Gross: The government shutdown as a teachable moment

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Karen Gross, who is the president of Southern Vermont College. She served as a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Education during 2012 and is now a consultant to the department. The views presented here are her own.

The shutdown of the federal government this week should have educators all riled up. Are they? Hard to know since the educators’ decibel level hasn’t been heard above the fray.

On this we can agree (well, at least most of us): the role of the pre-K-20 pipeline is to educate the leaders of tomorrow. Yes, we are teaching specific content. Yes, we are teaching critical thinking skills and how to see issues from multiple perspectives. Whether we are a liberal arts institution, a research university or community college, we overtly acknowledge that we are educating individuals to be active and engaged members in their communities. We believe the oft-repeated mantra attributed to President Jefferson that Democracy with a capital “D” demands an educated citizenry.

Decades ago, college presidents and other members of the academy spoke out on key social and political issues of their time. They did not shy away from difficult and contentious topics.


That is why the shutdown of the federal government this week should have educators all riled up. Congressional impasse, vituperative and personalized attacks, usurpation of extraordinary airtime and holding Obamacare hostage are surely not providing the best example of how our democracy should be working. Politicians in Washington are most assuredly not role modeling how to problem solve and reach resolution of difficult issues. Regardless of our political affiliations, it is hard to characterize the current government shutdown as a positive reflection of a democracy at work. What is happening looks vastly more like a failing or fractured democracy.

And, the impact of the shutdown on individuals in our communities — particularly among low-income families — threatens our existing social safety nets and puts families at risk of losing needed goods and services including child care and needed revenue for food and gas. Trips to visit our treasured national monuments and memorials are derailed. The price of the shutdown is far wider, then, than simply furloughing select federal employees. There is a ripple effect that impacts our citizens — at a time when members of Congress are still being paid their normal wages.

If we posed a classroom hypothetical involving a complex dispute and put the students into teams to resolve it, we would give low grades to those students who could not find a thoughtful, well-reasoned, well-supported compromise solution. We would not tolerate personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric among participants in or outside the classroom. We would eschew stonewalling. If any children’s story were invoked and read, it should be one with a strong message about “getting to yes.” “Jethro and Joel Were a Troll” would be my choice.

Until now, I have not spoken out loudly enough on controversial political or social issues. There are many reasons for this — and I am certainly not alone among college presidents. But, after spending a remarkable year in D.C., where I experienced and participated in our government’s capacity to act effectively, I feel compelled to speak out on how the current government shutdown reflects poorly on our politicians. More importantly, the message generated by failure to reach a reasoned compromise is a harmful example for our current students who are, after all, tomorrow’s leaders.

This is a teachable moment for students across our nation. The current shutdown of government violates our notions of fair play and fair dealing; it produces inequities that adversely affect our most vulnerable citizens. We need our students to know that this is not an acceptable way for our political leaders to act as our representatives. We need to role model workable solutions to difficult issues when they occur on our campus, in our nation, across the globe.

Decades ago, college presidents and other members of the academy spoke out on key social and political issues of their time. They did not shy away from difficult and contentious topics. As I reflect on their activism and my relative quiet, I can appreciate why there is contemporary reluctance to speak out. On a personal level, I do not want to be seen as one of the political pundits who fill our airwaves. I worry about alienating my board and putting my current and future employment in academia or government at risk. I am concerned about riling up donors and alums; my institution cannot afford a diminution of much-needed donations. I know social media may fail to capture my message fully and perhaps, in the process, distort my views.

I should take some lessons from some prior college and university leaders: Derek Bok, Kingman Brewster, A. Bart Giamatti, James Wright, Jill Ker Conway, William Sloane Coffin, W.E.B. DuBois and Stanley Fish among others. They saw their job as requiring more than running their institutions, a task that in and of itself was not so easy then or is far from easy in today’s economic climate. They became voices of reason and voices of conscience on hard public issues. They took the bully pulpit. They felt an obligation to speak out. I do too.

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  • Dave Bellini

    “I worry about alienating my board and putting my current and future employment in academia or government at risk.”
    The government shutdown has been condemned by almost every person and organization in America. The opinion of congress is at an historically all time low. You are taking a “risk” by repeating this very widely held viewpoint?

  • timothy price

    Why is it that no one seems be concerned that the banks (Federal Reserve) is printing money for itself for free, loaning to the government and charging interest on it for us and our children to never be able to repay? We need an economic shutdown and to kick out the Federal Reserve system in order to be able to fix the mess we are in, thanks to the Fed and Congresses endless war funding on credit. Stop being subjected to their ponzi financial racket. Stop fighting over the crumbs that they leave us while the 1% take it all “It is the financial system, stupid.”

  • David Usher

    Our democracy is at risk because we, citizens and leaders/politicians alike, do not seriously embrace the long term fiscal threat underlying the issue by issue political fights in Washington.

    When too many people of a democracy become overly dependent on government rather than the private sector and their personal initiative for their financial well-being, the democracy is at risk. Personal liberty is threatened, bureaucracies bloat and far too much personal income is devoted to funding these government services upon which so many people and corporations have come to rely.

    We may be dangerously close to a tipping point because the private sector economy has become overly dependent on the government economy. Meanwhile, the old Keynesian nostrums for a healthy economy no longer work as intended in the digital age where capital and technology so easily replace labor.

    In this environment, civility evaporates quickly as instant communications amplify shrill voices and emotional appeal rather than reasoned dialogue about what’s really wrong with our country and its leadership..

    Teachable moments are prevalent, yet I fear too many teachers have lost their independence in the fears enumerated by Karen Gross. Or worse, they hold an unhealthy view of the role of government in our democracy.

    We need voices of reason that take the long view. Will the real leaders please step forward?

  • Alex Darr

    I for one am not excited about teachers taking on political issues, at least in front of their students. outside of the school is okay. A teachers job is to teach ” this is how you find the answer…” not so much “this is the only answer.” What I’m trying to say is, we don’t want to indoctrinate kids. Leave that to the parents and pop stars. just kidding, but really…I’d rather have parents over teachers , they will be responsible in the long term, not a teacher that has them for one year, or one class.