All posts by Trevor Brookins

The Socialist’s Journal: Advanced Placement (AP) History

Brookins Head Shot*I like the idea of local control of education. Each school district is a great deal more familiar about their student population than anyone else. So they should be the deciding factor in questions of curriculum.

However if we are going to move forward together as a country there must be standards that we can all agree must be met. Those standards can come from a private company like the College Board or from the national government. But at some point we all have to get on board.

Recently states have decided that they were unhappy with the standards the national government created (Common Core). But there is a dangerous Catch-22 possible here. Opting out of the Common Core means states forfeit federal funding and consequently enter a downward spiral of less resources and, in all likelihood, lower achievement.

The current controversy in Oklahoma is similar. State legislators are in the process of passing a bill that would eliminate Advanced Placement (AP) History throughout the state. Although there isn’t any money involved in this situation, ultimately student achievement will suffer.

Even without considering issues of content, eliminating high level classes only decreases the opportunities for high achieving students. Following the current course of action of these politicians can only be called a disservice to the best and brightest Oklahoma has to offer the country.

But the reasoning for this course of action makes the decision of these lawmakers even worse. Their justification for dropping AP History is that it highlights too many negatives in American history. The story of American history that is being taught in high schools is generally the story of how great the idea of the United States was in 1776, how great it started out in 1787, and how it has only gotten better since then. With that basic backbone to the course, it is hard to believe any negatives would impact the overall message.

The AP curriculum is designed to complicate that story while allowing students to practice critical thinking skills. The best, and perhaps only, way to complicate things is to introduce episodes in American history where the country can be said to have been less than perfect. Certainly because there is a limited amount of time, introducing new elements of history means taking out some of the old favorites. But the worry of the curriculum nurturing sedition is silly. The AP History curriculum is still weighted toward positive aspects of history and still reinforces the idea that the United States as a country has steadily improved.

The buzz words in this argument have been American exceptionalism; and the argument has been the subversion of it. Philosophically I support students questioning the idea of American exceptionalism but I don’t believe that can or does happen very strenuously at the high school level because of the way the basic narrative is set up. Furthermore any questions students do come up with are generally answered with the positive change the country has made.

I will go out on a limb and have faith that the high school teachers in Oklahoma are able to deal with some of the negatives of American history while still supporting the idea of the country overall and the progress it has made. I will go out on a limb and have faith that the AP History high school students in Oklahoma are able to process this information without becoming suicide bombers.

Isn’t that what education is supposed to be all about?

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

Trevor Brookins

The Socialist’s Journal: Shutting Up

Brookins Head Shot*Being a professional athlete (or collegiate athlete in certain cases) seems like a great deal. You play a sport you love and on top of that you gain prestige and wealth. You can enjoy all of the benefits of your career as long as you follow the cardinal rule: shut up.

The bottom line is that no one wants to hear millionaires complain. And make no mistake we perceive their comments as complaints unless they are A. speaking specifically about their sport, B. saying how lucky they are to get paid to play a sport, or C. praising the fans of their sport.

Cases in point: Josh Gordon, Chris Paul, and Johnny Manziel.

Josh Gordon is a professional football player. Or perhaps more accurately, has been a professional football player up until this year because he has put his career in serious jeopardy via repeated violations of the NFL substance abuse policy.

Gordon has been suspended three times and so is a repeat offender by definition. In response to his last suspension Gordon wrote an open letter to deny he had a problem and trying to explain himself. The public reaction to Gordon can be summarized as: “shut up and go to rehab.” No wanted to hear his justification of his drinking or complaints about how he is viewed because people (by virtue of his profession) had already concluded he has a dream job and is screwing up something they wouldn’t.

Chris Paul is a professional basketball player. He recently received a technical foul for questioning the judgment of a female referee. After the game Paul again questioned the referee’s judgment and said “maybe this isn’t for her” in reference to her career choice.

Paul has since been criticized and accused for being sexist. Unlike Gordon, Chris Paul had no history of anti female speech but public opinion turned against him just the same. The public distaste for athletes complaining (and he was complaining) meant it didn’t matter whether or not Paul had a reason to be upset; it only mattered that at the moment Paul wasn’t expressing gratitude for his place in the world.

On the other hand Johnny Manziel checked himself into rehab recently after a lackluster season for presumably alcohol abuse. The difference between Gordon and Paul, and Manziel is that the latter didn’t speak about his situation but instead had his people release a statement.

Although Manziel deemed his problem serious enough to willing submit to a rehabilitation program and did not play up to expectations (a combination of both Gordon and Paul’s situations), his reputation has been enhanced. This is only because he didn’t actually speak so the public could imagine him to be sincere, mature, and not complaining.

