Kaeptain America, Common Core, and Debates

by Elison Alcovendaz

I. Kaeptain America

As a diehard fan of the San Francisco 49ers, I’ve seen every play Colin Kaepernick has made in a 49er uniform, so I can tell you with some authority that, as a football player, Kaepernick is, well, not the smartest guy out there. After a great 2-3 year run, the NFL adjusted to his quickness and arm stength, and he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t learn to read defenses. He couldn’t get through his progressions. He couldn’t sit still in the pocket, even when the situation warranted it. All of his resulted in him losing his starting job to Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback who once, according to advanced statistics, was the worst QB of all time.

So yeah, as a football player, I think Kaepernick is an idiot, which I say only because if there was any person to immediately and loudly call Kaepernick on the idiotic things he does, it would be me. But football and life are two different things, and in light of the increased number of people now talking about police brutality and racial oppression, I can say that the smartest thing Kaepernick has ever done on a football field is to sit on a bench. 

On ESPN, sportscasters are discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and the meaning of patriotism in between touchdown highlights. Athletes across sports, from the pros to high school, are using their right to protest. Acquaintances I’ve never had a deep conversation with are now bringing up race in America over dinner or text messages; on a sports Facebook group I belong to, we talked beyond sports for the first time. We discussed Kaepernick’s protest, why we agreed or disagreed with him, why we agreed or disagreed with each other, and we did it with civility and respect.

Kaepernick explaining his anthem protest to reporters.

Kaepernick explaining his anthem protest to reporters.

You might say Kaepernick started a conversation. In fact, a lot of people are saying that.

But there’s a problem with this, and it’s a problem that no one is talking about – the conversation was already there. It started a long (a LONG) time ago. So why did so many of us need an athlete, especially one who, until now, hasn’t been particulary outspoken about social ills (or much else outside of football), to bring us into the conversation?

Nothing Kaepernick has said is new. People have been saying the same things for a long time, only they’ve said it better. They’ve said it with facts. They’ve said it as people who are at the forefront of BLM. They’ve said it as historians and sociologists who have dedicated their lives to studying racism. They’ve said it as journalists backed with actual research. They’ve said it as people who’ve lost unarmed sons. They’ve said it as police officers. They’ve said it as veterans.  They’ve said it as people who live in Ferguson and other areas where tension between the police and the community are a few sparks away from exploding. They’ve said it as people who have research, facts, and/or lived experience to support their opinions. In other words, they’ve said it as more informed people.

And yet, until Kaepernick took a seat during The Star Spangled Banner, most of us didn’t read this information, even though it has been out there. We didn’t read it because the articles were too long, or were housed on websites we didn’t visit, or because we weren’t moved enough to do a simple Google search. We didn’t read it because we consume our information in status updates, headlines, or sound bites, like Kaepernick in a 20-second interview or a “well-written” meme that succinctly captures the complexity of racism. We didn’t read it because we’ve come to treat information like Wikipedia, where there are no longer such things as “experts,” and that any one opinion is as equally important as another opinion, even if that second opinion might be much more informed. We’ll watch ESPN analysts talk about racial injustice but we won’t read this article or watch this video or download this study or this study because they are too long or too confusing or we just can’t read or watch something that goes against our own beliefs because it’s completely impossible for someone on the other side to have any truth.

In other words, we’re like Kaepernick the football player.

I’m raising my hand here. I’m part of it. I admit that. 

But if you need any proof of our idiocracy, then I submit this to you: we keep talking about racism like it’s its own cause, like it’s not a symptom of some other, deeper problem – ignorance, and not just any kind of ignorance, but chosen ignorance. We exist in a time in history when we have the most access to information, so if you are still a racist, then you are simply choosing to be ignorant. I mean, what kind of people actually believe that because of someone’s skin color, they’re actually a less worthy, less capable human being? Ignorant people, right? Or people that think it’s okay for women working the same job as men with the same credentials to be paid less? Ignorant people again, right? Or that the LGBTQ community should not have the same human rights as anyone else? You get the point. You could take most of the discrimination troubling America today and distill it to one specific disease – ignorance – and yet we keep talking about and treating the symptoms, over and over and over again.

