Transcript

424:

Kid Politics
Transcript

Originally aired 01.14.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/424

Prologue.

Ira Glass

This is an amazing documentary called Please Vote for Me about an election in a third grade class by a filmmaker named Weijun Chen. It takes place in a city called Wuhan in central China. The eight year olds are told that they are going to vote to decide who is going to be the class monitor. It's the first election in their school ever. None of them has ever witnessed or taken part in anything like this at all.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

"Isn't this new?" their teacher asks them. And one of the three candidates, a little butterball of a kid named Cheng Cheng, turns out to be a natural politician. With no adults prompting him, he immediately starts button-holing his classmates and making promises.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

"Vote for me," he tells a little boy, "I'll make you steady committee officer." Quickly the parents get involved, coaching the kids, helping write their speeches. One dad who's with the police department basically wins the election for his son by arranging for a class trip on the city's monorail, which the kids love, and by giving his son little presents to hand out to every kid in the class moments before they vote.

But the kids own instincts are really interesting to watch too. There's this scene where one of the candidates-- a girl named Xiaofei is about to do a flute recital as part of the competition. Her two friends are going to dance a ballet with red scarves around her as she plays. Before she starts, though, Cheng Cheng tells a friend, "After Xiaofei performs, you must shout, that's terrible, got it?"

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Which results in a whole group of kids, including Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei-- Luo Lei's the other candidate in this race-- taunting her, "Xiaofei, Xiaofei, slowest eater. Xiaofei, Xiaofei, rotten gossip."

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Xiaofei looks around confused-- nothing like this has ever happened. And she's little, right, her feelings are right on her face. She blinks, she looks over to her teacher for help, she looks down and winces and starts crying. Another little girl in pink, at her desk, she starts crying too, witnessing this. The teacher calls a break, ushers Xiaofei from the room.

Cheng Cheng then goes to Xiaofei in the hallway and say, "I apologize to you for Luo Lei." As if Luo Lei was the one who organized the chanting, not him. Then he gets Luo Lei to apologize. And then, not only is Xiaofei crying, both the little boys, they both burst into tears also. Remember, they're all just eight years old.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

The camera moves down the aisle of the classroom, and we see lots of other kids are crying as well. It's like they accidentally invented negative campaigning, on their own, in their own classroom, tried it out, and then realized just how mean and wrong it is. Something adults seem to forget sometimes.

Today on our show, we have stories of children thrust into the world of politics-- a world that was really built for adults with thicker skins. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our show in three acts, these children take up presidential politics, global warming, and in our last act, they're put in charge of their own school-- make all the rules, including discipline. Stay with us.

Act One. Trickle Down History.

Ira Glass

Act One, Trickle Down History. Now we move to a group of teachers in California, teachers who are sending their students out to understand a very American kind of politics-- presidential politics. Starlee Kine tells the story.

Starlee Kine

When I was in high school, my class took a trip to the Richard Nixon Library. I remember putting on a pair of large headphones that whispered snippets of the Watergate recordings into my ears. I remember being shown into this little carpeted room. Our teacher tells we're in luck, there's a very special guest there for us that day. We hope it's someone good. A man with a flattop haircut enters. His name is H.R. Haldeman. He has something important to tell us. We hope he wants to tell us that he is not the real special guest. We have no idea who he is.

If your history's a little foggy, H.R. Haldeman was President Nixon's Chief of Staff. He was a pal and a confidante. When recordings of Nixon in the White House were released, there were hours and hours of recorded conversation between the two of them on the phone, like a couple of mean girls plotting how to take over the rest of the school. After Watergate broke, it became clear that Haldeman was involved, and he turned in his resignation. It was a big enough deal that Nixon went on TV to announce it.

Richard Nixon

Today in one of the most difficult decisions of my presidency, I accepted the resignations of two of my closest associates in the White House-- Bob Haldeman, John Erlichman.

Starlee Kine

Nixon threw his good friend H.R. Haldeman under the bus. Haldeman was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury. He served 18 months in prison, passing the time by working as a chemist in the prison's sewage treatment plant. Once he was released, he got involved in various business ventures. He became the owner of eight Sizzler steak houses. He receded into normal life, apparently only to resurface for the occasional public appearance in front of a room full of high school students.

That day in the library, we didn't know about any of Haldeman's history. I, for one, would have appreciated being told about the Sizzler steak house part up front. I remember clearly that Haldeman seemed like this sad, broken man. He wasn't wearing a suit, he didn't seem like someone with any authority, someone who was a part of history. It seemed clear that Haldeman was there that day to get us to stand in his shoes and see Watergate from his perspective. It was a very freaky Friday kind of moment-- see how hard it is to be an adult for a day.

And if you'll allow me this tangent, I was reminded of all this recently when I heard about something similar happening now in Simi Valley, California. That's where the library is for California's other Republican president, Ronald Reagan.

On a sunny Friday morning, I watch a class of fifth graders climb down off their school bus in their especially nice field trip clothes. They're here because the library does these reenactments where the students actually get to play Ronald Reagan and his various staff members-- stand in Reagan's shoes for the day. The kids file inside where a cheerful woman who works for the library stands in front of a large map with countries either red or blue.

Tour Guide

Who wants to tell me about the map? What do you know about the map? Yes?

Boy 1

All of the red countries are the Communist countries.

Tour Guide

Excellent. Very good. Is this a map of what it looks like today? No? When is this map? What're we looking at? What time period? Yes, sir?

Boy 2

The 1980s.

Tour Guide

Very good. Actually 1983. And in 1983 who was president?

Students

Ronald Reagan.

