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TO THE FINLAND STATION! NBC News flew off to Finland, as legions of rubes did before: // link // print // previous // next //

Watching your culture die: It has been stunning, in the past twenty years, to watch our culture shrivel and die. Our culture has become blindingly stupid. One tribe is catching up to the other is this remarkable race.

How dumb are we liberals getting to be, as we close the dumbness gap with the hated conservatives? Consider something Matt Taibbi wrote—something Steve Benen then pimped.

Taibbi was helping us liberals laugh at the rubes in the other tribe. But just how dumb do you have to be to miss the problem with his “reasoning?” Taibbi was playing an old refrain, in which we laugh at the Tea Party folk for being such blooming hypocrites about the role of government. In this case, Taibbi’s target was someone named David, a property appraiser who says there a lot of people on welfare who don’t deserve it:

TAIBBI (9/28/10): "I'm anti-spending and anti-government," crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. "The welfare state is out of control."

"OK," I say. "And what do you do for a living?"

"Me?" he says proudly. "Oh, I'm a property appraiser. Have been my whole life." I frown. "Are either of you on Medicare?"

Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!

"Let me get this straight," I say to David. "You've been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?"

"Well," he says, "there's a lot of people on welfare who don't deserve it. Too many people are living off the government."

"But," I protest, "you live off the government. And have been your whole life!”

Truly, that is astonishing. It’s astounding that Taibbi could write such crap. Benen thought it was grand.

What was wrong with Taibbi’s” reasoning?” One commenter to Benen’s post says that property appraisers actually aren’t government employees; let’s put that question to the side. Surely, even hacks like Taibbi and Benen understand the distinction between working in a government job and receiving government welfare.

There’s nothing wrong with receiving welfare, of course, and some welfare programs have been greatly scaled back. We’ll guess that “David” doesn’t know much about the extent to which people may be abusing welfare systems. But it’s stunning to think that our brains have rotted to the point where Benen can post this text without noting its obvious logical problems. And by the way: The old Medicare play is hackneyed and stupid. There is no hypocrisy in accepting Medicare—it is the existing system, you know—even if you would prefer that the system be changed, phased out or dismantled.

Medicare is the existing system. Presumably, “Janice” paid into the system all through her working life.

Persistently, mainstream idiots made such plays against Clinton and Gore, back in the day. According to a long-running New York Times theme, Candidate Gore was a hypocrite because he accepted campaign contributions, even though he said that he would favor public financing. In the first half of 2000, “Kit” Seelye pimped that consummate nonsense for months. Truly, we thought that no one else could ever be that stupid.

Plainly, we were wrong. In fact, the American brain has been rotting away, right before our eyes. At present, “liberals” like Benen are working quite hard. To all appearances, we dream of the day when our fine tribe can be just as dumb as the other.

In the process, your nation is dying. It’s dying in front of your eyes.

Special report: Don’t know much trigonometry!

PART 3—TO THE FINLAND STATION (permalink): On Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams continued to play a favorite new corporate tune. He treated viewers to a tough-talking moment from a no-nonsense, straight-shooting governor—a no-nonsense, tough-talking man who hates those teachers unions:

WILLIAMS (9/29/10): Incendiary words last night from New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, who lit into teachers' unions at a meeting as he unveiled a plan to let schools strip tenure from failing teachers and allow merit pay.

CHRISTIE (videotape): Your performance was awful. You didn't do what we asked you to do. You didn't produce the product we wanted you to produce. But we don't look at that. All we look at is, are you still breathing?

WILLIAMS: Governor Christie is in the midst of a big education battle in the most densely populated state in the union, which brings us to Education Nation, our summit, our series of reports, on our schools in this country.

We don’t know when we’ve seen a “news organization” push a line quite so hard.

Williams didn’t try to evaluate any of Christie’s tough talk. You see, the corporation’s theme this week has been teacher-bashing; NBC News has been trashing the teachers, and their infernal unions. So Williams just played the governor’s rant, making us rubes at home cower.

Is something wrong with New Jersey’s teachers? It isn’t easy to say, of course. But on the NAEP, statewide test scores have risen from 1992 to 2009. As a matter of fact, Garden State scores have risen a lot, and they exceed the national average among all major groups. But don’t expect to hear such twaddle when you watch Williams strut and fret his tailored suits across the stage. In an earlier era, Williams and his gruesome network were devoted to trashing the Clintons, then Gore. Now, the network is trashing the teachers.

So Christie got a free rant.

