What Angela Rigas said at the school board meeting

At the May 16 school board meeting for Caledonia Community Schools, one of the parents who stood up to speak during the time for public comments was Angela Rigas, known to many of us from her lawn signs promoting her current candidacy for the Michigan House of Representatives. Her arrival at the meeting caused a bit of a stir. Another attendee at the meeting, Ian Rice, left the meeting room to confer at some length with Angela in the foyer. I know because I walked out to get something I left in my car. I don’t know what they were saying because they stopped talking when I walked past them. It was clear that her presence was important. She had come to make a statement, and she made it concisely. I think that what she said represents what some other Caledonia parents think and feel.

The school board meetings are videorecorded and posted on YouTube, so if you want to see and hear Angela’s comments, you can find them online. She spoke for a little over two minutes. I have taken the trouble to transcribe her remarks. So here is what Angela said:

Hello, everyone, I just want to second Jason’s comments too about the choir program and the music program here at Caledonia. I sat through my senior’s choir concert and I thought I was prepared, and I didn’t realize I was going to have a whole waterworks going on at the end of the program. But, as always, it’s always very well done in Caledonia.

So, like I mentioned, my son [his name] is graduating this year, and I’m really proud of him, and we actually moved to Caledonia when he started first grade, I think? We moved here for the schools. I’ve always been a pro-Caledonia parent, pro-teacher, and I’ve been a room mom for several years for my children and I’ve enjoyed every single one of it.

However, I am anti-indoctrination. I am against CRT and the racism that follows the CRT. I seek my advice and my mentoring from my friend state school board of education [member] Tom McMillin, who actually supports my campaign for house, but that’s not why I’m here tonight. I’m here as a parent. I’ve also sponsored Calapalooza, so that just is another example of how I’ve been a supporter of our community.

As an advocate for parental rights, I’ve testified before senate and house commissioners regarding the abuse of Covid mandates, and I feel that the decreased enrollment in Caledonia has been due largely to the dissatisfaction from several parents—a big majority of parents in this district—and the numbers cannot lie. I’m not here to give you my opinion. I’m here to give you what I actually know: that the blatant radical leftist agenda is being taught in our schools and the district, which we’re now starting to see decreased enrollment, so let’s get politics out of school. That’s all we want as parents.

I’m a Republican and I make no apologies for that. However, I don’t want to come off as I’m trying to promote those agendas as well in the school. I would like to see a classical education without the politics and I think that’s how you better serve our community. Thank you.

I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that the entire meeting, or even the entirety of the public-comment section of the meeting, was like this. For example, you might also want to watch and listen to the first public response during that same meeting, offered by Carla Frassetto, also available in the YouTube record of that meeting. But I think it’s important to pay close attention to what Angela said.

First of all, it seems Angela and I have some things in common! She says that her family moved to Caledonia for the schools, just as my wife and I moved our family here for the schools about ten years earlier. She highlights the excellent music program. She mentions being pro-Caledonia and pro-teacher—another agreement between us. And she served as a room mom for several years. I couldn’t do that because of my work schedule, but I served as an Odyssey of the Mind coach for a couple of years at Kraft Meadows Middle School, and while our children were students my wife and I attended all kinds of events: music, theater, sports, and of course many parent-teacher conferences. In addition, Angela says she has sponsored Calapalooza—also commendable, assuming it’s true. (Calapalooza is a big celebration at homecoming organized by a local foundation. She doesn’t say when she sponsored, or at what level. I don’t see her listed as a Calapalooza sponsor for 2022, so I guess it was some previous year.) From her brief opening sentences, she appears to have been a model of positive parental involvement. So far, so good.

These opening sentences of her statement, by the way, constitute what ancient Roman rhetoricians called the captatio benevolentiae, which means securing the goodwill of your listeners. You do this by revealing things about yourself that will cause your hearers to sympathize or even identify with you. Angela’s remarks do this well.

Having made us willing to listen, what does she want to tell us?

For one thing, she says that she is not at the meeting to support her candidacy for state representative. Now, she was wearing her campaign polo shirt, and she mentioned her testimony before a senate-house commission at Lansing, and even noted that a member of the state board of education supports her candidacy—but she says she is not at the meeting to promote her candidacy. I would not say she is being insincere here. This is a classic rhetorical move that the ancient Greeks called apophasis. The fact that rhetoricians have a technical term for saying something by saying that you’re not saying it indicates that it’s a time-honored device. I would not call it hypocritical. (See what I did there? But seriously, I would not.) In her place, I might well have done the same thing.