Starlee Kine

It's obvious the kids have been studying Ronald Reagan all week, and in particular, the invasion of Grenada. One of the great things about tagging around on an elementary school field trip is you re-learn all the history lessons that you'd not only forgotten, but question whether you ever learned in the first place. Do you remember anything at all about the invasion of Grenada? Don't worry, they'll explain to us.

Tour Guide

In 1983, Grenada is what color? Everyone tell me?

Students

Red.

Tour Guide

Very good, it's red. That means it's a Communist country.

Starlee Kine

The kids go on to talk about the rebels who overthrew the Grenadian government in 1983 and about the group of 800 hundred or so American medical students who were stranded there and who became instant pawns in US Cold War politics.

Tour Guide

But why do we really care about what's going on in Grenada? There's a specific reason why we're so concerned-- specifically, why President Reagan was concerned. Yes, sir?

Boy 3

Because they might have joined armies and taken over the US.

Tour Guide

OK, so we have Cuba, we have Grenada, and there's also Nicaragua at the time that are all Communist, and they're kind of close to the United States. So it could be that it causes a problem for the United States if they were to come to us and wanted to maybe make us Communist, right?

Starlee Kine

That's right. We were afraid Cuba, Grenada, and Nicaragua, with their collective population of 13 million would come over, defeat the largest military in the world, and turn us all Communist. And then, just in case there's any doubt in the kids minds about how terrible this would be, a staff member gives them a quick primer on the evils of Communism.

Tour Guide

Very good. In a Communist country, you have limited rights and freedoms. If you wanted to go and get a job and earn a living, could you keep your money? Could you? Who has all the money in a Communist country? What do you think?

Boy 4

The government.

Tour Guide

The government, very good. Now if you wanted to buy some land, or you wanted to buy a home, you wanted to buy property, could you do that in a Communist country? Who owns all the property? Everyone?

Students

The government.

Tour Guide

Very good.

Starlee Kine

The reason for all this studying up is that the kids are going to reenact the invasion. The class is divided up, with one third playing members of the Oval Office, one third playing the press, and one third playing the military. And one kid will play Ronald Reagan himself. The staff begin to hand out badges designating which kid is what.

Tour Guide

Secretary of State, Nicolette Schultz.

Starlee Kine

The military commanders are next, followed by the press. The naming of one little girl as White House Bureau Chief prompts a classmate to mutter, "I knew it," under his breath. I ask him why, and he tells me that one time when they were in kindergarten, she played a news anchor, so-- his voice trails off. Without fail, the kids ooh and aah over every position that is called out.

The kids are ushered to a room with three closed doors. The library's really fancy. Flat screen TVs flash on, and actors playing nondescript officials explain the kids' mission, and the potential consequences of their actions.

Tour Guide

When you walk through these doors, you will no longer be students.

Actor 1

You will make history. Lives are at stake.

Actor 2

Adult staff members are not here to answer questions or help you. The responsibility is entirely yours.

Actor 3

President Reagan, please report to the Oval Office and find your desk.

Starlee Kine

The three doors swing open in unison revealing three different sets-- the Oval Office, the press room, and the command center of a battleship. Everyone goes to their assigned room. The battleship is amazing-- it's dimly lit with lots of flashing lights and a gadget with toggle switches in front of every chair. And if there's anything a kid loves, it's toggle switches.

Adult Staff Member 1

Welcome to the Command Decision Center.

Students

Whoa.

Girl 1

Oh my God.

Boy 5

Oh my Jesus.

Starlee Kine

The press corps is led through another door. A staff member flat out lies to them by telling them that the press room is every bit as exciting as a battleship. It looks like a hotel conference room. The best selling point the staff can muster is that the room is large.

Adult Staff Member 2

In fact, the press room is bigger than the press room in the White House, so that's pretty exciting.

Starlee Kine

The President and his cabinet head into a replica of the Reagan era Oval Office, complete with a jar of jelly beans on the desk, which the kids are instructed to not even think about eating.

Boy 6

Secretary Weinberger.

Starlee Kine

Today's President Reagan is a blond fifth grader with an athletic build. My guess is he's a popular kid, but a benevolent one. He seems to take being named leader of the free world in stride, as though it's the sort of thing that happens to him often. Here's how it all works. The invasion is broken down into a series of A or B options. For instance, A, have diplomatic talks with Grenada, or B, evacuate the medical students. A, evacuate the medical students, or B, overthrow the Communist government. Each kid gets a vote, but President Reagan has final say.

Boy 6

Well, both of the options are-- well, I considered both of the options, but I think a smaller, faster force-- let's say the smaller, faster force is over powered, we have very small chances. And if we have a big army coming there, then we have better chances and it will take quicker, so I go with A.

Starlee Kine

The President inputs his answer into a dramatic red phone located right next to the jelly bean jar on his desk. Before they start, the kids were told that there aren't right or wrong answers, but the whole thing's rigged to make what Ronald Reagan did in 1983 look like the most appealing option. Each time the kids choose to do what he did, a bell goes off as though they've won a tropical vacation in Grenada, instead of an invasion.

Tour Guide

Nicely done, that is another correct response according to President Reagan.

Actor 4

Excellent work, President Reagan. Ordering a large invasion ensured that we would get the job done.

Starlee Kine

Again and again, President Reagan makes the same decisions as, well, President Reagan. Everything is going great until there's a news flash. Apparently the kids in the press room have been hard at work. An actress playing a reporter appears on the screen.

Tour Guide

All right, I'm not sure what this is, let's take a look.

Actor 5

Confidential sources tell this reporter that two US aircraft carriers headed to Lebanon have been rerouted to Grenada.

Tour Guide

Wait a minute, how did they get this information? President Reagan, have you talked to the press?

