Archives for category: Character

Robert Hubbell writes a thoughtful, informative blog. I’m posting this as part of my personal project to understand the new face of white supremacy. White supremacy has always been there, simmering below the surface. Trump invited them to show their faces and step into the daylight. They did, and DeSantis is sending them signals that he wants to be their champion.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has set his anti-education sites on Florida’s state colleges. Through a series of political and legal maneuvers, he has ceded control over Florida’s state colleges to ultra-conservative culture warriors like Christopher Rufo. In short order, DeSantis has announced that he will rid Florida state colleges and universities of curricula not “rooted in Western tradition” or that “compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.”

Amid the torrent of reporting on Ron DeSantis’s attack on critical race theory and intersectionality, the quiet part is often left unsaid. So let me say it: DeSantis’s educational agenda is code for racism and white supremacy. (Other parts of his agenda seek to erase the dignity and humanity of LGBTQ people.) DeSantis’s invocation of “Western tradition” is meant to suppress knowledge regarding the people (and contributions) of Asia, Africa, South America, Oceania, and the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. See Talking Points Memo, DeSantis Makes 2024 Ambitions Clear As He Pours Gasoline On His ‘Woke’ Education Fire.

Given DeSantis’s generalized ignorance, his call to focus on “Western tradition” is a slippery slope that will inevitably lead to the discussion of unpleasant truths about America. For example, the enslavement of Black people was a “tradition” in North America for 246 years—and the abolition of that evil practice is relatively recent (155 years ago). So, a college course that honestly addresses the Western “traditions” of North America should include an examination that the role of slavery played in the economic, social, and political development of America.

But DeSantis isn’t stopping at converting Florida’s colleges and universities into re-education camps in the worst traditions of the USSR. He is seeking to up-end centuries of “Western tradition” embodied in the Constitution and the English common law: the requirement of a unanimous jury to impose capital punishment. DeSantis has floated the idea that a less-than-unanimous jury verdict can impose a sentence of death—an unconstitutional proposal designed to inflict the death penalty on more Black and Latino Americans. See Vox, Ron DeSantis wants to make it much easier for the state to kill people.

DeSantis is willing to do all this because he wants to capture Trump’s loyal base—which is the only hope that DeSantis has of becoming a credible candidate. As Trump becomes mired in criminal prosecutions, DeSantis will become emboldened and radicalized beyond his already extremist views. Doing so ignores the lessons of the 2022 midterms: persuadable Americans are done with Trump and his MAGA extremism. Like all military generals, Ron DeSantis is fighting the last war (the presidential election of 2020) and has failed to heed the tectonic shift that occurred in the midterms.

One of my personal heroes is Yong Zhao, a Chinese-American scholar from whom I have learned much about education. I first met him through his writings, which are informative and provocative. Over the years, I met Yong at conferences, and we became friends. Not long after Anthony Cody and I created the Network for Public Education, we invited Yong to be the keynote speaker at our annual meeting in Chicago. He was a sensation. He had no prepared speech, but he did have a computer loaded with images. As he flashed from one image to another, he told a coherent story that was both based in scholarship, personal, and uproariously funny. When I created a lecture series at Wellesley College, I invited him to speak, and he again gave an informal talk that was illuminating, authoritative, and delivered with grace and humor.

I reviewed one of his books—demystifying the myth of Chinese super-schools—in the New York Review of Books.

I recently learned that Yong Zhao collaborated with Bill McDiarmid of the University of North Carolina to tell the story of Yong’s life. I remember his telling jokes about his impoverished childhood in a rural village and the unlikely trajectory of his life. He explained with a smile that he was too small and scrawny to plow the fields with a water Buffalo, so he was allowed to go to school instead. If you read the excerpt from the new book, you will see that this was no joke.

This is a column in Valerie Strauss’s blog, The Answer Sheet, at the Washington Post. She excerpted a part of a new book about Yong’s life.

Valerie Strauss wrote:

This is an excerpt of a new book, “Improbable Probabilities,” about and co-written by Yong Zhao, whose unlikely story starts in a village in China during the disastrous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and takes him to a renowned career in academia. An internationally known scholar, author and speaker, Yong’s research and work has focused on how globalization and technology affect education. He has also been a prominent critic of school reform efforts in the United States that rely on high-stakes standardized tests and look to China — whose students excel on these tests — as a model. He has written for The Answer Sheet over the past decade on this and other topics.

In telling Yong’s story and why he consistently challenges conventional wisdom in education, Yong and co-author G. Williamson McDiarmid look at what factors are needed for success and how “forces outside human control play an essential role in the unfolding of human life.” I am publishing this because I think it offers valuable insights into what leads to success in school and in life.

Yong has written some 30 books, which education historian Diane Ravitch once said were “saturated with remarkable scholarship and learning,” and he has done extensive work in creating schools that promote global competence and language-learning computer games. He is now professor of education at the University of Kansas, as well as professor of educational leadership at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia.

Yong has taught at other schools, including the University of Oregon, where he was presidential chair and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, and a professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership. He was previously university distinguished professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University, where he was founding director of the Office of Teaching and Technology and the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence, and executive director of the Confucius Institute. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Education and elected fellow of the International Academy for Education.

McDiarmid is dean and alumni distinguished professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and distinguished chair of education at East China Normal University in Shanghai.

This is part of the introduction of the book:

Too often, the lives of people who have climbed out of dire circumstances and subsequently left their mark on the world are portrayed as miracles of the human spirit or valorized as the main character of a rags-to-riches tale. Such narratives perpetuate the idea that only extraordinary individuals succeed against overwhelming odds; they focus on the individual qualities that led to a person’s success while downplaying the circumstances that contributed to their success. Even less often is chance or luck assigned a major role in these success stories.

