Comans: Terrorism, Hitler, and the Power of Education

In the wake of horrible terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Kenya, and Syria, many pundits have offered their opinions of the “proper response” to evil acts. I am not one of those. I do not pretend to have any “answers,” much less the key to world peace.

Global terrorism is far too complex to analyze adequately here. I will not pretend to do so.  But it is an epidemic exacerbated by poverty and lack of education. In no way whatsoever are the evil deeds of fundamentalists justified by their social status, but many of them are groomed from areas where they find little resources to provide their families with a better life.

It is difficult to think of murderers as human beings.  It is much easier to lump them together into a “Team Evil” camp. After all, they have already made the choice to oppose civilization. They have already declared war on us. But what if we could go back in time and stop them from sacrificing their humanity? What if we could show tomorrow’s terrorists a better way, today, and empower them with the tools to change the future for all of us?

The “Baby Hitler” Question

Last Monday Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was asked by a Huffington Post reporter whether he would, if given the opportunity, go back in time to kill Adolf Hitler in his crib.

Bush responded, “Hell yeah, I would!”

Jeb’s response is not an unusual one. When The New York Magazine polled its readers, a majority answered in agreement with him. It’s a popular fanciful scenario, not likely to garner much scrutiny due to the “American-ness” of his response. But the sentiment is everything in gauging the attitude of our leaders toward education, and it reveals a similar bias in the consciousness of the American people.

6OLD_GOP_2016_Bush_PoirIt’s just a silly question, yes.  But part of the reason it’s just a silly question for you, for Jeb, for most of our elected officials, is it’s fictional. It takes place in some sort of alternate reality. For me and thousands of other Mississippi teachers, though, it’s our job.  We get paid to prevent tomorrow’s problems with interventions today. And our culture’s disconnect with what this question reveals about us, is the entire dilemma. Our culture is completely predisposed to eliminate the problem child instead of exploring options for really helping him.

I admit I might not find myself obsessing over Jeb’s answer to this question were he and his state not the poster child and model for the school choice reforms our own government officials are proposing. He called on Mississippi to adopt charter schools. He was there in Jackson for the signing of the special ed voucher bill earlier this year. After Florida adopted Common Core and an A through F grading system, we did, too.  Our leaders clearly want Mississippi’s schools to be like Jeb’s schools.

So what’s Jeb’s knee-jerk response to fixing possibly the biggest problem of the 20th century? To kill the one responsible, before he utters his first words. The most important reactions we have are the ones we don’t have to think about. It never entered Jeb Bush’s head that a mind so powerful as Adolf Hitler’s could have been caught somewhere along the way and given the tools to create rather than destroy. It never occurs to most of us.

This scenario reveals everything about our culture’s assumptions about child development. We believe more strongly in fate than we do in education. It bears repeating: We believe more strongly in fate than we do in education. A gifted child rests in his crib starving for guidance, a clean slate on which we could rewrite the history of the world.  But we believe more strongly in fate than we do in education. So we’d rather nip the problem in the bud, just to be sure.

Implications for Mississippi

Better schools and better jobs make better, safer societies.  Jackson Police Chief Lee Vance told us two weeks ago: If you really want to lower crime rates, you should put more money into education. According to a 2013 study, a 5% rise in graduation rates would save the nation $19 billion on prison costs. We can’t prevent acts of violence by throwing perps in jail after the fact, the way we can now with more teachers and newer books. But if the fight for 42 is any indication, our leadership seems to believe certain children in our system are already doomed, and no amount of intervention will steer them right. Or they just don’t care about them enough to pony up the cash it’ll take.

Our politicians get so reformy and energized to “fix” things, they cast the state in spooky light, as if there are monsters in our midst: we have bad schools, bad teachers, bad administrators, bad students.  Sometimes it’s almost as if they forget the “problems” they’re discussing are human beings capable of change. Mississippi doesn’t have to be doomed. We don’t have to see components of the system as static impediments to progress. But for that, we also don’t need leaders who believe they would go back in time to kill Baby Hitler. We need leaders who believe they could’ve changed his life with a little guidance and instruction.

Mississippi’s education system has problems to address- there’s no question.  But as the Legislature prepares for its 2016 session, let’s also not forget: strong public education is our greatest tool in building a better society. Support the public schools and they will improve. We are not problems to eliminate. We are Mississippians who just want a better future.

James Comans is an 8th grade science teacher in Southaven and contributor to MSEdBlog. His views are his own and do not represent the views of any other entity.

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