Letter in Opposition to AB 194

On May 4, Wisconsin state legislators introduced AB 194, a bill that will require students to take a civics test (based on the U.S. Citizenship Test) in order to receive their high school diploma.  I have read the bill, and I am against it.  What follows is the text of the letter I sent today to the sponsors, my representative, and the chair and co-chair of the Committee on State Affairs and Government Operations.  What do you think- should graduating high school seniors be required to take the civics test?

Thanks for reading.

Dear ,

I am writing to you in opposition to AB 194, which “requires a person to correctly answer at least 60 of 100 questions on a civics test, which is identical to the civics test required to be taken by persons seeking U.S. citizenship, as a prerequisite to obtaining a high school diploma or a high school equivalency diploma.” Requiring a civics test will not make a student more patriotic or more of a citizen, nor will it lead to a sound understanding of our government.

Tests such as the one that would be required by this bill require only rote learning. As a high school social studies teacher, I do not want my students to memorize random facts; I aim to have them perform tasks that require higher order thinking. By requiring purely memorization, this bill goes against sound pedagogical standards.

Instead of encouraging students to learn random facts about the United States, we should be encouraging them to be involved and to vote. We should have lengthy discussions on topics like campaign finance, the role of public opinion, and polarization in politics. We should teach them how to conduct research on policies and candidates so that they can make informed decisions at the polls. We should talk about the abysmal voter turnout in the 2014 midterms and why people did not vote. We should be discussing the problems of our current system and their ideas for addressing them. By requiring students to have only rudimentary knowledge of our political system, this bill will not lead to a more informed and engaged electorate.

I am not saying that students should not know the basics of our government. They should know who represents us in Congress, and they should understand the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. They should not, however, be required to take a test to showcase this knowledge. This test will do nothing to help students become active participants in the political process.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Jason Knoll

Thoughts on the UK Parliamentary General Election

My first exposure to the UK Parliamentary General Election was in 2010.  That year, I showed one of the leaders debates to my classes to have them compare it with our presidential debates.  This year, I showed the first leaders debate (April 2) to one of my classes, again for the same purpose.  While I followed the 2010 election out of my interest in European politics, I have followed the 2015 election a bit more closely, as I will be teaching about the UK in a new class next year.  As I strive to get a better understanding of the electoral process, I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve had since that first debate.

First, I am surprised at the brevity of the campaign.  Thanks to Giles Goodall, a candidate for the LibDems, I learned that there is a short campaign (which starts when Parliament is dissolved) and a long campaign (which began back in December).  This handout from the UK Electoral Commission explained it nicely.  Compared with the U.S., this is a short time for campaigning;  even our campaigns for the House of Representatives last longer.  I wonder what Britons make of the length of our presidential campaigns.

Second, campaign finance is much different there than here in the U.S.  To see how much they are limited to, I’ll refer you to the aforementioned handout form the Electoral Commission.  During the long campaign, a candidate is limited to a fixed amount of £30,700 plus a variable amount of 6p/9p (100p in a British pound) per elector in a borough/county constituency.  In U.S. dollars, that’s a fixed amount of $46,565.76.  The variable amount is based on the number of electors in the constituency.  According to the Electoral Statistics for UK, 2014, “The typical size of constituencies differs between the constituent countries of the UK with a median total parliamentary electorate across constituencies of about 71,000 in England, 68,900 in Scotland, 67,500 in Northern Ireland and 55,100 in Wales.”  So, if I am a candidate in England, using the median, my variable amount for a borough would be just over $6700 (British readers, please correct me if I am incorrect, my knowledge of the British Pound is minimal, thanks).  That means that I would be able to spend just over $53,000 from December 19, 2014, through March 30, 2015 (the earliest start of a short campaign).  The amount for the short campaign, which lasts until the election on may 7, 2015, is much less than that amount.  Now, let’s keep in mind that elections occur every five years, not two for the U.S. House.  Can you imagine trying to run a campaign for the U.S. House, for which the term of office is shorter, on that little amount of money?

