Category Archives: Education

Teaching Magic: Why I Am No Longer A Liberal

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The other day, my sister, a staunch Democrat, asked me why I became conservative. I started as a liberal Democrat. Lyndon Johnson was the first presidential candidate I voted for, followed by Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy Carter (twice). The first Republican I voted for was George H. W. Bush, and I have voted for Republican candidates in every election since. I admit that I found it very difficult to vote for Trump, but I could not vote for Hillary, not so much because of her long history of lying and deceit; rather, because of what the Democratic Party has become as a result of the Obama administration and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders – a far left European-style social democratic party.

In addition to voting Democratic until Bush ran against Dukakis, I was strongly against the Vietnam War and “marched” in a number of anti-war demonstrations. Even though I was a “child of the 1950’s,” I bought the entire 60’s ideology of drugs, sex and rock’n roll, although my actual participation in these activities was moderate.

Getting back to my sister’s question of why I became a conservative, I would say the primary reason is because after college I started teaching school (frankly) to dodge the draft and avoid Vietnam.

In college, I read a number of books written by former teachers and education professors. The only one I remember is Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol who described what, he said, were his experiences teaching public school in a poor section of Boston. What he found was a school of eager-to-learn young students and racist teachers and administrators, who not only failed to teach their enthusiastic pupils, but sought also to destroy their spirits.

What I found when I taught in a neighborhood similar to the one where Kozol taught was 180 degrees different from what he described. Far from being eager to learn, the students I first encountered seemed to be in a perpetual state of hysteria. Most appeared incapable of talking to each other in a normal tone of voice; instead, they yelled, and much of what they yelled was profanity. The idea of behaving with respect for teachers  the principal, or other students was alien to them.

At the same time, the teachers and administrators were nothing like those Kozol described. Everyone I encountered in my first school (and every school thereafter) was either a dyed-in-the-wool liberal or radical leftist. They would do anything to make the students, parents and the many school activists happy. Very slowly, over a number of years, I grew to distrust the left. If Kozol and most of the left could be so wrong or dishonest about the schools, what other aspects of society could they be wrong or dishonest about?

I taught high school English for thirty-five years in the Philadelphia public schools. When I began teaching in the mid-1960’s, a movement to radically change teaching methods dominated teacher education and revolutionized teaching practices. Traditional teaching methods like lecture and teacher-led discussion were deemed a waste of time as well as harmful to students.

The radical educationists of the 60’s started the ball rolling with the belief that promoting a student’s “self-esteem” should be the purpose of education. They derided what they referred to as “mere knowledge.” From the 60s on, teaching became a form of cognitive therapy.  Teachers evaluated student work by searching for anything “positive” to praise and by never mentioning anything that was incorrect or incomprehensible, for that would be destructive of self-esteem. I attended many “workshops” where education professors would tell us, for example, not to bother teaching students how to read and write.  English grammar, punctuation, usage, and organization only frustrated students and made them unhappy. If a teacher couldn’t find anything positive to say about a student’s work, he or she should praise the student for “effort.” Student grades were thus based on effort and anything the teacher could find that could be considered positive in a student’s work. The students would learn “mere knowledge” on their own once they had high self-esteem.

It was understandable that radical ideas in education took hold in the 60’s. The students in urban schools, in particular, came from much less stable environments than their predecessors. Many had only a single woman in their homes: a mother, aunt or grandmother who could not (or would not) control children or teenagers.

Those who ran the schools and the education professors in universities searched for some new way to effectively teach these difficult students, a search for what the late Columbia professor Jacques Barzun called a “‘teaching magic’ that relieved the student of the burden of wanting to be taught.”

The quest for a teaching magic produced one change in educational methodology after another. When it was discovered that the self-esteem movement produced the phenomenon of the illiterate high school graduate, the educational establishment proclaimed a “back to basics” movement. But back to basics turned out to be more talk than reality.