Boy 6

Not yet.

Tour Guide

Any of you talk to the press?

Students

No.

Tour Guide

This is top secret information. I'm not sure how the press got this story, but this is going to cause some problems for us.

Starlee Kine

Here's how it went down. In real life 1983, the press was somehow tipped off about the story in Grenada. President Reagan and the military had been planning a surprise attack. And so when the news got out, they had to decide whether to go ahead with the invasion, even though Grenada would be waiting for them, or to abort. President Reagan, again, like his predecessor President Reagan, decides to stick with the plan. The red phone dings. The US goes to war for three days.

After it's over, the staff does a little debrief with everyone. They talk with the kids about what happened, pointing out how it was especially bad when they lost the element of surprise.

Tour Guide

And how did we lose the element of surprise? What happened? Yes, sir?

Boy 7

Reporters somehow figured out the information, which was top secret, and ruined the surprise.

Tour Guide

All right, so President Reagan, now that we know it was the reporters-- we saw the report-- what are you going to do to them for releasing this information?

Starlee Kine

The staff ask the kids if the press had a right to tell the public. They go over the nuts and bolts of what freedom of the press means, and decide that what the reporters did was legal.

Tour Guide

They can't have any consequences for what they did. However, just because they have the freedoms, do all of you think that they should have used that freedom today?

Students

No.

Tour Guide

Now we did lose some military lives. I'm here to inform you that we lost 19 soldiers in the fighting. Now we can't directly say that's because of the press, but did it help that they released the story?

Students

No.

Tour Guide

No, it certainly didn't help.

Starlee Kine

No one pointed out the those 19 soldiers might have lived if the Oval Office had done things differently, or that invading countries is a dangerous business and casualties tend to come with the territory. Instead, one by one, you can see it on the kids' faces-- how it could have been perfect if only it wasn't for the press. And then the staff tells the kids they're going to rejoin their classmates, the ones that were in the other room playing reporters.

Tour Guide

Now it is time for me take you into the press room for a press conference. That means you're going to see the press. I ask you to be polite, but point out to them that maybe their actions had some consequences today.

Adult Staff Member 2

Come on in. Did you guys hear our story? Did you like our story?

Students

No.

Adult Staff Member 2

So you guys saw our story, but you don't like it?

Students

No. You destroyed our plan.

Adult Staff Member 2

We destroyed your plan?

Students

Yes!

Starlee Kine

Everyone is trying to get in as much glaring and as much head shaking as possible. The phrase element of surprise and 19 dead comes up again, and again, and again. The kids seem genuinely upset.

Adult Staff Member 2

I don't understand, what plan did we destroy? One representative. Yes?

Girl 2

Well, the reason why we really didn't want it to go out was because if they didn't know, we would still have the 19, and we would still have-- it just, it ruined our plan our action.

Starlee Kine

It's a strange experience watching little kids struggling to become adults before their time. They were too young to understand exactly what had just happened, but old enough to feel guilt about the blood on their hands. It surely must have been the first time in their lives that they'd been accused of causing a person's death, and yet they took to it so naturally.

I know Reagan isn't Nixon and Grenada isn't Watergate. And that difference is particularly stark when you've been to both their respective libraries like I have. In Reagan's, he's celebrated as a winner. In Nixon's, the tone is apologetic. But both libraries are saying the same thing-- see it my way.

I recently called up the Nixon Library to ask them about the day my class met H.R. Haldeman. They dug up an old program and they also sent me a list of questions the adults gave us to ask him. They might as well have been lifted straight off the transcript of the Watergate hearings. Why didn't you burn the White House tapes? How do you think the 18 and a half minute gap occurred? Why did your critics want you out? Are you sorry?

From the second Haldeman opened his mouth, we could tell he was angry, and that this wasn't like any field trip we'd ever been on before. He hadn't prepared a speech or anything like that. He would start barking his answers at us before we had even finished getting the questions out. An LA Times article about the visit quotes him as saying, "For Pete's sake, don't believe what you read in history books just because of the fact that those words are printed."

He told us he was improperly convicted and never had a chance during his trial because of the so-called judge. He kept reminding us of all the good Nixon had done, that we shouldn't be mad at Nixon for Haldeman's downfall-- it wasn't his fault. Even the proximity of where he was standing felt off. He was too vulnerable and close, as though he was practically sitting down on the floor with us. Despite his gruffness, I do actually remember feeling really sorry for him.

He seemed to care more about what we thought about him than what our teachers or any other adults did. They had already formed their opinions. He meant nothing to us, and that meant something to him. It meant someday, when we told our kids about Bob Haldeman, history wouldn't have to win just because those words are printed. And it worked. I liked him. I didn't think he was innocent, but I felt bad he wasn't.

Different school groups cycled through the Reagan Library throughout the day. I have to wait until the last one before I get to see what happens when a kid tries to alter the script.

William Miller

Secretary Baker?

Starlee Kine

That kid is William Miller, a skinny boy with glasses who's playing Ronald Reagan this time. The way his suit jacket hangs on him reminds me of the kind of movie where the kid is turned into an adult, and then back into a kid. William is quite and thoughtful. Each time he is called upon to make his decision, he adds his own special touch. He insists on consulting with the little girl playing Vice President Bush. It's hard not to see it as half sound political strategy on the President's part and half crush.

William Miller

And Vice President, may I please ask you a quick question? Why do you personally think that it should be B?

Girl 3

It's just safer and less risky than A.

William Miller

OK.

Starlee Kine

This group tackles the same questions as the first group-- whether to discuss or evacuate, and then whether to evacuate or invade. As the theatrics start to pick up, William looks worried. He quietly reads the library's instructions to himself.

