Belding: Hamerlinck’s apology more insulting than original comments

Michael Belding

Sen. Hamerlinck issued an apology last week for telling a group of students who visited the Capitol to discuss budget issues to go home and leave the political circus to the elected officials.

I find myself asking, “What apology?” The statement he issued was more insulting than his original comments. Not for one reason, or a couple, or a few. There are several reasons your ire should be raised.

The apology he issued stated that the “Senate education hearing was no exception [to the rule that political activists have agendas] as speakers and speeches proliferated a specific ideology that supported Iowa Senate Democrats’ education expenditure levels and were void of any discussion on student achievement and preparedness for competing in the global economy.”

This line of thinking is just plain paradoxical and inconsistent with itself. To say that the consulted students simply regurgitated Democratic or other partisan talking points is to say that the students cannot think and are unintelligent. It ignores any shred of potential validity in what they said or tried to convey, and projects onto them character traits about which the senator is unqualified to give an opinion.

Such a statement also indicates that the education system in this state is broken, a failure, or otherwise inadequate. That inadequacy follows decades of funding cuts, tuition increases, increasing use of standardized tests and admissions criteria, and disinterestedness from lawmakers who trust that, set in motion, the economy will take care of itself.

It seems to me that when students have to worry about working dozens of hours each week to pay their tuition bills or paying their beloved Accounts Receivable offices with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, their academic performance suffers. I know mine has whenever I’ve been preoccupied with other matters. If the people of the state of Iowa feel education is important — which it is, in both economically and civically — then they should be willing to fund it accordingly. Students should pay their fair share, but ordinary Iowans have a stake in an educated population too.

Senator Hamerlinck also wrote in his apology that his “goal has always been to keep students out of the political fray in order for them to form their own opinions and ideologies.”

There are several problems with this as well. Ideologies are just bad. Ideologies are sets of presuppositions about how the world works. All too often, those presuppositions go hand in hand with dogmatic unwillingness to consider other opinions — to reject them out of hand without any political interaction. Ideologies kill the kind of work Senator Hamerlinck and his colleagues are supposed to be doing in Des Moines.

Clearly though, they’ve failed. I spent the previous three sessions working at the legislature, and each year the Republicans, myself included, always bitched at the Democrats for staying until 2 a.m. and dragging the session a week past the last scheduled day. Now the Grand Old Party is in power, and the length of the session is now nearly fifty percent longer than it was originally supposed to be.

Opinions cannot be formed except in a process of trial and error. Informed ones are the product of honest exchanges of ideas. They require the presence of other opinions to be refined and developed into coherent ideas that appeal to others. If students isolate themselves from public affairs, they will never be well-informed enough to make the educated decisions any polity needs to survive. They will be disinterested and apathetic.

Senator Hamerlinck should not want to shelter students from the perils and cynicism of modern politics. Even if politics isn’t the way it should be, it is what it is. And to interact with it, we need to know how it works. We need to go out and experience it. Ignoring a less-than-ideal situation will not make it go away.

To shape the broken system, students need to visit the Capitol, talk with legislators and their staff, go to campaign stops, write letters and talk amongst themselves. To make the broken system more like an ideal one, they need to do the same. If the system is to be changed in any way at all, it needs to be acted upon.