Where Is Our “Sense of Decency”?

Before teaching The Crucible in my American literature courses during my two decades as a high school English teacher in rural Upstate South Carolina, I played the students R.E.M.s “Exhuming McCarthy,” which “makes an explicit parallel between the red-baiting of Joe McCarthy‘s time and the strengthening of the sense of American exceptionalism during the Reagan era, especially the Iran-Contra affair” (Wikipedia).

The song includes an audio from the McCarthy hearings, including this soundbite of Joseph Welch confronting Joe McCarthy:  “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator….You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Part of The Crucible unit asked students to examine how societies continue to repeat the basic flaws of abusing power and oppressing powerless groups of people. Despite the lessons of the Witch Trials and the Red Scare/McCarthy Era (with the Japanese Internment in between), Americans seem hell-bent on doubling down on policies and practices that are authoritarian, hypocritical, and simply mean—especially if those policies can be implemented by people with power onto the powerless.

Current education reform needs a McCarthy hearing, and we need to confront those driving those reforms with “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

For example, consider the following:

History is replete with evidence that the ends do not justify the means.

While there remains great political and public support for grade retention, for example, a huge body of evidence shows that retention negatively impacts students retained, taxpayers, and peers not retained—all for mixed results of short-term test scores.

The only justification for grade retention is giving the appearance of being tough (raising a key question about how tough any adult is for lording him/herself over a child).

Americans’ puritanical roots are some of our worst qualities, and especially where children and other marginalized groups are concerned, Americans need to regain our sense of decency.

We would be well advised to begin with how we reform our schools.

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