Sparring bison. (John Warden/FlickrCC)

Wyoming is no longer immune to the grievances and resentments that have infected our nation. We need look no further than the shouting matches during our school board meetings; parents angry at teachers; teachers fearful of speaking out; and, most disheartening, now even first graders disrespectfully sassing their teachers. 

Opinion

Self-conceit doesn’t absolve those of us with livable earnings and successful careers, of responsibility for conditions producing the incivilities and bad behavior that threaten the foundation of our democracy. How did we get to this point? What must we do to address legitimate grievances? To renew our moral and civic life?

Centuries ago, clergy and citizens defined success as salvation through good works and faith, or by unearned faith alone. In modern times, it has been all about worldly success. “New Age” preachers tell their mega-churchgoers that wealth is a sign of God’s love for them. The key to that success: a four-year college degree. The more prestigious the college, the higher the earnings lifelong. Now we’re learning that the doctrine of self-centeredness combined with reliance on the free market for achieving public good, is enormously destructive to our social fabric. The focus on money has resulted in vast inequalities, subjective indignity of much work, and a disempowerment of ordinary citizens. 

Who is to say that a private equity manager profiting on misfortune is contributing more to society than a long-distance truck driver earning $45,000 per year or a home-health provider getting $15 per hour: the one working overnight to deliver fresh produce, the other enabling an elderly person to remain at home? For those of us who, by chance, have earned college degrees, it is wrong and arrogant to categorize even a few of the roughly three-quarters of our fellow Wyomingites without four-year college degrees as somehow undeserving of our respect. (The book to read: The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel.) 

Dislocations in our energy sector, scarcity of the jobs that young people seek today, and great disparities in personal wealth surely have aggravated the discontentment. But our unease goes deeper. Over the past half-century, many of us have moved to Wyoming to escape turmoil, whether urban, domestic, business or campus; looking to be left alone to enjoy our lives and the sense of freedom inspired by the beauty and vastness of our state. But now that isolation is disappearing.  

As Wyomingites, regardless of political persuasion, our preferred option is to blame the federal government for every ill. But now, taking advantage of the whole range of discontents, political extremists are exploiting our don’t-tread-on-me sentiment to separate us from our own state and local governments; deflecting our elected leaders to take up their ideological agenda. As we lose confidence in our leaders’ abilities to govern on our behalf, we become suspicious of our friends and neighbors. And voila, we’ve frayed our social fabric. 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, no matter our denials, it is that we humans need and depend on each other. We must show a bit more humility and treat with esteem our fellow citizens who provide the services and produce the goods that enable all of us to live worthwhile lives. Taking such individual action alone will lower the temperature and help close the divide.   

As a former history teacher, I cannot help but observe that, as with our jury system, our form of democracy cannot leave political judgments to others. Governing requires practical wisdom and a sense of right and wrong. Strikingly, the cultural unrest that began decades ago coincides in time with the decline in moral and civic education offered in our public schools, colleges, and universities. Long term, if we’re serious about retaining as much as possible of Wyoming as a small town with long streets, we have a solemn duty to reform the education establishment, and seek additional ways to create a better-informed citizenry.       

John F. Freeman

John F. Freeman is a longtime resident of Wyoming. He has a PhD in early modern European history from the University of Michigan, served as a community college dean and non-profit executive; and is the...

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  1. Freeman should have a weekly column. It would be a refreshing, if only singular counterpoint to the ideology that permeates practically everything else distributed here.

  2. Thanks, John, for the thought-provoking insights. “Seeking additional ways to create a better-informed citizenry” caught my attention. I’ve noticed in conversations on and offline that so many people are now getting their information through social media channels. And not always vetting the source (bias, reputation, based on verifiable facts?). Plus, they may not realize that the internet will always give you more of what you pay attention to, so eventually your newsfeed is horribly skewed.

    It always starts with oneself, right? So I try to seek out information from a variety of sources, in an effort to educate myself using news outlets/writers with many different viewpoints. Being cautious about headlines that try to goad me into outrage. Cross-checking the facts.

    It takes an effort to finetune the flow from the firehose of information that is coming at us daily, but it is every citizen’s responsibility in a democracy to educate themselves, carefully and thoughtfully. That kind of education never ends.

  3. Thank you, John. It is so refreshing to see an article that faces a matter head-on, without the political hand-wringing that wastes the opportunity for progress. I am a 4-year degree holder, while my spouse is not. By no means is that any measure of merit. We came to Wyoming for the reasons you described. I worked my way through school waiting tables, driving trucks, loading oil drums, and anything else I could do. It was a hard life working full time and going to school full time. I had no parents and was fortunate to have a keen mind and work ethic. My wife worked hard as well and raised a child. Both full time jobs as we all know. She is easily as intelligent as I am, and in some ways my better. Our respect for others is NEVER based on education or occupation.
    The ability to reason and critically perceive the world around you is learned from others. We learn through direct relationships and by reading with high comprehension. Most people assume that once they finish school the learning is done. Nothing is further from the truth. As John Houseman said in “The Paper Chase”, “You come in here with a skull full of mush…”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQLW7v3s7KQ
    Some people like to assume that persons with less education have less understanding. My best mentors were older men and women of all creeds and colors. Most of them had nothing more than a high school education. College teaches you how to take a test and how to write a paper. It also teaches you to repeat the things the teacher believes in order to get the grade you want, regardless of merit or accuracy in the real world.
    I have learned more about civics and history outside of school by reading, then I ever retained by cramming for tests and attending lectures. Thank you for your work, and I am certain that you taught many young people how to learn. The question is, do people go on in life and continue learning?
    The founders of this nation and state never stopped learning. They read books voraciously. Our constitutions are the evidence. They did not need a degree to prove their worth. They did so by deeds and written words. Please keep contributing here. Your article is appreciated.

  4. All good words , until you realize the powers-that-be ( primarily on the red side of the ideological spectrum ) do not want to deal with a constituency of educated voters… on pretty much any topic or train of thought.

    State’s Exhibit A : straight ticket voting

  5. Thank you for this great and needed piece. As far as the decline in civics education goes, I found this out when researching an essay a few years ago: Wyoming’s Department of Education is governed by a statute (W.S. 21-9- 102) which requires all publicly funded schools in the state to “give instruction in the essentials of the United States constitution and the constitution of the state of Wyoming, including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.” In order to receive a high school diploma, a student must take at least three years of civics-related coursework before grade eight and one year in the secondary grades. The state has developed proficiency standards that help teachers assign grades according to how well students show they’ve learned the material. At Jackson Hole High School, students take three courses: U.S. history as freshmen, world history as sophomores and government as seniors.

    This, if true, seems like a good dose of civics education, but I am wondering how much of it actually sinks in and is carried into adulthood.

  6. John Freeman is rightly concerned. We need changes in attitudes, manners and less fears. Our state and towns have changed and it’s sad.