PLEASE COME TO ASPEN! Walter Isaacson cant explain Einstein. Or what occurs in fourth grade: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, APRIL 24, 2009
A week that was: This was a week that was in American news, with major torture revelations driving the issue center stage. It was also a week that was for press corps watchers, with Pulitzers going to David Barstow and Gene Robinsonand with a major liberal on the move, from the web to the Washington Post. We think well wait till Monday to offer our view of these moving parts. We will offer a quick reaction to last nights Countdown and Maddow:
Its a very good thing when people can watch these programs and learn a great deal about a news topic. That said, we were struck by a particular thought as we watched these programs discussion of torture last night, especially as we watched Countdown: We have never seen any other issue explored so thoroughly on these programs. (In the case of Countdown, weve never seen the program provide so full an hour of news.) Forget about low-income education, a topic which is essentially never discussed anywhere in the liberal world: Weve seen no such treatment of health care, of budget issues, of climate change on these important programs. In the past few weeks, these programs focused heavily on budget disputesand specialized in dick jokes and insults. Last night was a striking contrast.
It was impressive to see how much a viewer could learn from watching these programs last night. We couldnt help thinking how little effort has been spent on other news topics.
Regarding the Pulitzers: We generally regard the Pulitzers as awards the industry grants itself. That said, weve been fans of the low-profile Barstow since Campaign 2000, when he played a small but striking role as a stand-in reporter on the Straight Talk Express, the vehicle named for the quality youd least expect to find there. For Glenn Greenwalds report on Barstows current prize (his second), just click this.
As Greenwald notes, the work for which Barstow was granted this prize shed light on a major conflict of interest within our compromised press corps. In some ways, Robinsons Pulitzer struck us as even more of an historical marker. An historical period came to an end during last years White House campaign, the campaign which Robinson chronicled; but then, he had played a significant role in an earlier White House campaign, when that unfortunate historical period was still going strong. No one has ever asked the press to explain its conduct during that eraan era which ended, mercifully, when Obama captured the Dem Party nod.
In effect, Robinson received his prize for helping bring that era to a close. It was an appalling journalistic era. Anyone could understand why the press corps would like it to endas quietly as possible, of course, with no one actually noticing.
More on Monday. It was silly, juvenile, sad to see some of the fawning extended to Robinson with respect to this weeks prize. As far as we know, Gene Robinson is the worlds nicest person (and he wrote some very good columns last year). In some regions, though, kissing up to official nice guys is what this game is all about. Wed suggest that the actual tale should run just a bit deeper.
Update: Still no Maddow transcripts on Nexis this week. Hardball, Ed, Countdown? All there.
BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: When it comes to low-income schools, big pundits report from the Finland Station. Why not read each thrilling installment?
In this mornings conclusion, a Big Dog pundit sings a hit song. Please come to Aspen, he says:
PART 3PLEASE COME TO ASPEN: How much does Thomas Friedman know about public schools? Well take a quick guess: Not muchand theres no reason why he should. But there are always cheat sheets floating aroundcheat sheets which let ambitious fellows write essays on unknown topics. One such sheet has been provided this week by the consulting firm McKinsey.
McKinseys cheat sheet is a new study, entitled The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in Americas Schools. Yesterday morning, we had to chuckle when Javier Hernandez reviewed the new study in a Times news report. Boys and girls, raise your hand if you didnt already know this:
Really? Poor kids do less well in schools, as compared to kids who are wealthy?
Well grant you this: The framework here is slightly new. Rather than trying to talk about justice, the McKinsey report takes the angle that our prevailing achievement gaps hurt economic output. (Thats the focus of Hernandezs opening paragraph.) Still, Hernandez seemed to be writing a report designed for folk newly arrived from Mars. Who else wouldnt know this?
If this study can be believed, these educational achievement gaps can even be found in New York!