The powerful educational ideology of the sixties was overwhelmingly seductive. But the word self-esteem had to go when moderate and conservative critics  began to make fun of it. So it was “re-branded” as the “student-centered classroom,” not unlike, in politics, the reincarnation of liberals into “progressives.”

Child-centered education meant that the students sat in groups, and each group worked on a project. Any teacher who employed traditional methods was likely to receive a reprimand from an administrator, who, was always happy to see a classroom of students in groups. Ultimately, the goal was to reduce and eventually eliminate the teacher’s role in learning. Usually, one or two students in the group actually worked on the project, but everyone in the group received the same grade. Although I haven’t been in a classroom in years, I believe that teachers are still expected to arrange their classes into groups in which students, it is hoped, “teach each other.”

Another 60’s influenced theory that gained prominence was that students had different “learning styles” ( supported by “research”). The learning style theory required that lessons should be directed towards each of the senses – sight, sound, touch, and even smell and taste. Again many moderate and conservative education critics considered the whole idea and its “research” to be fraudulent. I don’t know whether that theory is still considered gospel in the schools, but I haven’t read or seen anything about it in the media recently, so I assume that learning styles is less fashionable than it used to be.

The most recent educational fad might be labelled the computer-centered classroom.  A friend of mine who retired a few years after I did regularly substitutes in the Philadelphia schools. He often used to do long-term work where he would cover a teacher’s class who was on sabbatical or out on some other leave for half a year. He tells me that now he is not able to take those jobs because he isn’t sufficiently “computer literate.” Teaching nowadays requires a relatively high level of computer skill. I am told that there are many things you can do with a computer and a “smart board” that are amazingly entertaining, but I have not heard that the technology has improved student performance. Hardly anyone these days, for example, knows the difference between its and it’s or your and you’re or therethey’re, and their. And how many college graduates know how to use lie and lay?

An acquaintance recently asked me to read and edit a long essay he has been writing. I found that almost all of his writing was awkward and incomprehensible, and it wasn’t because he was using jargon specific to a particular profession. What was really shocking is that he graduated with honors from a prestigious Ivy League university and received a Phd. from what is reputedly the most demanding university in the country. How could he get through these schools, with honors and a doctorate no less, without being able to write clearly? I mentioned this to a professional writer and editor I know, and he said that he wasn’t surprised because “They don’t teach students how to write anymore.”

Some say it all started with John Dewey in the 19th Century with his “progressive education” theories that gave birth to the education fads of the past fifty or more years.  The schools will never abandon the quest for a teaching magic.. And it has now infected higher education:  Another acquaintance who teaches history at a well known liberal arts college explained to me recently that “you just can’t teach today’s students the way we were taught.” That and the widespread use of student evaluation of professors in decisions concerning tenure and promotion have resulted in the grade inflation that has so trivialized much of American higher education.

So how did a once liberal (progressive) become a conservative? It slowly became clear to me that the schools weren’t working and that liberals were responsible. As I said in the beginning: If they are so wrong about education, they must be wrong about and responsible for many other failures. When it comes to politicians, I am a bi-partisan skeptic, but I am much more skeptical of those on the left. My experience in the schools made me think about and question the ideas I had grown up with. I have found that most people never think about the validity of their political views. As someone once said, perhaps Jonathan Swift:  “You cannot reason people out of something they were not reasoned into.”

 

 

 

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Who You Calling Angry?

Saul Bellow Portrait Session

Saul Bellow – used his novels to attack his ex- wives.

Gore Vidal Portrait Session

Gore Vidal – attacked America, other writers, and just about everybody.

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Philip Roth – attacked his ex -wife, Claire Bloom and her daughter, the GOP, Israel.

Angry Writers

The world is in a state of fury because of our last presidential election. In America, more than half of the adult population despises the winner as well as the yahoos who voted for him. The supporters of the losing candidate view those who voted for the winner as retarded (excuse me, mentally challenged), sort of like the hillbilly banjo boys in the movie Deliverance. Those who voted for the winner see the other half as elite, unpatriotic snobs who wanted to turn the country into a socialist state in which the government provides everything one may want for “free.” The fury is palpable; you can feel it at social events like weddings, funerals, and parties.You can also see it on the street where one side or the other wears their sometimes obscene views on their shirts or on the cardboard signs they brandish.

