Everything I need to know about politics I learned in the fourth grade

Tue, 09/15/2009 - 3:50pm
By: The Citizen

When school started in the fall of 1952, I was a fourth-grader at Balsam Lake Elementary School in rural northwestern Wisconsin. My teacher, Mrs. Olson, encouraged discussion about the upcoming Presidential election.
President Truman had decided not to run for a second term. Would our new President be Dwight D. Eisenhower, the popular WWII general, who championed civil rights, school desegregation, and an end to the war in Korea? Or would it be Adlai Stevenson, the gifted orator and highly respected Democratic governor of Illinois?
We should listen to the radio, read newspapers, discuss the issues with friends and family, and try to form our own opinions. We should learn the difference between facts and opinions. When we were listening to opinions, we should think about how and why those opinions were formed.
“People can have very strong views, especially when it comes to politics,” Mrs. Olson said. “But strong feelings and clever words don’t necessarily mean the speaker is correct or wise.”
There was a new girl in class that fall – Billie Jean Hawkins from the state of Georgia. We didn’t get many new students in our stable farming community – certainly not students from a faraway state, who spoke in accents we had never heard before.
Billie Jean had particular trouble with personal pronouns. “I” sounded like “Ah” and “you” came out as “y’all.” I was fascinated, and eager to make friends with her, especially when I learned that Billie Jean’s family was renting a long-vacant farmhouse just a half mile down the road from our farm.
I don’t remember – if I ever knew - why a Georgia family ended up in this unlikely place. I do remember well how terrified Billie Jean was by all the “I like Ike” buttons people were wearing on their shirts. The prospect of his election brought her to tears. “Mah Daddy says that if Ike gets elected he’ll take away our TV and our car too!”
“Oh, I don’t see how that could happen,” I said, trying to comfort my new friend.
“It’s true! We heard it on TV!”
My family did not own a television set, so what did I know about that? But my parents also “liked Ike” and talked about voting for him.
The morning of election day, we were surprised when Billie Jean’s mother and father knocked on our door. (Neither family had telephone service, so they couldn’t call ahead.) They had no transportation, they said, and could they please get a ride into town so they could vote?
Oh, no, I thought! Billie Jean was right! Eisenhower has already come and taken away their car.
But that was not the case. It was simply a mechanical problem that would be fixed in a day or two. Of course my parents were neighborly. They were planning a trip into town to vote within the hour. Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins were welcome to ride along.
“Mama!” I whispered. “They are going to vote for Stevenson! Why don’t you all just stay home? If you take them along, their vote will cancel out your vote and Daddy’s too! You might as well save the time and trouble.”
Then and there, Mama gave me an out-loud lecture on the privilege and duty of voting, expressing political opinions, and respecting the rights of others to do the same, even when you don’t agree with them.
Later that evening I asked my dad why he was a Republican. “I don’t consider myself a Republican,” he explained. “I’m an independent voter. I vote for the man who I think can do the best job. I like what Ike has to say. He knows a lot about war and he says it is time to get out of Korea. He wants civil rights for oppressed people, and that’s a moral issue that I have to support. He sees a need for a better system of roads across this country. That’s going to cost a lot of money and I expect my taxes will go up to help pay for it. I might never drive on the interstate highways — farmers have to stay pretty close to home – but I believe better roadways will benefit our country in the long run.”
That November, Eisenhower won by a landslide. He won our mock-election in the classroom, too. Billie Jean was terribly upset by the Republican victory.
“Everybody in the South knows better than to vote for a Republican! What is the matter with y’all up here?” (Remember, this was 1952, prior to the dramatic political about-face that took place in the American South during the 1960s when Democratic presidents, Kennedy and Johnson, pushed hard for further civil rights reform.)
Billie Jean sulked when Mrs. Olson hung up a portrait of our President-elect, alongside the ever-present portraits of Washington and Lincoln. She refused to salute the flag, along with the rest of the class during morning exercises. Mrs. Olson did not punish her, but gave her time to learn, on her own, that her fears were not founded on fact but misguided opinions.
I’ll fast-forward now, to the fall of 2009. I am 66 years old and these fourth-grade lessons have stuck with me well. Prejudice, blind self-interest, and outright lies are still with us, in politics and many other aspects of life. I expect that will always be so.
We are now privileged with access to more information than ever before; we are also burdened with a great deal of hype and punditry and entertainment that tries to masquerade as “news.”
Are we teaching our children to discern the difference? Are we encouraging them to read and listen to opposing opinions, explore viewpoints that do not necessarily coincide with what they are hearing at home or at church or in the neighborhood? Are children learning the essential skills of open-minded inquiry and critical thinking?
And are we, as a community, demonstrating that self-interest must sometimes be set aside for the sake of the greater good? Are we teaching our children respect for our great governmental institutions, even when we disagree with the politics of the man or woman in office?
In my opinion, we are failing our children on several counts. That was sadly demonstrated last week when President Obama addressed our nation’s school children, encouraging them to stay in school, work hard at their educations, and pursue their dreams. The response from many parents, educators and political pundits was nothing short of shameful.
I feel good to be expressing my deeply held opinion about that. I feel good about coming out of the political closet, freely expressing views that do not conform with the majority in my community.
Yes, let me come right out and say it: I admire and respect and support President Obama, including his proposals for healthcare reform. I know he does not have all the answers — which is why we must all work together for needed change – but I believe he is the best man we can find for the job.
I will write no more anonymous rants to the “Free Speech” column of this newspaper. Instead, I will have enough integrity to sign my name to my own opinions.
Speech we dare not sign our name to is not really free. That’s something else I learned back in the fourth grade, thanks to a teacher named Mrs. Olson and parents who looked to the greater good and had the courage of their own convictions.
Sara DeLuca
Peachtree City, Ga.

