11/13/2013 11:26 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Recycling In, Racial Jokes Out

From first grade on through high school, history was always my favorite subject. In college I was a double-major in government and U.S. history. After college, I taught both subjects for more than 20 years.

Given the decades I have spent studying and teaching all political science, I'm at a loss when it comes to explaining why my political views have been so all over the place. At 18, I started out as an Independent (see: Nixon v. McGovern election) because I really didn't know the difference between the two major parties. Since then, I've logged time in both. Today I find myself right back where I started because I just don't see anyone (or any action group) out there who resonates with me. And since a few Independents probably come closest, I've thrown back in with them.

On the one hand, as an educator, I have always felt honor-bound to try to present an air of optimism when I talk with high school kids about politics. On the other, I feel less than honest if I don't acknowledge that I have never felt as cynical about goings-on in Washington as I do now. And to qualify myself, I am no stranger to cynical times, having lived through one assassination, two additional serious attempts, two impeachment hearings, Watergate, Contragate, Monicagate, etc. (Hey, come to think of it, I'm old enough to remember a pre-"gate" world.)

So, why should students and teachers, to say nothing of "normal" people (!), remain optimistic in the face of so much discouraging nightly news? One thing that helps me is to remind myself of the positive national attitude changes that have also occurred during my lifetime, perhaps in spite of the above scandals and setbacks. Given that such a claim requires specific examples, here are five:

1) Public smoking: When I was a kid, not only did my parents and all of my friends' parents smoke, they all smoked anywhere they damn well pleased. (See: any episode of Mad Men.) Looking out the window of my Manhattan cab, I almost feel sorry for those huddled masses puffing away on the cold sidewalk out in front of the skyscraper. (Somehow, it's hard to imagine Don Draper joining them.)

2) Drinking and driving: It used to be macho to brag about how you managed to steer the car home after a night of drunken revelry. Not cool today. (Download: "Designated Driver" by NRBQ.) Most young drivers I speak with, even those who channel James Dean with an "I live on the edge" vibe, seem to have gotten the message. And that's indeed a good thing.

3) Racial jokes: Also not cool today -- anywhere in the USA -- but standard fare in my youth. As a kid, the only non-whites I saw on TV were athletes, entertainers, or actors in roles of subservience. After Dr. King helped turn the tide (to say nothing of Bull Connors' fire hose), my kids grew up channel surfing through (and past) Barack Obama, Cornel West, and Oprah in search of their favorite shows. There's been a similar evolution regarding jokes about gender and sexual orientation. (See: Eddie Murphy's retraction of the homosexual jokes he told in Delirious, his 1983 blockbuster video.)

4) Special needs: When I was an elementary school kid in Bath, Maine, all the special needs kids were partitioned off from all of us so as to ensure that we would never cross paths. I'm ashamed to say that we derisively referred to them as "U.G.s," an abbreviation of their coded designation: Ungraded. Today I have a son on the autism spectrum. A couple of years ago I proudly sat in the audience as he sang in the chorus at Bath's Morse High School... along with all the other kids. (That went beyond the realm of "good thing" to that of "tear-inducing thing.") Dial the clock back to The Great Society Years and my son would never have been on that stage with those kids. (Hmm... Maybe those years contributed to his presence there that night?)

5) We recycle: A friend of mine calls environmentalism "the new opiate of the masses." (See: Blue "We Recycle" box on my front yard every Monday morning.) I don't remember seeing the Nelsons or the Cleavers recycle. (Who were they? See: black-and-white television.)

So, whether inspirational or troubling, national attitudes definitely can and do change. If we take the lead, maybe our national leaders will follow.

Malcolm Gauld is President of Hyde Schools (, located in Bath, ME and Woodstock, CT.