Sunday, March 15, 2009

American Exceptionalism Rears Its Head Again

I’ve been going through one of those phases where the prospect of sitting down (or standing up) to write is somehow unsettling. As some writer once said, “Writing? There’s nothing to it! You just sit down in front of a typewriter and open a vein.”

At first I thought I’d remembered this one wrong, but I think I like my version better than Gene Fowler’s “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” And now, reading further through The Writer’s Quotation Book (ed. James Charlton, Penguin Books 1981), I see that Red Smith wrote the one I remembered. The trouble with mining one’s veins, as any needle-user knows, is that after a while your arm gets to be so worked-over that you can’t find a usable blood vessel anymore. Fortunately, the mind heals better than an arm. In the end, though, I agree with Peter De Vries: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”

Anyway! Probably what has bothered me most recently has been Obama’s speech on education to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. As Whatever It Is I'm Against It (who has an unerring ear for pomposity in Presidential pronouncements, honed over three administrations) pointed out,
“I think you’d all agree that the time for finger-pointing is over,” he said, in what sounds like an exercise in finger-pointing if ever I heard one.
Obama didn't stop pointing his finger there. The speech is laden with traditional bipartisan attacks on American schools and students. “Let me give you a few statistics. In 8th grade math, we’ve fallen to 9th place. Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one.” Gerald Bracey offered some corrections to Obama's statistics at the Huffington Post: "The reference here has to be to the most recent TIMSS which tested in 45 nations. But in the original TIMSS from 1995, published in 1996, U S 8th graders ranked 23rd in math among 41 nations. If that's falling, let's go down some more, fast." (Be skeptical when Obama proclaims that he's raising chocolate rations from 30 grams a week to 20.)

Obama declared that our academic "calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children -- listen to this -- our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea -- every year. That's no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy." One could also question whether the Korean academic calendar works all that well, since the Korean economy is tanking rapidly. President Lee Myung-bak promised to raise per capita income in Korea to $40,000 a year by 2012, but it appears that in 2009 it will drop below $15,000, from a 2007 high of $20,000. Of course, the fault in Korea, as in the US, lies less with its schools than with its corrupt and rapacious elites. So, President Obama, if a longer school year is good preparation for a 21st century economy, why is South Korea in trouble?

The President also called, again, for merit pay for teachers, pointing his finger at Democrats who resist "rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom." Do we? Given his general factual inaccuracy, I wouldn't take Obama's word for it. Alfie Kohn has given good reasons to doubt the value of merit pay, not just in teaching but in any job.

I realize I'm not being entirely fair here. Obama was addressing a room full of businessmen, who eat this kind of crap (competitiveness! 21st century! reward achievement! partisan bickering! entrepreneurship!) up with a spoon, so maybe he was simply pandering to his audience. Indeed, contrary to his claim that "for decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline," Obama was repeating the same propaganda that bipartisan Washington has been grinding out all along.

What most annoyed me about the speech, perhaps unreasonably, was this bit:
So let there be no doubt: The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens -- and my fellow Americans, we have everything we need to be that nation.
It is surely unfair to take this bit of speechifying gasbaggery literally. Again, Obama was pandering to his audience with the sort of America-Is-Number-One cheerleading that every politician indulges in. If it had no real-world consequences, it could safely be brushed aside. I'm sure that if someone were to corner Obama and ask him if he really thinks that only one nation owns the future, and that other countries are fit only to be our footstool, he would backtrack immediately and insist that he is willing to share the future with the rest of the world. He might well offer the same old saw my less-ambivalent Obama-supporter friend invoked when we were talking about this on the phone today: A rising tide lifts all boats. Even if this were true, it would be at odds with Obama's line about America owning the future. My point is that the future belongs to everyone: every country has to feed and house and educate and protect the health of its citizens, and construct an economy that will generate enough jobs and wealth to allow them to support themselves and their families. To think of one country sucking the whole future into its maw like Jabba the Hut is batty at best. Unfortunately, many Americans are just that batty, and President Obama is nothing if not an American.

Alfie Kohn noticed this syndrome too:
You may have noticed the connection between this conception of education and the practice of continually ranking students on the basis of their scores on standardized tests. This is a promising start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Twenty-second-century schooling means that just about everything should be evaluated in terms of who’s beating whom. Thus, newspapers might feature headlines like: “U.S. Schools Now in 4th Place in Number of Hall Monitors” or “Gates Funds $50-Billion Effort to Manufacture World-Class Cafeteria Trays.” Whatever the criterion, our challenge is to make sure that people who don’t live in the United States will always be inferior to us.
Before I close this rant, I want to mention another attack on American education by another beloved faux-liberal figure, Garrison Keillor. In a syndicated column that appeared at Salon last year, the folksy Keillor attacked his fellow Democrats and the "perfectly nice, caring, sharing people, with a smattering of yoga/raga/tofu/mojo/mantra folks like my old confreres" who, Keillor says, run the schools (but not the Department of Education, he should have noted) for not giving children the Gift of Reading.
Reading is the key to everything. Teaching children to read is a fundamental moral obligation of the society. That 27 percent are at serious risk of crippling illiteracy is an outrageous scandal.
I agree completely, as far as this goes. I am the Promiscuous Reader, after all, though not so indiscriminate that I read Keillor often -- a boy has to have some standards. You have to draw the line somewhere. The trouble is that Keillor is here advocating something called the Reading First Program, which he claims all his nice, liberal tree-hugging confreres reject simply and only because George Bush supported it, even though it works. "It is morally disgusting if Democrats throw out Republican programs that are good for children." The trouble is, Reading First doesn't work, and the program became involved in some nasty conflict-of-interest scandals besides -- a major reason why the nasty ol' Democrats cut its funding.

So there you are. It isn't, as far as I can tell, the schools which are responsible for the Dumbing Down of America; it seems to be moving among government elites and writing New York Times best sellers that rot the mind.