We were covering one of the World Wars when I was doing my student teaching, and the topic of the day for my first ever class actually teaching went over something about chemical weaponry. I wanted to write World War II, but now that I think about it, it was probably World War I — but at any rate, the lesson that day went over some material about the use of chemical weapons.

I was nervous to teach a real lesson for the first time and I kept trying to remember everything I learned while promptly forgetting the most important lesson of all, which is to breathe, which my master teacher (i.e., the guy who was gracious enough to let me take over his class while he showed me how to become a teacher) helpfully reminded me in the passing period following that first class.

The other helpful tip he gave me after that first class was to ditch the part of my spiel about how to make chlorine gas.

It was a simple mistake — I was trying to "activate prior knowledge" and develop an "anticipatory set" about chemical weaponry, and in doing so I recounted my days working at Baskin-Robbins and a mistake I made just once mixing two different cleaners in a mop bucket.

"You can't do that," Chris, my master teacher explained, "One of these guys will probably want to try it."

So the rest of the day I had to use some other anticipatory set about chemical weaponry — can't remember what it would be and I remember very little about that day except for breathing and how it's important not to teach juniors about easy ways to make chlorine gas. That's nothing to sneeze at; these are two very important life lessons that are better learned sooner rather than later.

I can't remember which teacher it was who explained to me that some of the children you will teach will literally be psychopaths, and that there's not a whole lot you can do to get through to them, but in my mind I conflate these two memories — of learning that some of the kids you get a classroom will be psychopaths and in general avoiding showing a child how to make chemical gases. Memory is weird like that.

Imperfect memories are a recurring theme in Dave Cullen's Columbine. The theme of homemade explosives also features prominently in the book. It's a very good book. We just read it for book club, and schools and education and memories about this horrible episode in particular have been floating around my head for the last week since I read it.

The Columbine tragedy is not the kind of thing I like to read about, but Michael, who picked the book, said it was really good, so we read it. Before reading Columbine I would have been happy going my entire life never again having to think about it. When it happened I remember thinking something along the lines of that it was embarrassing for the United States — there had been a few school shootings before it, and of course Oklahoma City and Waco, and for an American, the 1990s looked like an era of self-hatred, self-destruction and self-immolation. You know, that old barstool theory of how without the Russians we just have to turn on something and it looks like it's ourselves.

I suppose it's strange and adolescent to react with "embarrassment" about kids blowing up schools, but that's what I felt at the time — I don't mind owning up to it — I was in my 20s. And I probably felt this way until 2001 when for me what the world thought of the U.S. ceased to be important. (I never understand the preoccupation with worrying about whether 60 percent or 40 percent of Pakistanis have a "very unfavorable" view of the U.S. It's been fairly constant through the 2000s — see page 94 of this .pdf, for example, and I seem to remember similar numbers going back into the 1990s, before Pew did their surveys. Point being, why care that much if the numbers will barely budge? Compare the numbers for Indonesia and Pakistan during 2002 and 2003 and you'll see what I'm talking about; public opinion is fickle, international public opinion even more so.)

The other thing I remember thinking during Columbine was "Fuck, how am I going to talk about this on the radio?"

At the time I was working in the superintendent's office of a medium-sized school district, and the communications director thought it would be good for me to pitch in occasionally with stuff like the five-minute Friday afternoon radio feature on the local radio station. She usually did it but when she was unavailable — or no one was available — I would help out. I'm happy to have had the opportunity to try to do it — I wasn't very good at it (that whole breathing thing I mentioned above) but it was cool to try to help out. Most of the time it was just a list of announcements, so it wasn't too difficult. I only did it a handful of times. And the Friday after the Columbine shootings was one of those times.

I prepared a statement in my mind that went something like, "First of all, our thoughts and prayers go out to the school community at Columbine High School and community of Littleton, Colorado." I don't remember anything I said after that.

