was an incredible achievement irrespective of context, and Old Blue Light deserves the credit.
But then, the main issue isn’t Old Blue Light Jackson. It’s the flag. And if Southerners would like to assert a more appreciative view of their regional history, they are choosing a very poor symbol to do so with the Confederate flag. The flag represents unconstitutional treason first, secession as the form of that treason, and the reasons for Southern secession. The greatest (and I would say, only practical) reason for the South going to the trouble of breaking off from the United States was unquestionably the institution of slavery, which had become so intertwined with the southern American way of life by that time, that it was inseparable without altering much about that way of life. The Confederate flag said to the world that slavery was so just and important, it was worth a war of 600,000 deaths and uncountable destroyed lives to maintain and expand. It’s the cultural context of race hatred and discrimination that Jackson and the others served under. Just as we don’t need to venerate the cultural context of rape, murder, and barbarism in which Beowulf and the Vikings operated in order to admire their transcendent individual actions (mythical or otherwise), we don’t need to venerate the cultural context of “war to preserve slavery” to smile at the enterprise of Jackson, Lee, Hood, Hill, and others, or at the finer aspects of the Southern way of life. One can love the hazy heat, magnolia trees, and slow pace of a country summer day and a pulled pork sandwich without needing a slave on hand with lemonade to serve, after all.
So lower those flags without shame, Southern friends. Be proud of who you are and all it has positively contributed to American life. If you like Civil War history, tell (like I do with my history students) the stories of Southern military heroism with relish, and remind your Yankee friends that there is a dark side we have to forgive in many of our historical greats (even the Greatest, like George Washington), but please abandon once and for all the idea that the Confederate banner has any place on public grounds and private trucks. That shit’s racist.