After that, Brian threw to Rehema Ellis, who had recently acted on the most hackneyed idea in the world:

WILLIAMS (continuing directly): For days we've been hearing about the ideal education system in the world, Finland. Educators talk about Finland all the time. So much so, in fact, we decided to go there and see what makes their system so good.

Here tonight, our education correspondent, Rehema Ellis:

ELLIS (videotape): Finland, population five million, about the size of the Atlanta metro area. But don't let size fool you—Finland is a global success. Home to cell phone giant Nokia, Finns are known for their love of coffee, state-supported health care and the best education system in the world.

Don’t let Finland’s size mislead you—the Finns are known for their love of coffee! Requisite foolishness to the side, Ellis proceeded to read a pointless report about the coffee-loving nation which produces the world’s highest test scores.

According to Williams, Ellis had gone to the Finland station “to see what makes their system so good.”

What made the Ellis report so pointless? Just this: Educators do “talk about Finland all the time”—have done so for many years. By now, every “education correspondent” east of Eden has scored that get-away trip to Helsinki, where he or she has puttered about, failing to note the obvious. That said, almost every reporter has noted some aspects of Finnish culture which distinguish it from the U.S. When the BBC went to Finland, for instance, Tom Burridge came back noting the country’s high-literacy culture—and its lack of immigration:

BURRIDGE (4/7/10): Finnish parents obviously claim some credit for the impressive school results. There is a culture of reading with the kids at home and families have regular contact with their children's teachers.

Teaching is a prestigious career in Finland. Teachers are highly valued and teaching standards are high.

The educational system's success in Finland seems to be part cultural. Pupils study in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.

Finland also has low levels of immigration. So when pupils start school the majority have Finnish as their native language, eliminating an obstacle that other societies often face.

One secret to Finland’s “educational” success? The country has virtually no immigration. (In referring to Finland’s “low levels” of same, Burridge was being polite.) Where other countries face the challenge of teaching children who may not speak the language, Finland’s “ideal educational system” motors ahead, unburdened by any such problems. Indeed, Burridge may have been too polite in another way; the educational challenge presented by immigration isn’t confined to language issues. In the U.S., high levels of immigration have been permitted as a way to provide the upper class with inexpensive gardeners and nannies. In part to serve that cultural ideal, many of our deserving immigrant children come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds. They are delightful, deserving children—but they do present an educational challenge, one that goes beyond the fact that they may not speak English.

In Finland, people water their own goddamned lawns. For that reason, the country’s “ideal educational system” has skipped this particular challenge. Meanwhile, did you note something else Burridge said? In Finland, “there is a culture of reading with the kids at home.” For the record, there is a similar culture right here in this country—in this country’s high-literacy, middle-class homes. But Finland is a small, middle-class, high-literacy nation. Minor clue: As we’ll see in Monday’s installment, it isn’t real hard to get good test scores from children who come from such homes.

For the record, the BBC was a bit late in staging its trip to Finland. Up in Canada, the Globe and Mail had made the requisite journey in June of 2009. Maria Jimenez spoke with Eeva Penttila, whose job inside this “ideal system” is shepherding the “educational pilgrims” around. (That’s a courteous term for “the rubes.”) Jimenez also quoted Charles Pascal, a gloomy former education official back in Ontario:

JIMENEZ (6/16/09): Ms. Penttila has hosted thousands of high-level experts and educators from all over the world, known as "educational pilgrims." They arrive in Helsinki hoping to unravel the secret of the country's success.

"I always say you can't take one element out and transfer it to your own country. Education is the result of culture, history and the society of a nation," she says. "When I compare the Canadian system with Finland's, the biggest difference seems to be more volunteers in the classroom in kindergarten. In Finland, everyone is working for a salary. As well, Canada seems to emphasize testing in primary school."

Mr. Pascal noted that Finland and Canada are not entirely comparable. Finland is a very homogeneous society with a high level of adult literacy, he says, while Canada is multicultural with 40 per cent of the population functionally illiterate.

“Education is the result of culture, history and the society of a nation," Penttila said, perhaps thinking of the attitudes toward education and literacy which seem to pervade her middle-class nation. Wringing his hands like a Swedish film-maker, Pascal took this thought in a gloomy direction, comparing Finland’s high adult literacy rate with a rather dark portrait of Canada’s. We have no idea if his gloomy statistic is actually accurate—and Canada is a high-scoring nation when it comes to international testing. But this country does face sweeping issues of adult literacy, including some issues our benighted ancestors spent three to four centuries creating.

