Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

 
 

Editorial

 


A friend recently engaged me in a conversation about teachers, who, according to my friend, “don’t like kids.”

The implication was that teachers who were not outwardly cheerful toward their charges weren’t as good at their jobs, or perhaps even not fit for the teaching profession.

I tried to think back to my own childhood, my relationship with my teachers and my parents’ relationship to them. And I thought of my mother, who taught junior high math in public schools.

There were teachers who liked me, ones who didn’t and ones who were indifferent toward me. I think I worked harder for teachers who liked me, but I can’t honestly say I learned more from them. As I remember it, I learned most from the teachers who were most interested in my learning – those who worked hard and put in extra effort to make sure I “got” it.

I remember my mom commenting on my teachers who were “nice,” but I don’t remember her critical of ones who weren’t. I think, to her, a teacher’s job was to teach and a student’s job was to learn, and all of that was work enough for both parties. If your teacher was “nice” or if you liked your teacher, that was a bit of icing, not the cake.

An expectation that people “be nice” or that they “like other people” somehow rose in importance in recent decades. Maybe it came with the smiley face buttons or the people at McDonald’s telling us all to have a nice day. Then it morphed into a broader expectation that if co-workers or others around us weren’t outwardly happy, they must be sad or having a bad day, and that we were obliged to cheer them up.

All of which is work that we shouldn’t have to do. “Being nice” and “liking other people” is more of the same.

A teacher’s obligation to students is to teach them. Our obligation to our co-workers is to work with them. Our emotional obligation to most people outside of our families is to be civil and respectful to them.

We’re on the wrong track when we begin to rank “being nice” or “liking people” as equal to or more important than getting the job done.

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Arriving here 28 years ago, I’d mostly given up hope that our national and state governments would recover from the influences of corruption, hidebound ideology and citizen indifference.

Haines, I thought, could be different. Its isolation and its relatively high number of capable, longtime residents – many in positions of power – could steer local government in a better direction. I’ve since lost my faith. A disease of the body makes its way to the smallest toe.

As has happened in other places, our town’s best and brightest have stopped participating in government. Our borough leadership is most closely akin to student governmen: well-intended, but easily distracted and too often rudderless.

In terms of recruiting candidates, we’re no different than elsewhere. In Juneau’s municipal election, only one of five open seats is contested. Lack of interest is evident in Alaska’s other municipal elections.

It’s hard to say whether we’re witnessing just the collapse of our democratic institutions or the beginning of the fall of our nation. Perhaps the two can’t be easily parsed. Maybe at some point during the decline of their empire, the Romans decided, “Aw, screw greatness. We’ve still got a big army, some fine grapes and olives, and a cherry lifestyle.”

Our nation was born of the Enlightenment, a period in history when people stopped trusting authorities like kings and popes and took up the notion that the best decision-making arose from a competition of ideas. Leadership would be steered by facts and reason and the thinking of many people – not by the ideology of a few self-anointed ones.

Those early leaders realized that for this new form of government to work, two ingredients were essential: Participation and broad public education. For people to lead and to make decisions in their own best interest, they needed to be both informed and involved. Involvement is critical because progress is a collective, not an individual, achievement. A timeline of human history shows 500,000 years passed between the development of stone tools and spears, and 5,000 years passed between farming and irrigation. Those long gaps weren’t because primitive people were dumb, but because few minds worked together on problems.

Wernher von Braun, the genius whose knowledge of rocket science made possible our trip to the moon, proposed building a rocket the size of the Empire State Building to get us there. Other minds came up with the better idea of a using a smaller rocket, a sectioned ship, and the lunar orbit to make a landing.

Because advancement of a society is driven by collective brainpower, participation is critical. Loss of it may be the beginning of our unraveling.

-- Tom Morphet