Long before I knew the name Descartes, my grandmother rocked me to sleep with one better: "I am, therefore we are." That would have been my sign for the Stewart-Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity: Sum Ergo Sumus. Would have been, because during my long trip from Boston to Washington, I got tangled in meditations about whether Latin philosophical enfrillments would appear amusing or pretentious, witty or elitist. Would Sum Ergo Sumus be broadcast in Wasilla, where Levi Johnston is apparently running for mayor?
On the one hand, I was blessed with a feisty, funny, clever grandmother who would have seen humor in my co-optation of her lullaby—she might even have been proud. Back when the United States led the world in academic achievement, I went to a great public school where I was privileged to study Latin for six years, plus another two years in college. I was lucky enough to attend law school. Res ipsa loquitur.
Sadly, American education has suffered a miserable decline since those days. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, we are fifteenth in reading literacy, twenty-first in science literacy and twenty-fifth in math literacy. This slide was largely accomplished by a calculated disinvestment in public education that began with the anti-tax movement of the late 1970s. California, where that movement began with a series of ballot initiatives, had one of the best school systems in the world. It now ranks almost dead last here, just above Mississippi.
There’s a curious tension in politics between the popular hunger for better schooling and widespread resentment of those who actually find it. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have built a movement around the felt dispossession of those who don’t read newspapers, whose spelling is nonstandard and who cite Shakespeare to "refudiate" book-learning. Beck, who sniffs that public schools should be abolished altogether, exploits this ambivalence brilliantly by establishing his online Beck University, whose basic courses are Faith 101, 102 and 103; Hope 101, 102 and 103; and Charity 101, 102 and 103. Yet Beck U. also has a coat of arms with a numbingly lofty motto: Tyrannis Seditio, Obsequium Deo.
On the morning of the Rally to Restore Sanity, I ended up grabbing a taxi and told the driver I wanted to go to the Mall, please. He took me to the nearest shopping mall, where I procured a venti mocha latte from the drive-through Starbucks, while gently setting him straight. Oh yes, this was a march for latte-loving yuppie nerds like me. While Stewart and Colbert expressly appealed to "the busy majority" of reasonable, middle-of-the-road, somewhat-stressed-but-not-given-to-hysterics people, the signs among the masses were deeply inflected by class consciousness and the national educational divide. Some were relatively subtle: Which Way to Whole Foods? and Anyone for Scrabble Later? Others more overtly referenced Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor: Every Word on This Sign Is Spelled Correctly; I &heart; Evidence-Based Policies; and my favorite: If You Don’t Believe in Government Perhaps You Shouldn’t Run for It.