While the commotion raged outside, I had lunch recently with Dan Rottenberg, my editor when I submitted essays during the 80s and 90s to a Center City paper, then called The Welcomat. Most of my essays were about my experience as a Philadelphia public high school teacher. The Welcomat was fun to write for because Dan loved to publish articles on controversial subjects that were almost sure to provoke a usually angry response from readers who would then submit letters or articles themselves. He saw it as a kind of public forum where writers could engage in spirited arguments. Dan believed that conflict was at the heart of the best opinion writing.

I hadn’t seen Dan in years and I enjoyed talking with him about various subjects. I met him at his office and the first thing he brought up was a satirical article that he had written and published in the Welcomat many years ago lampooning me and my essays as angry and bitter. He wrote that I was winner of the “Nobel Prize for Bitterness.”

I don’t remember the details of Dan’s Welcomat piece back then, but years later in 2011 when he became the editor and then president of the on-line Broad Street Review, he wrote about me again. This time he compared my articles to the posts of a blogger named Natalie Munroe, an 11th grade English teacher who was then in the news . Munroe wrote, for example, “My students are out of control. They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.” She also described her students as “frightfully dim” and “utterly loathsome.” She added that if allowed, “Her report cards would include comments like, ‘Dresses like a streetwalker’ or ‘I hate your kid’…etc.”

As I said, most of my essays were about my experiences as a teacher and they were sometimes critical of my students, but I never used disrespectful language like that Dan attributed to Natalie Munroe.  Moreover, most of my “angry” criticism was aimed not at the students but rather at the many administrators in the system, from the principal on down to the assistant to the assistant to the vice principal in charge of whatever.  My essays sought to expose the large number of personnel in the schools who did not teach (or did not teach very much) and who typically were contemptuous of classroom teachers. A number of them were what Tom Wolfe called flak-catchers; that is, they saw their job as appeasing students, parents, and community activists. That their efforts to appease ended up in undercutting teachers was rarely considered. I can think only of one administrator in my years of teaching who considered the poisonous classroom environment such knee-jerk appeasement created.

One example concerns a friend (now unfortunately deceased) who taught Spanish. A student was unhappy about the “unsatisfactory” behavior grade she had received. She went directly to the principal who told her to discuss the grade with the teacher. The teacher explained why he had given her that grade, but that was not enough for her. She went back to the principal, this time with her father. The principal told them to return again to the teacher and discuss the grade with him. They did so, and the teacher explained again. They then went to the principal (this process played out over many days) and demanded a meeting with the principal and the teacher. The principal once again agreed to their demand. Before that however, the principal sent an official summons to the teacher ordering him to attend the meeting and advising him to bring union representation. At that point, the teacher wrote to the principal that he had decided to change the unsatisfactory behavior grade to “excellent” rather than merely satisfactory. He explained to the principal that he was very busy and thus was not able to attend the meeting.

The principal had achieved his goals. He happily cancelled the meeting and informed the student and her father of the “good news.” What the principal wanted was not only to pacify the girl and her father by indirectly forcing the teacher to change the grade, but  also to allow the girl and her father the opportunity to figuratively kick the teacher’s rear end a few times. Thus they, the principal hoped, would be satisfied and the principal would be shielded from criticism and reprimand from higher school system officials (whose job was also to appease) and the ever-present community activists to which the student and father would certainly have gone if their demands were not met. Although I remember being unsurprised by my friend’s ordeal, I was still angry.

Back to Dan’s comparison of my essays to the blog posts of Natalie Munroe. Dan asks, “…was Ron James a dedicated teacher venting his legitimate frustrations with a broken system? Or was he taking out his anger on his students and their parents, having ceased to think of them as his clients?” For one thing, public school students are not a teacher’s clients; the taxpayers who pay the salaries of the teachers and everyone else who works in the schools are the clients. Yes the parents are clients, but only to the extent that they actually pay taxes.

