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WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 5, 2011

Buying/rejecting the premise: On New Year’s Day, the New York Times ran a very silly front-page report about those clownishly self-absorbed baby boomers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/4/11). Today, the vaunted paper runs five letters about its report—and hurrah! Three letter-writers distinguish themselves by rejecting the newspaper’s premise:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: You say it’s a “fool’s endeavor” to generalize about the baby boomers, then proceed to do just that.

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: “Ascribing personality traits to a bloc of 79 million people is a fool’s endeavor,” you write, after first labeling baby boomers “self-absorbed,” self-pitying and “less self-fulfilled” than some other imaginary generation.

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: Dear Fellow Boomers: In the years we have left, how about we just ignore the scribes behind the curtain, the cliché makers who want to label us as “self-absorbed” and somehow silly.

Hurrah! At least three readers noticed the foolish generalizations—the silly clichés—driving this silly “news report.” But two other letter-writers made a very human mistake. They too complained about this report—but first, they purchased its premise:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: My generation of baby boomers is not self-absorbed; we are pragmatists!

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: As a baby boomer, I object to your characterization of my generation. Dr. Spock’s influence on my age cohort has been mostly beneficial. As a result, we believe that we have the right to speak out, to inspire and shape politics as well as other aspects of our lives.

If this makes us self-absorbed, it also makes us much more intentional and involved in the creation of American life.

This second writer uses “mostly” several times. But she largely buys the idea that one can generalize, with relative ease, about a bloc of 79 million people. And the first writer totally buys this premise. To her, all 79 million are alike—just not in the way the Times thinks!

As a general matter, it’s silly to think that 79 million people are all alike in some basic way. But the temptation to do so can be great, especially when we want to denigrate some group with whom we disagree in some way. We’ll talk about this natural tendency more as the new year proceeds. But first, let’s applaud two letter writers who thought they noted certain political messages lodged in this utterly silly report. One writer noted an undertone which we too thought we had sniffed:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: Instead of bemoaning their potential drag on Social Security and Medicare, we should be opening doors that enable boomers to apply their education, experience and energy to the solution of longstanding societal challenges.

Because yes—that silly report did seem to suggest that it was “self-absorbed” of baby boomers to expect payments from the Social Security system into which they have paid all these years. A second writer offered this thought about the use of that “self-absorbed” stereotype:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: [T]his characterization flows from the persistent conservative attack on the ’60s generation as the product of supposed Spockian “permissiveness,” based on our opposition to an unjust war and our engagement with mass movements against segregation, racism, sexism, poverty and homophobia and (appropriately enough) our support for the movement against ageism. How self-absorbed of us!

Of course, boomers didn’t all “oppos[e] an unjust war” or engage in the named mass movements. (Nor were they all raised by Dr. Spock.) But the Times report did seem to flirt with certain pseudo-conservative notions, the kinds of ideas which permeate our nation’s broken discourse.

Good God, that front-page report was dumb! And yet, two of these letter-writers bought its basic premise. It’s easy to lapse into silly tales in which tens of millions of people get denigrated (or praised) all at once. We were glad to see three letter-writers rejecting this silly premise. Reading the initial comments to this report (click here), we were struck by how few Times readers challenged this basic approach.

It can be tempting to slander entire tribes; in fact, it’s a deeply human instinct. Here’s a question for this new year: On a political basis, can it be counter-productive?

Special report: New focus!

PART 2—IT ALL COMES DOWN TO US (permalink): It’s hard to fathom how poorly the mainstream press corps tends to function (though that’s an old tale around here). Consider the Washington Post report to which we linked on Monday.

Help! In this rather typical news report, Nick Anderson writes about a semi-controversial reading program, Success for All. (Why is the program controversial? Some people think it’s too “scripted”—Jonathan Kozol, let’s say.) “The evidence is that it improves reading achievement for children in younger grades,” Anderson quotes an expert saying.

Success for All “improves reading achievement for children in younger grades?” Presumably, this means that the program “improves reading achievement” as compared to other programs. If so, that’s a very good thing, of course. And indeed! When Anderson visits a school which is using the program, he seems to say that Success for All has produced a notable degree of success:

ANDERSON (1/2/11): At Grasonville Elementary School, where about 30 percent of the 475 students come from families poor enough to qualify for meal subsidies, Success for All is credited with helping students achieve perennially strong reading test scores. The Queen Anne's County school, just east of Kent Narrows, began the program in 1997.

Grasonville Elementary has used Success for All for the past fourteen years. But are this school’s “perennially strong reading scores” in some way out of the ordinary? You’d think a reform-lovin’ paper like the Post would want to answer so basic a question. But argh! Anderson makes no attempt to report Grasonville’s reading scores, or to compare its reading scores with those of similar schools. Nor does he cite any other evidence, from any quarter, in support of Success for All—though one day later, a colleague did, in a Post blog item (see below).

(For the record, Anderson seems to suggest in the passage above that Grasonville serves a low-income population. In fact, on a statewide basis, 45 percent of Maryland elementary students “qualify for meal subsidies;” Grasonville’s student population is a bit more affluent than that of the state as a whole. Beyond that, the school has many fewer minority kids than the state as a whole—about 19 percent, as compared to roughly 45 percent statewide. For all data, start clicking here.)

In short, Anderson makes no attempt to examine the central claim of his piece—the apparent claim that Grasonville’s reading scores are higher than one might expect, due to its reading program. For ourselves, we’ll only say this—after looking at Grasonville’s reading scores, we don’t see a sharply unusual degree of success. (This is not meant as a criticism.) Grasonville’s black kids seem to do no better than the state’s black kids as a whole, for example—although we’re dealing with small numbers. But Anderson makes no attempt to evaluate the claim at the heart of his piece, even as he seems to report that Success for All has helped this school achieve “perennially strong reading test scores”—reading scores, one would assume, which are surprisingly strong.

Why do our biggest newspapers function in such puzzling ways? We can’t answer that question. But they have functioned this way for a very long way, as they cover a wide array of important subjects. Our education reporting has always been weak; our political reporting has long been dismal. Moving forward, this places a very large burden on the nation’s progressives and liberals.

Moving forward, it’s largely on us.

Our nation’s discourse is a wreck—a parody of sound intellectual function. Our big news organs routinely produce groaning work on the nation’s most important political topics. Meanwhile, one other major sector works to undermine the discourse. As our biggest news organs flounder, major conservative organs pump disinformation into the system about all major issues.

How can a modern society hope to function in these unfortunate circumstances? In this new year, we will be focusing on the burden which falls to progressives in this unfortunate cultural moment. How can progressives build an accurate, truthful discourse which is convincing and helpful to average citizens? Simple story: If we want a less ludicrous national discourse, it all comes down to us.

We’ve complained about the press corps for years. In the new year, we’ll focus on a newer question:

How should we liberals proceed? Sadly enough, it all comes down to us.

Tomorrow—part 3: Observing a few of our instincts

Friday—part 4: Explaining SS

Mathews cites a study: Does Success for All produce better results than other reading programs? You’d think we’d want to know this. In this blog post, education honcho Jay Mathews praises Anderson’s “eye-opening piece,” then cites a major 2009 study which supports the claim that Success for All produces unusual outcomes.

Is the judgment of that study accurate? We have no idea. But we note the progression here. The news report offers no attempt at evidence; it simply repeats a set of claims. Possible evidence is cited in a blog post which will be lightly read. (This isn’t Jay’s fault, of course.)

No follow-up will appear. This is how our culture does business.