Thursday, June 14

Goldberg on Education: Like a Man Selling Brassieres

Jonah Goldberg, "Public Ed 101: Why Have It?" Available wherever thought-provoking commentary is replaced by sludge, June 13

Here’s a good question for you: Why have public schools at all?

Well, I guess the short answer would...
O.K., cue the marching music. We need public schools because blah blah blah and yada yada yada. We could say blah is common culture and yada is the government’s interest in promoting the general welfare. Or that children are the future. And a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Because we can’t leave any child behind. The problem with all these bromides is that they leave out the simple fact that one of the surest ways to leave a kid “behind” is to hand him over to the government.

Y'SEE, Jonah, here's the thing. Not only would it be nice if once, just once, you'd try to engage an opponent's argument seriously, but you, Jonah Goldberg, are not nearly good enough to be dismissive of anyone. This sort of thing has now passed its shelf life by a quarter-century, and the fact is, it smelled pretty rancid back then. The "I don't need to hear about any facts, because all facts are suspicious, like how every week they're telling you something else causes cancer, and besides knowing stuff is vaguely fruity and Real Men don't eat quiche" routine comes from Republicans of your parents' generation, terminal outsiders with a Nixon-sized chip on their collective shoulders. They bought into the hype that it--whether they held it themselves or simply celebrated it in the Bible Belt yahoos they imagined they had made a cosmic common cause with--won them a "revolutionary" election.

But then at some point, like when Ronald Reagan said trees cause pollution or evolution was "just a theory" it was time for somebody somewhere to explain to your punk asses that this was not right, no matter how "offended" you were by affirmative action or convinced that Milton Friedman had Explained It All. Instead, even after you had come into power you held onto it. It had been bad enough when it was just a come-0n for the suckers; once you were in power it became a serious drawback for that country y'all pretend to care about more than anyone else so long as it doesn't cost you anything. It turned into a mannerism, like those hideous clown glasses that became the trademark of that fashion doyenne. Bear in mind, she wound up doing Old Navy commercials.

You found yourselves defending, or defending the people who claim to believe, the idea that whole branches of science are manned by people who have no real interest in the truth. This was the time to disconnect. Instead, like all good ideologues, you doubled down, and doubled down again, and here we are, with some about-to-enter-middle-aged columnist going through motions that haven't made any sense since he was in school. You guys used to be the party of "You can't take government action because there're always unintended consequences". Now you're the party that refuses to acknowledge real fucking consequences. When they fall on your head by the hodful.

I'm sorry. Where were we?
Americans want universal education, just as they want universally safe food. But nobody believes that the government should run 90 percent of the restaurants, farms, and supermarkets. Why should it run 90 percent of the schools — particularly when it gets terrible results?

Okay, I have to ask: how much time did you give that? Did you think it through, or did you type it as it popped into your head? George Will is widely rumored to employ a Quote Boy. Maybe you need to hire a Metaphor Wrangler.

Here's a simple answer, simple enough that it should have occurred to you: because that's the way it developed, owing mostly, as Cruel Irony would have it, to 19th century religious thinkers of the Whig persuasion. Do you find yourself lying awake at night wondering why we ever bothered with low-definition television when hi-def is so much better? Or why telephones used to be attached to the wall? Not to mention the fact that all this is coming from someone who doesn't really believe the government should be inspecting food, or farms, or restaurants.
Consider Washington,

Aw, yes. If it ain't New York with you guys it's D.C. Because how else except by looking--and by "looking" I don't mean "going to see" but "selectively quoting something you think makes your case"--at the largest, most complex, most impoverished, or culturally-diverse urban school systems can we possibly know that the entire public education system is a failure?

By the way, you're the same guy who's complained the media focuses on the bad news in Iraq, right?
home of the nation’s most devoted government lovers and, ironically, the city with arguably the worst public schools in the country. Out of the 100 largest school districts, according to the Washington Post , D.C. ranks third in spending for each pupil — $12,979 — but last in spending on instruction. Fifty-six cents out of every dollar goes to administrators who, it’s no secret, do a miserable job administrating, even though D.C. schools have been in a state of “reform” for nearly 40 years.

