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Print view: Kevin Drum did a much better job imagining all the people
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IN HIS LIFE, HE’S IMAGINED MORE! Kevin Drum did a much better job imagining all the people: // link // print // previous // next //

Three cheers for Slate/Richard Rothstein edition: Three cheers for Slate, at least for today. The reason is Richard Rothstein.

Within our “anti-knowledge” culture, you’re almost never allowed to hear the information which follows. Yesterday, thanks to Rothstein, you got to peruse it at Slate.

Yesterday, Slate published Rothstein’s review of Steven Brill’s new book—his new book about “education reform.” Despite his rather obvious cluelessness, Brill fancies himself an expert on this very hot subject.

Like so many amateur experts, Brill is at war with the fiendish teachers unions.

Like so many amateur experts, Brill is sure that our public schools are an ungodly mess. But uh-oh! In his review, Rothstein provided the kind of information you’re almost never allowed to see in this “anti-science” land:

ROTHSTEIN (8/29/11): Central to [Brill’s] argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago. (There has also been progress for middle schoolers, and in reading; and less, but not insubstantial, progress for high schoolers.) The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. The causes of these truly spectacular gains are unknown, but they are probably inconsistent with the idea that typical inner-city teachers are content to watch students wrestle on the classroom floor instead of learning.

For years, we’ve urged liberals to discuss the information to which Rothstein alludes in that passage. But we modern liberals are “anti-knowledge” when it comes to such topics—and we quit on black kids a long time ago. We liberals don’t give a flying fig if black kids go hang themselves in the yard. If you doubt that obvious fact, you simply haven’t been watching.

Perhaps you’ve been busy counting the racists in the other tribe.

Yesterday, we commented on Paul Krugman’s claim that modern Republicans are “anti-science”—even “anti-knowledge.” That is largely true, we said—but in many ways, we liberals are anti-knowledge too! This is one of the topics—not the only one—we had in mind when we said that.

Amazing, isn’t it? For very good reasons, every educational expert and education journalist describes the NAEP as the “gold standard” of educational testing. But no one ever tells you what the NAEP data show! We liberals surely don’t tell you; rather plainly, we simply don’t care about such topics. But then, even our teachers organizations don’t tell you—even though those data fly in the face of the plutocrats’ war on their kind.

We’ve told you about those NAEP data again and again. But in this anti-knowledge “liberal” culture, we might as well speak to the wind.

What do the NAEP data show? In the past several decades, black students and Hispanic students are doing massively better in reading and math! White students are doing much better too; this explains why the “achievement gaps” have only been reduced a bit. In a culture which wasn’t anti-knowledge, you would have heard these basic facts a million times by now.

But your culture is anti-knowledge. This fact became groaningly clear in the comments to Rothstein’s post. Many courteous, toilet-trained commenters wasted their time with scripted discussions of those wonderful test scores in Finland. (Good lord, but we’re easily scripted!) But one commenter reacted in fury to Rothstein’s ridiculous factual claims. He posted two separate comments:

COMMENTER: Scores haven't "skyrocketed." Yes, the national NAEP shows that math scores have increased over the past 20 years for elementary and middle-school kids, but they are flat for high schoolers. Reading scores are up slightly for elementary and middle-school kids, but have in fact declined for high-schoolers! And since high school scores are most important (no one admits you to college based on your 4th-grade grades), there's every justification for saying that scores are flat.

COMMENTER: Also, this line is wildly misleading: " elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago". Great. Except they're still much worse than white students TODAY, and their math scores at other grade levels and all of their reading scores have NEVER surpassed white students' scores in 35 years. Talk about cherry-picking data.

That commenter didn’t seem to understand what Rothstein had said. But then again, why would he? In this anti-knowledge culture, he has quite possibly never heard the basic facts about those test scores. And Rothstein didn’t go into detail in this review.

Yesterday, Krugman railed against the “anti-knowledge” GOP. We agree with the general thrust of what he said. But the blinkered world of our pseudo-liberal “elites” is groaningly anti-knowledge too—and our emerging “liberal” political culture is getting dumber each day.

This is only one example. But as pseudo-experts like Steven Brill churn their endless heartfelt bullroar, this example of our “anti-knowledge” culture does loom very large.

The star also bungles: That said, our analysts groaned about one basic part of Rothstein’s presentation.

The passage we have provided above comes late in Rothstein’s piece. Earlier, in just his third paragraph, he very unwisely wrote this:

ROTHSTEIN: The case [Brill’s heroes] make for their cause by now enjoys the status of conventional wisdom. Student achievement has been stagnant or declining for decades, even as money poured into public schools to improve teacher salaries, pensions, and working conditions (reducing class sizes, or hiring aides to give teachers more free time). Teachers typically have abysmally low standards, especially for minorities and other disadvantaged students, who predictably fall to the level of their teachers' expectations. Although teachers' quality can be estimated by the annual growth of their students' scores on standardized tests of basic math and reading skills, teachers have not been held accountable for performance. Instead, they get lifetime job security even if students don't learn. Brill observes a union-protected teacher in a Harlem public school bellowing "how many days in a week?," caring little that students pay him no heed and wrestle on the floor instead.