Stephen Castle wrote a fascinating piece about campaign finance for UK elections and made some comparisons to here in the U.S.  At one point he quotes a professor who “said the American system was seen in Britain ‘as the worst of all worlds,’ focused on ‘raising money and not about getting ideas across’.”  While I certainly agree that campaign finance is a massive problem for American politics, it was the point about ideas that stuck with me.  Once the long campaign begins, candidates have just under five months to get their ideas across.  Is that enough time for a serious discussion of the issues?  On the other hand, does the length of the American extremely-long campaign dilute the discussion of ideas?

Finally, I appreciate the fact that the televised debates included more than two leaders.  Yes, the primary debates here may included multiple candidates, but I would like to see a presidential debate that included more than just the two GOP and Democratic candidates.  Along these lines I learned about a program titled, “BBC Question Time,” (thanks to John McManus).  The program is described as “a popular current affairs discussion programme which aims to give people an opportunity to scrutinise directly senior politicians and others who exercise power and influence at a UK level.”  Every week, a studio audience gets to actually pose questions, in person, to MPs; what a wonderful concept!  We need something like that here in the U.S. to publicly hold our elected officials accountable.

In short, I think there are some great ideas concerning campaign finance and publicly questioning politicians that perhaps we should look at further here in the U.S.  If you live in the UK, I would be especially keen on hearing your thoughts on this, even if it is just to correct an error in my analysis.

Thanks for reading.

Bernie Sanders’ Press Conference

Sen. Bernie Sanders held a press conference today to discuss the some of the big issues facing the U.S. and his ideas to address them as a presidential candidate.  It was a short conference- about ten minutes- but within that time, Sen. Sanders impressed me once more with his passion and his stances on the issues.  Here’s a quick rundown–

The economy: I really like how he described the current problem of income inequality as immoral.  He also called our current economic trajectory “unsustainable.”

Campaign finance: Billionaires should not be able to buy elections and/or candidates.  I hope that he will live up to the point that his campaign will make its money from small individual contributions via his website.  According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, in 2012, Sen. Sanders had $4.1 million in unitemized donations (i.e. donations in the amount of less than $200).  That’s an impressive grassroots fundraising effort.

Climate change: Big goal of the U.S. leading the world away from fossil fuels, and towards energy efficiency and sustainability.

Infrastructure: To help fight unemployment in the U.S., he has a plan that would create and maintain (that’s the key) 13 million jobs.  I highly recommend looking at the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers for more information on the current status of our crumbling infrastructure.

College affordability: Students are graduating college with staggering amounts of debt.  Sen. Sanders would like to make public universities tuition-free, similar to Germany.  As a result of rising tuition costs, university education has become more of a privilege than a right.  Here in Wisconsin, four years at the flagship public university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will cost students almost $100,000.

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Campaigns: I agree with him that we need serious debates over serious issues.  I also appreciate that he does not go negative in his campaigns.  He also emphasized that disagreement is part of democracy and that he runs “vigorous campaigns.”  After his press conference ended, Hillary Clinton’s campaign sent out a tweet welcoming Sen. Sanders to the race; he gave an excellent reply–

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Based on this press conference, and other speeches and articles, I can confidently declare that I support Sen. Sanders in his run for the presidency.

Thanks for reading.

**Thanks to J.T. Stepleton for the information on unitemized donations.

Takeaways from the Marshall Seminar on Transatlantic Security

I had the honor of attending the German Marshall Fund’s Marshall Seminar on Transatlantic Security from April 22-24, 2015.  For three days, participants listened to experts discuss the challenges and possibilities in a variety of areas of transatlantic relations.  On the last day, we were asked three questions: 1) What was the most important thing we learned? 2) What will we do with the knowledge? 3) Where is the greatest potential for transatlantic cooperation?  Here are my thoughts on them.

What was the most important thing we learned?
While there were many, many interesting and important points made by the speakers, two ideas really stuck with me.