Something tells me if I jump one paragraph I'll find myself soaking in a blatant contradiction...
A standard response to such criticisms is to say we don’t spend enough on public education. But if money were the solution, wouldn’t the district, which spends nearly $13,000 on every kid, rank near the top? If you think more money will fix the schools, make your checks out to “cash” and send them to me.

You just got done telling us that money didn't go to students! I'm sorry. Like I imagine that would register if I said it to your face.

We're going to return to this in our concluding remarks, but for now I thought you might want to offer us a specious claim, and follow that up with one of those meaningless anecdotes which people who've already been convinced find so convincing.
Private, parochial, and charter schools get better results.

Also, "students at Ivy League colleges and charter schools score higher than average on their SATs". "Drivers of race cars and tricycles are sometimes injured or killed in high-speed crashes". "Jonah Goldberg and a top-ranked Sumo wrestler average 350 pounds". Wait, that last one didn't work.

It's a question of your choice of conjunction, Mr. Loady-pants. The best we can say about charters--unless we just want to lie about it--are that the results are mixed. Where charters are required to accept the full challenges of the regular public schools--learning disabilities, non-native speakers, emotional difficulties, students with zero parental support--they don't exactly work miracles. In twenty years we've gone from charter advocates promising to "solve" the "failures" of public schools, to chalking up mediocre test scores to the result of "startup difficulties", to the present, where their poorer performance than their regular school "competitors" on the NAEP was explained as a sampling error. There are some very good things about charters. But it's clear now--and was clear twenty years ago if we used a nominal amount of skepticism--that they're no panacea.

Private and parochial schools--most of which aren't required to join in public testing--can admit or expel whomever the choose (back to the public schools with you, Mr. Troublemaker! Miss Underperformer!), have no responsibility to educate non-English speakers or the learning disabled, and have the built-in advantage of parents who care about their children's education and can afford to be involved in it. I'd grown weary of explaining this before you ever had your lunch money stolen, Mr. Goldberg.
As for schools teaching kids about the common culture and all that, as a conservative I couldn’t agree more. But is there evidence that public schools are better at it? According to the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress history and civics exams, two-thirds of U.S. high school seniors couldn’t identify the significance of a photo of a theater with a sign reading “Colored Entrance.” And keep in mind, political correctness pretty much guarantees that Jim Crow and the civil-rights movement are included in syllabi. Imagine how few kids can intelligently discuss Manifest Destiny or free silver.

Sigh. Okay, we're going to do this again, for the benefit of people who didn't bother to pay attention the first time. I dare you to collect all the anecdotal "idiocies" of the past thirty years--yes, Mr. Goldberg, they're at least as old as my days in the public schools--and give that test to one hundred randomly selected adults.

You're not going to collect blank stares about Free Silver. You're going to find that the average guy on the street considers it a badge of honor that his head isn't filled up with crap like that. Yadda, yadda, yadda yourself.

You can stow that "political correctness" shit, too (another expired shelf date, for one thing). Our history texts negate "controversies" as much as possible, and put a positive spin on the rest ("The U.S. has done more than any other nation in history to provide equal rights for all," says The American Tradition). Political pressure--much of it from the Right, much of it aimed at "diversity"--keeps publishers cranking out vanilla texts and keeps many teachers in fear of stirring up trouble.

While I'm thinking of it, Mr. Pantload, would you care to take a ten-question test on African-American history, seein' as how you were subjected to PC history in your day?

So, okay, I'm married to a teacher who works in an urban school district. I'd be the last person to tell you we don't face enormous challenges in education, particularly among urban minorities. Or that mismanagement isn't part of the problem. (So's the sort of demagogy that ignores patently obvious complexities that interfere with its simplistic solutions. D.C. schools are a mess, but the main reason they, like many inner-city school districts, spend so much per student while so little gets to the classroom is the expense of maintaining ancient infrastructure. My wife's classroom got air-conditioning two years ago. There are still some IPS schools operating without it, and we're nowhere near as bad off as D.C. Imagine trying to keep children orderly on a 90º day, let alone teaching them anything. When I told the HVAC salesman last week that I didn't really care for air-conditioning unless I was trying to sleep in 90º weather with 50% humidity he looked at me like I'd told him my water just broke.)