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dawn69's picture
Submitted by dawn69 on Fri, 09/18/2009 - 11:04pm.

I loved your article and found it to be very well written - a nice balance between light humor and a wise message.

I do not share your admiration for President Obama, but do agree that teaching our children to disrespect the office of the President is self destructive. The result would be a generation that has no respect for anything - leadership, freedom, elections, liberty, etc...

Submitted by janetlaugh on Fri, 09/18/2009 - 5:41pm.

The memories of Sara DeLuca resounded profoundly with me, and not just because we may have been in school during approximately the same years. I believe that my children learned the same lessons of civility and respect for diversity in the 1970s, and it is my expectation that my grandchildren will be taught those same values -- especially since diversity is more visible, prevalent, and for me, more welcome, in today's world. There are ample and loud voices expressing what seems to be a lowest common denominator of willful, proud and malevolent ignorance. We can no longer take for granted the civility that has characterized much of our political discourse until recent years. Let's start by facing the real issues our nation must confront calmly and respectfully.

Submitted by imagine that on Thu, 09/17/2009 - 3:39am.

Thank-you Ms. DeLuca for a well written and eloquent piece providing a story that can be applied today as it was almost 60 years ago. Had it been left to the crictics of the day, we would be still driving on 2-lane barely paved roads. For that time, it certainly seemed a great deal of money for something that didn't seem important to so many. It is fortunate for us that Eisenhower and the Congress of that time were able to get passed the rhetoric and actually make it happen. What a difference it has made over the years as a boon to the US economy. It did cost the taxpayers! It was a cost that many couldn't see the need for. Much of the same holds true today with Healthcare.

There are varied opinions on what, if anything is needed to reform the insurance/healthcare system. Some say it is fine like it is. Those are probably the folks from that farming community that were never planning to use those big interstate roads and couldn't see passed the money it was going to cost. Some say something needs to be done but, that's were the agreement ends.

I find it hard to believe that with ALL of the intelligence in this country we cannot come to a solution for something as important as healthcare. Of course it is going to cost us. Our way of life isn't free! It costs us everyday in money, sacrifices and even lives. What really is so different from 60 years ago when Ike had that dream of interstate highways like he had seen in Germany.

Oh my God, did Ike suggest something that was being used in a Fascist country? That had to be very frightening if it were not thought out as to what good it could provide us as a nation. Did it begin our path to becoming Fascist? Hardly! The US, as a nation is smart enough to make Healthcare reform work. The problem seems to be that so many folks have their own agendas and just won't look past what they want. The other part of this is that--we have 535 legislators and 535 ideas on what needs to happen. That in itself has been part of the problem. Of course, I seem to remember a famous Conservative statesman saying, "We would be amazed at how much we could accomplish, if we weren't concerned who got the credit"--(paraphase)-- Ronald Reagan

We, as a world leading nation should be able to get this right. We have a brain trust capable of most anything imaginable. I just can't believe that we cannot get it right!

Submitted by lion on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 3:51pm.