Dan said that I sounded “very much like Natalie Munroe” when I wrote that “Many of the students I teach behave as if they have no responsibility at all for their education.” I never saw Munroe’s blog, so I can only go by the examples Dan gives that I cite above. Thus I would conclude: To compare my analysis to Natalie Munroe’s name-calling is nothing short of ridiculous. The examples are not in the same ballpark; they are not even in the same universe!

As I said before, Dan likes to create conflict (and anger). He often does this by baiting people. He is certainly correct that conflict is at the heart of interesting writing, mostly because it provokes anger which produces response. In the Welcomat Dan allowed all sides of an issue to be aired (even responses that were incomprehensible or inane). In doing that, Dan provided a valuable public service which wasn’t and isn’t often provided by “mainstream” newspapers like the Inquirer and (the most powerful exponent of one-sided opinion) the New York Times.

Still, isn’t anger a prime motivation for writers? George Orwell, considered by many to be one of the greatest essayists, wrote:  “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” I wonder how today’s university students would react if Orwell were alive and invited to speak at their schools. That line might make even Dan Rottenberg hesitate to publish it. But, to his credit, I think he would.

1984 on Campus

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A few days ago I wrote about the claim that the Trump administration is establishing a new  version of Orwell’s 1984. I noted that Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts” is not an example of “Newspeak” from 1984; rather, it is a method used every day by lawyers, opinion journalists, and anyone else making an argument.

However, you will find examples of “Newspeak” and “Doublethink” on college and university campuses all over the country.  Jillian Kay Melchior cites some good examples in her article “Censorship Is Free Speech?” It Must Be the Class of 1984″ published in The Wall Street Journal. Take for example the spread of campus “free speech zones,” where  students are allowed to say whatever they want even in politically incorrect language. This is comparable to the areas where the “proles” live in 1984. In these areas, people are also allowed to do and say what they want. Left to themselves, they are distracted by sex-filled  films, football, beer, and gambling. They are thus no threat to The Party. The proles are comparable to campus “jocks” and fraternity boys who are less interested in protesting a president’s policy than they are in sports, partying, and having their way with the opposite sex.

Melchior also cites the “Language Matters” or “Inclusive Language” campaigns. Inclusive Language is a good example of Newspeak which Webster’s Dictionary defines as “…the inversion of customary meanings.” Inclusive Language  would normally mean tolerance for free speech even if such speech annoys or offends individuals or groups. But as practiced on campuses, it means the opposite: All language that annoys or offends individuals or groups is subject to being banned, which is enforced by both student harassment of offending students and teachers as well as by liberal administrators.

Free speech is replaced by politically correct speech that does not offend women, gays, races, the handicapped and many more. Examples are: “cripple” (offensive to the physically challenged), ” bum” or “tramp” (offensive to the homeless) and “illegal immigrant” (offensive to undocumented Americans).

I see none of this in Donald Trump’s language or actions. He is not trying to narrow the range of thought to suit his interests, no matter how offensive his words and policies may be to many around the world. But if you want to see real Orwellian behavior, you need only  look at our colleges and universities where individual students and groups are campaigning to narrow the thoughts of others.

Orwell believed that the ability to use words is the key to thinking. He once wrote: “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” Therefore, if you can control the meaning of words, you can control thought. Trump is only trying to implement policies that he promised to accomplish during the campaign. These policies may be offensive to many people, but he is not attempting to control thought or limit free speech. Look to university campuses for that.

 

 

 

 

The White Woman Who Would Be Black

Then there’s the story of the white woman who tried to “pass” for black. Was it to get a job with the NAACP, which she apparently has or had? Here’s a white woman with two biological white parents who has been pretending for years that she’s black.

