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Two recent developments, one a U.S. Senate committee report, the other newly signed legislation directing Ohio schools to offer instruction in cursive handwriting, provide a contrast in examining public policy and how our future societal needs are addressed. A look at each of these events offers some ideas about the direction we might be headed as a state and nation.

On December 16, the Washington Post published a story on the Senate Intelligence Committee report about the scope of Russian assault on our democratic process. In particular, the investigation focused on how a hostile foreign power manipulated the thinking of millions of Americans using social media and helped to elect someone who had never served before in any public office.

The Russians determined that Donald Trump could be more easily manipulated than his more experienced opponent, a former United States Senator and Secretary of State. Based upon two years of observation of the most erratic and incompetent president in modern history, the Kremlin’s decision to intervene in our election was an incredible victory for our Cold War adversary.

The Post report documents the efforts of the now-famous Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) and the work it performs in sowing doubt and confusion in the minds of millions of unsuspecting Americans:

The Russians started with accounts on Twitter, then added YouTube and Instagram before bringing Facebook into the mix …

Facebook was particularly effective at targeting conservatives and African Americans … More than 99 percent of all engagement — meaning likes, shares and other reactions — came from 20 Facebook pages controlled by the IRA, including “Being Patriotic,” “Heart of Texas,” “Blacktivist” and “Army of Jesus.”

Together, the 20 most popular pages generated 39 million likes, 31 million shares, 5.4 million reactions and 3.4 million comments. Company officials told Congress that the Russian campaign reached 126 million people on Facebook and 20 million more on Instagram.

As some of us finished reading this and were worried about the vulnerability of the country to endless propaganda consumed by tens of millions of equally vulnerable and unthinking citizens, we were astounded to read just three days later about a new bill signed by John Kasich.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich gave final approval for a bill that will require the Department of Education to include cursive handwriting instruction in the language arts curriculum.

Cursive handwriting materials will become part of the Department of Education’s curriculum, as part of House Bill 58, but it will be up to the schools whether it will be included in lessons for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Maybe we should allow the schools to have more influence in the development of state educational policy rather than backward-looking right-wing politicians as we prepare children to be skilled, ethical, and thinking citizens.

For those who are curious about the sponsor of this legislation, it should come as no surprise that the usual suspect was Rep. Andrew Brenner, outgoing Chair of the House Education Committee. Unfortunately, Brenner, aka #ECOTAndy for his role as both a defender and promoter of the failed, corrupt Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school, holds views that are antithetical to those concerned about the continuing safety of our country from enemies foreign and domestic.

Rep. Andrew Brenner
Photo from ohiohouse.gov

In using the term continuing safety, that means being safe from an aggressive NRA pro-gun culture, which Brenner supports, and from threats posed by hostile foreign governments like Russia, which he ignores.

No, by his actions Brenner tells us that the Republic is threatened more by a lack of cursive writing instruction rather than a requirement that schools promote literacy through teaching critical thinking and research skills when using the Internet. (In June 2017, I was pleased to attend a training session for school librarians as they assist schools in promoting research and critical thinking skills. Plunderbund readers can find the article here that was published about this kind of training for educators.)

Brenner, who ignores so many current issues, may not know that according to the respected Pew Research Center, about half of Americans are getting a good part of their news and information from Facebook. And worse yet, if the outgoing Chair of the Ohio House Education Committee does know that, he still thinks that emphasizing cursive writing instruction is much more important than better educating our young people to employ higher-order thinking skills and be more critical and discerning about what they read, view, and hear.

But let’s not confuse Brenner with the facts. His actions tell us that the needs of a democratic society under constant attack through disinformation by a hostile foreign power are better served by mandating cursive writing instruction rather than appropriate teaching that will enable young people to be more fully equipped in developing 21st Century literacy skills.

