Thursday, October 23, 2008

In defense of elementary school children everywhere...

I'm sure by now you may have seen the video where Sarah Palin answers an eight-year-old boy's question about what a vice president does. Palin does her best concerned look with knit brow and maternal smile, explaining that the veep "runs" the Senate and can "really get in there" to affect policy. The McCain camp has defended Palin, pointing out that she was explaining complicated civic issues to an eight-year-old. For the video of Chris Matthews putting a McCain spokeswoman Nancy Pfotenhauer through the ringer on this issue and Nancy jumping and bending backwards to defend her veep candidate, see below.

So who should be angry here, other than Chris Matthews? John McCain--because his running mate has a tough time stringing sentences together and has gotten mixed up before about what the vice president does? The American people--because it's insulting that a national political party would choose a vice presidential candidate not for her qualifications but for her yoobetchya charm as a last-minute effort to revive a floundering campaign? Dan Quayle—because he sees his great legacy of vice presidential flubbery challenged by this Alaskan maverick?

Nope. In fact, those who should be most angered are probably busy right now, playing tag at recess or practicing long division. Or perhaps they are learning Civics, and their teacher is having to waste lesson time reteaching what Sarah Palin got wrong about the duties of the vice president. It's the children of America who should be angry.

As I listened to Nancy Pfotenhauer argue over and over again that Palin's response should be taken in the context as an answer for a schoolchild, I was furious and wanted Chris Matthews to point out the obvious—that a second-grader could handle simple civics and grasp that the vice president doesn't run the Senate but instead serves as a tie-breaker when the Senate can't make up its mind; or the fact that if we all followed Palin's example, we'd oversimplify things so much for schoolchildren that they'd never gain a basic understanding of how our country runs or much else for that matter.

There are enough fairy tales in public education already. When in some history lesson Christopher Columbus was outted as the rapist and pillager he was, it was a little bit like losing Santa Claus. I thought back to my first lessons in Kindergarten, where in the week leading up to Columbus Day we read picture books about this international hero who brought gifts to America and back to Europe, who befriended the Native Americans and who looked dashingly handsome in the watercolor version of the story. With the truth exposed years later in another school room, I sighed and filed Columbus away in my "Believed That Once, But Never Again" mental dossier. To join him later would be Thomas Jefferson's indiscretions, Abraham Lincoln's theories on colonization, Japanese internment camps and John Edwards's fidelity, just to name a few.

I'm not advocating for a first grade lesson plan in smallbox blankets, but I also think that if we can tell children the truth and not insult their intelligence, we should do so. No vice presidential candidate who claims to be so dedicated to education should go in front of a nation and tell a child an oversimplified truth about American civics. So instead of condemning Palin for telling American children distortions, I will give her the benefit of the doubt that she didn't understand the issue herself.

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