Of course, we’ve been told that to suggest that there might be an advantage nowadays to being black is racist. Light skinned blacks have been “passing” for a long time. Phillip Roth even wrote a book about such a man who was based on a real writer, whose name I can’t recall right now.

The truth is that there are substantial advantages to being black. College admissions and other preferences are one obvious perk. They may be in the service of “diversity”, but they are still an advantage.  Or as George Will recently noted, some people enjoy being  putative victims, which is assumed to be a part of the black identity.

Would white criminals be ever considered victims of police brutality and the cause of mass demonstrations and disruption the way blacks have been in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and the rest?

If this woman wanted to be a real victim, she might have tried to pass for Asian. Then she would’ve run into quotas used against her for school admissions and other opportunities.  A recent law suit against Harvard for discriminating against Asians is illustrative of anti-Asian bias. The problem, it seems, is that there are just too many academically talented Asians who would completely dominate the elite educational system if scholastic talent were the only admissions requirement. Again, it’s diversity – not racism; all for a good cause. Forget about the Asian student who is passed over in favor of a “minority” whose test scores are over a hundred points lower than the Asian.

Then again, maybe this woman just likes and admires black people and wants to be one of them. As Jerry Seinfeld once noted:  Is it racist to like another’s race?

 

Peace In Our Time

Neville Chamberlain waving his agreement with Hitler

Neville Chamberlain waving his agreement with Hitler


New York Times Obama groupie Maureen Dowd believes the President has a “superbrain” which produces “amazing insights,” and she predicts that his post-presidential memoir will be ” the most brilliant political memoir outside of Ulysses Grant.” Memo to Modo: Why rank Obama’s as yet unwritten White House masterpiece below that of the Dead White Male Grant?

The real question is not whether he has a super or less-than-super brain, but whether he possesses the knowledge you’d normally expect of an expensively educated (Columbia and Harvard Law School) public figure.

A few have reported on a phrase contained in Obama’s inaugural address that any reasonably knowledgeable person, let alone one with a super brain, would have avoided like the plague:

…America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad. For no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice.

Not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time [my emphasis] requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes; tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice…

Who made the phrase “peace in our time” infamous?: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who on returning from Munich in 1938 where he had negotiated with Hitler the so-called Munich Agreement which gave Germany the Sudetenland in return for Hitler’s pledge to stop threatening to invade Germany’s neighbors, waved a piece of paper and said, “I have returned from Germany with peace in our time.” Less than a year later, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Chamberlain’s policy was (approvingly back then) called “appeasement.” And for most of my lifetime Chamberlain, the Munich Agreement and appeasement were considered hard lessons of history, warnings that must be heeded in order to avoid catastrophic future wars.

Nowadays, some consider Obama’s foreign policy of “engagement” to be nothing more than appeasement by another name. But few believe that Obama and his speech writers purposely used the rhetorical embodiment of pre-World War II appeasement. No, it seems clear that neither the speech writers nor the super brain himself understood the ironic meaning of “peace in our time.”

Now if George Bush had said that…

You’re Nothing Special


David McCullough, Jr., the son of the famous historian who is a high school teacher at Wellesley, Massachusetts High School, delivers a commencement address students probably did not want to hear:

…From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.

No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet… And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not…

Inflated Grades, Useless Subjects, a Debased Degree


I taught school for the 35 years that saw the birth and explosion of “self-esteem” education: the belief that forcing students to acquire “mere knowledge” is cruel and unnecessary (not to mention difficult and time consuming) and that teaching students “how to think” (really pumping up their egos while marinating their minds in the agenda of the Democratic Party) is what education ought to be about.

When Barack Obama came on the scene, I recognized him as the perfect product of the post-1960’s American education system which gave us the obliviously ignorant but powerfully narcissistic elite university graduate. Decades ago, researchers reported on the highly skilled and knowledgeable Korean students who nonetheless were insecure about their abilities. At the same time, their American counterparts were woefully lacking in knowledge and skills while maintaining an incomparable level of self-esteem, which perfectly describes our current president.

Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Stephens sums up Obama and his acolytes in a piece addressed to “the class of 2012:

Dear Class of 2012:

Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you. Through exertions that—let’s be honest—were probably less than heroic, most of you have spent the last few years getting inflated grades in useless subjects in order to obtain a debased degree. Now you’re entering a lousy economy, courtesy of the very president whom you, as freshmen, voted for with such enthusiasm. Please spare us the self-pity about how tough it is to look for a job while living with your parents. They’re the ones who spent a fortune on your education only to get you back— return-to-sender, forwarding address unknown.

No doubt some of you have overcome real hardships or taken real degrees. A couple of years ago I hired a summer intern from West Point. She came to the office directly from weeks of field exercises in which she kept a bulletproof vest on at all times, even while sleeping. She writes brilliantly and is as self-effacing as she is accomplished. Now she’s in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban.

If you’re like that intern, please feel free to feel sorry for yourself. Just remember she doesn’t.

Unfortunately, dear graduates, chances are you’re nothing like her. And since you’re no longer children, at least officially, it’s time someone tells you the facts of life. The other facts.

Fact One is that, in our “knowledge-based” economy, knowledge counts. Yet here you are, probably the least knowledgeable graduating class in history.

A few months ago, I interviewed a young man with an astonishingly high GPA from an Ivy League university and aspirations to write about Middle East politics. We got on the subject of the Suez Crisis of 1956. He was vaguely familiar with it. But he didn’t know who was president of the United States in 1956. And he didn’t know who succeeded that president.

Pop quiz, Class of ’12: Do you?

Many of you have been reared on the cliché that the purpose of education isn’t to stuff your head with facts but to teach you how to think. Wrong. I routinely interview college students, mostly from top schools, and I notice that their brains are like old maps, with lots of blank spaces for the uncharted terrain. It’s not that they lack for motivation or IQ. It’s that they can’t connect the dots when they don’t know where the dots are in the first place…

When did puffery become the American way? Probably around the time Norman Mailer came out with “Advertisements for Myself.” But at least that was in the service of provoking an establishment that liked to cultivate an ideal of emotional restraint and public reserve.

To read through your CVs, dear graduates, is to be assaulted by endless Advertisements for Myself. Here you are, 21 or 22 years old, claiming to have accomplished feats in past summer internships or at your school newspaper that would be hard to credit in a biography of Walter Lippmann or Ernie Pyle.

If you’re not too bright, you may think this kind of nonsense goes undetected; if you’re a little brighter, you probably figure everyone does it so you must as well.

But the best of you don’t do this kind of thing at all. You have an innate sense of modesty. You’re confident that your résumé needs no embellishment. You understand that less is more.

In other words, you’re probably capable of thinking for yourself. And here’s… [another fact]: There will always be a market for people who can do that.

In every generation there’s a strong tendency for everyone to think like everyone else. But your generation has an especially bad case, because your mass conformism is masked by the appearance of mass nonconformism. It’s a point I learned from my West Point intern, when I asked her what it was like to lead such a uniformed existence.

Her answer stayed with me: Wearing a uniform, she said, helped her figure out what it was that really distinguished her as an individual.

Now she’s a second lieutenant, leading a life of meaning and honor, figuring out how to Think Different for the sake of a cause that counts. Not many of you will be able to follow in her precise footsteps, nor do you need to do so. But if you can just manage to tone down your egos, shape up your minds, and think unfashionable thoughts, you just might be able to do something worthy with your lives…

And here’s John Steele Gordon on our puffed-up president:

The new web ad being run by the Obama re-election campaign stars Bill Clinton. The copy is priceless, vintage Obama self-absorption. It starts off with the words on the screen, “The commander-in-chief gets one chance to make the right decision.” Then President Clinton comes on and says,

“Look, he knew what would happen. Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they had been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him.”

Isn’t that great? The Navy SEALs risk death or imprisonment in some filthy Pakistani jail and Obama risks . . . . a bad headline.