And I hope the host didn't ask the logical follow-up question, which to me would be something along the lines of, "And what are we doing to make sure our schools are safe?" I honestly don't remember if he asked. Because the answer would be that there's really nothing the schools can do to prevent psychopathic teenagers from blowing up the place. Actually, I'm sure the high school principals got together with the district administration to go over the protocol for a school emergency or some such thing, but in terms of preventing a terrorist attack on a school? If a kid wants to do it, he will figure out a way. Children are smart like that, psychopaths even smarter.

At the time, this was less clear, especially in the aftermath of Columbine, when — as Cullen's book shows in great detail — a lot of bad information was floating around and it looked for a little bit at least that the shooting/attempted demolition of the school was a twisted response to school bullying and that schools had to do more to get through to children to show them that murdering thirteen of their classmates and torturing dozens of others was clearly wrong. People expect a lot out of schools, and they should expect great things, in theory, but schools can't do much sometimes. In the pre-Columbine era of school safety they didn't prevent Columbine, and in the post-Columbine era I don't think they'd do much better. Encountering psychopaths is just dumb luck, and like the teacher I talked to explained, some of these kids are inevitably going to be psychopaths.

All this is to say, Dave Cullen's Columbine is harrowing, gripping, unrelentingly tear-jerking and brilliant.

Like I said, in general I'm really uninterested by stories about stuff like disturbed teenagers who intend to shoot and blow up schools, but Columbine is so well crafted and compelling that it sucks you in like few books I've ever read. I like the book club I'm in, and I've read every page of every book we've discussed for over five years now, but I have to say that a lot of time reading is somewhat of a chore. I usually default to the way things worked in college when I'd allot myself 30 or 50 pages a day, or devise some sort of regimen for getting through a book before a deadline. And then I usually cram reading into a point in the day when I have nothing else to do — on the subway, on a flight, on a train, at jury duty — whatever. I never sit on the sofa and read, and if I do, I usually fall asleep. With Columbine I finished it on the sofa while working on one hour of sleep, and just tore through it. So maybe I'm not so averse to reading more than I am averse to reading books that are a chore to read — if so, then good books are few and far between. Columbine is one of those books.

I'm still trying to unpack what makes Columbine so good, but here are a few places to start. One, I think it's hard to write about events that are inherently disturbing. It seems that In Cold Blood is usually the model for a book like this, and I read that relatively recently. Columbine is much better. Cullen talks about the day itself, which is blunt-force powerful writing, especially the final chapters when he reconstructs what eventually happened in the library, but he also does a lot in terms explaining the confusion afterward, the malfeasance on the part of the sheriff's office with the subsequent investigation, the inherent problem of memory, the media's negligence in reporting the story and the creation of misleading myths surrounding the day itself. And then he has this power of tugging at heartstrings in the worst way — and I mean that in the best way — that has your eyes welling up every ten or fifteen pages. My eyes are welling up right now and I'm not sure why other than because it's that powerful a book.

There are two things in particular that I took away from this book that are worth mentioning. One, as I mentioned briefly above, there is nothing you can do to stop a psychopath. You'll remember that there were two shooters — one was taller and, as the book shows, just a depressed kid who got mixed up with the wrong crowd in a big way. The other one was shorter and, as the book shows, was a complete fucking psychopath, like according-to-the-scientific-definition psychopath. The taller one might have eventually quietly killed himself. The shorter one was destined to do something destructive against mankind, and he succeeded mostly.

We sat around the other night with some folks and tried to figure out if school violence like this only happens in the suburbs. It sometimes seems that way, but I think that psychopaths exist everywhere. In the case of Columbine, the shorter shooter just had more room to grow as a psychopath. Perhaps a psychopath in the Bronx wouldn't have the space to assemble propane-filled bombs in his bedroom and test pipe bombs in a crowded city park, but they can figure out ways to get in trouble just the same. I don't think it's just the suburbs.

