Cries of Unity

James Sasso

When I got the notification on my iPhone that President Obama would be making a special announcement to the nation concerning national security on Sunday night, I immediately imagined the worst case scenario. Why else would a President invade Sunday night television and keep the country up late on a work night? But then I checked the New York Times and I almost fell out of my chair. I could not believe it. It was too much to be true.

We got him!

Osama Bin Laden, the man that my generation ubiquitously associated with all of the murderous and extremist reasons for America’s involvement in two bloody wars, had finally been brought down. I ran to the nearest television where my friends and I sat around the TV, itching for President Obama to address us. Once again we were his captive audience.

In the meantime we blasted patriotic country songs (something to which I am not normally inclined to do). We shouted patriotic slogans and once again felt the magic of America. We, college students nearing finals, put down our work, put down our computers and looked at the television where the President’s empty podium stood, teasing our intrigue. We cheered and we embraced, but we watched endlessly. For some reason we felt we needed President Obama’s confirmation. We needed to hear the story from his lips.

And his marvelous speech sealed the truth. He accurately explained what we were feeling; the emotional victory for which we had been looking since September 11. He did not waiver as he recounted the horrible tragedy forced upon our nation at the hands of this deranged murderer. He described with forceful leadership how his administration and the army managed to pull off this spectacular feat. But most of all, President Obama portrayed to us precisely what this assassination meant; a moral victory. Yes, a deep sense of revenge had been satisfied with this extraordinary deed, but it did not mean the end of our country’s struggle against those who wish to disturb the free workings of the world. And, most of all, the President used this event, one which he knew would bring together Americans in jubilation, to call for something we need more now than ever before; unity.

President Obama hit the nail on the head with his speech

While I do not expect this success to suddenly inspire the leaders of America to end their partisan ways, I find that it might have a deeper affect on the psyche of Generation Y.We, for whom September 11 has been our most memorable world moment, felt a unbridled sense of joy upon hearing of Osama Bin Laden’s death. College students ran through the streets, waiving flags, singing, cheering, hugging. For the first time in my lifetime, we were able to happily announce ourselves Americans as a whole people. Few of us disagreed about the emotional importance of experiencing America’s first real military “victory” in our lifetime. In fact, this was the first universally accepted governmental action that we have experienced together as politically aware individuals which enabled us to rise in one voice and cheer (for many of us the decision to go to war with Afghanistan happened before we had entered college).

People celebrate Osama Bin Laden's death

And the beauty of the experience was in the unity expressed amongst this generation. Facebook and Twitter flooded with pro-American posts, hilarious anti-Osama comments and all sorts of videos proclaiming a love for America that often hid behind disappointment with either the policies of our leaders or their ineffectiveness at enacting any valuable legislation. Indeed, many of us felt little reason to display a love for a country whose government gave us little reason to love it. But finally, there was an unadulterated positive to come out of Washington. We finally succeeded at something without having to deal with partisan squabbling. Finally there was an event that superseded politics; something around which we could wrap ourselves in a cloak of American joy. It felt enthralling to be able to let loose years of pent up love for this country that only found outlets at the occasional parade or fireworks display. And it felt especially good to express my love for the country not after an election so that I could enjoy the moment with people of all political stripes.

Will it last? Probably not...

No, Osama’s assassination does not solve our problems. Nor does it not make up for the misery and sorrow caused by September 11. Nothing can ease that pain. I understand that for some, all of this joy after the death of one man brings nothing except disgust, but I will not deny how wonderful this emotional victory felt for most of Generation Y. These moments of unified joy are few and fare between, but I can only hope that our generation takes something from this; some sort of belief in the power of our country lies in its ability to have its citizens remain together. Our country is great because we are all Americans and we all want this country to succeed. There is not one right ideology and one wrong one. Life is not that simple. It is not black and white, or red and blue, but rather an amalgamation of countless different ideas and beliefs which all wish to improve this country. If we can learn one thing from the show of unity after the death of Osama, I hope that we take the reminder that we are all Americans and we all love this country (even those like me who like to criticize its faults). If this is what a once in a lifetime event feels like, then I am happy to have lived through it.



