Just Singing A Song Won’t Change The World

I love this clip of Neil Young talking with David Letterman. Neil jokes that he is working on a new song, “Just Singing A Song Won’t Change The World.” He banters with Paul Schafer and finally says, “You can keep trying, though.”

    It’s a good question: what can change the world? Americans, generally speaking, believe the answer is democracy.

    I keep writing posts saying in different ways that “Democracy is the Answer.” Name a problem — more democracy is the answer.

  • Raising America’s standard of living — more democracy is the answer.
  • Transforming our system of public education — more democracy is the answer.
  • World peace — more democracy is the answer.

In response to a recent post, Stan Hirtle replied and said the “Waiting for Superman” movie delivers this message: “America’s standard of living arguably depends on having a higher skilled, higher educated work force than in the past, and therefore we can be less tolerant of the education results of the past.”

The movie doesn’t suggest that for our failing economy more democracy is the answer, it says a more highly trained work force is the answer. Diane Ravitz calls the movie “propaganda.”

The idea that the focus of our system of public education should be to maintain and improve the American standard of living is an idea so often expressed, we don’t recognize it as propaganda.
Here are two recent statements by President Obama:

  • “Make no mistake: Our future is on the line. The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow. To continue to cede our leadership in education is to cede our position in the world.“
  • “When countries that out-educate us today, they will out-compete us tomorrow. Giving our kids the best education possible is an economic imperative. That’s why, from the start of my administration, we’ve been fighting to offer every child in this country a world-class education”

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, says: “Nothing — nothing is more important in the long-run to American prosperity than boosting the skills and attainment of the nation’s students.”

But, if American test scores were at the top of the chart, and our students were outscoring students of other nations in science and math, our current unemployment figures would be substantially unchanged.

Alfie Kohn notes:

“ For nations, there’s little correlation between average test scores and economic vigor. The late Gerald Bracey, for example, found 38 countries whose economies had been rated on the Current Competitiveness Index calculated by the World Economic Forum and whose students’ test scores had also been assessed. There was virtually no correlation between countries’ scores on the two lists. … Consider Japan’s outstanding test scores in the 1980s and its dismal economic performance in the 1990s.”

Low test scores didn’t cause our current economic crisis, and high test scores will not solve our economic problems. Blaming public education for our poor economy is effective propaganda — a way for the ruling oligarchy to manage public opinion — but, raising test scores will not improve the economy. It is illogical that, if our system of public education could succeed in dramatically accomplishing Duncan’s goal of “boosting the skills and attainment of the nation’s students,” sufficient good jobs would somehow materialize.

Citizens in the old Soviet Union demonstrated greater academic accomplishment than citizens in the United States. But academic accomplishment in the old Soviet Union did not translate into prosperity.

The Soviet Union had a system problem, and, it is the system that matters most — not the individuals in the system. It was impossible that the Soviet system could produce wide-spread prosperity, because it was never the purpose of the system. The point of Soviet Union system was not to produce prosperity, but to give more power and privilege to those already privileged.

America also has a system problem. Our central problem is not that school children can’t understand the quadratic formula or can’t comprehend photosynthesis. The problem is our system of democracy is failing. In practical terms, we have an oligarchic system, not a democratic system. To solve our economic malaise we need to vitalize our system of democracy. More democracy is the answer.

The idea that More Democracy Is the Answer is a fundamental idea with great power. But where are the documentary movies that make that case? Where are the talk radio programs that are working day and night to stir people up so they begin to express passion for this fundamental idea?

The need to vitalize our democracy seems so obvious to me that I keep predicting that eventually it will be obvious to many others as well. My prediction, that I keep returning to, is, The Ascending Issue In Our Democracy Is Democracy Itself

Maybe it is just wishful thinking, but, I believe the grassroots is awakening. Stable, prosperous communities such as Kettering, where I live, whose public education is deemed “Excellent,” have the greatest capacity for creating an authentic democratic grassroots movement. Such a movement will be a nonpartisan effort to build community. The core of this movement, initially, I believe, will be the conviction that local control of public education must be returned to local communities.

A grassroots’ movement requires that people begin to act on their convictions. Note to self: Changing the world means getting off one’s duff and actually doing something. Neil’s right — just singing a song won’t change the world — even if the song is about democracy.

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5 Responses to Just Singing A Song Won’t Change The World

  1. Eric says:

    In Waiting for Superman we hear that teachers’ unions are a menace and that the Democratic Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Education Association (largest teachers’ union in the nation).

    So what have Democratic candidates and chairmen done to advance democracy lately? Hmmmm….

  2. Mike Bock says:

    Eric, you imply by your question — “So what have Democratic candidates and chairmen done to advance democracy lately? Hmmmm…” — that I am a defender of the processes and practices of the Democratic Party, or that in this post I am attempting to stake out a partisan position. Not true.

    In 2006, I first became directly involved in the Montgomery County Democratic Party as an elected Ward Leader for Kettering and started attending monthly meetings downtown at the Democratic HQ.

    One nice outcome of maintaining a web log of one’s thoughts is that eventually there accumulates a record, over time, of one’s thinking. This blog now goes back over three years. Your question has motivated me to go back and look at some previous posts.

    Here are some of the posts that are pertinent:

    The Big Questions Facing Our Democracy Are Too Important To Allow Political Parties to Decide; October 17th, 2007
    The force driving political parties, first of all, is a passion to win. … It is all about winning. Political parties are focused on winning, and I hear ordinary people rooting for political parties as if they were rooting for a sports team — expressing the same kind of happy mindlessness. … What must be acknowledged is that our democracy is in trouble. … At a time when our society badly needs wise leadership and badly needs an infusion of good ideas for improvement, our system is failing us.