In 2018, scholars Alessandro Pluchino, Alessio Emanuele Biondo, and Andrea Rapisarda set out to investigate the “largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures [that] is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, smartness, efforts, willfulness, hard work or risk taking.”[i] They conclude that, while talent contributes to a person’s success, it’s not the most talented people who are most successful; mediocre people who get lucky often surpass talented people.[ii]

So, what’s really going on? Evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin suggests that forces outside human control play an essential role in the unfolding of human life; if we wish to understand living things, we must see that genes, organisms, and environments (Lewontin’s triple helix) are not separate entities.[iii]. Observers may attribute individuals’ successes to their genes or to their environment – or the interactions of these factors. Lewontin argues that a critical third strand must be included if we are to understand how people’s lives unfold: chance.[iv] The American myth of rugged individualism (the belief that humans succeed against heavy odds solely through their individual talent, determination, and intelligence) obscures the role that the interaction of genes, environment, and chance play in shaping a person’s path to success or failure.

In what follows in this chapter, we examine the roles that these three factors played in determining Yong’s improbable path. We start with the role that chance events play in all aspects of our daily lives. We then describe some of the chance occurrences that helped shape Yong’s life. We consider how Yong’s unfavorable environment offered him, paradoxically, opportunities to develop his interests and abilities. We also examine the role that Yong’s personality traits may have played in his taking advantage of those opportunities. We conclude with an overview of the book.

Chance Encounters

Rags-to-riches and rugged individualism narratives ignore the fact that contingencies play a determinative role in individual success. Challenging these myths, Historian John Fea writes about the role contingency plays in events and people’s lives:

Contingency is . . . at odds with other potential ways of explaining human behavior in the past. Fatalism, determinism, and providentialism are philosophical or religious systems that teach that human behavior is controlled by forces—fate, the order of the universe, God—that are outside the control of humans. . .. [I]t is undeniable that we are all products of the macrolevel cultural or structural contexts that have shaped the world into which we have been born. Karl Marx suggested that human action is always held in check by “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end, historians are in the business of explaining why people—as active human agents—have behaved in the past in the way that they did.[v]

Fea uses the example of the Union army’s victory at the Battle of Antietam during the U.S. Civil War that turned the conflict in favor of the Union (at the cost of 6,200 casualties).[vi] Prior to the battle, a copy of General Robert E. Lee’s battle plans fell into the hands of the Union command purely by chance. Fea quotes fellow historian James McPherson, who wrote that the “odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one . . . yet it happened.”[vii]

Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea that chance occurrences have significantly shaped the world in which we live. We prefer to believe that there is a grand plan, that “everything happens for a reason.” The idea that success is not simply a function of our hard work and talent and that chance plays a significant role in how our lives unfold challenges both culturally imbedded beliefs as well as our sense of control over our destinies. Sociologist Duncan J. Watts points out that:People observe unusually successful outcomes and consider them as the necessary product of hard work and talent, while they mainly emerge from a complex and interwoven sequence of steps, each depending on precedent ones: if any of them had been different, an entire career or life trajectory would almost surely differ too.[viii]

Let’s examine some of the chance events that, had they turned out differently, would have changed the course of Yong’s life. Of particular interest are random circumstances, events, or encounters that could have been debilitating yet, somehow , moved Yong down the path to success.

• Historical moment:

Yong was born between two events that killed millions of Chinese—the Great Leap Forward and the Great Cultural Revolution (see the Preface). Social chaos, political uncertainty, internecine conflict, and continuing depravations characterized this period. A boy born in an obscure village to the lowest class of peasants, Yong was in a vulnerable position. If he had been born earlier, he might have died of starvation, malnutrition, or disease. If he had been born later, he might not have had the opportunities that opened to him as a member of the lowest peasant class under the reforms of Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping (page XX).

• Family:

Yong had the good fortune to be born into a family that placed no expectations on him, loved him, and allowed him to pursue his own path. Although illiterate, the family saw the value of schooling for Yong, especially as his poor health and corporal weakness made him ill-suited for manual labor. They supported him in whatever way they could as he worked his way up the educational system and allowed Yong to decide for himself how to live his life. If he had been born into another family, Yong might have faced familial expectations for what he should do and what he should become, which was common among his peers. He might also have been subjected to the physical and verbal abuse that undoubtedly left many children with physical and emotional scars.

• Schooling: Despite woeful conditions, Yong managed to succeed in school when no one else from his village did. He benefitted from a few teachers who recognized his potential and found ways to help him. He also benefitted from Mao’s educational reforms, which opened more opportunities for learning and brought experienced teachers to rural China (page XX). If he had not had the teachers that he had, gained access to Mao’s reformed school system, and learned English instead of Russian (the required second language until the early 1960s), his path might have been very different.

• Higher education: Because his university career was delayed for a year due to his small stature, Yong qualified for a newly created English teacher-training program at the Sichuan Foreign Language Institute (SFLI), the flagship university for foreign language education and information in southwest China. The program covered student tuition and fees and offered access to a much wider world, including a bookstore that sold English-language books, journals, and magazines. Yong’s success in computer and pedagogy courses earned him a spot on a research team, where he taught himself coding and statistics and wrote a program to analyze the survey data. If Yong had not been malnourished, he might have entered higher education the year before the English-teacher training program was created. If he had not been able to take and succeed in courses in computing and pedagogy, he might not have come to the attention of his professors or earned a spot on the research team.

This is, of course, a highly condensed account of a few of the chance events and contingencies Yong experienced in the first 25 years of his life. Each of us could chronicle our life in a similar way, identifying myriad random events, occurrences, encounters, and people that nudged us this way and that.Along the way, chance events shape our environment to create unforeseen opportunities. Do we recognize opportunities? Do we take advantage of them? Let’s examine some of the factors in Yong’s environment that influenced his ability to capitalize on opportunities and embark on a path to success.

Environmental Factors

Yong’s life illustrates how random events create unique and unforeseen paths. Changes in our environment present us with opportunities. Changes cause disequilibria that people, if they are ready, can exploit. What factors in Yong’s environment shaped him throughout his life?

• Yong’s father’s influence: Yong’s father was the most influential person in his early life. He was loving and caring toward Yong, allowed him the freedom to explore his interests and passions, and modeled an entrepreneurial approach to embracing opportunities rather than settling for the status quo.