Johnny Football hasn’t done a lot right as a professional athlete. But somehow he did learn the most important lesson of all. Shut up.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

Trevor Brookins

The Socialist’s Journal: Churchill’s Perspective

Brookins Head Shot*Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.

-Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill’s quote is meant to disparage liberals because the implication is that as a person gets older they get wiser and conclude that conservative policies make more sense.

But an alternative way of looking at this quote is to realize that conservatives have no gust and take the path of least resistance. After all change is hard; it is difficult to adjust to new customs of life after many years. But the fact of such difficulties simply highlights the laziness of people who embody Churchill’s quote. If it made sense to embrace and master progressive ideas and new ways of thinking at 25, it still makes sense at 45 and to not try to embrace progressive ideas is to be idle and be complicit in having the world move on without you.

The idea of the world moving on should not be dismissed. Most popular culture targets and is consumed by teenagers and young adults. Marketers are generally tailoring their message to the 18-34 demographic or trying to make people feel like they should be in that demographic. But then you turn 40 and all of a sudden the messages are not for you; the references fly over your head. Society is ignoring you. This is a change you did not ask for and do not want to try to overcome.

Two options present themselves at this point. 1. Continue to adapt to developments in society even if everything is not centered around people in your demographic group. 2. Resist change and proclaim how everything was better 5, 10, 15, or 20 years ago when you were in the demographic sweet spot.

This makes sense in the realm of popular culture when you consider that most parents dislike the cultural forms of their children. It can’t be that every decade culture gets progressively worse. To the contrary the generation gap is a label on the unease of a group realizing the world is moving on from them.

And just as this is true in popular culture it is also true with social issues and to a lesser extent political and economic ideologies. The social issues that were considered radical to my parents, interracial relationships for instance, are now seen as commonplace. By contrast my children will probably look at homosexual relationships as normal. At some point you have to accept these developments or society will have passed you by.

There are not so many new political or economic philosophies however the same general rule applies. Ideas that are outside of the common perspective (usually liberal) should be embraced and incorporated into the way we operate. We must continue to have the heart (in Churchill’s words) to consider the liberal perspective as a viable option or become outdated.

The other aspect of Churchill’s quote is about the wisdom of liberalism. Admittedly liberalism is not easy which is why it takes not only heart but intellect as well. From the point of view of enacting change or maintaining the status quo, liberalism is the choice that requires brains while conservatism requires no effort.

Auto pilot is no way to stay vibrant.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

Trevor Brookins

The Socialist’s Journal: Teacher Reform

Brookins Head Shot*Andrew Cuomo, the governor of my state, recently gave the state of the state address in which he proposed reform to the public education system.

A major portion of his vision is holding teachers accountable for helping their students achieve and eventually terminating them if a teacher displays incompetence.

On the other hand Cuomo would like to allow for financial bonuses to those teachers whose students do achieve highly.

I appreciate the bind that politicians find themselves in when areas that are comparatively affluent do not achieve in areas where affluence should give an advantage. This is true with the United States among the nations of the world, and more specifically with New York among the states of this country. New York has the third highest GDP in the United States but ranks 38th in high school graduation rate. If I were governor this would concern me as well.

As Cuomo sees it, the problem is that teachers are not doing their job well enough. In the days since Cuomo gave his speech (January 21st, 2015) there have been various teacher voices to assert that the problem doesn’t lie with them. But the truth is probably somewhere in between.

In the world of K-12 education student achievement is the result of three entities being on the same page: the student, the family unit, and the teacher. If one of these components is pulling in a different direction, it takes a Herculean effort by the other two. Think about the effort a student and teacher have to put in to overcome a chaotic home situation; think about how difficult it is for a teacher and parent to get a kid to learn who doesn’t care; consider that when good parents believe their child’s teacher is substandard they demand a different class – proof that in their eyes the effort would be so big as to not even warrant trying. If two of the three components are lacking, the odds that the student will have a stellar academic career are next to zero.

One issue is that teachers have too much job security. In truth teachers proven to be repeatedly ineffective should be able to be fired more quickly. And effectiveness in one year does not automatically result in effectiveness the next year. Good teachers know that different students respond to different things. Cuomo’s education reform aims at rectifying this issue.

But another, equally problematic, issue is that student/parent engagement is lacking in many situations. Teachers can assign homework but cannot ensure that the student does it (as kids get older, even parents can’t make a kid do something they don’t want to). The student and parent components are just as important in student success. Unfortunately Cuomo does very little to address this. And in truth this is the harder issue to correct. No one will (and I’m not suggesting anyone should) proclaim that students who consistently fail to do their homework should be taken away from their parents (the equivalent of firing the parent). But in most instances teachers aren’t the only ones who need to be held responsible.