But I'll also be the first person to tell you that a sizable part of our problem is the constant ideological meddling from the Right over the six decades since Brown. It's not the bogus libertarianism of Everything Privatized Is Good. It's not the anti-union sentiment (though that is, when you subject yourself to it, remarkably vehement for an attitude with next to no evidence to support it), or the supposed human indignity of states requiring teachers to have a degree in teaching. It's race. It's simple. You never hear "conservative" pundits complain that white suburban school districts spend too much, or offer too many programs away from the so-called Core. The concern is neither for education, nor expense. If we privatized education tomorrow, and by next week we learned that test scores had plummeted, expenses were tripled, and two-thirds of teachers couldn't explain the significance of a Colored Only drinking fountain, you'd be fine so long as you had yours. So here's a little history lesson. No charge. This attitude of yours has nothing to do with Common Sense or principled philosophy, and it isn't swimming bravely against the current. It's the prevailing attitude of the last forty years, the last massy redoubt of the racist (yes, Jonah, crypto- and not-so-crypto) response to mandated equality. It's the But My Hands Are Clean version of the closing of public schools across the south in response to Brown. It's been tried and found wanting, and it, not public education, is the real failure here.


D. Sidhe said...


Sometimes I think, well, that's just Jonah. He's not stupid, he's just wrong. And then he does a column like this, as though he is completely unaware that "private" and "public" mean two different things, as though he sincerely thinks privatizing the schools would do anything other than make education only available to the rich who can pay for their schools without ads as the poor end up in McDonald's Sponsored Training Academies, and I think, well, okay, I guess he is stupid.

joel hanes said...

Don't be shy, DHR.
Tell us what you really think.

Damn I wish I could write like that.

Scott C said...

Eerily, I'm also married to a teacher who works in an urban public school, so perhaps I'm biased. Or maybe I'm simply envious that, unlike Jonah, I can't write a column while simultaneously watching Japanese game shows on YouTube, taking part in the Doritos X-13D Flavor Experiment, and bouncing arhythmically on my office chair while blasting Numa Numa on the IPod.

After all, no one can argue with the success we've had in Iraq in privatizing reconstruction, security, and the delivery of food, fuel and beverages to our troops.

billy pilgrim said...


Not married to an urban school teacher; we've sent our kid to an urban school system.

everything you mentioned was fully present, however, with the exception of A/C. In Milwaukee, most school buildings still get along without.

Anonymous said...

Paraphrasing his opponent's arguements as "yadda yadda yadda" and then blithely listing his own reminds me strongly of the "Minute of Hate in 1984. creepy. (Kathy)

norbizness said...

Scott: The Doritos X-13D Flavor Experiment is still classified. Prepare for liquification.

Shorter D. Pantload: "What I don't know about the educational system could fill an outdated textbook!"

Agathon said...

Nicely said. And I don't think Goldberg is "not stupid, just wrong." It's more than wrong to believe a thing first and then look for evidence to back it up. That's George Bush Wrong, and it's a whole different kinda thing.

fiver said...

Well done, Mr. Riley.

I went to a private high school, and it was certainly no idyllic paradise of conservative values. One, it was liberal as all get out; Two, we were constantly strapped for funds; and Three, we lost a significant portion of our students to drug problems. There's all the same problems as public schools, it's just that private schools have more control over their population and parents have the money to send their kids to rehab.

D. Sidhe said...

It's cheeseburgers! The Doritos are made of cheeseburgers! (God, that pickle aftertaste is gross.)

Jonah's still an idiot. If there was any truth to anything he'd said there, those of us without school-age kids would be clamoring to shut down the whole system, instead of just those sending their school age kids to private schools. Wonder why we're not, hmm.

And I wish I could write like Doghouse, too. But I bet none of the kids who make it through the privatized Micro$chool system will learn how. Why bother? If you're sponsoring the school, make 'em learn what you want them to learn. What are their parents going to do, transfer them to the JiffyLube Tech?

vicki said...

The mental image implanted by scott c. is going to haunt me for a long, long time.