William Miller

The decision is not to be taken lightly. Using military force for any reason is risky and may cost innocent lives.

Starlee Kine

There's a beeping sound like a time bomb is about to go off. President Reagan again consults his VP, shooting a look at the clock.

William Miller

Well, I think I'm going to go with vote A, and the reason for that is if we do go to war with Grenada, there's also the threat that other Communist countries like the Soviet Union could also come in and help to try to defeat us, and I don't think that that's necessary, to have that.

Starlee Kine

That sensible argument he just made about the Soviet Union wasn't fed to him by an adult-- he came up with it on his own. And it's at this point that William goes off script. He goes against the real Reagan. He decides not to invade, to just get the Americans out. Feeling good about his choice, President Reagan picks up the red phone and punches in A. The sound that comes out of the phone is one that anyone who ever watched a game show on TV will immediately recognize as the sound of being wrong.

Tour Guide

Oh, why did we hear that sound?

Actor 4

The US government will only overthrow the government of another nation if it believes that nation poses a direct, specific threat to American safety. In 1983, President Reagan decided that Grenada presented such a threat, and ordered a full scale military operation to replace Grenada's hostile Communist government with a friendly democracy, a government similar to our own.

Starlee Kine

President Reagan soldiers on, despite now knowing that he'll be overtaken by the tide of history, no matter what he does. Soon the same fake reporter comes on again, saying that the press has leaked the story. The kids rush to the President's desk.

Students

Abort the mission. Abort the mission. Abort the mission. Abort, abort, abort, abort. Everyone says abort.

Starlee Kine

William agrees. They should abort the mission. He figures they can go back to the original plan of just evacuating the students, and then invade later when they've gotten the element of surprise back. He warily inputs his answer into the red phone.

Tour Guide

OK, let's see what President Reagan did in 1983. Let's see, it sounds like they continued on the mission.

Actor 4

Sometimes in the heat of the moment, even the best leader can lose sight of what's most important. In this case, the safety of the American students, and the freedom of the Grenadian people.

Starlee Kine

President Reagan looks stricken. His coat seems bigger than ever. Again the class files out. Again it's the press kids versus everyone else. Again there's the chaos and blame. All through the library's lobby are clusters of ten year olds fighting to the death.

Girl 4

We had freedom of speech, right? Right?

Girl 5

You killed people. You killed 19 soldiers. How would you like to be killed?

Starlee Kine

President Reagan is slowly getting swallowed up by the crowd. Adults can sometimes put on this big show, letting you make the decisions, letting you be in charge, when what they really want is to convince you that their way is best, that they're not bad people, that the decisions they made were the right ones, and that if you were in their position, you'd have done it the same way. They'd really like you to believe that, maybe so they can believe it too.

Ira Glass

Starlee Kine, lives in Los Angeles. Coming up, children vote to decide all the rules in their school, including can they play video games while at school? What they decide in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, kid politics. Stories or what happens when adults-- usually educators-- put kids in the hot seat and tell them to grapple with adult political decisions. We've arrived at act two of our show.

Act Two. Climate Changes. People Don't.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Climates Change, People Don't. I met this really great, really smart kid who's into politics this summer. All summer I was watching a lot of Glenn Beck, and I went to that rally that he had in Washington D.C. And so I'm at the rally and I'm wandering around, and I'm talking to people in the crowd.

Ira Glass

How old are you guys?

Erin Gustafson

I'm 14.

Sarah Gustafson

16.

Ira Glass

Did you want to be here or are you being dragged along?

Erin Gustafson

No, I wanted to be here. I'm the one who watches Glenn Beck every day at five, so.

Ira Glass

That's Erin Gustafson, high school freshman, with her older sister, Sarah, and her mom, Michelle. They've driven up from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia for the rally.

Ira Glass

Why do you like Glenn Beck so much? What do you like about his show?

Erin Gustafson

Well, for me it's like a jumping off point. And I know that it's an opinion show, but I will hear what he says and the history behind it, and then from there I can do my own research.

Ira Glass

We talked about the kinds of things that you talk about at a Glenn Beck rally. is the President a socialist? The Gustafsons don't think he is. Are they alarmed over the direction the country's going in? They definitely are. They are free market, small government types-- against saving big banks, against the deficit. And then I got on the subject of global warming with 14 year old Erin.

Erin Gustafson

Global warming is propaganda. That's what I believe.

Ira Glass

Do they teach you that in school? About global warming, I mean?

Erin Gustafson

Yes, they teach you about global warming.

Ira Glass

Do you argue with your teachers?

Erin Gustafson

Not openly. I try and keep it respectful. And I will answer just by, this is what the book says, I may not agree with it, but this is what the book says, so this is what I have to answer.

Ira Glass

The number of Americans who believe that global warming is real has fallen, and the decline is dramatic. Back in 2006, according to a Pew Research Center study, 79% of the public said there's solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer. In just three years, the number fell to 57%. Other polls show a similar drop.

So climate change activists and scientists are trying to turn it around in a bunch of different ways, and part of that fight is in the classroom. They want to win over kids Erin's age. The National Science Foundation and NASA are each developing curricula to teach climate change in schools. Meanwhile, on the other side of the fight, bills have been introduced in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and passed in South Dakota-- Texas, by the way, has this too-- urging teachers to teach both sides in the climate change debate. The South Dakota bill declared carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life.

And with that fight for the hearts and minds of people like Erin and all of her peers in mind, we booked Erin into a studio last week at public radio station WMRA in Virginia.

Ira Glass

One, two three. Hey, Erin?

Erin Gustafson

Hello.

Ira Glass

Hey, Erin, it's Ira.

