Executive Perspective

It Ain’t Necessarily So

by Paul D. Houston, executive director, AASA

The mood I have been in recently has made me recall the words of the great Ira Gershwin song from “Porgy and Bess” titled “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The lyrics are a paean to making certain that we don’t always believe what we hear and what is given as gospel to us by others.

As a minister’s son I was raised to be wary of those who set themselves up as sources of truth for others. It seems we have seen a lot of that in politics lately and way too much of it in education. Much of the distortions come from the false dichotomies that try to force us to be on one side of an issue or another.

Let’s take the war in Iraq as an example. “Support Our Troops” has become synonymous for “Support Our War.” But why is that so? Isn’t it possible to love the warrior and hate the war? The decisions that lead to war are not made by the troops on the ground. You can disagree with the decision to go to war while praying for those fighting in it. You can pray for their success and for their safe return knowing that, sadly, their success also means bad guys and good people will die in the process. That is why war is so wrenching and so destructive to the long-term soul of a nation.

A Shared Responsibility

I have to admit to being one of the “bleeding hearts” who feel when someone else dies and I am involved in a society that creates that death, that in some way, small as it might be, I am also responsible. Consequently, I believe a small part of my soul is taken in the process. So I tend to hate war. I do believe some wars are just but many are unjust. I respect and support the warrior because the world isn’t always a good place and we need to protect ourselves from evil. But not every war is so clearly a black-and-white issue.


I think preemptive wars are particularly problematic for a simple reason. I spent too many hours on the playground hearing justifications for fights that involved preemption: “He was looking at me. I thought he was going to hit me, so I hit him first.” It’s hard to give a nation a pass for something we would punish on the playground. Perhaps our nation would be better served if we had more teachers in policymaking positions.

Another example of something that isn’t necessarily so is the way some aspects of the faith community have grabbed the truth of God for themselves. Isn’t it possible to see evolution as part of God’s intelligent design? Or to understand the terrible tradeoffs implied in abortion to save the mother or to save the child a life of neglect. And isn’t it just possible that someone who prays to the same God can come to a different interpretation of the scripture? And isn’t it possible that a person can see the separation of church and state as the best way to preserve religious freedom and to enhance the respect for what religion is about?

I’ll never forget a time when I had to go to court to testify against a prayer in school law that had been passed in the state where I worked. The day before I had to testify I thought I’d better tell my father I was going to do that. I called him and said, “Dad, I hope you are not going to be too upset with me. I am going to court tomorrow to testify against prayer in school.”

My father was as godly a man as I have ever known and he was the best of what the Christ ian faith can bring forth in a person. His response to me was a classic in intelligent design. He said, “Son, you teach them to read, I’ll teach them to pray. I’m not sure I want you messing in that. You’re not that good at it.” I think he understood the concept of separation of church and state better than a thousand televangelists who rant about the “godless” nature of public schools. Quite simply, there is a time and place for all things, including prayer and religious teaching. You can still be religious and understand that.

Trash Talk
What does this have to do with education? Everything. How often have we heard that you can’t say good things about schools because if you do you are supporting the status quo? These folks would have it so that the only way we can improve schools is to trash them and those who work in them. Isn’t it possible you can acknowledge their strengths as a way of building on them to make schools better? Is it so difficult to say something nice without worrying about giving permission to educators to stop trying?


And lately we have been told that if you are critical of No Child Left Behind you are against standards and accountability. Isn’t it possible to see the flaws in NCLB as the greater threat to standards and accountability? Isn’t it possible to see that if we don’t make this law workable we will be leaving even more children behind?

Isn’t it time we get past the silliness of painting those who question the law as being against reform and those who support it as being blind adherents to rigid coercive practices? Can’t we see there is a middle ground and that those on either side can be acting honorably and that discussion, not vilification, is the best way?

Can’t we begin to respect the warriors in the classrooms of America who are on the front lines in the war on ignorance and see they deserve support as much as those who have declared the war? Can’t we see that helping people teach children to read is better than creating a faith-based education? Perhaps finding that middle way is what, unlike the song title, is necessarily so.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.