P. J. O’Rourke, the Libertarian humorist, defined politics as “the attempt to achieve power and prestige without merit.”
To politicize something is to focus simply on how to play it for an advantage in that pursuit of power and prestige. Traditionally, when we talk about a issue that brings everyone together, we’re talking about a crisis or concern that invokes an unspoken agreement that the various parties won’t try to play the issue for an angle on power and prestige.
From huge crisis like 9/11 to small crises like Baby Jessica in the well, Americans expect the deal to hold—we will work through this together and nobody is going to try to score personal gain from it. When someone hollers that the house is on fire, we traditionally don’t pause to wonder how we can spin this for advantage.
But this unspoken agreement requires trust that the other guy is not trying to gain power and prestige from the situation. Otherwise, when the fire alarm goes off, we ignore the smoke and flames while we try to figure out what the other side’s angle is here.
Unfortunately, the erosion of trust is defining feature of the current era. We can see it in the reaction to each new shooting; various factions quickly adopt a political stance to thwart others who, they suspect, are just trying to gain power. There were hopes that the COVID pandemic would be our 9/11 moment, when the US dropped politics in favor of national unity to address the crisis; those hopes lasted about a week, as responses devolved into charges that certain parties were simply trying to gather power.
The most extreme expression of the issue is displayed by deniers who believe that shootings and the pandemic are not even real events, just fictions created so that some can make a meritless play for power and prestige.
The politicizing of everything means that we no longer view problems as problems to be solved, but as events to be spun for power acquisition (if not by ourselves, then by those people over there).
Education was once viewed as a non-political arena, even if that agreement was not always honored. Many states still observe non-partisan school board elections. But education, like everything else in our culture, has been increasingly politicized.
As defined by O’Rourke, politics need not be red vs. blue, conservative vs. liberal. Implementation of Common Core Standards was not initially an issue for political parties, but it did represent an attempt by some folks like Bill Gates to acquire power and prestige without showing educational merit.
Now politicians and other groups are trying to gain political power by leveraging outrage over what is taught, how it’s taught, and what books are used to teach it. The same political calculations that arose out of the pandemic across the country have worked their ways into schools.
The trouble with politicizing problems is that puts focus on everything except actually solving the problem, and education is loaded with problems right now.
The teaching profession is in a crisis, with school districts increasingly struggling to attract and retain teachers. Student growth and learning have been disrupted in real but hard-to-quantify ways.
Yet as educators declare that the school house is on fire, they are met with responses of “You’re just saying that for your own advantage” and “This is just union propaganda” and “How can I best spin this to further my own aims.” But nobody is grabbing a fire extinguisher.
It is one the great frustrations in an overly-politicized space. People don’t listen when you try to identify a real problem, no matter how many ways you try to say, “No, I’m not trying to work an angle. The house really is on fire.”