Erin Gustafson

Hi.

Ira Glass

Hi. How are you?

Erin Gustafson

I'm wonderful, and yourself?

Ira Glass

At the same time that we had her, we had in a studio in Colorado, at public radio station KGHU, a scientist named Roberta Johnson who develops curricula as Executive Director of the National Earth Science Teacher Association, and who studies the climate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Ira Glass

OK, so Dr. Johnson, meet Erin.

Roberta Johnson

Hi Erin.

Erin Gustafson

Hello, Dr. Johnson.

Roberta Johnson

Nice to meet you.

Ira Glass

Dr. Johnson and Erin Gustafson agreed to come into the studio to do a little experiment that we proposed to both of them. Dr. Johnson would run through the very best material that she thinks teachers have to convince students that global warming is real. And Erin would tell her and us if it was convincing, if it won her over. Was there anything a scientist could say to convince a kid who's already skeptical?

Up until now, Erin says, her schools haven't devoted a lot of time to teaching climate change, and it's not really a big subject for Glenn Beck, she says, so most of what she knows is based in her own curiosity, reading she's done poking around the internet. They both actually were pretty psyched for this.

Ira Glass

So Dr. Johnson, we can't give you a full semester here on the radio to walk through all of the arguments one might do, but you're going to lay out some of this case for Erin. And I understand you're going to break this down into two parts. So can you walk through the first part of your presentation?

Roberta Johnson

Well, I think the first part is that when we look at measurements taken around the world, we have an overwhelming amount of evidence that the climate is warming. And we know that from the increase in temperature that we observe in the land, the oceans, and the sea. We know that ice and snow cover are decreasing. Permafrost is thawing. Sea level is rising. All of those things are indicators of a warming climate.

Now, then the question becomes, how do we know that that has an association with carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases? And the other piece of that evidence is that we also know that carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere dramatically.

Ira Glass

OK, so that's the first part of your presentation, what's the second part? I understand it has to do with something called ice cores?

Roberta Johnson

Yeah, so there's these really cool ice cores-- cool, I meant as a pun, actually-- they have drilled these things now for decades in a number of different places-- there's got to be at least 20 or 30 of them that have been drilled in the Antarctic or in Greenland. These things are like two or three inches across, and they drill these things down, and down, and down.

And each ice core records a nice annual record of the temperature, the atmospheric composition. It gathers dust, it gathers volcanic debris. So they take these things out, they take them back to laboratories, and they can analyze them. And those records show very clearly temperature and CO2 have been very closely correlated for over 420,000 years. So as temperature goes up, CO2 goes up. And what we know is that the overall oscillation in temperature and CO2--

Ira Glass

OK, at this point Dr. Johnson got into some details that both Erin and I took awhile to grasp, so I'm going to just summarize for you to move things along. Basically, Roberta Johnson was saying we can explain the way temperature and carbon dioxide rose and fell over 420,000 years by looking at how the Earth was tilting-- its position relative to the sun.

When the Earth would wobble towards the sun, there'd be more heat and carbon dioxide. When the Earth would wobble away a little bit, less heat, less carbon dioxide. It all matched up until now. Just based on the Earth's tilt and orientation, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should now be a lot lower than it is. We are 35% higher than we should be. What's the cause? The logical culprit, she says, is human beings and the machines we've made that spew carbon dioxide-- CO2.

Roberta Johnson

You can analyze the CO2 itself, and that's what scientists have done. And they've found that the carbon in the carbon dioxide gas is lighter in its isotopic ratio than it should be if it was from a natural source. So what that tells us is that there's a direct tie from the CO2 we're seeing to a fossil fuel source.

Ira Glass

OK, so I feel like some of this has gotten actually a little bit technical. So Erin, before I ask you if any of this is convincing, I want to ask you, do you have questions about any of this?

Erin Gustafson

I think I understand most of it, so I'm going to go with no.

Ira Glass

OK, that's the way I feel too, I feel like I understand most of it. And so, Erin, do you find any of this convincing?

Erin Gustafson

Not particularly, not any more than what I've previously read.

Ira Glass

How come?

Erin Gustafson

Because I feel like there are still holes in the theory. Like the arguments that the highest temperatures that they've discovered have been in the 12th century. And that the satellite images that have taken, that have shown the shrinking of the ice caps, were not entirely correct. And that they've taken other pictures that show that there isn't nearly as much melting as they thought.

Ira Glass

What Erin's talking about are arguments against global warming that you read. That the Earth got really warm back in the 12th century, and it wasn't greenhouse gasses causing that-- maybe that's just happening again. And that satellite photos showed Arctic ice melting in one set of photos, but in another, didn't look so bad. She also asked, why have winters been colder and snowfall greater, if climate change is already, supposedly, taking effect. And she very delicately asked Dr. Johnson about Climategate.

Erin Gustafson

Well, if we've learned so much about-- I'm sorry if this comes off as, with the way I started that, as disrespectful-- but if we've learned so much about this--

Ira Glass

One by one, Dr. Johnson answered each of these questions. Yes, it got warmer in the 12th century, but for reasons that we can name, and it was nowhere near as warm as today. Yes, it might be colder in any given winter, but that is just the randomness of weather, that's not the climate. Yes, there's more snow now, because a warmer planet means more water vapor trapped in the atmosphere, which means storms of all kinds become more intense including snow. Yes, climate scientists said some things in their stolen emails that might seem at first to be damning, but several different commissions working independently all verified that they did not tamper with the data or the peer review process. Yes, the Arctic ice in photos might fluctuate, but the overall trend is clear.

Ira Glass

So, Erin, this explanation of what happened in the satellite pictures, do you find that credible, convincing, does this change your picture of it-- what the doctor is saying?