The second thing I took away from the book was that I think I finally understand how victims and victims' families can eventually "let go" of the hatred for the people who were the cause of their pain. I used to not understand how one got over it — or even forgave people — but Cullen's book keeps after the victims and victims' families and shows how the survivors and families move on. Hard to express, but there's something cathartic about reading about how the people move on — especially a few examples of the kids who survived getting shot — which if you read the book you'll see.

That said, Cullen also does a nice job in the afterword by giving the victims' families the opportunity to describe their grieving process — all the examples are different, but they all capture the questions and emotions you have as you read the book — he gets out of the way and the conclusions are that much stronger. The questions that one mother asks and the anger she still has — expressed in a rush over just a couple of pages — mirror all the questions that you've wanted answers to over the course of reading the book and all the anger you feel about why all this has happened. Answers are not forthcoming, and the anger will still be there, probably always there. Really really powerful stuff.

Something equally fascinating about the book is that Cullen fought to keep any pictures out of the book. It's rare that you see that, and I can't think of another example of a non-fiction book that eschews images. He says that he includes pictures on his website which you can look at. I haven't yet, but I will in just a minute. My memory of the shooters is their dumb yearbook pictures that were reprinted everywhere after the shooting. These images were in my head while I was reading Columbine, and as time goes on the two shooters just look really dumb, stuck in time, stuck in an era of bad combat boots, duster jackets (not trench coats) and terrible German industrial rock.

OK, I just spent a while looking at Dave Cullen's site. It's disturbing. He was right; the book is better without the pictures.

Cullen's writing style is generally terse and pitch perfect. One passage late in the book (pages 331-32) stands out for me. By this point you know that the shorter shooter is a full-fledged psychopath, so the passage doesn't exactly surprise you — it just fits with what you understand the shorter shooter's personality to be:

No time. Less than a month to go. Eric had a lot of shit left to do. He organized it into a list labeled "shit left to do." He had to figure out napalm, acquire more ammo, find a laser-aiming device, practice gear-ups, prepare final explosives, and determine the peak killing moment. One item was apparently not accomplished: "get laid."

The book is tragic, but not exploitative, and not overly fixated on the massacre itself. Some of the best parts deal with ways that we could do better — how the media could do better, how social services and schools can do better, how the authorities can do better. So in that sense, it's got a positive message. And the survivors stories are really inspiring. Cullen does a great job weaving in these stories alongside the timeline of the day itself, going back and forth in time and simultaneously pulling you in to the story and pulling you through it — or at least allowing you to see a little daylight along the way.

Things did change in big ways after Columbine — the response of SWAT teams to hostage situations and more apparent if you follow the news, a new "zero tolerance" approach to threats on schools. Psychopaths will always exist, and children will do unconscionably fucked up things, but there is a higher tolerance for school systems being more cautious — and that should probably deter some copycats. Now we seem to treat it like it's a security line at the airport in that you can't even joke about an explosive; hopefully that deters some of the situations.

The case of the taller shooter is more complicated than you'd think from your fuzzy memories of April 20, 1999. Like I said, it's not clear that he would have died that way had he not met the shorter shooter. One of the most frustrating things in the book is that just over two months before the shooting, the taller shooter turned in a creative writing assignment that disturbed his instructor enough that she got the school counselor and his parents involved; nothing happened; it was "just a story." I don't know that things are still that way.

The case of the shorter shooter — the psychopath — is both more and less disturbing. Less disturbing only in that there didn't seem to be a lot anyone could do to stop him, and more disturbing if you tease out what the logical end of that reality is.

It's really a good book; all week I've been thinking about it, and all five of us at book club last night (other folks had stuff to do) felt strongly about it. The story seems to have taken over Cullen's professional life, and he fucking nailed it in this book. Wow.

