Tuesday, January 21, 2014


NY Times columnist Tom Friedman offers a powerful, and pointed indictment of American education.  Unfortunately, he undermines his own points.

Friedman cites journalist and author Amanda Ripley, 2 heart-breaking, spirit-broken classroom teachers and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to indict public education as the intellectual nullifier it has become.  He frames his discussion with a familiar question: “Are we falling behind as a country in education, not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?” 

Such a run-on catalog would hardly seem to need additional culprits, but I’d like to suggest a few, among them the columnist himself.

America has been in measurable competitive decline for more than a generation now, and it is useful that Friedman and his sources offer such dramatic and appalling evidence of how and why.  But -- Friedman’s sentence is not just too long and rambling (an offense I commit far too frequently – so I’m an “expert”), it gets an F for basic grammar.  The clause “because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions,” cannot be allowed to stand.  

As Tom and his vigilant copy editors at the Times know, those last 3 words dangle like a parasitic fungus off the trunk of his sentence.  The all too automatic (did someone trigger the infamous Column Generator?) reference to bad unions is in no way parallel to the preceding phrase.  If it had been written “because of our failure to recruit,” the logic might not have been improved, but at least the grammar would have passed muster, especially, if the second phrase had been changed to either “because of reform-resistant,” or “the reform-resistance of” teachers’ unions.”

But Friedman didn’t write that, and his editors, if there were any, didn’t correct a fourth-graders’ error in the copy, and the rhetorical mess got published by America’s “newspaper of record.”

Thus, the Times’ writer and its editorial process actually enacted for us what’s wrong with Friedman’s climactic portion of blame: “because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?”

Instead of saying, students are often led to lower their own performance standards when respected writers like himself, and fabled systems like the NY Times’ copy-editing go wrong, Friedman blames America’s disastrous failure in education on “our culture” and parents and kids.  This sounds to me just like the argument that the Great Recession was caused by “the culture of Wall Street” and improvident homebuyers? 

Sure, blame “the cloud” and the victims.

But what makes “culture,” and how are its malign aspects distributed to people?  In America, culture for the past 60 years has been created, defined and spread through the mass media, especially by the great elite institutions of those media, like the NY Times and the television networks, and the people who work there.

It is those elite institutions, and their star reporters, columnists, editors and publishers who cultured moral failure through their often indiscriminate celebrations and rare critical examinations of the ascendance of, not a “culture,” but a cohort of identifiable corporate criminals. 

No one seemed to notice when these managerial superstars serially shifted money away from contracted responsibilities to pay for their workers’ pensions and medical care to exploding executive salaries and shareholder profits, or in the case of one of the great stars of 20th Century business management, GE’s Jack Welch, when his company poisoned the Hudson River.  He and his equally culpable corporate underlings did it, but none of them went to jail, or even paid a penny of personal earnings.

More and more blatantly, over the past 40 years, America’s media, and its “top” academies of finance, business, political “science,” economics, and ethics have all actively promulgated, or silently assented to, again, not a “culture of financial impunity,” but a series of individual perpetrations of fraud and theft, obsessive self-interest, and unbridled greed by elite institutions and their highly-paid leaders, all at the expense of their customers and the American public. 

When the NY Times cheaps out on, or disempowers lowly sub-editors, and publishes avoidable illiteracy like Friedman’s, or cranky, vicious inaccuracy like Bill Keller’s recent rant against blogger Lisa Bonchek Adams, it robs and cheats its customers as blatantly as hedge fund villain John Paulsen and his Goldman Sachs collaborator Lloyd Blankfein robbed the sucker-buyers of the made-to-fail Abacus “investment opportunity.”

One more time, this has nothing to do with “culture,” and everything to do with personal failure and malfeasance.  Blaming “the culture” means blaming no one and rewarding misbehavior.

To say, subprime mortgage customers were equally to blame for taking the word of corrupted rating services and trusting the reputations of a big Wall Street money shops like Goldman Sachs is simply wrong.  And so is blaming a “culture” of parents and teachers who can’t seem to get students to do their homework. 

Yes, the home-buying schnooks should have known better the limits on their wealth and income, and yes, many parents and school systems need to do better in instilling in their children the will to work hard and learn much.  But, just as it’s tough to say, “I can’t afford this,” when you’re being told by “experts” that you can, and all the world seems to be on a go-go buying spree based on an unsustainable spike of rising house prices; it’s tough to convince your kid to do his homework, when every day, the authorities in the media industry tolerate sloppy errors or celebrate “winners” who substitute marketing for competence and bluff for preparation or knowledge.  (Democrats and Republicans may each see in the last sentence the recent President of their choice. If politicians got “Board scores,” theirs’ would be slipping even more drastically than the students rated by the testing services.)

Why would anyone who watches Fox News or MSNBC or the more august networks’ Sunday morning Washington talkfests suspect that governance (or journalism) consists not of bloviation, but hard work?  Why would anyone cognizant of Tom Friedman’s fame or salary believe they need to “dot every i and cross every t?”

It isn’t a “cultural choice” to shift budget money from teacher’s salaries or training to buy  standardized tests or common core curricula, it’s a bureaucratic method of ass-covering.  As if a rote list of lessons, and a close count of check marks on worksheets could help students learn how to think, and how to work with others, which are, after all, what schools are for.

It’s not the culture, but the political hacks who perpetrate these frauds, seeking to prove to their constituents that they are “doing the right thing,” when, in fact, they know no more about education than they do about Iraq or Afghanistan.  The unending repetition of these ignorance-based choices is clear evidence that some folks haven’t been doing their homework.

We all need to do our homework, and hold ourselves responsible to throw the political bums out and send the financial crooks to jail. Learning precisely who did wrong, how and why, are all necessary steps to making things better.  It’s not America’s culture, but us, who need to set the better example.

1 comment:

  1. check out this spoof column made by the Tom Friedman Op-Ed Generator. it makes about the same amount of sense: