You Studyin' Hard And Hopin' To Pass

"Do as I say, not as I do," mother always used to advise when I confronted her with the manifest hypocrisy of her behavior. Her pronouncements on matters moral, spiritual and hygienic designed to keep me in line did not, she said, apply to adults, or at least to the situation at hand which, in my estimation, undermined the foundation of her original decrees. Dad mostly stayed out of the way and enjoyed this fruitless debate as a spectator. Nothing can be gained and much dignity sacrificed in arguing with children.

Which is sort of how, now, I feel about writing to my Congressman. Reason, perspective, proportion and decency are ineffective tools with which to engage ignorance, incompetence and apathy or, worse, the vicious conglomeration of God, guns and greed that defines my country's purposes now at home and in the world.

The President, we may charitably say, is an idiot. And a puppet. He knows not what he does. But that would be fine, or at least we could effectively work around his vacuity, vapidity and sad inability to plod through a straightforward declarative sentence without pausing, stumbling and ultimately mispronouncing, frequently with a loss of subject and verb agreement or a variable approach to tense, if Congress posed any sort of corrective rein upon our self-described "Decider."

But Congress wants only to get reelected. So its members lunch with lobbyists, make promises to great corporations in exchange for money and votes, pose for photographs with flags, and let one bad deal after another go down. Except Nancy Pelosi tells us, too many years to count into the never-ending war, that she's proud to have "changed the nature of the debate." And I'm sure that's comforting to the families burying the boys and girls we've "lost" since her party took control of Congress last January.

But we have the solution to stupid presidents and timid or co-opted legislators. A law already on the books need only be amended to expand its application. Possibly this would require a Constitutional Amendment, since it will change the way we choose our leaders. Or maybe an Executive Signing Statement or Supreme Court decree would suffice, since we have largely abandoned adherence to most of the important parts of that dusty old document in the conduct of our affairs.

I refer to the law known as No Child Left Behind. The theory here is that you can't be sure you've educated a child unless he can give you back evidence of what you tried to put into him. So, you test him. Teachers, mostly, don't like this. They say it requires them to "teach to the test." Many students don't like it because they either do poorly when tested (perhaps because they don't know the material) , suffer "anxiety" at the prospect, "don't test well", or have "a learning style" that does not adequately reveal the depth of their intellect on multiple choice questions. No doubt these are valid enough complaints in some cases and under some circumstances in some jurisdictions.

But the assumption that you can measure how much sand you've poured into a bag by hoisting it on to a scale seems to me reasonable. I've taken tests I was prepared for and tests I've failed because I didn't apply myself, wasn't paying attention, didn't care, didn't try. I might have blamed a bad teacher; mom always blamed me; nobody talked about any inherent bad effects of testing all those years ago.

So I think President Bush is right. More testing. But hey, teacher, leave those kids alone. I propose a series of standardized tests for persons wishing to apply their intellect to the complex, difficult, yet often subtle tasks of running the public affairs of a great nation. You want to represent Maine in Washington? You might even have presidential aspirations someday? Fine. Don't solicit cops in men's rooms, immediately return campaign contributions linked to organized crime, make certain your children's nanny has her papers in order, and score at least seventy-five per cent on the Public Servant Suitability examination.

What to require? Well, English, of course. Bilingual though we may be becoming, it would be wonderful if our leaders at least mastered this one language that is in common, widespread use all around the world. I did well enough on the 1967 version of the New York State Regents exam in that subject, and would be pleased to see how President Bush and members of Congress might score on the same test. Beyond basic tests of grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension, I think we ought to require a decent facility at composition of those who would use our language to persuade us to vote for them, their schemes, their wars. Toward this end, I propose certain essay requirements including, at minimum, the following.

First, three essays, of at least three thousand words each, on the subjects: "the Uses Of War By Civilized Nations," "My God, Your God, The Right God," and "Three Immoral Laws I Would Break And Three Legal Things I Wouldn't Do For Any Amount Of Money."

I would expect each potential candidate to demonstrate his ability to write and deliver a speech lasting at least ten minutes on the subject of his or her suitability to guide and lead and legislate. The phrases "The American people," "God bless America," "the fact of the matter," "at the end of the day," "the bottom line," "heroes of 9/11", "enemies of America," "greatest nation on earth," "greatest generation," "high-tech," "family values," "sanctity of marriage," "the ultimate sacrifice," and other common annoyances of like nature shall be proscribed.

President Bush the First, a decade or more ago, while his son was still enjoying himself executing retarded and innocent persons in Texas instead of laying waste to whole nations, said the United States would, under his education reforms, be "Number One in math and science by the year 2000." Well, we weren't. And we aren't. But we should expect of our leaders a reasonable degree of numeracy. Accordingly, it should be easy enough to resurrect the final exam from some high school Practical Math course of a few decades ago.

Can your Senator balance a checkbook? Do per centage markups and discounts? Convert Fahrenheit to Celsius? Derive the decimal equivalent of five thirty-seconds? Add and subtract negative numbers? I wouldn't be against framing the questions in a culturally appropriate context: If Senator X agrees to vote for a bill sponsored by Exxon in exchange of the sum of two hundred thousand dollars, and he puts the sum received at interest at the rate of five per cent compounded monthly until he "retires" to "spend more time with his family" when discovered rubbing his fingers along the underside of a public toilet partition seventeen months later, how much interest will he have earned, less a fifteen dollar early withdrawal penalty and a ten per cent tithe to his fundamentalist church?

Yes, there will be questions about evolution. No, there are not "equally valid alternative explanations."

History will be a difficult subject to test. Probably we'd need more of a Seminars In American Studies sort of approach, with questions testing the fineness of the candidate's appreciation for certain Supreme Court decisions; the causes of, excuses for and beneficiaries of several popular wars; notable scandals in American politics; Japanese interment during World War II; the McCarthy years and the Red Scare era. Sample question: What did President Eisenhower mean by the "Military Industrial Complex"? Why did he warn against it? Was he afraid of it? Are you?

Each candidate should be required to publish a list of all the magazines, newspapers, technical journals, scriptures, tracts, and corporate reports to which he subscribes or regularly reads. If any.

I wouldn't object to a nationally televised spelling bee. P-O-T-A-T-O. N-U-C-L-E-A-R.

We've given ignorance a chance. It has shown its weaknesses. I'm not saying intelligence, literacy and an understanding of history, culture, natural and applied science, and an appreciation of comparative religion will solve all our many problems, but I do think a job is better done with decent tools than with just any old, dull, straight-slot screwdriver you happen to have lying around Texas.

Look, I'm not much. But if you give me a total rise I can lay out and build a set of stairs you'd be willing to climb. Tell me the width of your garage and the pitch of your roof and I'll tell you how long your rafters are. And I'll bet several senators and some Supreme Court justices couldn't.

One other thing. Everybody has to memorize one long poem (no free or blank verse) and recite it on national television (all networks, cable stations and local franchises required to carry the program) two nights before election day.

There are strange things done down in Washington, son,
By boobs whose abuses are bold.
They may have passed Yale, but daily they fail;
And their workings are hard to behold.

If a bunch of the boys get to whoopin' it up. And to Cooper they wish to reply, Talk to him like his mom:, And advise him: who, what, when, where, why.

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