A fool and his liberty could eventually be parted


Math is important, but so is the study of America’s history and the sacrifices made in the name of democracy.

We are in a crisis in America, and it’s directly related to the high school curriculum.

The Chinese are graduating many, many more young people with advanced courses in mathematics. This means their society will have the advantage in technology and eventually surpass us in the 21st century. If we don’t graduate enough kids with algebra II and AP calculus, we’re toast. That’s how the logic goes, and our state has taken it seriously. They’ve dropped social studies entirely from the state assessment, in part because of pressure from the federal government to improve scores in mathematics. We must maintain our global edge.

I couldn’t help thinking of this while watching C-Span the other day. Executives from high tech companies Yahoo, Google, Cisco, and Microsoft were explaining their recent actions before a congressional committee. These American companies had assisted the Chinese government to spy on and arrest its citizens, to block words like “Tiananmen Square Massacre,” etc. Microsoft had apparently blocked Web sites on request of the Chinese authorities. The young execs explained their decisions, saying they had suffered some anxiety, but in the end chose the lesser evil of undermining democratic values over the greater evil of not making billions of dollars in the Chinese market. Their anxiety did not seem intense. One guy expressed visible annoyance at having been hauled in: “I don’t read Chinese, Congressman”

It first occurred to me this may be a high school curriculum issue. Did the young men miss a key unit in history or government? Did they really get the vital function of a free press? Could they have paraphrased Lincoln’s speech about threats to liberty coming from within? I did some checking at the Boston Public Library (just kidding Google). It turns out they’re all lawyers.

Elliot Schrage of Google is a top “corporate ethicist.” No, they are not hapless geeks deprived of social studies in high school. They are the best legal brains money can buy, and they are leading millennial commerce through some murky moral territory to where?

Not all the legislators were buying it. Their understanding of liberty and democracy was perhaps less agile, but it showed a healthy suspicion of equivocation on these rather important concepts. I feel certain some of them had the same question in their minds that I did: “How far would these young men go when asked to betray their own citizens for a couple of billion dollars? Or would they just set up shop in the Bahamas and serve the highest bidder?” Clearly, the politicians had retained and built upon their high school social studies and, for them, some things were more important than technical prowess, or even algebra II.

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not knocking algebra II. The study of advanced mathematics is beautiful, and useful, and good. The point is, if anything belongs in the state assessment for a high school diploma, it is the story of our liberty, the sacrifices made to achieve it, the mechanics that preserve it, and what it will take to keep it. We owe that much to the state.

Both inside and outside our nation, there are parties who benefit from an American populace that is not fully equipped or motivated to participate in the democratic system. A fool and his liberty are eventually parted. High school social studies teachers fight this battle every day, against the consumer culture, the mass media and ignorance in general. They should not be undermined by the Department of Education. It is time to put the fundamentals of our democracy back into a high quality state assessment for graduation.

Joe Makley of West Paris is a teacher in Jay.