For another, she signals that she is done with the preliminaries and closing in on what she came to say by announcing that she is going to give “not . . . my opinion” but “what I actually know.” I think most of us are familiar with, and some of us (not all!) agree with, the quip attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to the effect that we are all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts. For what it’s worth, this is also a distinction that you can trace back through the ancient rhetoricians to the ancient philosophers. In the dialogues of Plato, the distinguishing of opinion (doxa) from knowledge (epistēmē) is a recurrent—and difficult—question.  If you admit that you are giving your opinion, you are leaving an opening for other people to engage and perhaps disagree, countering with their own opinions. But if you claim to be stating what you know, you are asserting that there is no room for argument: that you are right, and anyone who disagrees is simply wrong. She is certain that what she says is right.

This certainty is backed up with a commonplace assertion: “the numbers cannot lie.” But in this setting this was a problematic assertion. If we played a word-association game, I think many of us would hear “mathematical” and respond “certainty.” In the realm of simple arithmetic, there is no room for opinion; all is knowledge. Two plus two equals four, and eleven is greater than nine, and that’s that. But we all know that when numbers are used to make arguments for conclusions outside the domain of mathematics, funny things can happen. Mark Twain wryly observed that three main categories of lies are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” We all know that numbers can be used selectively, and in misleading ways. But Angela, having stated that the numbers cannot lie, gives no numbers! I’m not aware of a Greek name for this particular rhetorical move. Maybe the Greeks never tried it. I don’t doubt, however, that for some hearers it works: Angela purchases some of the feeling of certainty that you get by introducing numbers (“the numbers can’t lie!”) without introducing any numbers, much less supporting her interpretation of the numbers.

Now, maybe I’m quibbling? The numbers surely exist. The school district could give you current enrollment numbers and past enrollment numbers, and you would see that the current enrollment is smaller than past enrollment. I believe that is correct. So let’s just stipulate that as a fact—as knowledge. But Angela wants to include under the heading of knowledge what I think is her own opinion, namely, that “the blatant radical leftist agenda is being taught in our schools.”

BOOM! There it is. This is the climax of her speech: “The blatant radical leftist agenda is being taught in our schools.” This is what Angela Rigas came to the school board meeting to say. At this moment, the person sitting to my right laughed. Ian Rice (I mentioned above that he had been out on the corridor conferring at length with Angela Rigas before the meeting; he is a candidate for school board, a self-proclaimed expert and educator on the topics of critical race theory and social-emotional learning, and lead organizer of a little local group called Cal United) was sitting in front of us; he turned around to rebuke my neighbor for laughing. I’m not sure what everyone else in the room was doing, but the unflappable resource officer sitting to my left didn’t even twitch, and I think the school-board members kept their poker faces. I was staring down at my hands, which were folded on my lap, making sure not to respond in any audible or visible way.

I was not surprised by this attack because she had signaled it a couple of sentences earlier. By announcing herself as an opponent of indoctrination, she was accusing the schools of being involved in indoctrination. By announcing herself as an opponent of “CRT and the racism that follows CRT,” she was accusing the schools of promoting racism. So here she just ties the bow on the package by announcing that the schools are teaching “the blatant radical leftist agenda.” This is not her opinion—it is not debatable—it is knowledge, which is not debatable.

Angela did not have time to support her assertions with evidence. Under the rules for public comments at the school board meetings, she could have used about 45 seconds more, but of course that would have been insufficient, so it might be unfair to criticize her for not substantiating her opinion. But one could criticize her (as I have done) for indicating that she is not only supporting her accusation with evidence but proving it with numbers, when she has not introduced any numbers and is merely asserting and not at all demonstrating that the numbers (which she does not cite) prove her point. What she did, in fact, was exactly what she said she was not going to do: she stated her opinion. Which is a two-step statement: (1) Caledonia Schools are teaching radical leftism; and (2) that teaching of radical leftism is the reason for a decrease in enrollment in the Caledonia school system.

Do Caledonia parents want the schools to indoctrinate their children into a radical-leftist political ideology? Certainly not! Perhaps a few do? If so, I have not met them or heard of them. I am quite certain that most Caledonia parents, like myself and like Angela, would say: absolutely not!

Do Caledonia parents want the schools to promote racism? Certainly not! Angela does not. I do not. No one I know wants the schools to promote racism.