Italian Students Rally Against the Government

James Sasso, Associate Editor

Italian university students have not kept quiet about their anger against the Berlusconi government in Italy. The Italian prime minister, besides living a life of tremendous personal scandal and leading what is widely regarded as a corrupt government, has spearheaded the government’s attempt to cut spending and reign in the unruly university system. While no one, especially students, can deny the truth of the disastrous situation of Italy’s higher education system, almost every member of academia disagrees with the government’s plan to reform the system with a program known as DDL.

Students Occupy Colosseum

These reforms would, according to a student member of the protest at the University of Parma, would take away power from the students, ensure that researchers do not have the time or money to teach needed lessons and that an “outsider” of the school would overlook its spending with bureaucratic limits and regulations that would not account for the needs of the individual school. Indeed, the reforms would aim “to reorganize the governance of institutions and the system of recruiting university teachers, and to change the way funds are allocated, by rewarding meritorious institutions and forcing schools that are running a deficit to close.”

These reforms had already been passed through the House in Italy and were awaiting approval by the Senate when Silvio Berlusconi’s government came into question due to his numerous personal scandals, including Rubygate where he had relations with an underage girl. The students hoped that his government would fall and thus take away the majority of Senators who would support the DDL reforms to the universities. So, as is the norm in Italy, the students decided to make their voices heard against Berlusconi and against the proposed reforms by protesting, marching and occupying buildings.

In late November, student groups at universities across Italy began to take extreme measures to voice their opposition to the DDL. In Rome they occupied the Colosseum and Senate building. In Pisa they took over a runway at the airport and the Leaning Tower. In Parma, a smaller city, they occupied a classroom of the University of Parma, but in Florence and Milan students clashed with police. Even researchers at the universities joined in by taking sleeping bags to the roofs of universities to sleep there in protest. These protests intensified as the government prepared to make a vote of confidence (one that would decide, essentially, whether or not Berlusconi would remain in power) on December 14th. In Parma, students blocked the main street, stopping traffic and singing songs to try and rally support against Berlusconi and against DDL in vibrant and active manners. They obviously cared about the situation affecting their universities and their educations.

In America what would happen in a similar situation? Republicans already are threatening massive spending cuts in public education and public funding for higher  education, but almost no students have voiced protest. Education is the backbone of a developing society and should be protected by all, especially by those directly involved such as students and educators, but the discussion of school funding goes largely unnoticed to members of Generation Y who seem not to see education as a gift. Yes the Italian university system, almost entirely public, cannot be compared to the largely private (or semi-private) system of American colleges and universities, but that should not change the level that students want to protect their education. Generation Y needs to voice its opposition to the destruction, dismantling and degradation of the American education system, not ignore it.

While the Italian system obviously has its flaws and is untenable in its current state, one cannot deny the power of watching hundreds of students march to try and protect something they feel is sacred: their ability to advance their knowledge. American students could learn a lesson from their attempts. This is not to suggest that American students should pick up pitch forks and torches and take to the streets, but perhaps that Generation Y needs to once again recognize the invaluable gift and privilege given to it in the form of public education. It should hail that gift and nurture it. It should care for it and promote it. When something threatens its existence, Generation Y should strike back instead of lauding the decreased number of teachers and homework. As politicians attack the education system with spending cuts, furloughs and unnecessary bureaucratic restrictions, Generation Y needs to voice its opposition or else face the consequences as it matures in the world’s next generation of leaders.

I Thought This Was America! | Volume 3: Education

James Sasso, Associate Editor


For those of you who are familiar with South Park (especially you religious watchers like me who can quote many of the show’s lines from its 14 seasons), the title of this editorial series, concerning the numerous hypocrisies of American politics, should be familiar. For those who don’t get the reference, don’t worry. Just take it as is; read, and you will understand.

In this hotly contested election year, one would think that education–a major pillar of governmental responsibility–would be one of the main focal points of potential politicians and incumbents alike who strive to win on November 2, but education reform has not received much attention. Only with the release of the documentary Waiting for Superman did the longstanding, and long unsolved, debate about how to fix America’s failing schools finally fully enter political discussion.