II. Common Core

The other day, I was talking with a friend who, the night before, was trying to help his daughter with her third grade math homework. On this particular homework assignment, his daughter had to show her work, the Common Core way, and if she didn’t, she wouldn’t get credit for her answer. He couldn’t help her. He repeated how stupid Common Core was. He said something like “51+7 is 58 and that’s all there is to it!” I tried to explain that Common Core math is meant to teach the students the structure of math, the inner workings of it, that way they have a more intuitive, analytical way of looking at math than memorization. My friend responded by saying the same thing I’ve heard parents saying all over the place, which goes something like this: “Common Core is so dumb! If I can’t even understand their homework, how can my child?”

Let’s sit on this for a second. If a parent understanding something was the ultimate determinant whether something was worthy of their child learning it or not, none of us my age or older would’ve ever learned to use a computer. Or a cell phone (if you get a text from my mom, good luck to you). Learning about organic chemistry would be completely useless, as would structural engineering, since neither of my parents understand that. I probably should’ve never read Moby-Dick or took a creative writing class because, hey, my parents aren’t really into that, either.

Does this sound a bit ignorant to you? That if we don’t understand something, it must be wrong? Or unacceptable? Or unworthy?

Make sense?

Make sense?

My wife teaches middle school English, and since Common Core went into effect, I’ve seen some changes to her district’s curriculum and where instructional focus should be. For example, one of Common Core’s aims is to move away from rote memorization and to more critical analysis. In her classes, they are reading more long-form writing, such as novels, and she brings in supplmental materials related to the novels but dealing with current events to inspire classroom discussion. They talked about Michael Brown’s shooting in class. They talked about the “Poor Door” and China’s one-child policy. They work in groups so they learn how to talk respectfully with each other about things they disagree about, using information and/or experience to back up their assertions. They learn how to take information from several difference sources, synthesize them, and then make a reasonable argument orally and in writing. They learn how to make an informed opinion.

So if racial oppresion and other forms of discrimination are a symptom of the larger disease of ignorance, then it seems that Common Core is one of the few things that could be treating the disease and not just the symptoms. It’s teaching our future decision makers, the future shapers of our country, how not to be ignorant.

You may or may not know that, on average, the time to complete police academy training is roughly 20 weeks. This means that, in the span of only five months, a police offer is supposed to learn how, in mere seconds, to make a decision based on: what the suspect is or isn’t doing, what bystanders are or aren’t doing, what weapon to use or not use, whether the suspect is a risk to themselves or others, whether to use force, whether to use this weapon or that, where to aim the weapon, what would happen if they themselves get killed, and probably a hundred other things while also working through what could be the most important thing – their inherent biases. We all have them. I say inherent because no matter how non-discriminatory one believes themselves to be, everything we’ve heard from media, our parents, our religious leaders, and from the world works upon us, and it takes work to unpack that. Unless someone has spent their lives understanding and actively using critical thinking/critical analysis technqiues to deal with their inherent biases beforehand, what are the chances those inherent biases present themselves in a decision that must be made in an instant?

This goes beyond police officers of course. What about politicians that set policies? Or managers looking to hire a new employee? Or school administrators deciding on curriculum? How do their inherent biases affect their decisions? Think about going through an educational system that forgoes simple acceptance of what a history book tells you and requires that you think, requires that you question, requires that you pull information from outside your textbook. Imagine if you had to read sources written in the actual time historical events happened. Or if you had to read literary texts from marginalized writers who reside outside the literary canon. How might having an entire educational career focused on obtaining information from differing sources and then critically analyzing them filter into our daily lives, into our relationships, into the way we process information from the media? Might we navigate the world with thought and not just follow what society says? Might that affect the way we view blacks, police officers, or anyone else and, in turn, improve the way we talk to each other, the way we interact with each other in the world? 

Most of us have focused on short-term solutions and rightfully so. Police brutality, killings, racism – it all needs to stop, now. But if we can temporarily look past our anger, then we know simply asking or willing it to happen won’t make it so. Perhaps a long-term solution might embrace Common Core or something like it, and maybe then the "conversations" we're having would actually turn into something else.

III. Debates

Much has been made recently over politicians sending their “thoughts and prayers” in the aftermath of tragedy, since it should be clear that their thoughts and prayers don’t prevent tragedy from occurring. To me, the same thing is happening in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest. People are so happy that people are now having a “conversation” which, while “sounding” good, fails to address that there are two main kinds of conversations, debates and dialogues. Most people are only having the former.

