Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #183, First published in the St. Cloud Times, online and in print Oct. 2, 2022

More than 2,400 years ago, Socrates got people thinking about education with his ironic "I know nothing" ― which is not at all the same as “I don’t know anything.”

Socrates gathered the curious, the skeptical, the doctrinaire, the bombastic, the reticent, the know-it-alls, the bewildered, you name it, and engaged them in conversation ― listening, probing, clarifying, revising, forestalling premature closure. He relentlessly critiqued certainties, including his own.

Fifth century B.C.E. Athens is long ago and far away from 21st century Central Minnesota, but the paradigm for education ― the conversation Socrates began ― still goes on toward the goal of the examined and examining life.

And, as it was in Socrates’s day, that conversation is contentious now.

The school board election in St. Cloud Area School District 742 is ground zero for the debate about what constitutes a good education today. I’ve watched ― and sometimes written about ― such elections in previous years. Candidates have had different points of view, of course, as it should be. But never before have I seen the lines so sharply drawn as they are now.

For starters, there are three candidates running as a slate: Mike Bueckers, Theresa Carlstedt and Nicole Rierson.

Bueckers, speaking to Central Minnesota Freedom Advocates on June 15, said of the three, “We have bound together. We firmly believe God has put each one of us together on this path, and we’re working towards a common goal here.” And: “We’re gonna fix it” ― together with those listening to him.

In the past there have been candidates who made common cause and let it be known that they had overlapping goals, but I do not recall any of them posting joint signs or claiming a divine mandate.

The current slate rails against what they call the “agenda” that they suspect has captured the schools, an “agenda” they have recently awakened to. Central Minnesota Freedom Advocates, whose support Bueckers, Carlstedt, and Rierson openly welcome, even says that schools “have been slowly taken over by Marxists ideals.” Carlstedt goes farther: “Kids are being indoctrinated into communist beliefs.”

Let’s take a look.

Here is the mission statement of District 742:

“Our Mission is to provide a safe and caring climate and culture in which we engage, inspire, educate, prepare and empower all learners in partnership with their surrounding community to be successful in today's and tomorrow's society.”

I want a school board that is committed to the fulfillment of this mission, which is in the very best tradition of American values. But Rierson calls it “an example of an agenda being pushed toward students.” She is signaling that one of the things on hers and Bueckers’s and Carlstedt’s “gonna fix it” list is the fundamental mission of the district.

District 742’s core values, too, are fundamentally American:

  • Everyone deserves equitable access to the highest quality of learning to maximize individual potential.
  • Multiple and differing perspectives contribute to informed decision-making and learning.
  • We all benefit when communities work together toward common goals.
  • Lifelong learning is essential for individuals to shape and thrive in our global society.
  • The greatest level of individual success is achieved through shared ownership by the individual, families, schools and our communities.

Especially important: equitable access, and respect for multiple and differing perspectives. You don’t hear the slate talking about equity (except to disparage it, even if obliquely) and they imply that “differing perspectives” are a problem, not a benefit. As current school board member, Scott Andreasen, whose term has two more years, wrote in the Times Sep. 11, “There are school board candidates campaigning to bring God into public schools. The student body and staff are composed of people of many beliefs. My question is whose god?”

Bueckers, Carlstedt and Rierson are part of the wave that was amplified over a year ago by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon: “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.”

Steve Bannon and I have radically different ideas about what endangers the nation and what will save it. I urge you to vote for school board candidates who believe that equity, diversity and inclusion are what the nation and our schools need a lot more of, who are dedicated to the mission and core values of District 742.

Zach Dorholt and Natalie Ringsmuth, currently on the board and running for re-election, have already demonstrated their belief in the mission and values. Heather Weems is on record: “I am running for school board because I am strongly committed to District 742’s mission, and because District 742’s core values and mine coincide.”

And Socrates? “Patriots” believed Athens needed to be “saved” from his theory and practice of education — the examined and examining life – and they executed him. It’s Socrates, not his opposition, whose portrait is in the U.S. Department of Justice.