America has always prided itself as being the most innovative country in the world. We are its leaders, its developers, its pioneers, its scientists and its refuge for the brightest minds in the world, yet at the same time America has consistently maintained an anti-intellectual attitude that has prevented it from accurately pursuing a system of public education that would allow America to retain its place at the forefront of the world in every regard. There is arguably nothing as important, as education in the development of the new generation of Americans, except perhaps parenting, which is out of the control of the government. Since every American politician, and hopeful politician, proclaims his or her desire to improve America’s status in the world and preserve its deteriorating premier status in the world, it would seem appropriate that they all would want to improve education in America. Largely, this is true. Most politicians genuinely want to improve education. The problem, though, is that none of them are willing to work together, even though improving education is a bipartisan issue, which can stall much well-minded reform in its tracks. Even an issue that should increase bipartisanship has seemed to decrease it.

Perhaps America should only hire teachers of his caliber

Arguably the most important of Obama’s reforms in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the new initiative to invest heavily into the education of America’s youth, has gone largely unnoticed.  The most significant aspect of this reform was Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s decision to institute a “race to the top” where states competed to receive an extra five billion dollars in federal aid for the state that shows the best educational system. The race to the top encourages a system where teachers are held accountable for their students and even could receive bonuses for their students’ collective improvement. While this sounds like an intelligent initiative to motivate teachers to improve their methods and, hopefully, to weed out the scores of ineffective teachers in America, there still lies a glaring problem in the reform of the Obama Administration: they still rely mainly on standardized test scores to identify the best and worst teachers and schools.

This reliance on test scores, in tandem with a teacher payment system geared to the success of these test scores, does not, and cannot, lead to an effective reform and improvement of America’s education debacle. In recent months there have been stories where administrators altered test scores of their students in order to receive more funding, such as in Atlanta, or stories, such as in New York, where scores went up, but standards were lowered deplorably, meaning that little real progress in student achievement was reached. In either case the problem lies mostly in schools’ desperate attempts to appear successful and, therefore, to receive much needed federal aid. In both cases the tests were created by the state, regulated by the state and proctored by the state. The federal government, though asking for all of these reforms, provides little federal oversight of how its money is spent, giving states the leeway to lower standards and make tests easier in order to pass more students. The object of education systems has changed from educating its students to receiving money in aid.

Obama, when attempting to pass his education reform in March, felt that he needed to include Republicans, who want as little government oversight as possible. As such, he laid out an education reform that satisfies the liberal demands for a new system while allowing conservative calls for state independence to remain fixed. This contradiction cannot last. If the Federal Government continues to fund states’ education systems (and it will), then it has come time for Washington to step in and establish national standards for tests and other benchmarks that decide how much funding is provided to each state. States cannot be relied upon to regulate themselves when there is a mass of federal money enticing them to  raise scores artificially. If tests remain the benchmark sign of how well a school is performing, then the national government needs to develop a national testing system that accurately tests the intelligence and education of America’s students. Likely an alternative yardstick for performance should be developed that does not entirely rely on test scores.

This reliance on test scores puts teachers between a rock and a hard place. They, most of them at least, want to teach well, but they know that their students must do well on these standardized tests. As such, much education time is wasted “teaching to the test” instead of providing a quality education to their students. At the same time, most of the time the performance of students on test scores has little to do with the teachers. It can be unfair to determine a teacher’s value on only these scores.

Students labor over exams

This is not to say that teachers are free from blame. They certainly are not, and it is laudable that the Obama Administration has publicly encouraged the firing of poor teachers and the revamping of failing schools. Too many sub-par teachers are protected by powerful teachers’ unions, which sometimes prevent even the worst of teachers to be fired. Washington’s attempt to shock the system of education into functionality by jolting its worst members and installing a system of pay-for-performance deserves praise for its attempt to improve the quality of the teachers who play a large role in structuring the development of the next generation of American leaders. Unfortunately, though, there is no simple answer to the education question.

America’s failing education system cannot be blamed on one entity, but one thing is certain: the system needs to be fixed. This is not a topic over which politicians should quarrel; it should be one over which they unite. Politicians have no problem signing billions of tax money over to the army, but it takes a true struggle even to agree to provide emergency funding to school systems so that they can retain enough teachers to stay functional.

Providing proper education for America’s youth is arguably the most important function of government. How can it be that America fails so horribly at doing it? There certainly are cultural factors contributing to failing schools and students, but the truth is that for too many years America’s government has not done enough to establish the magnificent public education system of which it is capable. The states have too much power to regulate themselves and the funding provided by Washington is mismanaged. How can America claim to be the most modern country in the world, yet have one of the worst public education systems out of the modernized countries?  I don’t mean to complain, but I’m sorry, I thought this was America.