• Village life: Life in Yong’s village was almost exclusively focused on survival. As members of the peasant class, villagers were fully occupied with feeding, clothing, and sheltering themselves just as their ancestors had done for thousands of years. Given this survivalist mentality, villagers did not judge how Yong spent his time, his chosen career path, or his adherence to social norms.

• Positive teacher relationships: Yong had teachers who noticed his unique academic gifts and sought to encourage and mentor him, opening doors for him into higher education.• Chinese education: Historically, the Chinese have seen education as a means toa career (preferably as a government official), prizing obedience to authority and rote memorization over all else. Student autonomy and critical thinking were typically punished. thus perpetuating a culture of student apathy, acquiescence to authority, and conformity. As a result, Yong’s penchant for creative thinking, risk-taking, innovation, and love of learning for its own sake made him an outlier who was unusually attuned to opportunities that others missed.

• Global perspective: As an adult, Yong traveled widely, developing friendships and collaborations with people from many different countries, As a result, he recognizes that no single culture or ethnicity can claim to be the bearers of “the truth” and that contributions to solving global problems can come from anyone.

Every person, even siblings in the same family, encounters a different set of environmental factors shape who they are and offer various opportunities. This is an experience common to everyone. The difference is that some people recognize opportunities while others don’t. Some people jump at the chance to walk through an open door while others hold back or turn away. Why was Yong able to recognize and take advantage of opportunities when many around him did not? Part of the answer to this may lie with his personality traits.

Influence of Personality

Research on the recognition of opportunities has focused almost entirely on entrepreneurial opportunities and the characteristics of those who seize on what appear to be promising opportunities. Most of the factors that researchers have identified and explored, such as social capital and prior knowledge of a given business sector, seem unhelpful in understanding Yong’s ability to recognize opportunities.[ix]

However, one vein of research—focused on the psychological and cognitive factors that help explain the phenomenon—may help us understand Yong’s eye for opportunity. Researchers have found that personality traits play a vital role in a person’s ability to recognize and capitalize on opportunities.[x], [xi], [xii]

Researcher Scott Shane and colleagues conclude: “Genetic factors account for a large part of the variance in opportunity recognition by influencing the probability that people will be open to experiences.”[xiii] This research speaks to Lewontin’s formulation, supporting the idea that genes interact with both the environment and chance. Is it possible that certain personality traits could tip the scales, could increase the probability that some people are more likely than others to encounter promising opportunities?

Researcher Richard Wiseman became curious about this very question. Why do some people seem to be luckier than others?[xiv] Speculating that luck might not be totally random, he conducted several studies to learn more about what lucky people have in common and why they differ from those less lucky. When he studied the underlying dimensions of personality that psychologists had identified as universal, he found that luckier people shared four of the “Big 5” personality traits: extroversion, neuroticism, optimism, and openness.[xv] How did these traits seem to play out in Yong’s life?

• Extroversion: Evidence of Yong’s extroversion includes his wide circle of friends across the globe and the numerous (over 100 annually) invitations he receives to speak to business, educational, and governmental audiences. This speaks not only to the value others find in his ideas but also to his inherent likeability and the genuine pleasure he takes in meeting and talking with others, especially those whose backgrounds differ from his own.

• Optimism: Despite the harsh conditions of his upbringing, Yong consistently expects good fortune.[xvi] He has an unflagging belief that if a door closes or an opportunity doesn’t pan out, something else will emerge.

• Neuroticism: Wiseman notes that lucky people have “a relaxed attitude toward life.”[xvii] The less anxious we are, the less absorbed we are in worrying about what others think of us, the more attention we can focus on our environment and, therefore, the more likely we are to see opportunities. Despite his full schedule, Yong seems relaxed whatever the situation. This is rooted, in part, in his wealth of experiences. Across his life, he has faced many adversities, and yet, he has not only survived but thrived.

• Openness: Being open to new experiences or embracing a sense of adventure means that when opportunities do arise, lucky people tend to seize them. Research suggests that openness is moderately associated with intelligence and creativity.[xviii] Because Yong remains open to new and novel experiences, he embraces and thrives on an unconventional life of adventure and innovation.

The story of our lives is a complex fabric of many factors. As Lewontin observes, not only do our genes and environment intertwine, but chance plays a major part in how that fabric is woven.[xix][MB1] This is clear in Yong’s life in the unique environmental factors that shaped his experiences, the chance encounters and events that opened unforeseen opportunities, and the inherent qualities and predispositions that allowed him to capitalize on them.

Book Overview

In this book, we strive to understand Yong’s success by exploring the complex interplay of genes, environment, and chance. Each chapter examines a phase of Yong’s life through this lens, containing a brief vignette from that time, relevant historical factors, an account of events that characterized that period of his life, and reflections on the implications for education.

In chapter 1, readers meet the boy from Sichuan Province: five-year-old Yong tagging along behind his father, the primary influence in his early life. Adults in Yong’s rural village are concerned with feeding, clothing, and sheltering their families, which leaves Yong free of social expectations. As Yong uses his free time to devise entrepreneurial ventures around the village, he capitalizes on unlikely assets—his curiosity, penchant for rule-breaking, and rebellious nature—to follow his instincts toward what would become a scholarly life.

Chapter 2 describes how Yong teaches himself to read and enters school amid the upheaval of China’s Cultural Revolution. Educational reforms after the establishment of the People’s Republican of China (PRC) in 1949 allow Yong unprecedented access to school in rural China, as well as teachers who recognize his intellectual interests and gifts. Believing education to be the means to a career only, the Chinese have long valued diligent and compliant students. Relentlessly curious, questioning, and innovative, Yong is an outlier. This doesn’t prevent him for mastering the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in school and pass the extremely stringent university entrance exam — not once but twice. His facility with languages earns him entry into the Sichuan Foreign Language Institute (SFLI) at a time when English-language teachers were in high demand.

Chapter 3 follows Yong during his time at SFLI where he indulges his wide range of academic interests in the library and at a local bookstore. He also cultivates friendships with foreign faculty, opening opportunities to improve his English and learn more about the world beyond China. His success in his classes impresses his professors who ask him to accompany a visiting scholar from Beijing to SFLI in Chongqing. From the visiting scholar, Yong learns about the potential of desktop computers to run data analysis software. Asked to join an international team conducting research on English-language learners, Yong sees an opportunity to develop a program to analyze the survey data. He teaches himself statistics and programming to create the first data analysis program for PCs in China.

