Of men and mice: fear & learning in trailer school


I share the average person's fear of living in an apocalyptic environment wherein formerly rational people revert to the law of the jungle.

The bedrock of a civilized society lies with the idea of individuals giving up some personal freedom to a central authority for the collective good. Among your basic clan of Neanderthals, that might take the form of the dominant alpha male making sure that even the weakest get to eat. Today, it can be something as simple as a flashing sign warning drivers to slow down in a school zone.

People obey for two reasons: the social contract to which they are parties impels them to do so and the threat of punishment if they break the deal.

When too many dishonor the social contract, chaos and revolution result. Russia and Mexico provide good foreign examples. The Oklahoma City bombing sent a nasty warning here at home.

So what does it say about us if we place our children in an environment impelling them toward regression and anarchy?

When mice are placed in an overcrowded environment, some become viciously aggressive. An upper class develops, serviced by the subservient. Some lose hope and become very passive, allowing aggressives to chew on their tails without a whimper.  Aberrant behavior increases, such as males attacking females, something not observed in nature. (See "Dr. Calhoun's Horrible Mousery" by Stewart Alsop, Newsweek, 17 August 1970.)

Mother Nature seems to have built in a great equalizer. Reproduction soon ceases. Mice in an overcrowded environment will even commit suicide if given the tools.

The dominant life form on this planet has not yet reached the rodent-locust stage, but signs show we're rapidly getting there. The 1973 Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson film "Soylent Green" portrayed a polluted world in which the population is reduced to eating its reprocessed dead because the oceans are dying.

Life imitates art. Last week came a report so stark it borders on the incredible. According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, fully one-third of the world's natural resources were lost from 1970 (year of the first Earth Day) through 1995.

Given these bleak portents, Nevada educators are doing one hell of a job preparing children for the future.

All over the Silver State, local school bonds have begun to lose. No one can remember when that last occurred, if ever. In Reno-Sparks, it had never happened before 1996. Those on the ballot next month also appear in jeopardy. The situation has not gone unnoticed by the most affected.

McQueen High School opened in northwest Reno in the early 1980s. Its student newspaper, Excalibur, is an excellent publication which has consistently addressed hard issues. An editorial in the September 23 edition proved instructive.

"Okay, we're good. McQueen had the highest proficiency test scores in the district," said the editors, "... and let's not even start with various athletics achievements. To sum it up, we don't lose very often. But we also don't have enough space for all these perfect people. Or money. Can we seriously expect to  continue to turn out geniuses and champion athletes when more and more of us are operating out of little more than trailers in the parking lot?" the editors wrote.

Excalibur interviews were more revelatory. "What will our school be like in five years if the bond isn't passed?" the paper queried.

"We'll be like Reed, but ten times worse," said sophomore Angie Rostagni. "They'll have to make more of those Sani-hut things outside," said junior Renato Collado.

By stealing the continent from its longtime inhabitants, we invaders acquired the natural resources to achieve empire. That would not have been enough to become a great nation and world power. Public education provided the difference. It was nice while it lasted.

Ronald Reagan is the father of the erosion of U.S. schools. When he became governor of California, he reduced to fair-to-middling what had been the greatest university system the world had ever produced. When he became U.S. president, he cut the flow of federal dollars to the states, resulting in huge reductions to local governments and school districts.

Tax breaks for the corporately rich were balanced by tax increases on wage earners. Taxpayer revolts began in California and spread. Finally, the system began to feed upon itself. The rats started chewing tails. School bonds began to fail.

Those who can afford it have begun to opt out of the public system. New private schools have been sprouting like weeds right here in River City. Charter schools are emerging from the crumbling chrysalis of elongated legislative incubation.

Over the past several weeks, I have begun gathering a recommended music, film and reading list for a 13 year-old who has opted for home schooling rather than attend Reno High. Keep the suggestions coming. I will publish them here and will also interview the young man in a future installment.

Never outstanding in the first place, Nevada's educational system continues to erode by design, mismanagement and neglect.

Here in the High Desert Outback of the American Dream, the gambling industry's principal interest in our second-rate university system lies in its use as a sports promotional tool. The U also gives the gamblers a veneer of legitimacy and community approval, kind of like when the local whorehouse feeds the poor at Christmas. (See the six-month Barbwire series beginning October 27, 1996.)

Our underfunded efforts at economic diversification usually produce low paying jobs for which the gambling industry resents competition.

World class companies have avoided coming here because of the weaknesses in our schools at all levels. That's fine by casinos who want no pesky pressures to increase their taxes.

Gambling has successfully shifted the burden so that gaming taxes this year dropped all the way to fourth among state government funding sources. Education consequently gets only about a third of the state budget.

Our children warn us on every street corner every day.

Is anybody listening?

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and was campaign manager for Democratic candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 10/4/98.