Thank you Sara DeLuca for one of the best articles I have ever read on this site. Congratulations.

It is indeed important to promote the "common good" or "public interest" or whatever term may be used. We can join together to make this a more just and fair society and do it with civil discourse.

The United States is more than protecting property and lower taxes. Someone smarter than me (I think it may have Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes) said that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. That is very true.

The times we join together through our government to make our lives better are not steps toward "socialism" or "communism" as PTCObservor fears.

And finally, every child in America should have heard Obama's talk to students last week. Shame on Fayette County Schools for being afraid of our President.

NUK_1's picture
Submitted by NUK_1 on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 5:28pm.

There isn't much agreement on what constitutes the "common good" or "public interest" these days in society, hence there is going to be quite a lot of turmoil with competing ideas for what is "good" or not.

Some people think everyone having health insurance that is "cheap" is in the common good. Others question just what is "cheap" or "affordable". Then there are some who could flat-out care less whether anyone else has insurance of any kind or not.

I've seen politicians lie continuously and make idiots out of themselves under the flag of "it's good for....(fill in the blank, usually children" )

Back in simpler times, you had a "society" that did in fact agree on a lot of the same ideals, but that wasn't without its own flaws too.

Appealing to the idea of a common good is pointless because there is way too much disagreement on ideals about what is in the common good.

meanoldconservatives's picture
Submitted by meanoldconservatives on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 4:47pm.

"We can join together to make this a more just and fair society and do it with civil discourse."

For more information on achieving "a more just and fair society" please see my blog entitled "The Ant and the Grasshopper - modern version".....

Submitted by PTC Observer on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 4:00pm.

I agree, it was a good letter, I just don't agree with your position. The point I am making is that you cannot morally delegate a right that you don't have to someone else to do for you.

You don't have the right to kill someone. Therefore, you can't elect someone to do it for you. It is equally immoral.

So, if you can't steal (take by force someone's property), you can't morally elect someone to do it for you. No matter how high minded you think it is, it is still stealing.

The greater good then becomes perverse, doesn't it?

I hope you understand the significance of your position.

Submitted by PTC Observer on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 3:22pm.

I really enjoyed reading your story and I have a comment.

The concept of "Greater Good" is an interesting concept and I certainly agree that people should be able to individually contribute to charities without coercion. However, when you put the force of government behind the philosophy of the greater good you end up with a never ending parade of programs that drain the citizens of their hard earned dollars.

Think about it. There no end to the “good” that government can do. There will always be just one more program that we should add to provide for the greater good.

Socialists and communists believe in the “greater good” and use the force of government to attempt to make a egalitarian society. A perverse and unattainable ideal.

Our Constitution protects our rights, inalienable rights; one of those essential rights is property. When our government stops protecting our property and becomes an instrument to take our property our freedom is lost. The greater good becomes an unquenchable thirst for power at the expense of your freedom.

One thing you should have learned before the fourth grade is that it is not right or good to steal from your neighbor. It is not right or good to elect someone to do it for you either.

We should teach our children this concept before it is too late and clearly the fourth grade is too late.

Submitted by Bonkers on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 4:31pm.

That is why we elect 535 people to keep watch on our government!

Of course anything can go too far.
But to not go anywhere is stupid.

S. Lindsey's picture
Submitted by S. Lindsey on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 4:48pm.

it is way better
to stop and assess the situation.. Not just plunge ahead and hope all goes well..

The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism.
But, under the name of “Liberalism” “they will adopt every fragment of the Socialist program, until one day America will be a Socialist nation, without knowing how it happened” Norman Thomas US Candidate for President

Submitted by PTC Observer on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 6:31pm.

Well said.

Bonkers is a good example of why citizens need to get involved in the political process.

"One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." - Plato (c. 428-348 B.C.)

Submitted by Bonkers on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 8:14pm.

Yes vote and then keep their mouth shut! Then I would.

Submitted by bonniebraids on Fri, 09/18/2009 - 6:21pm.

the Constitution. September 17 (Constitution Day) went by with not one word from a neighboring school system given to its teachers on the importance of teaching a lesson on the Constitution. Of course we all had to be glued to the TV for Obama's back to school speech. Just wondering if Fayette schools did the same...

Submitted by Bonkers on Sat, 09/19/2009 - 4:11am.

I didn't see Oprah's "back to school speech," did she mention not to live together unless married? 70% of births happen that way in her color, doesn't it? (maybe only 65% in other colors).

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