Uh-oh! Our benighted ancestors spent three to four centuries trying to eliminate literacy among one large part of the population. When American journalists fly to Helsinki, they rarely mention this fact. Instead, they marvel at the miracle they have discovered; they pretend that our country could be just like Finland if we’d just get our asses in gear. So it was when the Dallas News sent Jim Landers off to the Finland station, in early 2009. Headline: “Texas school reformers try to learn lessons from Finland:”

LANDERS (2/8/09): Educators from across the world have looked to Finland for ideas on improving public education. Dallas reformers are especially intrigued with how Finland gets positive results from all of its schools and nearly all of its students–an equality that has been a chronic problem in Texas since the days of racial segregation. Finland also intrigues with its success in math and science.

Compared with Texas, Finland has a much smaller and much more homogenous school population. Finland is absorbing more immigrants, but nowhere near as many as Texas.

Finland's battles to improve education offer ideas for success in Texas—and ideas for avoiding a decline in living standards for a poorly educated population.

These include:

• Establishing a single, straightforward curriculum for all schools

• Expecting good results from all students and providing extra teaching resources to get those results

• Giving well-trained teachers respect and freedom to teach

Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? Landers does at least get credit for mentioning our brutal racial history, even if in a glancing manner. “Getting positive results from all its students” has been “a chronic problem” in Texas “since the days of racial segregation,” he wrote, in a somewhat comical bit of understatement. In this glancing aside, Landers refers to centuries of brutal racial oppression, centuries in which it was illegal to teach black children to read. This period was followed by at least one more century in which black kids were shoved into hovels and holes which carried the sacred name, “schools.” Yesterday, we offered you a stark reminder of the way this system actually worked, not too many years ago (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/30/10). Forget about Austin—let’s journey to Boston! This is how our society functioned one hundred years after states like Texas finally started making it legal for black kids to learn how to read:

KOZOL (1967): Many people in Boston are surprised, even to this day, to be told that children are beaten with thin bamboo whips within the cellars of our public schools and that they are whipped at times for no greater offence than for failing to show respect to the very same teachers who have been describing them as niggers.

That was Jonathan Kozol, in 1967, writing from our most enlightened city. Presumably, things weren’t much better in Dallas, or out in the countryside. But in the face of this brutal history, Landers was willing to keep his chin up! If we would just “establish a single, straightforward curriculum” and “expect good results from all students,” we could have an “ideal educational system” too, just like the good folks in Finland!

We don’t mean to beat on Landers, who simply engaged in a bit of conventional pseudo-journalism. We’ll assume that he really didn’t understand how disconnected from brutal reality his pretty thoughts actually were.

In fact, the United States is little like Finland. We have large poverty issues among all major population groups, even among the white population, which has always been culturally and politically ascendant. Beyond that, our brutal ancestors spent three to four centuries doing everything they could to stamp out literacy among one large segment of the population; Kozol’s famous, discarded book helps us see where matters stood just forty years ago, a blink of the eye in historical time. The legacy of those brutal centuries can’t be wiped or wished away because we want to close our eyes and pretend that we’re just like the Finns—that we too are a small, middle-class, uni-cultural nation which has always valued literacy. (In fact, we are none of those things.) Finally, this country stands at the end of several decades of high immigration. This has brought a lot of delightful, deserving kids to our schools, but many of these kids come from low-literacy, poverty backgrounds. And they don’t speak the language.

These factors produce large educational challenges. Flying off to the Finland station can’t make such challenges disappear. And by the way: When the rubes fly off to Finland, there are certain basic questions they can’t get answered there! They can’t learn how Finland dealt with the types of challenges American school systems face. They can’t learn how Finland dealt with such issues, because Finland hasn’t dealt with such issues. Reason? The Finns never spent four hundred years brutalizing a racial minority. And Finland has no immigration.

Finland is Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. It’s a small, high-literacy, one-culture nation. The children are all above average.

On Monday, we’ll return to that 2006 PISA test—the test where American 15-year-olds scored so poorly on an international measure of science literacy. (Finland scored first in the world. The U.S. scored 21st, out of 30 nations. For all scores, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/10. For the record, the U.S. scores better on other international tests.) On Monday, we’ll return to that widely-flogged score and we’ll break it down, showing you how white kids, black kids and Hispanic kids did on that particular test. NBC’s ugly discussion of teachers may seem different when we look at such a breakdown. That deeply stupid discussion looks different to us, although your mileage may differ.

We’ll also look at the silly drivel Rehema Ellis sent out on the air Wednesday night. In service to her corporate owners, Ellis described her trip to the Finland station, where so many “educational pilgrims” had pointlessly journeyed before.

MONDAY—PART 4: The actual shape of our challenge