It almost seems that Hernandez report was pried from a 1960s time capsule. But Hernandez was only doing his job, reviewing the deeply tedious findings of the latest official new study. For sheer absurdity, you have to peruse the work of the corps Big Dogsfamous scribes who know little about public schools, but like to declaim on them anyway.
Case in point: On Tuesday, Friedman devoted his New York Times column to this new approved study. Friedman doesnt spend much time writing about public schools. In this column, we thought it showed:
Does Friedman know what hes talking about? From that passage, youd think that improvement is occurring here and therebut the improvement is modest and scattered. But in both reading and math, the basic data of the endlessly-ballyhooed National Assessment of Educational Progress show improved scores, at all ages tested, among whites, among blacks and among Hispanicswith those achievement gaps significantly closing from where they were in 1971. (Click here, then click some more.) Wed love to see a more careful discussion of these NAEP data, conducted by people who might actually know what theyre talking about. But thats not the way things work in this country. Instead, we let Big Dogs run free, offering utterly silly thoughts derived from the Latest New Study. Eventually, Finland appears:
Is something gained by dreams of this type? Why not simply say like this:
Duh. Of course this nation would be better off if our children learned more in school. But how do we achieve this goal? Go aheadread his full column! Friedman forgot to say!
Oh wait! Unfair to Big Dogs! Friedman did offer this:
How can we realize those $670 billion dreams? Easy! We should take best practices that are working and make them the national norm! Translation: Friedman doesnt have the slightest idea what the heck hes talking about. Adding injury to insult, hes soon quoting Wendy Kopp about the greatness of her young Princeton grads.
If America had closed the achievement gap, the achievement gap would no longer exist! Over at Time, the other Big Dog, Walter Isaacson, was prepared to be even more daft.
Painful! Isaacson decided to talk aboutwhat else?the need for better standards. (Judging from context, better means higher.) Theres little sign, at any point, that he actually knows what hes talking about; we especially enjoyed his Lake Wobegon reference, in which he took a funny phenomenon from the 1980s and suggested it followed from No Child Left Behind (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/01). But standards sound like very good things, and better standards sound very good too. Big Dogs love tossing such easy phrases around, producing standard nonsense like this:
Isaacson proposes creating standards which define precisely what students are expected to know by the time they complete each grade. The standards will be accompanied by tests; presumably (Isaacsons prose grows murky), these tests will let us determine who has actually met these standards. At this point, the flight of fancy occurs, as is typical in such discussions: According to Isaacson, these standards will somehow let us determine how globally competitive our nation's economy will be in the future. But that seems to assume that our children will actually meet these gloried new standardsand Isaacson hasnt said a word about how we can make that occur! But then, the Big Dogs always reason this way: If we set higher standards, kids will meet them, they say! How easy it is to baffle such gab from a conference room high above Aspen.
Until now, wed only thought that Isaacson cant explain Einstein, the subject of his latest best-selling book. Sorry! As it now turns out, he cant explain fourth grade either. But Isaacson is a major Big Dog; hes president and CEO of The Aspen Institute, the famous repository of upper-class baffle-gab. (As such, he runs the Aspen Festival of Ideas, the conference named for the sort of thing youll least likely encounter there.) When we read his piece this week, we almost thought we heard him crooning another adaptation of that old hit song:
Or as Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast: Then the rich came into our lives. (Then you have the rich and nothing is ever as it was again.) Granted, Hem was explaining away his own conduct. But the principle he employed was quite strong.
Do Friedman and Isaacson have the first clue about the way our public schools work? Hemingways spring was famously false. So are the endless happy outcomes pictured in the posturing prose of this well-reviewed know-nothing class.
Clear mountain prose: We dont think weve ever suggested that you should judge someones ideas by the strength of his prose. But we had to chuckle when Isaacson, one of those former Rhodes Scholars, helped limn Ed Sec Duncan:
According to Isaacson, Duncans a former basketball player. He doesnt want too many goal postsand he has a new arrow in his quiver! Quick guess: Big Dogs who publish such purple prose have spent perhaps ten seconds on it.