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing, For Reals No For Serious | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

What I Learned From Teacher School

When I told people I was going to teacher school many of them said something along the lines of "Oh, that's great, you'll make a great teacher!" I never challenged anyone about it — they were just being nice and that's basically what you say to someone who tells you they are going to teacher school — but I always wondered how they would know this, not ever having seen me teach anything. I even wasn't sure that I'd make a great, or good, or even passable teacher — I hadn't seen myself teach anything.

I was talking to someone the other day in the context of jobs about how teaching is one of the bigger intellectual challenges. And although it's been a while since I went to teacher school, and although teaching was something I never went into (through a series of detours along the way), there were a lot of things I learned at teacher school that stuck with me.

One of the best things I learned was that the onus of responsibility for teaching something is on the teacher. Which is to say, if a student isn't understanding something, it's not the student's fault but rather the teacher's responsibility to teach it better. It's a subtle but important distinction, and applies to contexts outside of education.

If you make an argument about something and someone doesn't "get it," then maybe it's less about that person's supposed level of intelligence and you not making a clear enough case. If someone doesn't understand an expectation, maybe it's not so much on them as it is on you for not making that expectation clear enough. If something you say wasn't clear, make it clearer. Etc., etc. It's a good lesson.

During teacher school, I was most fascinated by my psychology class. There is a great deal of study about how the brain works in the context of learning information. Two things that stuck with me in particular are the concepts of "chunking" and the Magical Number Seven.

The Magical Number Seven is easy to understand — basically it says that we only have the capacity to store seven random unrelated items in our short-term memory. We come across this regularly, which is why it has stuck with me, when we see a phone number written down and try to remember it: Say, "382-5968." It's weird but if you add one more digit, you'll probably forget it by the time you get to the phone.

Now you might argue and say that you'll successfully remember a larger string of numbers, and that's true, but it's only because you "chunked" that information into larger bits. So if I tell you that the phone number you need to remember is (718) 382-5968 (and please don't call this number — I just made it up), and you got through without writing it down and you feel excited because maybe you remembered ten items, it's not really the case because you already knew that "718" is the area code for telephones in the four outer-boroughs of New York City, so you "chunked" that bit of information. Your brain just skipped over "718" because it associated those three items (digits) with something else.

I may come back to this post and add other things that I learned that I can't remember right away, because they're all really cool.

When teachers are good, and not just handing out dittoed worksheets, they are like technicians. Part of what seemed overwhelming to me was coming up with lesson plans that were all really tight and awesome. When I entered my teaching program, the instructors — mostly administrators — treated the lesson plan with a great amount of respect. When you read a good lesson plan, you can tell that kids will probably learn something. But remember that many teachers have three or more "preps," meaning three or more different classes to prepare for, and there are basically 180 instructional days during a school year. So as a teacher, you're on the hook for somewhere around 500 or more interesting, awesome, tightly structured and well-thought-out lesson plans. Holy Moly that's a lot of work!

I didn't get the sense that the teachers themselves thought as highly about the lesson plan in particular. They'd do a lot of it intuitively, and over the years the master teachers developed activities that worked, and not every lesson fit into a tightly structured 50-minute time frame. Some school instruction doesn't look like it has a lesson plan, and that's not necessarily a bad thing — kids are still learning — but when you do a lesson plan properly, it's a pretty foolproof format to follow.

The key components of a lesson plan are basically the same no matter how you learn it, and it's interesting as well to see how a lot of writing follows the general idea of a lesson plan — there's an introduction that calls up prior knowledge, there are arguments in the middle, there's a conclusion to make and then there is some sort of exhortation to think about some idea in a different context. Op-ed writing really seems to follow this format.

It's been a while since I've thought about how to write a lesson plan, but if you go over the basic tenets of putting one together, you'll recognize a lot of it and perceive the usefulness of each step. Here's one step-by-step primer that is what I basically remember. It chops up the thing into ten steps, and includes the following main areas: Learning Goal, Resources, Standards, Anticipatory Set, Introduction, Direct Instruction, Guided Instruction, Assessment, Closure and Differentiated Instruction.