Erin Gustafson

I can see where there would then be discrepancies between the sets of pictures, but, meh.

Ira Glass

You don't sound won over.

Erin Gustafson

I wouldn't say that I'm won over, it's just it opens more questions.

Ira Glass

Erin, do you feel like any of the arguments that Dr. Johnson makes-- about the 12th century, about these satellite pictures, on any of these subjects-- is the way that you hear, you feel like, well, sure, that's a perfectly good argument, but you're just getting one side of the picture, and that there's another side too?

Erin Gustafson

Yes, that is pretty close. And it's like, I get that climate does flux and change, and that we as people affect the climate. But it's all kind of back and forth, because you can find plenty of examples to go with global warming, or climate change, and then a lot to go against it.

Ira Glass

You feel you feel you're caught up in a kind of a he said, she said argument?

Erin Gustafson

Kind of, yes.

Ira Glass

But Dr. Johnson, from your point of view, you don't feel like this is something where, OK, there's two sides to this argument. You feel like the data is in and we have an answer now?

Roberta Johnson

Yes, I do. My point is that this is really not a question of belief. This is a question of science. We look at the evidence, we use our scientific knowledge, and we come to science based conclusions.

Ira Glass

Hey, Erin, is there anything that any science teacher could say that could convince you of this?

Erin Gustafson

Quite possibly. If I saw both sides of the argument, arguing for both for and against global warming-- see those two arguments, completely side by side, laid out, then maybe I could see how it would be true. Or even, more definitely, how it isn't true.

I just personally feel like this is kind of almost like evolution. Where you'll have people who will say that, yes, this is fact, and this is what happened. And then there'll be other people who will say, this is theory, it could go one way, it could go the other. And then there'll be the people who say that this is completely untrue.

Ira Glass

Dr. Johnson, can I ask you-- I feel like the question this seems like it points to from your side of this-- and I hope you feel like you can answer this honestly-- is do you think it's hopeless to reach certain people once they're already skeptical? Once someone is skeptical of this and they see it as a he said, she said argument, is it possible to ever get through to them?

Roberta Johnson

Well, we're certainly going to keep trying. I think there's only so far you can go. I do tend to think that unfortunately-- you know, there's a spectrum of belief-- I have to remain hopeful that when people have open minds and are equipped to analyze evidence, that they'll come to rational conclusions.

[MUSIC - "FREEDOM OF CHOICE" BY DEVO]

Act Three. Minor Authorities.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Minor Authorities. What if you ran a school and you had the kids vote and decide on all the rules? They decide on all the discipline, decide which classes should be taught, what would happen if you don't show up for class, can you nap in school. Not to be harsh, but what if the inmates ran the asylum?

Well, there's a movement in alternative education called the free school movement. Typically there are no courses. Each kid studies what he or she wants independently. At The Brooklyn Free School, for instance, a teacher can offer a class, or the kids can vote for some class they want created. There are no tests, no homework, there aren't even grade levels-- you know, first grade, second grade, all that. And the kids decide everything about how the school is run.

If this sounds nuts, you should know that since The Brooklyn Free School was started seven years ago, nearly all its graduates have gone on to normal accredited colleges. We wanted to see what happens when the kids make all the decisions, so we headed over to The Brooklyn Free School.

Man

First agenda item is This American Life.

Ira Glass

Naturally, to record at the school, we had to get permission from the authorities there-- the kids themselves.

Woman

The proposal is that This American Life project goes forward.

Man

OK.

Girl 4

I second.

Boy 8

I third.

Ira Glass

Glad we got that six year old on our side there. We're in the school gym, it's about 50 kids, which is the whole school, age four to 19. A mix of kids who didn't do well in other schools, some behavior problem kids, some kids of professionals and crunchy parents. It's actually very diverse. There's a short discussion about whether they want to have us in the school.

Girl 5

I don't mean to be a pain about it. I don't know, I just don't really see the whole point of being on the radio if nothing really exciting is going to happen.

Ira Glass

After a few minutes, there's a vote.

Man

OK, all for? 38. All against? One, two. OK, so that's two against. And all abstain? That's three? Or four. OK, so that passes.

Ira Glass

And because that passed, Jyllian Gunther has this story.

Jyllian Gunther

Meetings are so central to The Brooklyn Free School that the only requirement at the school besides showing up is that once a week you attend what is known as the all school democratic meeting. But there are other meetings too. Meetings for teens, meetings for younger kids, impromptu meetings.

Meetings can be called by anyone, and they are-- sometimes as many as six a day. At times it can feel like a constant session of Congress, which is by design. Free schools are modeled after our country's approach to government. Give each person a vote and the collective decisions will be what's best for everyone.

So how does it work when the voters are kids? There was the meeting where the whole school decided that a boy who was always acting out should get constant supervision, so kids signed up for hourly shifts to watch him and keep him in line. Or the one where the kids called a meeting on the school's director for eating in a no food zone. Or the time a student called a meeting-- get this-- on herself for missing too many days of school. She was asked by her peers to present a case for why she shouldn't be kicked out of school.

I happen to know all this because my close friend Katherine is a co-founder and social worker at the school. The first thing you notice about The Brooklyn Free School, it doesn't look anything like a school. It's a five story brownstone. The gym used to be the living room, the dining room is a library, a former bathroom is the band room. There's an art room and a handful of classrooms, which all look like a cross between a preschool and a teenager's rec room. In the teen lounge, teenagers lie on the floor reading The Brothers Karamazov out loud.

Boy 9

It is well known that there were frequent fights between husband and wife, but according to tradition.