During the panel on Russia and the Middle East, Ian Lesser said that one of the most important issues in maintaining and strengthening transatlantic relations today is getting the U.S. to see issues/problems through a European lens.  While I agree with his assessment, I think getting both U.S. policymakers and the public to do so will be an uphill battle.  Europe does not receive as much attention in the media as say, Asia (i.e. China) or the Middle East (given our involvement there for over a decade).  A good example of this is the debate surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  The U.S. government is not doing a great job explaining and promoting TTIP.  As Rep. Sandy Levin explained recently at the Bertelsmann Foundation, “TTIP is essentially unknown in the US Congress.”  If Congress doesn’t know much about TTIP, what does that say about the public’s knowledge of it?  So, the question we should ask ourselves is how do we get the public and our elected officials to care about Europe?  How should the government (e.g. the State Department, NATO, the US Trade Rep,  etc.) convince the American public that Europe still matters?

The panel on challenges to democracy was informative and gave me a lot to think about.  In his introductory remarks, Ivan Vejvoda brought up the point that democracy is an ongoing process.  Of course, if that is the case (which I believe it is), then is democracy truly attainable?  Brenda Carter, of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, shared some enlightening data concerning political representation and demographics of power here in the U.S.  Here argument that we should apply the same scrutiny to the U.S. as we do other countries when it comes to democracy was certainly thought-provoking.  Finally, Mohamed-Ali Adraoui asked the question, “If some people don’t matter, then what happens to democracy?”  His discussion of identity and exclusion in democracy was certainly relevant in both Europe and the U.S.

What will we do with the knowledge?
As a teacher, I plan on taking the information and turning it into lesson plans.  The panels on climate change and migration, global health, democracy were all very useful and provided ideas for the classroom.  They will be especially useful during my units on the Sustainable Development Goals.  The panel on democracy, as discussed above, is also relevant for my classes on government and politics.

Where is the greatest potential for transatlantic cooperation?
As far as the topics of the panels go, the U.S. and Europe can cooperate on a number of areas.  All of the issues covered were global issues, necessitating global solutions.  No one country can tackle them alone.  While a certain degree of competition among countries will always exist, the U.S. and its European allies must cooperate and work towards multilateral solutions.  Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic can learn from each other; however, that requires a greater degree of flexibility and innovation than currently exists.

I also believe, as I have written before, that teachers need to be more involved to promote transatlantic relations.  I am developing the rough outline of a possible teacher program that I hope to share with relevant parties (and perhaps on this blog) in the near future.  If we want the public to understand why Europe still matters to the U.S. and to see global issues/problems through a European lens, teachers must be involved.

Attending this seminar was the best professional development I have had in my thirteen years as a teacher.  I would love to attend more like it and even apply for fellowships or programs whose goals are to maintain and strengthen transatlantic relations.  Ideally, I would prefer to leave teaching and work full time on such matters.  Unfortunately, as I look for such opportunities, I realize that as I fast approach 40 years old, my chances are limited.

Thanks for reading.

Marshall Seminar Background Reading: Part I

Last year the German Marshall Fund held a blog competition on transatlantic cooperation.  Participants were asked to write entries on “what has the transatlantic relationship meant to you, and how can we preserve it and make it even stronger for future generations.”  I entered and wrote a piece titled, “Teachers and the Transatlantic Relationship,” and much to my surprise, I was chosen as an honorable mention.  As a result, I have the honor to attend the GMF’s Marshall Seminar on Transatlantic Security.

When I saw the preliminary agenda for the Seminar, I was quite excited.  I finally have the chance to talk with others who are as interested as I am in maintaing and strengthening transatlantic relations.  To prepare for the seminar, I starting looking for articles on each topic.  I was not looking to become an expert, but I wanted enough to have some sort of knowledge so that I can follow the discussions and maybe ask a question or two.  I have now made my way through about half of the reading, and I wanted to share them, in case somebody else out there is interested in the topics.