So if you were to do a lesson on, say, making a bomb, your lesson would go something like this:

1. Learning Goal: "The student will learn how to make a bomb" — it's coming back to me now that there is a difference between a "goal" and an "objective" — when you watch war coverage you get this, because a "goal" would be to win a war and an "objective" is a clearly definable aim like taking control of a village. In our example, the goal would be to learn how to wreak havoc and the objective would be making the bomb. Or something like that. "Learning goals" or "learning objectives" — "learning" here being an adjective and not a verb — are supposed to be written in clear, active voice. This isn't always followed, either — if you parachuted into a classroom, you might feel like you were teaching if you merely "discussed" something, but a good lesson plan has a clear objective: The student will learn something specific, say, the three factors that contributed to the Civil War. It's a subtle but important distinction.

2. Resources: "In the supplies cabinet in the back of the room, you will find all the items you will need to make your bomb — timers, explosives, etc." Somewhat obvious, but it's also important to make sure you have all the materials you need at hand.

3. Standards: This was a new category for me, and seems to be a worthwhile "step" to figure into the mix, especially now that schools and classrooms are being held accountable to teach state standards (and after No Child Left Behind, de facto national standards).

4. Anticipatory Set: This is a jargon-y way of saying something along the lines of activating a student's prior knowledge about a topic, e.g., "You've all been watching the news from Afghanistan and you know that improvised explosive devices are a big issue for our troops . . ." Basically it's getting a student in the frame of mind to take in information. A good "anticipatory set" can get a student focused in less than a sentence.

5. Introduction: "So today class, you will learn how to make a bomb, from beginning to end, from first wire to detonation."

6. Direct Instruction: You, the teacher, will show a student how to make a bomb.

7. Guided Instruction: The students themselves make the bomb.

8. Assessment: The teacher checks to make sure the student has made the bomb properly. This could include setting off the bomb, for example. This is also known as "checking for understanding" and could involve anything from a quiz to a simple hand-raising or "thumbs up-thumbs down."

9. Closure: Generally, this is something that closes out or wraps up a lesson; it's not enough to simply say, "OK, class is over" — the teacher should recap and illuminate what the class has accomplished, e.g., "So someone tell me what we learned today" and the student or students will confirm that they learned how to make a bomb, etc. A teacher will then instruct the student to think about or repeat the process in a different environment (that's called "transference," the idea being that your brain makes more connections with information as you call it up in physically different environments).

10. Differentiated Instruction: A relatively recent tenet of pedagogy that acknowledges and takes advantage of how students learn differently; the goal here would be to do an activity in more than one "modality," e.g., singing a song, drawing a picture, listening to a teacher.

You'll see the techniques of proper lesson plans in action in lots of places. Cookbooks, for example — and a lot of cookbooks could do this better. For me personally, learning how to put together a lesson plan was something that I remembered long after teacher school. It was good stuff. One of the best lessons I took away from this was not to take anything for granted — if you talk to someone, start from point A and move logically to points B, C and D.

Now is probably an appropriate time to add that I also took a lot away from the concept of "modeling behavior," which I already mentioned in a different context earlier this week. That's "modeling" as a verb, by the way — funny how educational jargon seems to love turning verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs. No kidding, I think modeling good, decent behavior is the single most important thing a parent can do for a child. When you think about it, we all kind of develop that way, and if children aren't preoccupied with internal logic — like what is "hypocritical" and what isn't — then they're aping what adults are doing. If you cheat on your taxes or your wife or the bill at a restaurant, then your kids are probably picking up on that.