In chapter 4, Yong joins a team of faculty who have volunteered to teach English in a remote Sichuan Province. Designated as the deputy team leader, Yong learns valuable leadership lessons and tests his capacity for managing a group. One of his fellow volunteers, Xi, catches his eye, and they begin dating. During a visit back to SFLI, Yong’s roommate convinces him to travel to the newly created Special Economic Zone on Hainan Island. There, Yong and a partner create a successful translation business. Despite his success in Hainan, Yong finds himself missing the scholarly life and returns to SFLI to resume teaching and publishing.

Chapter 5 chronicles how Communist Leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms open China to Western culture and, in the late 1980s, spark debate on college campuses around the country. Eager to join the conversation, Yong opens his apartment as “ salon” for faculty and students to gather and discuss the future of the country. As the tragic events of June 4, 1989, unfold in Tiananmen Square, the momentum Yong and others had felt building dies abruptly, leaving him despondent and aware that he needs to seek opportunities elsewhere. A visit from a U.S. professor to SFLI results in a friendship that, in turn, leads to an invitation to spend time at Linfield College in Oregon.

In chapter 6, Yong embarks on his first trip to the United States, an experience that expands his view of the world, education, and emerging technologies. During his time at Linfield, Yong teaches, makes friends, explores the world of the just emerging World Wide Web, and realizes that becoming a college professor will allow him to pursue the life he wants for himself and his family, which now includes a son, Yechen in addition to Xi, his wife. Yong decides to pursue a graduate degree and gains admittance to the doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yong completes his master’s in one year, welcomes his young family to the U.S., and leaves an unsatisfactory job at Willamette University on Oregon for a more promising opportunity.

Chapter 7 begins with Yong, Xi, and Yechen making a home at Hamilton College in New York, where Yong is part of a collaborative project between Hamilton and Colgate to enable students to take courses offered by both institutions. His successes earns him a tenure-line position at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan, where he works on a project to increase student engagement via online learning. He also creates an online submission platform for the America Educational Research Association annual meeting. Success in these projects as well as his outstanding publications record and award-winning teaching earns him the title of University Distinguished Professor. Although thought by some as only an educational technology specialist, his interests and scholarship have expanded to include pedagogy, assessment, policy, globalization, and other issues.

In chapter 8, we attempt to explain the central ideas and themes that run through Yong’s prolific scholarly output. Over his career, he has engaged several of the seminal questions in education such as: What kind of educational model best serves students? What are the consequences of schooling as a mechanism of state control? What are the pernicious effects of high-stakes assessment? How does personalized education benefit students? How can technology best serve education? How can promoting global thinking help us solve the world’s most pressing problems?

The epilogue provides a brief review of Bill’s life and how he came to collaborate with Yong on this book. He describes the events that have shaped a worldview that is remarkable similar to Yong’s.

[i] Pluchino, A., Biondo, A. E., & Rapisarda, A. (2018). Talent versus luck: the role of randomness in success and failure. Advances in Complex Systems, 21(3.4). Plucjinco et al. (2018).[iii] Lewontin, R. (2001). The triple helix: Gene, organism, and environment. Harvard University Press, p. 38.[iv] Lewontin, R. (2001). 38.[v] Fea, J. (2020). What is historical contingency? Fea, J. (2020).[vii] Fea, J. (2020).[viii] Watts, D. J. (2011). Everything is obvious: once you know the answer. Crown Business. 8.][ix] George, N., Parida, V. Lahti, T., & Wincent, J. (2014). A systematic literature review of entrepreneurial opportunity recognition: insights on influencing factors. International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal, 12(2). 309–350. DOI 10.1007/s11365-014-0347-y.[x] Baron, R. (2006). Opportunity recognition as pattern recognition: how entrepreneurs “connect the dots” to identify new business opportunities. Academy of Management Perspectives, 20(1), 104–119.[xi] Heinonen, J., Hytti, U. & Stenholm, P. (2011). The role of creativity in opportunity search and business idea creation. Education + Training (53: 8/9), pp. 659-672. DOI 10.1108/00400911111185008[xii] Shane, S., Nicolaou, N., Cherkas, L., & Spector, T. D. (2010). Do openness to experience and recognizing opportunities have the same genetic source? Human Resource Management, 49(2), 291–303.[xiii] Shane et al. (2010)), 299.[xiv] Wiseman, R. (2003). The luck factor. Arrow Books.[xv] Soto, C. J. (2018). Big five personality traits. In M. H. Bornstein, M. E. Arterberry, K. L. Fingerman, & J. E. Lansford (Eds.), The SAGE encyclopedia of lifespan human development (pp. 240-241). Sage.[xvi] Wiseman, R. (2003). The luck factor. Arrow Books, 96.[xvii] Wiseman, R. (2003), 48.[xviii] Jauk, E., Benedek, M., Dunst, B., & Neubauer, A. C. (2013). The relationship between intelligence and creativity: New support for the threshold hypothesis by means of empirical breakpoint detection. Intelligence, 41(4), 212–221. Lewontin, R. (2001), 38.[MB1]I added a citation for Lewontin. Is this sufficient?

Historian Heather Cox Richardson reflects on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. We now look on him as a hero, but during his lifetime, he was treated shamefully by many whites, and militant African-Americans scorned him as well, preferring the angry approach of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. Dr. King was principled and fearless. He faced death daily, and he never back down. It is usually forgotten that he was assassinated in Memphis while there to support striking sanitation workers, who were trying to organize a union. He knew that unions offered the best protection for working people. White conservatives who fraudulently praise him now, claiming that racism is a thing of the past and should not be taught or discussed (so that everyone can be judged by “the content of their character, not the color of their skin”), oppose everything he fought and died for.

You hear sometimes that, now that we know the sordid details of the lives of some of our leading figures, America has no heroes left.