Circling back to the issue of financial incentives…

This sounds great in theory. But allow me to throw a few monkey wrenches into the setup. How do we account for an average or even below average teacher who benefits from a student population that is highly affluent? Specifically teachers in certain parts of New York have to put in less effort to have their students achieve on a satisfactory level than their colleagues from districts of a lower socio-economic status. To return to the parent part of the equation, even though parents have the right to pay for private tutoring teachers should not get credit for parents this parental effort when student achievement increases. In addition, how do we assess teacher performance for those grades and subjects where there isn’t a statewide exam? Specifically how could an art teacher earn a financial bonus?

I believe that Governor Cuomo has identified a real issue for New York and begun the very important conversation about how to address the issue but I’m not sure the proposed solution is feasible yet.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

Trevor Brookins

The Socialist’s Journal: Religious Fundamentalism

Brookins Head Shot*A little while ago I wrote that the freedom of religion is the most important civil liberty protected by the 1st Amendment. Below is the dark side of that freedom..

The freedom of speech (which I argued is second to religion) is important because it helps to defuse the powder keg that is the freedom of religion. Religion has the potential to be more destructive than anything else because of fundamentalism. Free speech undermines fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is the belief that a specific perspective is the only valid way of seeing things. Religious fundamentalism (specifically fundamental Christianity and Islam) dictates that everyone else conform to that one perspective and that resources should be enjoyed by those who conform to that one perspective. In addition anyone who doesn’t conform doesn’t deserve the same rights, privileges, and/or access to resources.

In this way religious fundamentalism justifies selfishness and leads to violent confrontations.

We are all familiar with the current version of Islamic fundamentalism and the episodes of violence it spawns – the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo as the latest example.

But looking a bit further back in history shows that Christian fundamentalism was the basis for the colonial expansion of Western European countries. All of those countries sent people out to sail and claim land for God and king because God wanted their king and country to possess more.

Even the United States with its freedom of religion was born with a similar impetus. The decision to declare independence from Great Britain was a result of the belief that Americans should not be made to share resources with the British folks who had recently protected them in a war. The Founding Fathers were liberal in some key areas but they retained the belief that God wanted them to prosper. And they used that belief to justify expansion across an already inhabited continent.

A popular assumption is that religion has caused the most violence throughout history. I’m not sure if that statement is true, but if it is true we can only point to religious fundamentalism as the reason. Half hearted believers (to put a negative connotation out there) or liberal thinking believers (the more positive way of viewing people) generally try to come to a middle ground rather than insisting and ignoring their opposition.

I don’t mean to speak negatively about religion in general. But religious fundamentalism deserves some bad ink.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

Stuart Scott

The Socialist’s Journal: Stuart Scott

stuart scott

*When Stuart Scott died last week I didn’t appreciate his legacy.

When I first started watching ESPN Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were the headliners of Sportscenter. It seemed like every anchor had some sort of signature catchphrase. In that context Scott didn’t seem so unique.

But upon further review Scott’s appearance on ESPN was definitely noteworthy. Scott was the first black male to be a featured anchor on Sportscenter. And while Scott was one of many talents that created memorable phraseology for highlight packages, he was the only one that used vernacular and cultural references from African-American culture. In fact I remember younger me hearing Scott do a highlight package and questioning his decision to use ethnic nicknames as a gimmick; it seemed like Scott was trading on his blackness to advance his career.

And perhaps he was but as time went on I realized Scott’s vocabulary was not a shtick. He was being true to himself and his heritage. If he was trading on his blackness it was organic. I went from frowning on Scott’s highlights to rooting for him to get more camera time.

Talking to my brother helped me realize there is an entire generation of sports fans who either went to sleep listening to his voice, waking up to his voice, or both. In other words he was extremely influential. And even though I wasn’t all that aware of his being the first African American male to lead SportsCenter at the time, I have been acutely aware of how good an example he must have set so that we now look at multiple African American men on various ESPN properties daily.

Lastly Scott’s appearance on the national landscape helped transform our natural culture. African American culture has always been a significant subject of American culture as a whole. But from the 1980s until today African American culture has been getting further and further integrated into the popular culture at large. If cultural critics point to Jay-Z as someone who has normalized black culture to the country at large every year with a new album, if you can cite The Cosby Show for putting a black family in front of the nation every week, then likewise we must include Stuart Scott in that group and applaud him for helping to standardize black culture every night.

Rest in peace.

Trevor Brookins

Trevor Brookins

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.