Plague of the Middlebrow Pundits, Revisited: Walter Russell Mead

Three years ago, I taught at a super-progressive small school with a limited opportunity to offer elective courses. So each year teachers got to offer a one-week, 40-hour elective course on any topic they wanted, and if 20 kids signed up, they taught it.

I got twenty signups with this class (the original flyer was a single page, I broke it up into two pages for this, click to enlarge):

scificlass

Will it surprise you that it was 18 boys and 2 girls? Thought not. Only one of them was an A student, the rest were your classic goofball geek underachievers.

On the first day, I gave a 40 minute lecture on the key ideas in Special Providence, by Walter Russell Mead, which I used to anchor the class: “Mead attributes [US foreign policy] success to four schools of thought, named after four American statesmen: the Hamiltonian (protection of commerce), Jeffersonian (maintenance of a democratic system), Jacksonian (populist values, military strength), and Wilsonian (moral principle). ”

I explained that science fiction, books or movies, always reflect social norms and values of the time, both intentionally and not so much. They would be watching the films looking for these norms and values, particularly as reflected in the interactions between science and the military and their varying reactions to the threats, with this graphic organizer:

scifigo

Evaluated from this aspect, the cooperation between the scientists and the military in Them! really stands out. The kids all agreed that neither version of Invasion fell into one of the foreign policy models. When I asked why, several kids pointed out that the movie was really about being human, not about space invaders and the need to respond.

The most active discussion involved the Alien duo (I tossed them in as a surprise), as the kids all agreed that the society in the movie was dominantly Hamiltonian, but what was the view of the filmmakers? It seemed Jacksonian, as Ripley had no interest in understanding the aliens, but simply destroying them to protect her world, and the military personnel in Aliens were definitely heroic. Scientists, aka the androids, were untrustworthy—they might come through, or they might knife you in the back. But James Cameron’s Abyss and Avatar were both definitely Jeffersonian, with military goons threatening the live in peace water bubbles and blue people, so had he changed? Or did he use the money from Aliens to make movies he really believed in? (We put aside Ridley Scott, since his movies are hard to pigeonhole.)

Anyway. A terrific class. And proof, I hope, that I quite like Walter Russell Mead’s ideas. I agree in large part with his analysis of the death of the blue model. But the man* simply can’t free himself of pap when he talks about teachers.

As I said last year, he’s part of the plague of the middlebrow pundits:

…these aren’t people with a coherent view; they’ve taken the cheap way out.

They think about education the way I like Hall and Oates, the Eagles, or John Mayer. When I listen to music I want something I can sing along with the radio when I’m driving. Nothing more. I don’t want to think, don’t want to work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these musicians—they’re popular for a reason. I can go on at great length about the excellence of Don Henley. But I like them in large part because they’re easy to like and tuneful. I’m not going to do the work to listen to more challenging music.

Likewise, the middlebrows in education want to opine on a subject that’s very much in the news and, unlike global warming or economic policy, they think this is an area in which their opinions carry a lot of weight. There’s nothing terribly off about their opinions; they are safe and easy. But just as a serious musician hates the proliferation of pop, so too do I get tired of the proliferation of conventional wisdoms by people who haven’t really taken the time to think or research their opinions on education.

You might argue that WRM blasts teachers because they are a handy proxy for the blue model. But so are cops. Does Mead spend a lot of time criticizing cops for doing a terrible job, getting a raise every year whether needed or not, and blame their unions for all societies ills?

Let’s see. Here’s a google of “site:http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm teachers”. Notice, at the time of this writing, that most of the entries are in the anti-union, teachers suck vein.

Meanwhile, a google of site:http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm police reveals a whole bunch of foreign policy posts, interspersed with the occasional sympathetic comment about the poor cops whose pensions are going to be at risk.

I submit, dear reader, that WRM picks on teachers because like most educated elites he thinks he has a clue about what is involved in educating the populace, based on his own exposure to the vast challenges of educating the populace, won through his hard-scrabble experiences at Groton and Yale.

WRM generally hews to the general pro-charter, pro-accountability reformer line, except he’s not as well-educated on the facts as actual reformers. So you’ll often see him say, incorrectly, that teachers and unions are losing parental support (check out this piece when he says that during the CTU strike , ignorant of the fact that the majority of Chicago parents and public were firmly on the teacher’s side–even nearly half of whites polled—and that Rahm lost), that Americans want to go to charters for a better education, when in fact race plays a huge part in their choices, with safety a key second. Oh, and of course, he thinks the Memphis cheating scandal proves that teachers are stupid, when in fact…well, more on that here. And he opines that teaching isn’t a “lifer” job, deciding that older teachers are mostly just in it for the money. (What he means, of course, is that they are expensive. So are older lawyers, doctors, cops, firefighters, and Yale professors, but this doesn’t appear to matter.) Truly ignorant is his post on blue state shame of schools, in which he cites the Challenge Index–the frigging Mathews survey that celebrates how many kids were glued into seats for an AP exam, scores be damned–as evidence that red state schools are superior to the union-run schools in blue states. It is to weep.