It reminds me of a story about Harold Ross, the legendary founding editor of The New Yorker. James Thurber had written a profile on someone and it was scheduled to run in the next issue as the lead article. About half an hour before the magazine was to close, however, Thurber ran into Ross’s office and told him they would have to kill the profile because the subject had just died. Ross’s reaction? “Goddamnit! Why does everything have to happen to me?”

At least Harold Ross was a great editor.

It’s The Federalist Framework, Stupid!


Most Americans (apparently including Rick Santorum) don’t understand how the American constitutional system of government is supposed to work. Ann Coulter (you’ll excuse the expression) brilliantly explains in a column critical of Rick Santorum:

…It’s strange that Santorum doesn’t seem to understand the crucial state-federal divide bequeathed to us by the framers of our Constitution, inasmuch as it is precisely that difference that underlies his own point that states could ban contraception.

Of course they can. States could outlaw purple hats or Gummi bears under our Constitution!

State constitutions, laws, judicial rulings or the people themselves, voting democratically, tend to prevent such silly state bans from arising. But the Constitution written by James Madison, et al, does not prevent a state’s elected representatives from enacting them.

The Constitution mostly places limits on what the federal government can do. Only in a few instances does it restrict what states can do.

A state cannot, for example, infringe on the people’s right to bear arms or to engage in the free exercise of religion. A state can’t send a senator to the U.S. Congress if he is under 30 years old. But with rare exceptions, the Constitution leaves states free to govern themselves as they see fit.

In New York City, they can have live sex clubs and abortion on demand, but no salt or smoking sections. In Tennessee, they can ban abortion, but have salt, creches and 80 mph highways. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

And yet when Santorum tried to explain why states could ban contraception to Bill O’Reilly back in January, not once did he use the words “Constitution,” “constitutionally,” “federalism,” their synonyms or derivatives. Lawyers who are well familiar with the Constitution had no idea what Santorum was talking about.

He genuinely does not seem to understand the Constitution’s federalist framework, except as a brief talking point on the way to saying states can ban contraception. Otherwise, he wouldn’t keep claiming, falsely, that Obamacare is the same as Romneycare.

Rick! We’re conservatives! We believe the states can establish a religion — and the federal government can’t.

If he truly believed in the Constitution, Santorum wouldn’t be promoting big social programs out of the federal government, such as tripling the child tax credit exemption and voting for “No Child Left Behind.” …

Then she deals hilariously with Santorum’s line about those who say everyone should go to college are snobs:

…This isn’t the ’20s, when only the upper classes went to college. These days, every idiot who can scratch an “X” on his checkbook assumes hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to make himself less employable by taking college courses in — for example — “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” (University of South Carolina, Columbia), “GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender and Identity” (University of Virginia), “Arguing With Judge Judy: Popular ‘Logic’ on TV Judge Shows” (University of California, Berkeley), “The Phallus” (Occidental College), “Zombies” (University of Baltimore), “Comics” (Oregon State University), “Harry Potter: Finding Your Patronus” (Oregon State University), and “Underwater Basket Weaving” (University of California at San Diego).

My fellow Americans, Meghan McCain has a bachelor’s degree.

It’s not snobbery that compels liberals to promote college for all; it’s a scam to manufacture more Democratic voters, much like their immigration policies.

Is a Valley Girl who takes courses in Self-Esteem at Cal State Fresno (an actual course at an actual college) a finer class of person than a skilled plumber with approximately 1,000 times the earning capacity and social worth of the airhead?

No. But she is more likely to vote Democratic.

Encouraging everyone to go to college creates an all-new class of people entirely dependent on the government, which is to say: reliable Democratic voters.

First, the taxpayer subsidizes the wasted human space teaching these moronic courses (at prices far outpacing inflation), and then the taxpayer pays the incomes of the graduates who are resigned to filling ever-growing no-show, self-paced and self-evaluated government jobs.