You can’t say we weren’t warned about Brenner and his unnecessary legislation. Apparently, in signing the bill without reference to appropriate educational priorities, Kasich may not have been aware of this succinct analysis about Brenner published way back in April 2015 in the Columbus Dispatch:

State Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, must be the new intellectual standard-bearer for the Ohio Republican Party. The earnest wunderkind co-sponsored two bills in the same week that, on one hand, would nullify all required certification and training for carrying concealed firearms and, on the other, mandate the teaching of cursive for elementary-aged students through the fifth grade (Dispatch articles, April 8).

So let’s see: If both bills pass, we’re assured, about 20 years from now, of being able to decipher coroners’ signatures on the death certificates of those killed by guns.

Or, wait, what about this: Family members of victims killed by “accidental gunfire” will find solace in the beautifully scripted notes of condolence perpetrators will write.

Abandon all common sense with guns but mandate (that is, compel by imprimatur of the state) the teaching of cursive handwriting?

Shame on you, Brenner.

But there’s a lot of shame to pass around. In November, the term-limited Brenner, who was not held accountable by the voters for accepting and not returning campaign contributions from the notorious and radioactive ECOT online charter school,  instead won a Senate seat and will be back in the legislature for the new session. No doubt the non-accountable Teflon Andy will continue to work overtime to devise ways to hold public schools more accountable while giving more free-passes to his largely unaccountable charter school friends.

Brenner, along with his Republican colleagues in Columbus and around the nation, cannot continue to ignore the need for this country to be thinking about literacy as more than the ability for children to write cursively.

The debacle of the 2016 election, as we may now realize with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, occurred when millions of people took what they were receiving through social media and accepted it on blind faith instead of critically analyzing and validating what they read, hear, and view. This lack of discernment and critical analysis displayed by a large part of our citizenry should be a wake-up call for any parent, educator, and elected official.

Worse yet, if Brenner’s beloved National Rifle Association is implicated in facilitating Russian money laundering in the 2016 election when $30 million was spent by the organization to elect Trump, that will put even more of a spotlight on his extremist positions.  The fallout that could come with a revelation of NRA-Russia ties, a partnership that makes this country even less safe through the actions of an organization that supports guns everywhere while aiding the Russians in money laundering and thus undermining our democracy, could be profound for the Republic.

Think of that for a moment: the NRA’s Eddie Eagle – the symbol of our Republic, working hand-in-hand with the Russian Bear.

Meanwhile, Andrew Brenner has, yet again, thrown his cursive ball while the NRA and the Russians are playing hardball.

In a recent Facebook post, one of Brenner’s social media critics put the situation in a succinct fashion.

It only follows that someone who serves as chair of a legislative committee on education, who is expressly anti-public education and pro-privatization, and, worse yet, pro-NRA in the face of dozens of school shootings, would be the most polarizing figure in the Ohio legislature.

But with Brenner, it only gets worse. A vocal NRA and Second Amendment supporter, he doesn’t believe that constituents have First Amendment rights, as he routinely blocks critics on social media. And then there is the ever-present topic of socialism, which Brenner sees lurking under every bed in this nation.

By advocating for cursive writing instruction instead of calling for the development of state policy that encourages the teaching of critical thinking and research skills, Brenner has made himself a caricature of the 1950s, when the country was, like now, distracted. After all, it was the revered Edward R. Murrow who once said that “our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions.”

One wonders if Brennan, always on the hunt for socialists and wishing that cursive writing could serve as a panacea for the ills of our society, ever heard of Edward R. Murrow. But then those who follow his antics know that he is, um, distracted in fully facing reality.

Let’s hope that by the next election, current Brenner supporters will start examining his policy positions in a critical fashion and deploy the critical thinking and research skills necessary to help him become a full-time realtor and social media maven. After all, the Russians who operate the Internet Research Agency might be telling Americans in an off-handed way that you shouldn’t unquestionably accept what you read, hear, and view until you reflect for a moment and then do the appropriate research. That takes a little skill and practice, just like cursive writing.

Just ask Andrew Brenner.

As these challenging times continue, we’ll soon see which of these skills will prove more valuable. On second thought, make that essential.

 

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