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
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
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
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
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.