EASY TO BE FATUOUS! Fred Hiatt shows how easy it is to prescribe "reform" for the schools: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2008
Origins of opera: Well give the Washington Post some credit. On Saturday, the paper ran an editorial about Obamas cabinet picks. In this passage, the editors showed they understand how language sometimes works:
The editors know how language works. There are certain words a writer chooses for the purpose of being derogatory.
We chuckled mordantly at that passage because of what preceded it. You see, in the paragraph which came right before, the editors used some derogatory language themselves! This language is used to sneer and roll eyes. But within the Insider Mainstream Press, this lingo is now required:
Its now a mandate of Hard Pundit Law. In discussing Obamas likely selection of Clinton, Village Insiders are required to talk about soap operadrama. These are the derogatory terms for the negotiation between Obama and Clinton.
How mandatory has this language become? Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts all adore David Corn. But we suggest you read his Mother Jones post on this subject, a piece which is headlined, Obamas First Drama. At first, Corn was agnostic on the Clinton pick, he writes. But uh-oh! Then this happened:
All those substantive objections didnt swing Davidbut the specter of the soap opera did! But go aheadread through Davids full piece. See if you understand why he chooses to refer to these negotiations (his word) as a soap opera. Well be honest. On the merits, we cant.
This is a negotiation, of course. Given Bill Clintons world-wide (good-doing) enterprises, the negotiation seems to be fairly complex. Heres the question: Aside from requisite Clinton-hatredaside from the desire to run with the crowdwhy do we use the derogatory terms to describe this negotiation? Those terms were everywhere this weekend, as pundit-watchers will surely know. For example, this was Chris Wallaces non-judgmental question to David Axelrod on Fox News Sunday:
Our question: Why on earth would our brighter writers want to sound so much like Wallace? To complete the record, here he is, talking with Brit, during the all-star segment:
Its the lawtheyre required to say it! Needless to say, when they did get back to that soap opera, Bill Kristol called it a drama. Twice.
Our question: When does a negotiation gets transformed into a soap opera? Our answer: When a gang of insiders struggle hard to keep their own operas alive.
Team of dramatists: Who is turning this episode into a drama? This comical passage comes from Elisabeth Bumiller, thinking way too hard about Hil and Barack in Saturdays New York Times:
Few are predicting that this will occurthough some say it is not impossible! But so it goes with this silly cohort. Reporters churn nonsense of this typethen accuse others of staging soap operas. Its the way they keep drama alive.
Part 2Easy to be fatuous: Many scribes find it easy to be hard when they talk about public schooling (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/21/08). The rules of the game are fairly simple: They scold those troubling teachers unionsand the troubling pols who support them.
Beyond that, many scribes find it easy to churn perfect pap about public schoolsto type tired bromides about reform, thus avoiding actual thought. The Washington Post took this standard approach in Saturdays editorial:
When it comes to Obamas education secretary, the Post favors reformit wants someone whos willing to experiment. Meanwhile, everyone knows what these words mean when mainstream journalists discuss public schools. Reform means cracking down on teachers and teacher groups through ideas like merit pay and the ending of tenure. There may be some merit to these ideasbut few others seem to get mentioned.
In case we didnt know what reform means in these parts of the Village, Fred Hiatt wrote a recent Post op-ed piece which made the point fairly clear.
Its easy to be fatuous, we incomparably thought, after reading his column.
As usual, Hiatts piece took the form of a paean to DC schools chief Michelle Rhee. We mean that as a criticism of Hiatt, not of Rhee. Yes, this passage is utterly silly. But it was written by Hiatt:
In a way, you cant blame Hiatt for that sort of talk; its the type of chatter thats routinely churned by educational experts. But Hiatt is being fatuous when he says that every student can learn, write and do math (whatever so vague an assurance might mean)and he builds a straw man when he goes on to say that their ability to do so should be measured. (Few oppose sensible measurement.) Duh! The question isnt whether every student can learn; the question is how much various students can learn, at what point in their public schooling. The larger question is what sorts of changes in instructional practice might help these students achieve these goals. Meanwhile, the desire to rush to the question of whos at fault merely extends the problem. But Hiatt makes it clear, at the start of his piece, that fault and blame are driving his vision. He opens with an anecdote designed to show that Rhee is high-minded and goodwhile an unnamed principal is an uncaring villain. He then cranks out this standard textalthough, within the Insider Press, churning such text is real easy:
Just as he drives a framework of fault and blame, Hiatt builds a framework in which people are looking for excuses. (It cant be that theyre offering explanations, or describing real problems and obstacles.) Of course, its easy for pundits to say that we shouldnt accept...the usual excuses about the progress of deserving students who may enter kindergarten far behind their middle-class peers. But those students achievements wont increase just because Hiatt enjoys talking toughbecause he churns familiar bromides as a replacement for thought. Once again, though, we have to cut Hiatt some slack, since he can quote educational experts saying the same goldarn things:
Were sure that Haycock is a fine person; Jonathan Kozol writes good things about her, and thats good enough for us. But everyone knows that black kids can learn (whatever that vague assurance might mean); reciting this bromide makes experts seem noble, but it doesnt make anyone smarter. The actual questions here are quite different: How much can this particular child learn, during this particular week, and what would be the best particular way to help him or her do that? Unfortunately, educational experts often like to cheerleadand the Hiatts start acting like cheerleaders too. Soon, we find ourselves snarling at teachers, who surely must be at fault in these students failure to learn. (By which we presumably mean failure to learn enough.)
In the process, we may fail to notice how few real suggestions come from observers like Hiattother than the tired old bromides about things like merit pay.
In large measure, Hiatts piece concerns the wonders of merit payan idea which sometimes seem to have magical power in the world of the Village pundit. Who knows? Some form of merit pay may be a good thingthough we doubt that Hiatt has any idea, one way or the other. To our ear, his piece was the usual insider piecea piece pundits churn again and again. He found it easy to be hardwhen it came to those lazy teachers. When it came to the search for real ideas, he found it easy to be rather fatuous.
Meanwhile, his column turnedas these columns often doon a certain miraculous tale. Its easy to believe in miracles inside this mainstream celebrity press corps. When Post pundits talk about low-income schools, miracles tend to play a key role in their ruminations.
TomorrowPart 3: Easy to believe.