Monday, January 19, 2009

Today and Tomorrow

Today has been an interesting day for reflection, if one can get a quiet moment amongst all of the blather of the talking heads. I was struck the most by some comments by Peggy Noonan (Reagan's main speech writer for you younger folks), who sounded at times like she actually voted for Obama. To paraphrase, she seemed to say that the excitement level in Washington matched that of the conservatives at parties during the 1980 Reagan inaugural, except this time it was regular people in the streets who were happy. Regular people, not just the wealthy power brokers. That does seem to capture the essence of what is happening.

What I want to say is that this is a day I have been waiting for ever since I shook Bobby Kennedy's hand in 1968, and that Obama is turning out to be much more than even RFK might have been. I say this because there is a real difference between a self-made man who had to work to pay off his college loans, and one whose big brother appointed him Attorney General of the U.S. Not in capability, but in symbolism. And not just symbolism, but reality. The reality that hard work and competence once again counts for something in America, like it used to. Or, at least, like the Horatio Alger myth said it used to, and the way it worked for my immigrant family. Yes, I am extremely excited by it.

And I am hoping that I might get a glimpse of a former student, one who came to me from inner city Baltimore via the US Marine Corps and is now an engineer working inside the Beltway, somewhere in those crowds tomorrow - but I will be in class teaching the next ones who want to tread down that path. I am excited, but I won't cancel class precisely because so more students can follow his path from the worst this country has to offer to the kind of success it has to offer.

Some commenter over in a thread about the inauguration over on Chad's blog took exception to my thoughts about the relative importance of hearing a speech live (a speech that will be available in unedited glory on CSPAN the same day and on YouTube forever) versus learning the physics needed to become an engineer or physicist. Do I lack perspective? Hardly. I've seen the ugly face of racism. I've seen the national chain gasoline stations that had a special design down south, a design with a third bathroom for "coloreds", that did not exist up north. I've attended school with black students who lived in their own upscale subdivision because the banks would not lend money to buy a house in a whiter subdivision, this in a state that had no segregated schools or legal limits on where people could live or work.

A good friend of my wife's was shot dead on the street for having the wrong color skin for that particular street. Or maybe it was for having good friends whose skin color was OK for that street.

No, I don't lack perspective on just how significant this event is in the history of the United States. But the event means nothing unless my students are prepared to carry that banner into the future.

You see, I also don't lack perspective on the difference between the "plantationist" approach of LBJ, giving things to people because you didn't think they could achieve on their own, and the "homesteader" approach that worked for many of the successful immigrant populations in the United States. (I don't see much difference between the concept of Cabrini-Green in Chicago and the approach of a powerful local lawyer who let his household help live rent-free in a shack not suitable for habitation until it fell down, then moved them to another one. I do see a difference between that and being "given" land if you live on it and work it for a number of years, investing your sweat and blood in it.)

Every day I see students who were failed by their schools and by their families and their friends, but have managed to move beyond that and achieve something. Every day I go to "work" with them in mind. I smile when I overhear students complain that some prof is too easy, and is not preparing them for what lies ahead. I wish, somehow, that this word would get back to their brothers and sisters attending a school where social promotion still rules. The message of this administration is not that people are owed a high-rise slum to make up for slavery, but that you are owed the right to work hard and succeed based on the "content of your character". There is a reason some in the black community didn't like his message, and some seeming "conservatives" are taking a different look at his message.

Many people remember the sound bite from the Kennedy inaugural speech, and not the challenge it gave the nation. The idea is perhaps clearest in the short speech he gave at the University of Michigan in October 1960, reflecting what was said in his July acceptance speech: "The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises - it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them." (That message got lost when LBJ pushed his plan through Congress.)

I also find it interesting that, in his speech at Michigan, JFK referred to the 1960 election as being as important as the 1933 election had been.

This past election was probably even more important than 1960, but only time will tell. I celebrate it with joy, by teaching my students the basics of mechanics and electricity they will need to reach the same level of success that Obama did, but the same path. The path of hard work, the work needed to prove you are better than anyone you have to compete with.

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