When I was writing a book about the Wounded Knee Massacre, where heroism was pretty thin on the ground, I gave that a lot of thought. And I came to believe that heroism is neither being perfect, nor doing something spectacular. In fact, it’s just the opposite: it’s regular, flawed human beings, choosing to put others before themselves, even at great cost, even if no one will ever know, even as they realize the walls might be closing in around them.

It means sitting down the night before D-Day and writing a letter praising the troops and taking all the blame for the next day’s failure upon yourself, in case things went wrong, as General Dwight D. Eisenhower did.

It means writing in your diary that you “still believe that people are really good at heart,” even while you are hiding in an attic from the men who are soon going to kill you, as Anne Frank did.

It means signing your name to the bottom of the Declaration of Independence in bold print, even though you know you are signing your own death warrant should the British capture you, as John Hancock did.

It means defending your people’s right to practice a religion you don’t share, even though you know you are becoming a dangerously visible target, as Sitting Bull did.

Sometimes it just means sitting down, even when you are told to stand up, as Rosa Parks did.

None of those people woke up one morning and said to themselves that they were about to do something heroic. It’s just that, when they had to, they did what was right.

On April 3, 1968, the night before the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist, he gave a speech in support of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Since 1966, King had tried to broaden the Civil Rights Movement for racial equality into a larger movement for economic justice. He joined the sanitation workers in Memphis, who were on strike after years of bad pay and such dangerous conditions that two men had been crushed to death in garbage compactors.

After his friend Ralph Abernathy introduced him to the crowd, King had something to say about heroes: “As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about.”

Dr. King told the audience that, if God had let him choose any era in which to live, he would have chosen the one in which he had landed. “Now, that’s a strange statement to make,” King went on, “because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around…. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” Dr. King said that he felt blessed to live in an era when people had finally woken up and were working together for freedom and economic justice.

He knew he was in danger as he worked for a racially and economically just America. “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter…because I’ve been to the mountaintop…. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

People are wrong to say that we have no heroes left.

Just as they have always been, they are all around us, choosing to do the right thing, no matter what.

Wishing you all a day of peace for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2023.


Dr. King’s final speech:

The short answer is: Nothing. At least in Washington, D.C.

The story in New York is different.

Federal and local prosecutors are investigating whether his multiple lies broke any laws. Anne Donnelly, the local prosecutor in Nassau County, where he was elected, is a Republican, and she too has opened an investigation.

The New York Times, which broke the original story, reported last night:

Federal and local prosecutors are investigating whether Representative-elect George Santos committed any crimes involving his finances and lies about his background on the campaign trail.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have opened an investigation into Mr. Santos that is focused at least in part on his financial dealings, according to a person familiar with the matter. The investigation was said to be in its early stages.

In a separate inquiry, the Nassau County, N.Y., district attorney’s office said it was looking into the “numerous fabrications and inconsistencies associated with Congressman-elect Santos” during his successful 2022 campaign to represent parts of Long Island and Queens.

It was unclear how far the Nassau County inquiry had progressed, but the district attorney, Anne Donnelly, said in a statement that Mr. Santos’s fabrications “are nothing short of stunning.”

Why are the Republicans in Congress silent?

Charlie Sykes, who used to be a conservative Republican, writes in The Bulwark that Kevin McCarthy needs Santos’ vote. End of story. His colleagues are saying “He’s learned his lesson,” although he remains defiant. Santos says “Everyone embellishes his resume.” But the proper word is not “embellish,” it’s “lie.” The Congressman-elect lied about his education, lied about his employment, lied about his religion, lied about his family. What part of his resume is true? No one knows.

Probably none of it except his name.

Sykes writes:

Of course, a political party with any sort of intact immune system would move quickly to send this sociopath back to ScamLand, whence he came.

But this is the GOP circa 2022, and so it faces a painful dilemma. With a narrow majority in the House, Republicans (and especially Kevin McCarthy) need his vote, of course.

But that’s not the real problem here, is it?

After years of ignoring, enabling, and rationalizing Big Lies and small ones, it will now be exceedingly difficult for the GOP to find their misplaced conscience that might morph into outrage and something like a moral standard. As Nick Catoggio writes:

Anyone willing to set aside their qualms about Trump for the sake of holding executive power logically should be willing to set aside their qualms about Santos for the sake of holding legislative power

So, not surprisingly, GOP leaders are either silent, or in a forgiving mood.

To deepen the puzzle of Santos, read this article in The Daily Beast about one of his big donors.

It gets tiresome to read about the cheats, liars, grifters, and dishonorable people who rise to wealth and power. Thus it is a relief to read about a young woman who had neither wealth nor power, but something far more powerful: a moral core. A sure sense of right and wrong. Principles. Others could boldly lie or feign ignorance when testifying under oath. She couldn’t do it. She wanted to be able to look herself in the mirror every day without grimacing.

Ruth Marcus, the deputy editor of The Washington Post, wrote about her, a woman with more wealth and power than those she served because she has a clear conscience.

After I read the column below, I read the transcript of Cassidy’s interview with the January 6 Committee. She goes through the details of how she changed from a loyal partisan of Trump world to a renegade, more concerned with telling the truth than pleasing her handlers. She was without a job for a year, and she relied on a Trump world lawyer. He advised her to say as little as possible in answer to the Committee’s questions and to answer whenever possible, “I don’t recall.” He and others in Trump’s entourage promised to get her a good job, to take care of her, as long as she protects the team. They flattered her and told her that she’s doing a good job, she’s a member of the family, and they will always have her back. So much of it sounds like something out of The Sopranos. She wants to please them, but she also wants to tell the truth. At one point, as she is doing her best to please them, she admits that she is “disgusted” with herself.

A cynic might wonder why she had so many qualms about lying for a president who lied repeatedly every day. But then you remind yourself that she’s a young kid, not long out of college, working in a dream job. Of course she wanted to please her superiors in Trump world. Of course she was afraid that they would destroy her if she defected. But somewhere inside her was a moral core that required her to tell the truth.

Marcus wrote:

Cassidy Hutchinson knew better than to put herself in debt to what she called “Trump world.” As she would later testify, “Once you are looped in, especially financially with them, there is no turning back.”