Jyllian Gunther

Some other kids go to the store to buy Tic Tacs. Some kids are playing cards. On the second floor, Kai was bothering Martin and the younger kids are having a meeting to resolve it.

Boy 10

If you do it again, we're going to call an all school meeting, come up with a consequence. So don't do it again.

Jyllian Gunther

The first few meetings I watched were not impressive. One Wednesday I went to an all school meeting. The topic of the day was the art room.

Man

Art room. What's the proposal?

Jyllian Gunther

Specifically, the age old problem of kids making a mess and not cleaning up. There was a long debate about how to fix this, some proposals, and a lot of finger pointing. The kids mostly seem bored. An hour later, nothing was decided and the meeting was adjourned. To me, the whole thing just looked like a waste of time. I wondered how much math, and science, and reading could these kids be doing instead of all these meetings?

I needed to see more, and I did. Over a month I saw all kinds of meetings at the school, and the one that really tested the question, if kids are in charge, do they make the best decisions, was the meeting about the no screens week rule.

Man 2

OK, so Ari, you're the chair, and [UNINTELLIGIBLE], you're the co-chair.

Jyllian Gunther

To understand the no screens week rule, you should know that for the staff it's a badge of honor. A few years ago, the entire school outlawed using any electronic device with a screen. No computers, no cell phones, no video games. The kids thought they were too distracting. The little ones were addicted. And so to break the addiction, every other week would be a no screens week, and if you wanted to get on a computer to do some research on a no screens week, you needed special permission from a staff member, which was a hassle. At a teens only meeting, a 15 year old named Malia dropped this bomb.

Boy 11

Malia?

Malia

So I was thinking we take down no screens week for like, I'm thinking people like 13 and older. I just think that we need to be able to work and do what research we need to, so that's like a proposal or whatever.

Boy 12

I second that.

Boy 13

I third that.

Boy 14

I don't.

Boy 11

Order. Order!

Jyllian Gunther

The no screens rule has been challenged before, but never successfully. Those in favor were quick to speak up, like [? Aran, ?] a 19 year old in an evolution t-shirt depicting a monkey, a human, and a robot.

Yeah, ?] I think it's pathetic basically. I mean, with the no screens week, basically when you do research, you're breaking a rule. School is for learning, and it's so pathetic that when you do research-- I mean it should be encouraged, but it's so pathetic that when you do research you break a rule. So I think this should just be totally gone with.

Jyllian Gunther

The adults don't agree, they want the restriction on the screens to stay. But they're outnumbered by the kids by a three to one margin. Lily, a teacher at the school, tries to rein them in.

Lily Mercogliano

I was a teacher and an adviser of the high school when we made this rule, and there was a lot of conversation about the positive things that it would bring for highschoolers. We also talked a lot about the effects that a lot of screen time has on sleep, which is a huge thing for people your age, and we talk about that a lot in attendance meeting. So I wanted to bring that up some.

And then also, I just wanted to say that, of course, no screens week doesn't mean no research, and sometimes you can do better research without a screen.

Boy 15

Is that it? [? Aram, ?] [? Aran, ?] whatever.

Aran. ?]

Yeah, ?] first of all, I have some things to say. In response to what Lily said, even though screen may not be the only way to research, it definitely is the easiest way to research. I mean, the internet you can get more information than from a book. That is definitely the truth-- I mean, a book you have to like look, look, look, the internet, you can just search, so yeah--

Jyllian Gunther

I should say here, as the meeting is happening, two kids are texting and one is playing a game on his Nintendo DS, which is fine, it is a screens week. [? Aram, ?] 12, is Malia's younger brother, and he thinks his sister's proposal is risky.

I ?] don't know how many of you were students here when-- it was like two years ago-- that no screens week was taken down for like a three week time period. And it was like really chaotic. No one did anything. The only thing anyone did was just sit there using screens.

Jyllian Gunther

Then a student says that all this is besides the point, because the rule itself is completely inconsistent with the school's philosophy. If you can trust someone to learn what they need to know without encouraging them, shouldn't you trust them to know when to turn a computer off? After 20 minutes of debate, a vote is taken. Six people abstain, three people vote against, 11 for.

Boy 16

It passes.

Boy 17

Yes!

Boy 18

Wow.

Boy 19

Yay.

Jyllian Gunther

The result of this meaning-- all screens, all the time-- is this an example of kids knowing what's best for them? Seems like a potential disaster to me and every other adult in the room. And right after the meeting, when I ask [? Aran, ?] the kid who was most vocal about needing his computer to do research, he confided, well, he'd also be playing some video games. A few weeks later, I check in with Lily, a teacher who'd voted against the policy to find out how things were going.

Lily Mercogliano

Everyone's been really responsible. There're very few students who have changed how much they use screens since before that was passed. I think it's an interesting thing when you give them that permission, I guess, or that responsibility, like, OK, you're voting this through, you're all making this decision, you know, you're all saying, we can handle this.

And I think that a lot of the teenagers have been very careful not to cause any problems since that rule got passed, because they know it's something that they put their stamp on. Like technically, there could be movies played all day long now, every single day, but they're not.

Jyllian Gunther

Which means the system's working, for now.

Late one Wednesday near the end of school everyone's cleaning up and getting ready to leave, and suddenly word goes up and down the stairs that someone's calling an impromptu all school meeting, a big deal in the arsenal of democratic meetings. Anyone can interrupt the whole school at any time and hold court.

Man 3

Who called this meeting and why? Malia?

Malia

I called this meaning because someone said something that is not appropriate to me again.