Were Caledonia parents happy with the disruption that Covid-19 and the measures taken to contain it caused in the lives of their children? Certainly not! Nobody was happy about that.

The assertion that Caledonia schools are performing leftist indoctrination and promoting racism is intended to provoke a powerful negative emotional reaction, and it does. Those who believe it are angered because they think it is happening. Those who do not believe it are angered because they see someone deliberately stirring up negative emotionality by making unsubstantiated, inflammatory accusations. The same applies to the mention of the Covid measures: those who blame the school administration for the disruptions are angry at the school district, and those who think the school administrators were simply doing the best they could with evolving scientific understanding of a bad situation are angered that anyone would try to use the pandemic as a device for stirring up dissension.

So everyone is angered. The result: mutual hostility is promoted. Willingness to listen to others is diminished. The possibility of negotiation and compromise is diminished. The goodwill that enables diverse people to work together to promote the common good is shattered. Power flows into the hands of whoever can make the most people the angriest. This is what we have seen happening on the national political scene over recent years, and this is the effect that little speeches like the one made by Angela Rigas (whose campaign signs claim the endorsement of the national political figure who has shaped the national political scene for the last seven years) at the May 16 school board meeting will tend to have on our Caledonia Community Schools.

Angela Rigas seems to be a competent person, aware of her surroundings. I have to assume that she accomplished exactly what she meant to accomplish by attending and speaking at this school board meeting. The derisive laughter and the affirming applause, the mutterings and crowings of the people leaving the meeting that night—are these what she wanted? At least she should have known these would result. If you’re trying to persuade people to agree on something, you don’t throw around sloppy and incendiary accusations; you do that if you want to get everyone all riled up. I suspect that the forty or so people at that meeting left the room feeling less sympathetic with each other and more anxious about the future than when we arrived. This is precisely what we must not allow to happen in our school board meetings.

But as to the facts: we must attend to the facts. Are some parents withdrawing their students from Caledonia schools because they believe or feel that the schools are promoting a leftist agenda? Yes, some are! I know because I have had conversations with a handful of parents who have said that. I think it might be important and helpful to make work of contacting many or all parents who have withdrawn from the school system to find out why. And those interviews must dig below the surface. Do the reasons that parents give hold up, or are they misrepresentations or misunderstandings? If they are misunderstandings, who is responsible for them? What could teachers and school administrators be doing, or be doing more effectively, in order to keep all students and parents feeling welcome and affirmed and appreciative of the education they are receiving?

Beyond the question of perceptions, we must ask: Are the schools in fact promoting a radical left-wing agenda? From what I know thus far, I do not believe that they are. Some other day I will say why I think some people are saying that they are (it is not for no reason at all!) and why I disagree. For now, I’ll just note that this question breaks down into several more specific questions. Is CRT being taught in the schools? Is CRT a leftist ideology? If CRT is not being taught, why do some say that it is? Does CRT promote racism, as Angela said, or is CRT an attempt to understand the persistence of effects of racism in society beyond self-conscious individual racism? Does social-emotional learning distract from or support appropriate education? Are students being required to introduce themselves by stating their pronouns? If so, why? Is that a good idea or not? (Angela Rigas did not mention pronouns or social-emotional learning, but others cite them as problems.)

These are vital questions. Parents have a right to raise them. The school board has a responsibility to answer them. Discussing them honestly, openly, with goodwill, beginning with the recognition that we all want the best for our children, can help us regain some of the mutual trust between parents, teachers, and administrators that has been eroded by recent nationwide and statewide political crises. But for now, this is my point: walking into a meeting and accusing people of promoting radical leftwing ideology, or radical rightwing ideology, and then walking back out does not help. Well, it might help you make some people mad and get their votes in a partisan election, if that’s what you’re after. But it does not help our schools, our children, our community, our state, or our nation. Equally true: refusing to discuss these questions at all, or entering into a discussion with the attitude that you already know everything you need to know and that all your existing opinions are unquestionably correct, does not help. We can do better. We must do better.

As for Angela’s explicitly proposed solution: “classical education without the politics.” I resonate with both “classical education” and “without the politics,” but I expect Angela and I understand both of those phrases differently.