I'll add that it's also important for parents to model useful values. Take reading, for example — a child won't figure out that it's useful to know how to read unless a parent instills value somewhere along the way. I think parents would be well served by at least having a bookshelf full of books, because it telegraphs to a child that books are a normal thing to have in your home. I don't even think a parent has to read them, just have them in the background. Somewhere along the way a child will perceive that books are a normal part of the world and maybe even pick one up sometime. I'll add newspapers in there — I don't think a parent has to be seen reading a newspaper — leaving it on the coffee table would be enough. The goal is to model that reading is a normal thing to do. In the past I've called this the "fake like you read" method — just pick up a newspaper, at least make sure that it's the right side up, move it around a little and return it to the table. Like I said, I don't think it takes a lot to model behavior, but you have to do something.

Even classroom management skills come in handy in "real life." They talk in teacher school, for example, about making sure kids have stuff to do, that the only time you really have discipline problems is when you have free time at the end of a period (which makes a tightly constructed lesson plan that much more important). In an office setting, that obviously applies.

They also talk about "proximity," which is basically just a way of getting in someone's physical space. Dudes arguing on the street understand the concept of proximity intuitively, but you see it elsewhere — when a shop clerk comes out from behind the counter, he or she is moving into your physical space in a way that changes your behavior (think of when someone follows you around a store, for example). If you remember this happening in a classroom setting, the teacher is probably doing it because kids are being squirrely — they seem to stop being squirrely when the instructor walks by them, or stops and stands by them. Sometimes you'll see a speaker move through a room — this not only perks people up but has the effect of changing their behavior to make them more attentive. You see cops do this, too. Anyway, that was interesting to me, too.

The other helpful thing I learned from teacher school came from an administrator, who in the context of teaching us how to get a job explained to us what kind of candidates he was looking for. It's an old joke that the best reason to teach is "June, July and August," meaning summer vacation. Don't laugh — I've heard people say this. The administrator said that he had job applicants tell him this, too.

It would be pretty ballsy to say "June, July and August" at an interview. And it's not the worst reason to teach — a lot of people like the idea of busting ass for nine months and then having three months to do other stuff (though for teachers "other stuff" usually involves taking classes, teaching summer school or something work related anyway). It's just that a principal doing the hiring wants to hear a little more commitment.

"When I ask you why you want to teach, I only want to hear one thing: 'I love kids,'" the administrator told us in class one night, "Because I love kids, and that's the only reason you should want to be in a classroom, because you love children."

When he said this you believed him — he didn't sound creepy or phony or like he was trying to get a job. He sounded like someone who loved what he did and chose the obvious career path. I would have hired him.

Suffice it to say, as a guy in his early 20s who intended to become a high school teacher, the line didn't roll off my tongue as easily. It was hard to get it right. I wanted to stretch out the "love" part, but this made it sound way too much like Matthew McConaughey's David Wooderson character in Dazed and Confused: "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age."

I stood in front of the mirror and tried out a short, clipped version — sort of a half-frown/hand flip that suggested that was a simple manner of having love for kids. No good — I looked too much like Steven Van Zandt's Silvio Dante character in the Sopranos (that was before the Sopranos, but that's what it looked like — just less jowly).

A couple of guys in class who were about my age ran into the same problem — no matter how we played it, it sounded terrible to be a man in his early 20s who loved kids. It would be different if we were going to work in an elementary school — those kids were kids you could love without anyone feeling weird about it — but an 18-year-old? And did I really love that 18-year-old? I wasn't so sure.

But I never forgot that bit of advice.

It's funny because it really applies to lots of other jobs. I've tried to get that across since then, with varying levels of success. I'm thinking in particular about the time I called writing a memo a sort of "art form" — the person definitely did a double take. Another bit of advice I learned along the way — if you'll allow me to get sidetracked — is that you can basically say any old dumb thing during an interview, just as long as it doesn't sound truly idiotic; the person interviewing you is probably zoning out and glossing over a lot of your specific background anyway, and just as long as you don't say something dumb, you'll probably "pass."