You know what’s never mentioned on WRM’s blog? NAEP. Well, not by WRM. The four entries you see at the time of this writing were comments (no, I didn’t make them) made pointing out that if we use actual data, union states do far better than non-union states. (You can’t see them because he killed comments a while back.) Not that I think unions had anything to do these outcomes, but it certainly blows a hole in WRM’s thesis. But then, that’s him all over: citing Jay Mathews instead of Matthew di Carlo. Hey, maybe he just got their names mixed up.

It’s not like he hasn’t been doing this for a while, so what kicked off this rant?

Teachers Unions Don’t Empower Teachers

Our idea of education reform isn’t to take teacher union membership away and leave teachers exposed to the power of uncaring, rigid bureaucracies. Instead, we want to use concepts like charter schools and school vouchers to give good teachers the chance to build cooperative and community schools where a reputation for excellence ensures a stream of students.

Um. What the hell does he mean? Does he even know? Does he really think that teachers won’t get more expensive at charter schools over time? Does he think charters will be less likely to fire “good” teachers that cost thousands more? Really? Moreover, charters demand an ideological lockstep that isn’t even an issue in most comprehensive schools. It’s always dangerous for teachers to have opinions, but at charter schools, all teachers must share the corporate ideology (CF Match, KIPP, and so on).

And of course, most teachers don’t want to be entrepreneurs. Most people don’t want to be entrepreneurs, and they don’t want to work for charters. And anyone who thinks that isn’t a critical fail point in the charter school movement is innumerate.

We don’t like teachers’ unions, but it’s not because we hate teachers and want them to suffer. It’s because the unions are part of what’s wrong with the system: They are the biggest defenders of the bureaucratized, by-the-book system that has stifled many teachers and made it difficult for them to do their jobs as they see fit.

Oh, look, Desert Storm protesters figured out the new party line: “We hate the war, not the soldiers.”

Teachers unions ARE teachers. And unions don’t “defend” bureaucracy. They defend teachers, by finding them as many jobs as they can. That’s their function. That’s what teachers pay them for. I’m no fan of unions, but it’s arrant idiocy to pretend that there’s any space at all between teachers and their unions. Remember that Karen Lewis is in charge of the CTU because the teachers voted out her management-friendly, pro-charter predecessor and she now faces opposition because she wasn’t militant enough (although her slate is very popular.).

We understand the appeal of unions to teachers. We understand why people under the rule of bureaucrats, who are ultimately responsive to big city political machines, would want to have their own representatives as the table. But we think there are ways to decentralize the whole system, to give teachers more autonomy and ground their evaluations more deeply in the views of their peers and local communities, while also giving parents more choice.

So we, the elite, think you teachers are totally wrong to fight our plans for your career. We have a much better way to employ you, even though we personally have no experience in any aspect of public education much less teaching, and we think you should take our word for it. We want you to be totally in favor of lucky parents taking their kids out of schools that have to abide by constitutional protections and educational policies—policies that we, the elite, put on public schools via lawsuits and well-meant but utterly nonsensical requirements—in favor of schools that can boot any kids who don’t toe the line. We also want you to be judged by the test scores of your students without regard to their cognitive ability because we find it distasteful to acknowledge that student cognitive ability is highly relevant to academic outcomes despite decades of established research showing otherwise. Of course, we think teacher cognitive ability is fundamental to student academic outcomes, so we want to wipe out black and Hispanic teachers entirely by raising the require test score burden for all teachers, even though research shows a tenuous at best link between teacher demonstrated ability and student outcomes.

Yeah. Good to see you understand the appeal of unions, Walt.

Or, to avoid repeating myself:

Say what you will of reformers like Rick Hess or Fordham, or of progresssives like Larry Cuban or Diane Ravitch, they have coherent views supported by research and struggle intellectually with the grey areas.

(Well, maybe not so much Diane Ravitch.)

Off I go to Starbucks, listening to Henley and Hall & Oates.

**There may be more than one writer in the WRM blog, but they are unauthored and it’s under his name.

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