General Reading
The North Atlantic Treaty with Accession Protocols– Articles 4, 5, and 6 are especially important when we start talking about concerns by Eastern European members about Russia and the situation with ISIS along the Turkey-Syria border.

NATO in an Era of Global Competition– If I were to pick a few ideas that stuck out to me: 1) impact of fiscal austerity, 2) how to build public support for NATO, and 3) the opportunities for the U.S. and Europe to collaborate on more than just security/defense.

NATO at a Crossroads– Short set of recommendations, but a lot to think about.  In particular, the recommendation on the need for more public diplomacy from NATO, especially for younger generations, resonated with me.  To my knowledge, NATO does not have anything on its website geared to educators in Member States that would help with that.

Wales Summit Declaration– Good to get a sense of what leaders see as important for NATO and what they foresee in its future. Addresses most of the topics for the Marshall Seminar.

Munich Security Report: The section on “Challenges” (e.g. hybrid warfare, war on terror, refugees, etc.) is especially useful.  I also appreciated the fourth section, “More Food for Thought,” which gave recommendations for further reading.

New Face of Warfare and How to Deal with Russia and the Islamic State
Counter-Unconventional Warfare is the Way of the Future. How Can We get There?– The definition of hybrid warfare was useful, as was the discussion differentiating counter-unconventional warfare from counter terrorism and counter insurgency.

Deterring Hybrid Warfare: A Chance for NATO and the EU to Work Together?– Argues that NATO and the EU working together creates more flexibility when it comes to deterring adversaries.  Mentions the work the EU has done in the realm of Security Sector Reform.

Energy as a Part of Hybrid Warfare– Discusses three actions Russia has taken using energy as part of its hybrid warfare in Ukraine. Great point at the end about Russia acting alone as a single state as opposed to the West, which has to coordinate actions, thereby giving Russia an advantage.

Russia’s Hybrid Warfare: A Success in Propaganda– Interesting discussion of the evolution of Russia’s use of traditional and social media in framing the narrative and how Western media has played a role in its current success.

Preparing Finland for Hybrid Warfare: Social Vulnerabilities and the Threat of Military Force– Argues that “societal preparedness” must be part of a response to hybrid warfare and gives five recommendations.

Nothing New in Hybrid Warfare: The Estonian Experience and Recommendations for NATO– Fascinating section on Estonia’s experience with Russia’s historical use of hybrid warfare. Great point that “It is the combination and orchestration of different actions that achieves a surprise effect and creates ambiguity, making an adequate reaction difficult, especially for multinational organizations that operate on the principle of consensus.”

Nonviolent Civilian Defense to Counter Russian Hybrid Warfare– Argues that nonviolent actions taken by civilians can be more effective and less costly than military measures.  Uses historical examples of Denmark in the Second World War and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The Future of Conflict– Brussels Forum panel including Gen. Philp Breedlove, Michele Flournoy, Yang Jiemian, and Marwan Lahoud.  Gen. Breedlove’s discussion of hybrid warfare, his use of the “DIME” model (diplomatic, informational, military, and economics), and his idea of an “all of government approach” was especially useful.  Best quote about information warfare came from him- “the way to attack the false narrative is to drag the false narrative out into the light and expose it.”

The Threshold for Collective Defense- Article 5 and Emerging Threats
Collective Defence– Basic information from NATO. Includes a section on collective defense in regards to Ukraine.

How to Avoid Wars: NATO’s Article 5 and Strategic Reassurance– Recommends that NATO “react strongly to Russia’s aggression.”  Also urges NATO to be more reactive, rather than proactive, when it comes to “new risks.”

Article 5 Revisited: Is NATO Up to It?– The discussion on Article 4 of the NATO Treaty is thought-provoking, as is the question posed at the end of the paper- “If not now, when?”

How NATO’s Article 5 Could Work in the Case of Turkey– Important to think about in terms of the threat to Turkey posed by ISIS.

I will try to post my thoughts on the next two Seminar topics soon.  If you have any other recommendations or thoughts, please let me know.

Thanks for reading.