First, “classical education.” I spent a fair number of years in classical studies. I began learning Latin in seventh grade. I began learning classical Greek my second year in college (and classical Hebrew, but that’s not part of what people usually think of as “classics”). During my three years in seminary I taught Greek every term. During my two years in the Classics Department at Boston University I spent part of my time teaching Latin to undergraduates while earning my MA. My doctoral work in early Christianity kept me immersed in Greek texts. To this day I read my New Testament more often in Greek than in English. So I’m a huge fan of classical languages. And I have some awareness of education in fourth-century BC Athens and first-century AD Rome. I know a little bit about the growth of education in the medieval era, and the origins of the liberal arts. I would love to see everyone learn grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, music, arithmetic, and geometry, and Latin and Greek to boot. That’s what I would consider a classical education, at least if students who excelled at the foregoing were taken further into philosophy.

Now, the world has not stood still since late antiquity, and we expect our young people these days to learn at least the rudiments of some fields of knowledge that didn’t make it into the medieval trivium or quadrivium: history, literature, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, chemistry, physics, etc. In our technological society, not all will get a foundation in the increasingly high-tech trades on which a functioning economy depends, but certainly some should. In short, in addition to the elements of classical education, we expect students to learn some things in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and in arts other than music. They should also learn languages other than English that will help them find their way through our globalized world. And young people are no longer generally apprenticed to journeymen, as in the medieval period, to learn how to make a living; we expect secondary schools to accomplish a bit of that. We expect our schools to offer physical education. And that’s not all. So if by “classical” you’re referring to ancient Greece and Rome, or to medieval Europe, I don’t think a classical education, wonderful as it might be, would suffice these days.

But I suspect that some of the people who say they want our schools to provide “classical” education are not thinking as far back as ancient Rome or medieval Paris. I suspect that at least in some cases they are thinking more of the content of education as it existed (especially for white people) in the USA in the mid-twentieth century, before the civil rights movement and globalization. I suspect that “classical education” in literature might be stretched to include Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway, and even Louisa May Alcott, but not James Baldwin or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Toni Morrison or Jorge Luis Borges. And I suspect that with regard to American history, “classical education” would mean learning essentially what my generation learned about American history, and not what Black and Hispanic and Native American historians have opened up to us as the fuller story of the history of the world and in particular the history of the New World, and of the United States. History, for some of the people who are displeased with current curricula and textbooks, includes heavy doses of mythology and nostalgia.

Second, Angela said she wants education to happen “without the politics.” Now, the word “politics” is used in various ways. There’s a colloquial sense these days that is largely negative. In this sense, “politics” refers to factionalism, divisiveness, trying to force a partisan agenda on other people, maneuvering, colluding, manipulating. When people use “politics” in this sense, they’re always talking about something other people are doing, not something they are doing themselves. So Angela comes to a school board meeting wearing her campaigning-for-state-rep shirt and makes a little campaign speech attacking the entire school system for allegedly being captive to leftwing ideology. And in the same breath she says she wants to keep education free of politics. This is a dizzying display of (taking the most benign possible view) failed self-awareness.

If we’re going to understand “politics” in the negative sense, then I agree with Angela about keeping it out of the schools. I hope in the future she and others will also keep it out of our school-board meetings.

But I prefer a more positive, classical understanding of the word “politics.” Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, defines ethics and politics as adjacent domains of practical knowledge (i.e., knowledge aimed at action). He treats ethics mostly as pertaining to the actions of individuals, and politics as pertaining to the actions of human beings in community. (For an introductory discussion, see here.) That is to say, “politics” is a name for thinking well about how we can best order our life together as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. If we understand politics in that sense, I would say that we need more teaching of politics in schools, not less. Maybe with a citizenry better studied in both ethics and politics we could have fewer ugly displays of deliberate partisan provocation in public meetings that ought to be about working together toward a common goal, such as educating our children well.

Full disclosure: Caledonia residents will see my name on the November ballot as a candidate for school board. I’ll say more about that soon, in addition to posting my promised further thoughts on some of the questions raised above.

Also, to forestall any possible misunderstanding of the lead photo for this post: Angela Rigas did not pull out a pistol at the school board meeting. The photo is a detail from her latest campaign postcard, which on one side pledges her support for the police, and on other side pledges her opposition to laws allowing the police to take guns away from dangerous people.

One final postscript: Since I mentioned school board candidate Ian Rice’s huddling with Angela Rigas at the May 16 school board meeting, I should mention that I am reliably informed that two other school board candidates, John Brandow and incumbent Tim Morris, were seen marching arm-in-arm with her in the local Independence Day parade. Tim Morris also shows up as an endorser on Angela’s campaign website.

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