I can't remember if I actually heard this from someone or whether I'm conflating the memory with some movie I saw, but I remember someone telling me about what "they" expect to hear at an interview for a job at an investment bank. Just as prospective teachers are expected to "love children," prospective investment bankers are expected to want to make money. So you don't roll in and talk about how "fascinating" mortgage-back securities or derivatives are, or how you "love the atmosphere" of this "center of the financial world." Instead you should shift a little in your chair, look the person in the eye and say simply, "I want to get rich" — because that's really what it boils down to — if you want to get rich, then you'll help the company become rich and everyone gets rich. Be direct!

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For Reals No For Serious | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On Managing Expectations

In New York City there has been a certain amount of pushback to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's appointment of a magazine executive to run the largest school system in the country. She is being rolled out and heralded as a manager with "almost 40 years of experience," but as far as anyone can tell, her only education experience has been tackling the issue of childhood obesity.

The move toward unorthodox approaches in education probably started with the A Nation at Risk report in 1983. Since then districts and communities have been experimenting with innovations like vouchers and school charters (both initially cost-cutting moves championed by conservatives) and leadership roles filled by those from outside the field of education. With the latter, it used to be that you'd have to be someone really big and exciting — a military general or something like that (John Stanford in Seattle, for example, and others in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.this Times Room For Debate post and the associated entries is a pretty interesting back and forth about the issue).

The Mayor's pick is a creep toward a candidate who is just a good manager. This Post article features a quote from the candidate that has been typical of the message that the mayor and his supporters (what few there are in this case) have been repeating:

"The mayor has been very clear about the fact that he really wanted a strong and effective manager, and I've had almost 40 years of experience with that," said Black, 66, head of Hearst Magazines. "I will be the next chancellor."

So we go from inspirational big-time organizational leaders to the head of a magazine company. I don't think this would have happened in the 1990s when school systems were in need of "outsiders" with "fresh eyes."

It seems silly to keep asking this, since it's something that nearly everyone in New York City — with the notable exception of the obsequious Observer editorial board — has been asking for a week now, but can you think of another entity that would replace its leader with someone from outside the industry with no experience whatsoever? Seriously — I might be spacing on an example right now, but in any "results-oriented" entity, it seems that the person in charge needs some time to get up to speed. No wait, I guess I've seen some examples in some movies about the British royal family. Wasn't Queen Victoria like this? Oh yeah, Jen had this on the other night.

The Observer editorial board had an interesting argument that went like this:

It would be refreshing to hear somebody other than the mayor acknowledge the sacrifices that Ms. Black will make in the name of public service.

Setting aside the self-congratulation inherent in the setup there, you get the sense that people — maybe even "the elites"! — treat public service as some kind of Adopt-a-Highway clean-up day. You also get the sense that the editorial boards in New York treat public policy debates as a form of debate club, where if you write eloquently enough and dredge up enough half-baked supporting arguments, you'll do what you need to do to push forward grand ideas. The piece focused mostly on how Joel Klein, the previous chancellor, had a supposed lack of educational experience and that turned out just fine, so Q.E.D. It reminds me of the incurious manner in which the city's editorial boards supported the mayor's third term, and smacks of talking points in the same way.

It's absurd on the face of it to think that someone without a background in education can be an educational leader, but that's where we are today. And it's not just administration — for years now people believe that if you have enough energy and pluck, it's possible to be an effective teacher. Maybe, but you still need to understand the basic tenets of pedagogy, and it's not good enough anymore to rely on your own imperfect memory of what it's like to be in a classroom. That's not to say that a lot of education classes aren't bullshit, but it seems a little harsh to get rid of training altogether.

There's a demeaning subtext to that argument, by the way; by saying that all training and most experience is bullshit, you're implying that any relatively smart monkey could do the job. It would certainly fit the mayor's temperament to think that.

Then again, maybe there's a story behind the story. Smart people are always trying to divine meaning behind inscrutable decisions; that's the legacy of contrarianism at work. Maybe it's more satisfying to know that our leaders are devious and cunning than they are capricious and dimwitted.

Posted: November 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For Reals No For Serious | Tags: , , , , ,