Everything said there is technically accurate. But you have to read deep into Rothstein’s piece before you learn that this “conventional wisdom” is grossly inaccurate.

Just a guess: Many folk didn’t read that far. Another guess: In that third paragraph, many readers thought they saw that CW confirmed once again!

Does Slate have any editors? Oh wait! Sorry we asked!

Special report: Imagine all the people!

PART 2— IN HIS LIFE, HE’S IMAGINED MORE (permalink): Down through the annals of time, we humans have been very good at one basic task. We’re very good at imagining the worst about The Other Tribe.

Beyond that, we’re good at imagining that everyone in The Other Tribe is just like everyone else. “Those people!” The words roll off our tongues today, as they rolled off the tongues of our benighted ancestors, all the way back to prehistory.

Imagine all the people! We’re happy to accept that task. Andwhen we do, we’re eager to imagine the worst about the others.

To his credit, Kevin Drum pushed back last week when Jon Fasman imagined all the people—when Fasman imagined what “those people” in the tea party must be like. Why are those people in the tea party so nostalgic for mid-century America? In a post at the Economist, that’s what Fasman asked (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/11).

Fasman largely imagined the worst, using such analytical tools as “what I find it hard not to think.” In fairness: Before he reached his thrilling conclusion, Fasman did cut those people some slack. “Nostalgia for mid-century America and racism are not synonymous,” he magnanimously said as he started. But he couldn’t help wondering if this is the thing those forty million folk miss:

FASMAN (8/23/11): Quotas kept immigration from Asia, Latin America and Africa low, and of course blacks, Jews, Catholics, women and gays knew their place. Is that what older white conservatives miss?

What else could it possibly be? Imagining all the (other) people, Fasman was pretty much stumped.

(He also couldn’t imagine the life of John McCormack, a very famous political figure. But then, when we try to imagine the people, our faculties often fail.)

Fasman couldn’t imagine what all the people were so nostalgic for. To his credit, Kevin Drum thought this was unfair—and perhaps just a little bit dumb. “The World is a Complicated Place,” he correctly said in his headline. He then imagined all kinds of things for which folk might be nostalgic:

DRUM (8/23/11): There's something about this conversation that irks me. You want to know what older white conservatives miss about the America of half a century ago? It's just not that hard. They look back nostalgically on an era when TV was universally wholesome and family friendly. When everyone went to church. When the police kept order without having to worry about the ACLU and Miranda rights. When no one had to wear seat belts or bike helmets. When you could put up a shed in your backyard without worrying about building permits or EPA regulations. When the Big Three were really the Big Three. When universities were places that taught you to be part of the establishment. When kids said prayers every day in school. When women raised the children and didn't expect men to help around the house. When there was no such thing as a crack epidemic. When you didn't have to worry about global warming or recycling or energy conservation. When you could tell an ethnic joke without looking around nervously first. When children went outside and played stickball instead of huddling glassy-eyed around a computer monitor playing lurid video games. When immigrants didn't march on the street demanding their "rights." When pornography was carefully hidden away in brown paper wrappers. When shiny new middle-class suburbs were springing up every day, filled with affordable houses financed via GI loans. When Europe was still grateful to us for winning World War II. When you weren't faced on a weekly basis with yet another electronic gadget that you had to try to figure out. When you weren't surrounded by gays and lesbians who insisted on carrying on in public. When you didn't have to worry about the government taking away your guns.


None of this is really my cup of tea, and as you'll note, lots of it is indeed bound up with racial, ethnic, and gender fears. But then again, lots of it isn't.

Somehow, Drum imagined a lot of things for which “those people” might be nostalgic. Some of the things he imagined are “bound up with racial, ethnic, and gender fears,” he said. But then again, some of them aren’t.

None of this is his own cup of tea, Drum alleged. But Drum’s imagination was a great deal stronger than Fasman’s this day.

For ourselves, we strongly agree with the general thrust of Drum’s presentation. Like his club-wielding kin from prehistory, Fasman could only imagine the worst about the other tribe. In the current instance, that tribe is perhaps forty million strong. But it seems “they all look alike” when Fasman sits down to imagine.

We think Drum was right to be “irked” by Fasman’s facile conversation—by the very limited way he imagined all the people. But in our view, even Drum wasn’t perfect this day, despite his best intentions. As we read his post, we were disappointed by a leap of logic he instantly made. And when we read the comments to his post, we found several conservative readers offering spot-on complaints.

We agreed with the basic thrust of Drum’s post. We thought his reactions were spot-on. But as we liberals get dumber and dumber, we’ve begun to achieve what was once impossible. For the first time in decades, we’ve made it easy for the world’s ditto-heads to get some basic points right.

Tomorrow: Was Krugman nostalgic?

Thursday and Friday: Professors Putnam and Campbell imagine all the people