Who else would employ a graduate with a degree in Women’s Studies, Early Childhood Education, Physical Education , Sociology or Queer Studies but the government?

The Penn State Spa and Country Club


Ann Neal, writing in the Wall Street Journal, reveals another quite different Penn State scandal:

…Edward Shils, distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago, saw the task of the university as the “discovery and teaching of truths about serious and important things.” Could Penn State—or most other American universities for that matter—make such a claim today?

When the most highly paid employee is the football coach, not the president, it’s clear something is awry. When football tickets and fancy student centers are the currency of the day, rather than affordable and quality education, clearly something is awry. When most classes are scheduled only between Tuesday and Thursday and the institutional answer is to build more buildings to accommodate the demand from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.—as Penn State is doing—something is awry.

So the taxpayers of Pennsylvania are financing unnecessary buildings because spoiled adolescents and their under-worked teachers prefer a 3 day work week and then only between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.?

No wonder we are broke.

Whining Wall Street Bullies

Dana Summers


The great Canadian columnist David Warren gives some sage advice to the zombies “occupying” Wall Street:

The “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations – now franchising across the U.S. and Canada – are the latest fashion statement from the Left, for the fall political season, in a year that has already offered the Arab Spring, and the debt riots of Europe. North Americans hate to miss out on a trend.

What can be said to these people? Where to start?

If you honestly think the banks are making too much money, then you should buy some bank shares. They are freely available in the open market.

And if you think all these profits are immoral, then get your friends together. Buy up lots of shares. Collect all these obscene dividends, and then: give the money to the poor and unemployed.

No, I’m not kidding. The poor are unlikely to refuse. I have the honour to live among them (thanks to the ministrations of government bureaucracies, with initials like CRA and FRO), and I know them. They are not shy. They will take your money. Indeed, if you get to know them yourself, you will find that they are as human as bankers, and as greedy. Just not very successful…

[O]pen a soup kitchen… Or pay some poor kid’s college tuition. It’s your call. (I personally think a college education is, these days, about the most destructive thing you can provide for a kid, but that’s just my opinion.)

This is the unanswerable argument to the Left of all ages: Instead of trying to coerce someone else to do what you think is right and just (and every Left policy I have ever seen involved coercion of the non-Left), put your money where your mouth is. Go “liberate” cash by legitimate means (within the laws), then set an example in how you spend it.

Give, until it hurts, to the most needful. And you can volunteer your free time into the bargain, for in my experience, you cannot begin to know who is most needful, until you have rolled up your pant legs and waded into action…

But now comes the disappointment. For I am recommending a course that gives none of the rewards craved by the cavorting young ego. There is none of the euphoria of street demonstrations, none of the easy applause (and easy sex) that comes from boldly posturing as one of the “good people,” fighting against the “bad people.”

The rewards for doing something, where it counts, are different in kind; and they do not come easily.

I look at all the faces of the young, made up as zombies, clutching that fake dollar-store money, and strutting down Wall Street. Most, obviously, college-educated: the final products of an educational system that imparts little knowledge but a lot of self-esteem. I look at the sheer smugness in those faces, of people who have never experienced real hardship. All demanding that someone else do something.

For that is the nature of street demonstrations: a form of coercion, of public bullying. Getting yourself arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, by gratuitously blocking the traffic of the working stiffs, does not help anyone. It is a form of personal display, an act of whining self-righteousness that is intrinsic to the psychology of the bully.

The attraction, to the copy-cat demonstrators across the continent, is “me too.” This is the Left’s answer to the Tea Party in the U.S. – a point made repeatedly through the liberal media, which themselves take pleasure in the analogy.

The comparison is utterly false. The Tea Party types have not taken the streets, and their organizers have consistently struggled to maintain civility: to ostracize any member whose behaviour or loose talk detracts from the dignity of the movement. They are organizing to win elections, chiefly through the established Republican Party: to advance their cause by legitimate democratic means. And their rank-and-file consists, overwhelmingly, of grown-ups.