But Hutchinson, who witnessed the final days of the Trump White House from her all-access perch as an aide to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, had been subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 select committee. The deadline for turning over documents was looming, and Hutchinson was, she said, “starting to freak out.” One lawyer she consulted said he could assist — then demanded a $150,000 retainer.

So, the young aide, out of work since Donald Trump had left office a full year earlier, initially decided to turn to Trump world for help. Which is how she came to receive a phone call from Stefan Passantino, previously a lawyer in the Trump White House counsel’s office.

“We have you taken care of,” he told Hutchinson. When she asked who would be paying the bills, Passantino demurred — this despite legal ethics rules that let attorneys accept payment from third parties but only with the “informed consent” of their client.

“If you want to know at the end, we’ll let you know, but we’re not telling people where funding is coming from right now,” Hutchinson, in her deposition, recalled him saying. “Like, you’re never going to get a bill for this, so if that’s what you’re worried about.”

If Hutchinson’s live testimony before the select committee was riveting, her deposition testimony, taken several months later and released Thursday, is a page-turner: The Godfather meets John Grisham meets “All the President’s Men.” Before, we could only imagine how frightening the situation must have been for the 20-something Trump staffer. Now, we can read of her frantic search for help, and her terror as she contemplated telling the truth.

It is a tale, at least in Hutchinson’s telling, of Trump allies dangling financial support in exchange for unyielding loyalty. “We’re gonna get you a really good job in Trump world. You don’t need to apply other places,” Passantino assured Hutchinson. “We’re gonna get you taken care of. We’re going to keep you in the family.” The goal, as he set it out, was clear: “We just want to focus on protecting the President.”

It’s a story of meek compliance enforced by fear of consequences — and menacing admonitions to remain on board. “They will ruin my life, Mom, if I do anything they don’t want me to do,” Hutchinson told her mother when she offered congratulations about finally securing a lawyer.

The night before her second interview with the committee, an aide to Meadows called Hutchinson about her former boss: “Mark wants me to let you know that he knows you’re loyal and he knows you’ll do the right thing tomorrow and that you’re going to protect him and the boss. You know, he knows that we’re all on the same team and we’re all a family.”

Most vividly, it is a chilling account of questionable legal ethics practiced by Passantino who, in a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood scriptwriter, was the Trump White House’s chief ethics officer. Passantino is depicted repeatedly advising Hutchinson to fall back on an asserted failure to remember anything. “The less you remember, the better.”

Except Hutchinson did remember — and quite a lot. Such as the incident in the presidential limousine, as related to Hutchinson by deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato, in which an enraged Trump allegedly lunged at his lead Secret Service agent when he refused to take the president to the Capitol on Jan. 6.

When Hutchinson mentioned this episode to Passantino shortly before her first interview with the committee, “he’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to talk about that.’” The committee, he said, “have no way of knowing that. … But just because he told you doesn’t mean that you need to share it with them.”

Deposition prep with Passantino seemed confined less to reviewing the facts than to instructing the witness in the art of declining to disclose them. “He was like, ‘Well, if you had just overheard conversations that happened, you don’t need to testify to that,’” Hutchinson said.

“Stefan never told me to lie,” she told the committee. “He specifically told me, ‘I don’t want you to perjure yourself, but “I don’t recall” isn’t perjury. They don’t know what you can and can’t recall.’” Hutchinson pressed him on this matter. “I said, ‘But, if I do recall something but not every little detail, Stefan, can I still say I don’t recall?’ And he had said, ‘Yes.’”

A week later, appearing before the panel, Hutchinson found herself peppered with questions about the Trump limousine incident. She kept saying she hadn’t heard anything like that — and Passantino sat silently by as his client offered testimony he knew to be false.

“I just lied,” a rattled Hutchinson told Passantino during a break. “And he said, ‘They don’t know what you know, Cassidy. They don’t know that you can recall some of these things. So you saying “I don’t recall” is an entirely acceptable response to this.’”

No, no, no. Lawyers advise their clients not to volunteer information — that’s appropriate. They instruct them to give limited answers, confined to the precise scope of the question — that’s appropriate, too.

But lawyers — at least lawyers who want to keep their law license — do not provide the kind of counsel that Hutchinson describes. There is no “overheard” or “I don’t recall” loophole if, in fact, you did hear something and you do remember it. Ominously for Passantino, the deposition transcript reveals that Hutchinson provided the same information to the Justice Department.

Passantino, who has taken a leave of absence from his law firm to “deal with the distraction of this matter,” said in a statement that he represented Hutchinson “honorably, ethically, and fully consistent with her sole interests as she communicated them to me” and believed she “was being truthful and cooperative with the Committee throughout the several interview sessions in which I represented her.”

In the end, Hutchinson decided she could not accept such advice and still look at herself in the mirror. So, she dumped Passantino and decided to spill what she knew to congressional investigators.

“To be blunt, I was kind of disgusted with myself,” Hutchinson said. “I became somebody I never thought that I would become.”

To read her deposition is to wonder: What do the others in the Trump crowd see when they look in the mirror?

If you watched the hearings of the January 6 Committee, you might agree that the most compelling testimony came from a young woman named Cassidy Hutchinson, who was a top aide to Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff.

She testified that Trump knew he lost the election. She described Trump’s fury when he heard that Bill Barr said that Trump lost the election: Trump threw his hamburger at the wall and splattered ketchup everywhere. This was not a one-time event, she said. Other times he ripped the tablecloth off, throwing everything on it to the floor.

She described the stories she had heard about Trump demanding to be driven to the Capitol to lead the rebellion, then physically struggling with his driver when the Secret Service wouldn’t let him go.

Her testimony was by far the most dramatic of the hearings.

What we did not know was the prolonged internal struggle that she endured when faced with the decision of whether to tell the truth or to follow the advice of her Trump team lawyer, who advised her to say, “I don’t recall.” If she said nothing, she would have a job in Trump world. She would be taken care of. It sounds like a Mafia movie.