I went to an urban public school in N.C. in 1971, the year we finally desegregated there. I'm real proud of the fact. Some of my church friends (we were in 6th grade) were placed in a founded-in-a-panic private Christian school. Years later, when I started college, I rediscovered one of those friends who happened to be living in my dorm. She was constantly stoned. That's what private school did for her. As for me, I wrote a book about my desegregation experience -- a novel for 8-12 year-olds -- and won an award for it. Ha ha ha haaaaaa ha. (Sorry, but I despise JG in a special way.)

R. Porrofatto said...

Bravo. When I saw this Goldberg column and its unrelenting idiocy re: public education I knew you'd especially appreciate its charms. Apparently, Goldberg just picks the stale crumbs out of Stossel's moustache, waters them down, and molds the doughy mess into his own giant dumpling of stupid. In fact, I'm sure that analysis would prove that any given Jonah column time-lags a similar one produced by Stossel, Krauthammer, or some other winger pundit by a few weeks or months; while capable of flights of supernaturally creative imbecility, he doesn't seem to be capable of a single cogent thought of his own.

D. Sidhe said...

Apparently, Goldberg just picks the stale crumbs out of Stossel's moustache, waters them down, and molds the doughy mess into his own giant dumpling of stupid.

...can't breathe... laughing too hard...

I'm putting that on a throw pillow and mailing it to him, you know.

Vivek said...

I'd go further, Riley. It's not even that these clowns won't talk about generally white suburban schools, because those schools, in terms of property taxes, etc, usually can do alright for themselves. These jackasses aren't complaining about white rural schools, which tend to be significantly worse than schools in DC and NY. At least there are a few public schools in those areas that are good.

It's not even purely an issue of race. It's issues of race AND class, which is a combination no right winger can resist. It's why we continue to tie school funding to property taxes, thereby ensuring that the rich get richer.

I went to a pretty alright school in a "suburb" of NYC (we're kind of at the outskirts of the NY metropolitan area, to the point where one could reasonably claim that we're not a suburb at all), but if you looked at how the rural districts in our county (which, despite the presence of IBM, was still almost all white, even in my area) did, it was horrible. And you still had jackoffs like Jonah Goldberg talking their crap. I hate these people so very much. If I even got the impression that they actually believed what they were saying, I might hate them less, but it's transparently Not Giving A Crap About Anyone But Their Buddies.

By the way, I think the textbook we used in my American History class in high school referred to Muslims as "infidels" when discussing the Crusades. It didn't even use quotes, which might imply it was merely passing on what the Crusaders thought.

Nor was it kosher to dare to suggest that the South seceded because of slavery...they clearly seceded because of tariffs. Clearly. In fact, slavery didn't get much of a treatment beyond "It happened, and we're kind of glad it's over, but wasn't William Garrison a jerk? They even hated him in Boston! Oh yeah, and Reconstruction wasn't cool."

Who knows, maybe it's even politically motivated. Keep 'em uneducated to keep 'em voting Republican. At this point, I'm cynical enough to believe it.

Anonymous said...

Well said, doghouse.

We send our two children to the same inner-ring suburban scool system that I went to as a child. The demographics have changed, the taxes are the highest in the state (Ohio, known for it's high taxes) and the class sizes are bigger, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I went to an all boys private school in 10th grade, but valued my publik skool edukashun just as much.

Thank you for your writing, I've forwarded the link.

mrgumby2u said...

Thank you. I've grown so tired of the likes of Yglesias and Klein treating Goldberg columns as if they were written with any thought and to be parried with respect. The silly child needs to be slapped down, hard and quickly, and you've done so quite adeptly.

musteion said...

Oh god, oh god... am I ever tired of the "I'm not well-informed about X, but..." articles.

I remember when a certain Indiana Congressperson graced my lawschool with his presence to discuss homosexual marriage. He prefaced every comment... every comment, with some qualifying phrase, like Jonah. "I'm not a lawyer, but" or "I'm not a sociologist, but" an the like. I nearly punched him in the face. Not a lawyer? That's fine, but don't introduce laws if you don't know what the fuck you're talking about! Period.