    The Mission of the Democratic Party Should Be to Empower Democracy to Work; October 26th, 2007
    It is important, I feel, that we define what the mission of the Democratic Party, in fact, really is. I don’t think our mission is to be an advocacy group focused on certain issues. If so, then, again we would simply be all about marketing. … I believe our mission is to promote and empower democracy. … Our firm belief is that vigorous democracy offers the best means to solve societal problems, and that through vigorous democracy we find the best leadership. … The mission of the Democratic Party should be to empower democracy, because, it is only through an empowered democracy that we, as a nation, can hope to find our way, that we can hope to generate the needed societal cohesion, that we can hope to help the best ideas and the best leadership to emerge. It is only through an empowered democracy, I believe, that we have the chance to secure for ourselves and our grandchildren a good future.

    The Montgomery Democrats Decide to Suppress Democracy — Just Like the Republicans; December 14th, 2007
    The discussion in the Executive Committee confirmed my view that this process should not be call a process of endorsement at all. … What this process should be called is a process of discouragement. The Party simply doesn’t want more than one Democratic candidate in each primary race. And therefore, all potential candidates, other than one, are discouraged from filing. It is really sort of amazing.

    Victor Harris: Surprised That Local Democratic Party Wanted To Suppress Primary Competition; February 25th, 2008
    Typical Democrats probably feel as I once did that a local Democratic Party endorsement probably results from a fair and democratic consideration of possible candidates. If Democrats understood that only five or six people really have much say-so in the process and that the process is designed around projecting Party power rather than finding the best candidates, they would demand local party reform. … Democratic voters, I’m convinced, if given the opportunity would oppose the Party’s exclusively endorsing one individual and suppressing participation by other qualified individuals. Democratic voters, if given the chance, would reject the notion that The Montgomery County Democratic Party should revolve around the power and prerogatives of a few individuals.

    How Can The System Known As The United States Be Made To Work To Provide “Liberty and Justice For All”?; February 5th, 2009

    Mark Owens Says Most Montgomery Dems Approve The Party’s Suppression Of Primary Participation; April 8th, 2009

    Proposal To Stop Democratic Primary Endorsements in Montgomery County Quashed At Reorganization Meeting; June 3rd, 2010

    To Reform Our “Political Class” System, We Need A Grassroots Movement To Reform Our Political Parties; January 21st, 2010
    The emergence of a “political class” aristocracy, with its sense of entitlement, I believe, can be rightfully blamed on our clique dominated, antidemocratic political parties. To reform and vitalize our democracy we need to reform and vitalize our political parties.

    The Best Way To Transform Our Democracy Is By Transforming Our Political Parties; July 25th, 2010
    The problem is that the parties are corrupt and anti-democratic in their operation. Transforming the political parties we already have, I feel, is key to vitalizing our democracy: And, unlike the goal of starting a third party, the goal of transforming the current parties, I feel, could inspire an authentic grassroots’ movement.

  3. Stan Hirtle says:

    I hate to get the rap for suggesting that an educated and high skilled workforce is the only thing that matters, particularly to the exclusion of democracy. We are of course in the midst of a great recession, the worst in some 70 years, so productivity is certainly an issue, although as you suggest, it is not a sufficient condition to full employment.

    Democracy, education, the economy and the distribution of material and non-material resources and powers within the society are all areas of serious structural problems. All of these subjects may in fact be related. With democracy there is low participation and interest, domination by money and manipulation, such as the upcoming gerrymandering of districts as politicians choose voters instead of the other way around, vapid debate and celebrity creation, negative and ugly advertisements (a perpetual campaign of which intensifies as elections approach) that generate mistrust and ultimately contempt of the process. There is no division of power, knowledge, responsibility and process that the concept of democracy entails, and stakeholders with excessive money to spend price those without out of the markets. In a larger sense it is not clear whether democracy, like the enlightenment that produced it, is a blip of history. Political parties, committees and meetings of handfuls of self interested people do not seem up to the job, and information age substitutes, such as the ephemeral tech based movement that nominated Obama, haven’t yet shown they do either either. Better education should also produce better citizens of democracy, but the economy is not a democracy, even though in many ways it should arguably be moreso. These subjects deserve attention.

  4. Eric says:

    … whether democracy, like the enlightenment that produced it, is a blip of history … These subjects deserve attention

    Uh, isn’t “democracy” a Greek word predating the Enlightenment by millenia?

  5. Stan Hirtle says:

    Yes, it existed in a few places in the ancient world, usually with only some privileged classes participating, but it didn’t really really catch on until fairly recent times. You had empires, kings, warlords and feudalism, along with class or caste systems. The ideas associated with the American and French revolutions that all people have worth and should have equal say in how they are governed, are relatively recent, have still never granted full equality to everyone, and may be threatened by divisions of wealth, knowledge and other forms of social capital, and by the business models of either corporations or solo proprietorships, to say nothing of the many authoritarian states where the leaders maintain power by violence through an internal security apparatus. While we pay lip service to democracy, it is not really clear that we have figured out how to do it institutionally. Do we like our two party system with privately owned news media, private campaign financing and where the political class draws boundaries for elections? Do we like the European multiparty model with votes of no confidence? This problem becomes particularly obvious when we start trying to form democracies in other countries. In addition, it may matter how much people participate by voting, by campaigning, by studying problems, and what skill levels they have for bringing out ideas and getting buy in, on one hand, or for working the system to win battles on the other. And it may matter how much animosity people have for the people who oppose them, and whether there are common institutional loyalties that bind them together and let them go along with when the other side has the advantage.

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