Her Trump lawyer Stefan Passantino wouldn’t tell her who was paying him, but she assumed it was Trump.

Passantino, Hutchinson testified, told her the goal with her testimony was to “get you in and get you out.”

“Keep your answers short, sweet, and simple, seven words or less,” Passantino said, per Hutchinson’s testimony. “The less the committee thinks you know, the better, the quicker it’s going to go. It’s going to be painless. And then you’re going to be taken care of. You’re going to be done. It’s going to be off your hands.”

She decided she had to tell the truth. She had to have her own lawyer.

Her decision to testify—and the pressure put on her not to testify—is documented in the January 6 report.

Jake Tapper reports it here, and it is a compelling story of a woman with a conscience. A woman who decided she had to testify truthfully.

I read this obituary in the Boston Globe, and I found myself wishing that more of us could be like Sabina. By her measure, most of us fall short. But let us honor the incredible example she set. She defines the term “force of nature.”

During two decades as an activist, Sabina Carlson Robillard became a significant leader in humanitarian relief efforts as she insisted that the voices of those being assisted should always be the most prominent in every discussion.

“While you’re listening to me, there are 1.5 million conversations happening on the ground, and I’m here to ask you all how we’re listening to them,” she said at a 2010 conference in Boston about her work in Haiti earlier that year after an earthquake killed more than 200,000 people.

She had turned 22 several weeks before that speech and was a seasoned activist. Years earlier in middle school, she began participating in protests and “was already thinking deeply about people who were suffering throughout the world,” said her father, Ken Carlson.

After being diagnosed with clear cell sarcoma four years ago while she was pregnant, Ms. Robillard, who lived in Cambridge, stayed busier than most of her healthiest colleagues.

She worked as a consultant and an operations officer with humanitarian nonprofits, and helped raise her daughter and stepdaughter while being treated for cancer. Ms. Robillard even texted her academic adviser from her Massachusetts General Hospital room the day before she died on Nov. 16, at age 34, to schedule a meeting a few days later with her Tufts doctoral advisory committee.

“In an unassuming way, she changed the course of how lots of money and people engaged in Haiti,” said her friend Jess Laporte of Waterbury, Vt., a Haitian-American climate and racial justice activist who works with nonprofits.

She worked as a consultant and an operations officer with humanitarian nonprofits, and helped raise her daughter and stepdaughter while being treated for cancer. Ms. Robillard even texted her academic adviser from her Massachusetts General Hospital room the day before she died on Nov. 16, at age 34, to schedule a meeting a few days later with her Tufts doctoral advisory committee.

“In an unassuming way, she changed the course of how lots of money and people engaged in Haiti,” said her friend Jess Laporte of Waterbury, Vt., a Haitian-American climate and racial justice activist who works with nonprofits.

Dan Maxwell, a Tufts University professor who was Ms. Robillard’s academic adviser, first met her when she was a Tufts sophomore.

“She was already well known as a force of nature on campus when she was 18 or 19 years old,” he said.

And though more recently she was a doctoral student, he said, “she was also like a colleague, and in many ways a leader the rest of us followed.”

Ms. Robillard was the lead author for a 2021 report, prepared with Teddy Atim and Maxwell, which called on international relief organizations to adopt a “localization” approach — letting local groups and individuals participate in planning and administration, rather than excluding them, as so often was done in the past.

In October, the US Agency for International Development issued a draft “Policy for Localization of Humanitarian Assistance” that cited the Tufts report and drew upon its findings.

“I was certainly happy to see her live long enough to see that kind of high-level validation of her work,” said Maxwell, who added that Ms. Robillard was defined by her sense of certainty in the field and in her writing.

“She had a North Star,” he said. “She knew where she was going, she knew what was right. While she didn’t force people to agree with her, she could be pretty insistent about what was right and what was wrong.”

The correct approach, she often said, was to listen instead of impose an outsider’s view.

After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, “what I saw firsthand was how much Haitians wanted to have their voices heard in the response,” Ms. Robillard wrote for the website of CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, an international nonprofit based in Cambridge for which she worked.

Early on, Ms. Robillard channeled her determination into helping others.

“Sabina was always defined by a tremendous sense of empathy,” her father said. “Her empathy was her sixth sense. She always thought of others before herself, even when she was a very, very young child.”

She also was a multi-instrument musician, an accomplished slam poet, and a leader of Amnesty International and gay-straight alliance groups while in high school.

Initially intending to study creative writing at Tufts, Ms. Robillard was soon involved with humanitarian work, spending months away from the university in 2009 to work as an intern with refugees in South Sudan.

She graduated the following year with a bachelor’s degree in community health and peace and justice studies, and subsequently received a master’s in applied community change and peace building. Tufts later honored Ms. Robillard for her humanitarian work.

For the past dozen years, she worked for nonprofits and aid groups including the International Organization for Migration. She was part of the IOM’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea several years ago, and its response to a cholera outbreak in Haiti.

Fluency in French and Haitian Creole made her particularly effective in Haiti, where she had lived in Cite Soleil, a crowded, impoverished part of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. And she used her language skills to elevate the voices of those who lived in Haiti.

A presentation at her memorial service featured her quote: “Why isn’t localized humanitarian aid focused on letting communities determine and lead the work in building their own future?”

Among those she met in Haiti was Louino Robillard, a community leader known as Robi, whom she married in Port-au-Prince in December 2012, and with whom she collaborated.

With marriage came additional roles as stepmother to his daughter, Dayana Robillard, and parent to the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, Anacaona.

Discoloration under Ms. Robillard’s left eye, initially thought to be benign, appeared in 2017. While she was pregnant the following year, tests showed it was a malignant tumor, and the cancer later spread to her lungs.

Continuing to work for four years, even during her final full day alive, “Sabina wrote Ana e-mails over the last four years — 356 e-mails, knowing she wasn’t going to be around,” her mother said.

In addition to her parents, husband, stepdaughter, and daughter, all of Cambridge, and her brother, Ms. Robillard leaves her maternal grandmother, Luba Lepidus of Somerville.

