As Kansas Legislature meddles in public education, words from great uncle George resonate today

March 24, 2022 3:33 am

Recent bills in the Kansas House pose threats to education, freedom and reason, writes David Norlin. (Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. David Norlin is a retired Cloud County Community College teacher, where he was department chairman of communications/English, specializing in media.

Among my first rules of debate: Never compare anyone to Hitler.

There’s way too much emotional freight there, and history happens to be complicated. Too-easy analogies, social media memes and cartoon-ish oversimplifications all cause overreaction. And overreactions seldom serve us well.

“Come, let us reason together,” says Brother Isaiah.

The imperative is urgent, especially in a Kansas Capitol ruled by capital. When the Legislature’s in session, reason is at a premium — and widely ignored. 

The arcane mechanisms by which our laws get introduced are little understood by the general public, and I daresay by many legislators voting on them, but really bad bills nonetheless climb the parapets, clamoring to be enacted and enshrined. Among the worst and greatest threats to education, freedom and reason are House Bills 2662 and 2550.

The Republican advance guard calls 2662 a “parents’ bill of rights and academic transparency act.” Who can argue with that, right? But wake up! Smoke’s being blown, and only winds of reason can sweep it clear.

Parents already have rights, and academic content is already transparent. The bill, however, would require an entire year’s lessons and materials be posted at a “portal,” a website accessible not just to parents but to the general public. Paranoid parents — or anyone at all — could flood it with complaints, making teachers’ lives even more miserable than they were during the pandemic.

Such labels goad a propagandized public into holding an ax over the head of teachers, administrators and school boards.

That’s bad enough. But 2550 would essentially defund public schools.

Again, 2550 sounds benign. An “educational savings account” for at-risk or low-income students who attend private school would suck out student base aid from public school districts. Dollars would be funneled to parents applying for private school tuition and fees, or other costs.

Freedom of choice, right?

But the bill would effectively bleed districts already stressed from lack of teachers (half of whom now contemplate leaving) and COVID-related pressures, including insufficient funding. Among other knife-in-the-heart measures, this one plunges deepest, at the most vital arteries. Public school parents would be left few choices.

The arcane mechanisms by which our laws get introduced are little understood by the general public, and I daresay by many legislators voting on them, but really bad bills nonetheless climb the parapets, clamoring to be enacted and enshrined.

– David Norlin

The public won’t stand for defunding the police. But public schools? Their Republican legislators are on that like a duck on a June Bug.

Seeing all this play out is even more jarring after reading my great uncle George Norlin’s 1934 lecture, delivered during his 22-year tenure as president of the University of Colorado. He was a University of Berlin “guest professor” before and after Hitler’s rise.

My family pride and his prestigious position, however, are secondary to the power of his first-hand account:

“Hitlerism has an inexorable logic. It is nothing if not thorough. It is not enough for Germany to be politically, economically and racially a giant unity. It must be a cultural unity as well. It must be regimented under a single Weltanshauung — a common emotion, purpose, and philosophy of life.  This resulted in ‘the great gesture [of book-burning] the 10th of last May.’

“Last November Dr. Joseph Goebbels, minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment, set up an elaborate state corporation for the control and direction of all the instruments of publicity and enlightenment which contribute to the molding of the national mind — books, newspapers, periodicals, magazines, radio, music, theaters, especially the cinema and art in general, the object being to coordinate all the people into singleness of heart and mind.

“Furthermore, schools and universities have lost every semblance of academic freedom. … The 6th of last May, at the University of Berlin convocation, the nationalization of truth was officially inaugurated. Or as the Nazis call it, the ‘nationalization of truth.’ There, the minister of education, Herr Doktor Rust, laid down the law: … ‘Unprejudiced, objective, scientific teaching which is blind to the spiritual changes within the nation will no longer be tolerated.’

“Reason and intellect are dethroned; and emotion, intuition, impulse reign in their place. Indeed, intellectualism is held in scorn as something pale and unhealthy. It is a thing for pedants and professors, not for red-blooded men. … It is part of a Nazi program to set up a body of “truth” native to German soil and appropriate to German blood, not intellectual, not academic, but emotional and dynamic — a credo which Germans must be made to believe in order to be saved, as a nation and a race.”

No, no legislator or local propagandist is Hitler or Goebbels personified. But Kansas’ present groupthink makes critical thinking more critical than ever.

Our children — and teachers — need us.

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David Norlin
David Norlin

David Norlin of Salina is a retired teacher at Cloud County Community College, where he was department chair of Communications/English, specializing in media. He has twice run for the Kansas Legislature and has served on and chaired Salina’s Human Relations Commission, Planning Commission, and Access TV. He is an occasional columnist for the Salina Journal.