Anyone who watched Trump and Clinton debate the other night saw firsthand what a debate is – when two (or more) people, each of whom has a certain viewpoint about something, try to “win” an argument. For presidential candidates, “winning” means votes. But on internet boards or on social media feeds, what is it that we win when we debate someone? A feeling of superiority? Pride in being more intelligent than someone? Debates are fueled by chosen ignorance, where we simply cannot admit that the person on the other side actually has some truth, but because we refuse to be cognizant of that fact, these conversations usually just devolve into screaming and snideness and further entrenchment into our own beliefs.

Dialogues are different. In a dialogue, both parties come to the table to discuss their side of the argument, yes, but they also come to the table with openness, with a willingness to be swayed by evidence because they are willing to admit that someone might have a more informed opinion. If you're a Clinton supporter who can’t understand why Trump has so many backers, than you are part of the problem. You probably have never watched Fox News and, if you have, spent most of the time thinking how insane they were. You aren’t open. You aren't listening.  If you’re a Trump supporter who can’t see that Clinton is the most experienced presidential candidate we’ve ever had, then you are also part of the problem. If you have watched CNN, you likely spent most of the time thinking how crazy they were. You aren’t open. You, too, aren't listening.

A few days after Ferguson, I wrote that "black lives matter because all lives matter." And when I talked to people about it, I was stubborn about my viewpoint. I refused to be swayed. But it occurred to me that many people I knew, people I thought were intelligent, were telling me to keep reading, to keep searching, and so I did. I finally came to understand that BLM isn't about Black Lives Matter ONLY, they are saying that Black Lives Matter, TOO. This is because we already know that white lives matter, for example. It simply doesn't need to be said. We can look at our society and know that. But we can't look at all aspects of our society and say that we KNOW black lives matter. So it does need to be said, and it took me a long time to get there.

So why is it so difficult for people to participate in dialogues instead of debates? Certainly there is always an insecurity about being wrong (as it was for me), or about our tied-down-ness to our identities. If something we’ve believed for so long is suddenly destroyed by evidence, what does that mean about who we are as a person? But I also believe that the reason for so many debates is that we simply don’t know how to have a dialogue. We were never taught. We were taught to memorize things. We were told to sit quietly in our desks. We were told what history was, so we didn’t pull information from primary sources to form our opinions. We were taught what the literary canon was, so we never read texts from marginalized voices. We were taught to idolize celebrities, so that when they say something, we listen to them, even if other people, more informed people, have been saying those same things or saying different things. And now because we've learned to consume information, not to analyze it, and to consume it from places that align with our own beliefs, we're scared to have a dialogue. We're scared because 1) we learned to believe what we were told and 2) we never learned how to understand the other side.

Ignorance, then, inspires ignorance.

In the first draft of this blog, I used “dumb” instead of “ignorant,” but there’s an important difference. "Dumb" insinuates an incapability, while "ignorant" insinuates an unwillingness or a laziness, as in – the information is out there, but we are too unwilling or too lazy to go search for it. Like Kaepernick’s televised protest, we need it dropped in our laps. Or maybe we are too bought in to our ideologies – as Democrats or Republicans, Christians or atheists, upper class or lower class residents, whites or blacks, or in things like the perfection of the American flag as a symbol – that we cannot be open enough to hear the other side. Our truth is the truth and the only truth.

This – the complete feeling of our rightness and the inability to hear the other side – is ignorance, and it is probably the worst kind.

Kaepernick has brought people into a conversation. This is good. But we need to be aware about the kind of conversation we are having. Are we having a debate, where the point is to convince the other person they are wrong, and which often results in people becoming more entrenched in their beliefs? Or are we having a dialogue, which is fueled by both parties being open to hearing the other side and, if the evidence is compelling, being willing to be swayed, even if it’s just a little bit? Perhaps Common Core – which inspires critical analysis – will help more people come to the dialogue table instead of the debate podium, will help us see that racism and other types of discrimination are symptoms of ignorance, and while we fight in the short term to prevent people from being killed or jailed or systematically discriminated against, we need longer-term solutions for the disease of ignorance, too. Or perhaps we'll continue to complain about it until the government decides on a new educational direction. Until then, I guess we’ll continue to watch people post memes and scream from their social media pulpits.

See you on Facebook, friends.