Ms. Robillard’s husband will bring her ashes to Pak Nan Ginen, a park and reforestation project they cofounded in Saint-Raphael, Haiti, where he plans to build a memorial. Because Haiti is severely deforested, “she wished to use her ashes as soil to plant trees,” he said.

This appeared on the website of the New York Times. It is about five minutes long.

Tom Nichols, a staff writer for The Atlantic, posed the question that is the title of this post. Nearly half the voters of Georgia cast a ballot for a man who was manifestly unqualified for the office, by any measure. Republicans thought it was cunning to pick a Black candidate, hoping to peel support away from Senator Warnock. It didn’t work. Walker got very few Black votes. Warnock won with unified Black support and a multiracial coalition.

Nichols fears that Trump has dumbed down expectations for Republican candidates to an alarming degree. Following his model, they can be stupid, they can be immoral, they can be liars, they can be adulterous and flaunt it, they can mock democracy. There is no low too low for them.

Nichols writes:

Walker’s candidacy is a reminder of just how much we’ve acclimated ourselves to the presence of awful people in our public life. Although we can be heartened by the defeat of Christian nationalists and election deniers and other assorted weirdos, we should remember how, in a better time in our politics, these candidates would not have survived even a moment of public scrutiny or weathered their first scandal or stumble.

And yet, here we are: An entire political party shrugs off revelations that a man running on an anti-abortion platform may have paid for an abortion (possibly two), has unacknowledged children, and may also be a violent creep. Not long ago, Walker would have been washed out of political contention as a matter of first principles.

Think of how much our civic health has declined in general. Only 35 years ago, during the long-ago Camelot of the late 1980s, Gary Hart had to pull out of the Democratic primaries for getting caught with a pretty lady on a boat named “Monkey Business,” and the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart stood with tears streaming down his face because he’d been caught with a prostitute in a Louisiana motel. In 1995, Senator Bob Packwood (again, more tears) resigned in the aftermath of revelations of sexual misconduct just before being expelled from the Senate.

The Republicans were once an uptight and censorious party—something I rather liked about them, to be honest—and they are now a party where literally nothing is a disqualification for office. There is only one cardinal rule: Do not lose. The will to power, the urge to defeat the enemy, the insistence that the libs must be owned—this resentment and spite fuels everything. And worst of all, we’ve gotten used to it. I’m not sure who said it first, but the Doobie Brothers said it again in the title of their 1974 album: What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.

There’s a lot of blame to go around, but no one did more to pioneer the politics of disgust than Donald Trump, who took the outrageous moments of his two presidential campaigns and turned them into virtues. Trump ran, and still runs, as something of a dare, a challenge to see if we’re just a bunch of delicate scolds who get the vapors over things like veterans or foreign influence or nepotism. Are you really going to let the commies and immigrants from the “shithole countries” take over? he seems to ask at every turn, just because of little nothing-burgers like whether I’m keeping highly classified documents in the magazine rack next to my gold toilet?

As usual, however, the real problem lies with the voters. The Republicans are getting the candidates they want. This is not about partisanship—it’s about an unhinged faux-egalitarianism that demands that candidates for office be no better than the rest of us, and perhaps even demonstrably worse. How dare anyone run on virtue or character; who do they think they are?

It’s terrifying to realize that totally unhinged candidates, not only in Georgia but in other states, like Arizona, received almost half the vote.

My hope lies with changing demographics and our youth. Young people who have grown up in the 21st century are likely to replace the shrinking generations of old white bigots, who are now the GOP base. America will be a better nation in the years ahead, as these voters make better choices and choose a better future where all of us make progress. Together.

Dr. Michael Hynes is the Superintendent of Schools in Port Washington, Long Island, New York.

He writes:

My daughter Sadie has taught me more in her 9 years of life than I have learned in my past 52 years of existence. My wife Erin and I had no idea that our daughter had Down Syndrome when she was born. Sadie had to stay in the newborn intensive care unit for a few weeks and we met some of the most compassionate and amazing professionals in the world. Unfortunately, we also met others who were much better off keeping their thoughts to themselves.

I remember a doctor at the hospital telling me he was “sorry” after Sadie was born. On another occasion, a family member shared with my wife and I that “Mongoloids can be nice people.” She didn’t mean to upset us; it was her mental model about Down Syndrome. Initially, as parents we were surprised with the multitude of closed-minded comments we came across. As Sadie grew and we brought her to restaurants, stores or in public, people would stare at her longer than one should.

I’m sharing this with you not to complain; but doing so because we began to learn how the world can perceive others without knowing anything about them whatsoever, except through the lenses of their biases and assumptions. Little did they know our little Sadie has the best sense of humor and can read on grade level like here peers. She enjoys music and hanging out with her best friends like all children do. As parents, we began to advocate for more programs in her school and for the school districts we served in.

I probably should have started off this reflection by sharing both Erin and I are school Superintendent’s. She is an Assist Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction and I have served as a Superintendent of Schools for the past 11 years. Here are the lessons we learned from our personal lives that now transcend to our professional ones.

  1. You never know what others are going through. I have a much deeper respect for parents who have children with autism, Down Syndrome, ADHD, OHI, etc. They have incredible stories to share, and we need to support them as much as their children.
  2. Never place limits on your child or students. Don’t accept what professionals say at face value all the time. If Erin and I listened to what some professionals believed Sadie would never be able to do, her life would be so much more unfulfilled. She is flourishing.
  3. In the education system I have served in for over 25 years, we need to remove the word “special education”. This word places a label on a child that never leaves them and carries a negative connotation with it. Yes, the children are “special”, but they are certainly not less than “typical children”. By the way I loath that phrase as well.
  4. Inclusion is important. Integration however is critical. It’s great to be included but to be fully integrated is where the secret sauce is. Separating and segregating children is not the answer. Teach them to become independent and watch them soar!

Sadie is now in 4th grade. She continues to surprise people with her intelligence, humor and at times stubbornness. We are so fortunate to have her in our lives. There are other “Sadie’s” in every school in America. Are we as school leaders doing everything in our power to make our school system more inclusive and integrated? That’s for you to answer and my hope is that you strive to make that a reality. Every child will benefit from it.