Jyllian Gunther

Confusion sets in. A 10 year old says, "I don't think you should waste our time on this, it's crazy to call this meeting." And another student asks, "Why not call a smaller meeting with whoever did it?" Despite the fact that I heard a lot from Malia in the short time I was at school, she's not known for calling meetings or crying wolf. Malia says it's about two brothers, [? Cruz ?] and [? Seoul. ?]

Malia

Because I want to show [? Cruz ?] and [? Seoul ?] that this is an important-- that this is not something that they can just do. You cannot say a bad word to someone and just get away with it. So I'm making it an all school thing now.

Man 3

Infinity?

Infinity

What did they say to you of that was so bad?

Malia

Was that a direct question? They called me a whore, both of them, like twice. I mean, I didn't even do anything to them. I asked them to stop annoying me and Bennett because we are talking quietly in the library, and they came up and they said, oh, whatever, you're a whore, or whatever.

Man 3

[? Kirren? ?]

What ?] the hell is a whore?

Jyllian Gunther

That's [? Kirren, ?] seven. He and everyone else look over at [? Cruz ?] and [? Seoul ?] waiting for an answer, but [? Cruz ?] is only just nine himself, and [? Seoul ?] is 10. And sitting in Katherine's lap, the brothers appear even younger than they are, and they look a little lost and embarrassed. Katherine breaks the silence.

Katherine Chew

I'd love for [? Seoul ?] and [? Cruz ?] to talk right now, but they also don't know what the word means. And it doesn't matter what the word means, but it was very offensive and upsetting to Malia, and I'm glad you brought this up, Malia.

Jyllian Gunther

Malia offers a tasteful and purposefully vague explanation of the word whore. The kids get that the word is bad. While it's clear that Malia's angry, it's not entirely clear what the purpose of the meeting is. Does she want them punished? Does she want an apology? Lily tries to gently steer Malia to a conclusion.

Lily Mercogliano

I wondered, Malia, what you are hoping to get out of this. If it would be helpful, do you think, to maybe talk in a smaller meeting with them after this? Or if there's something else that you're looking for?

Malia

I didn't really come with the idea of a proposal, I just think that when people do something wrong, they need to see that it's something bigger than just them. But I think it needs to stop. People don't know what they're saying, and they say it all the time, and that's not even a good way to use the word. It's like, if you're going to use the word, don't just use it when you don't know what it is randomly.

Jyllian Gunther

Then Malia improvises something remarkable. She turns the focus of the meeting away from herself.

Malia

And I'd like to ask to see a raise of hands-- I'd like to see how many people have been called something.

Jyllian Gunther

Nearly every hand in the room goes up.

Malia

See, it's just so many people. And I think--

Jyllian Gunther

She asks people to talk about it.

Girl 6

I think that like a lot of kids do that to me also, and I hate it.

Boy 20

We understand that these words are derogatory, so I think we should think of a consequence or proposal next time somebody curses at somebody else.

Boy 21

Whoever the hell made up these curse words was really wrong.

Jyllian Gunther

Malia proposes they meet again tomorrow to come up with consequences for calling someone a bad name. They all agree. But they didn't do it. In the end, no new rules went into effect, they didn't even meet. When I found out, I was genuinely surprised. One day, this was a big deal to everyone, the next day forgotten.

In the weeks I was at the school, a lot of meetings ended this way. One proposal about kids being too noisy outside and bothering the neighbors, a smaller meeting about the democratic meetings themselves and how to improve them, and a bigger meeting where those improvements were struck down all together. Another about kids in the kitchen not eating other kids food. That first meeting I attended about cleaning the art room.

A lot of talk with no conclusion. When I asked my friend Katherine about this, she says that's part of the plan.

Katherine Chew

You know, so what if there's no resolution? The point is they're left with something to think about. What are you going to do about it? You know, that's more interesting to me than somebody deciding that this is the way it should be. And then it's all easier, and it all goes nicer.

Jyllian Gunther

When I see Malia a few days later, I ask her what happened. Why no follow-up meeting? She explains, another meeting wasn't necessary. She'd said what she had to, everyone listened, other people spoke up too, and she feels better.

Malia

And it was kind of different from in a real school, you'd say, I have a problem, and then you get a teacher to deal with it. Or instead of everybody getting together and saying that this is a big problem, and that everybody should deal with it, and we should work together to change it.

I don't know, it's like I've gotten so used to deciding everything. Like I've had moments where I'll think about something outside of school, and think, oh, I should vote on it. And then I can't vote on it. I feel bad that a lot of people don't have the power in their environment like we do. Because we get to change anything about the school that we want to.

Jyllian Gunther

When she came into the school five years ago, Malia was scared to say what was on her mind. Over the years, she's learned to speak up, and she's seen that lead to change. She admits the meetings can be boring and frustrating, but she takes the authority she's given by the school very seriously. All the kids do. Malia feels bad for adults, she said, because they can't just call a meeting and take a vote at their jobs, or wherever, to fix something that bothers them. I get that. Once you're grown up, democracy is not so pure.

Ira Glass

Jyllian Gunther. She's a filmmaker currently finishing a film about an new public high school in Brooklyn.

[MUSIC - "IF THE KIDS ARE UNITED (THEY'LL NEVER BE DIVIDED)" BY SHAM-69]

Our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Nancy Updike. Senior producer for our show is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Production help from Shawn Wen and Eric Mennel.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

That amazing film, Please Vote For Me, about the third grade election, originally aired on Independent Lens on PBS. You can buy a copy online. We link from our website, thisamericanlife.org. We say goodbye this week to our intern, Shawn Wen, who's been great to work with, and who we wish the very best.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who's been puzzling over the every-changing FCC rules, until he finally arrivede at this:

Boy

Whoever the hell made up these curse words was really wrong.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.