Oberlin Blogs

Education, Politics, Education

March 31, 2012

Jacob Lamoureux ’12

There are seven wonderful free days between the end of Winter Term and the start of spring semester, and I used one of them this year to go up to Cleveland with my buddies Rene and Roger to hear a talk by the noted educational historian and commentator Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch is famous for changing her mind about "accountability" and "choice" as solutions to what's ailing American education. Those promoting the policies she once endorsed she now calls "corporate reformers" for their business-minded strategies.

I learned quite a bit from her talk1 and thoroughly appreciated her defense of teaching as a profession, but – long story shortlisted to footnote2 – I disagreed strongly with some of what she had to say. For instance, I have been a fan of (at least the idea & possibilities of) charter schools ever since I represented them in a debate in President Krislov's education policy class.

Now there are definitely too many crappy charter schools, just as there are too many crappy public and private schools, but conveniently unmentioned by Ravitch was any mention of the 17% of charter schools that outperform their fully public counterparts; it seems the best idea is to study these "bright spots" and put the crappy charters on probation, which will lead to unsympathetic shutdown if they fail to improve. (If my points seem weak to you, blame my self-control in eviscerating the wonk talk and resisting the further temptation to fortify my position, mindful that this is an Oberlin Blog post and not an opinion piece in Education Week.)

By the end, I was getting all antsy in my seat because, while Ravitch argued against alternatives, she provided no data in support of why public schools should be the only option. (Perhaps you don't have to justify the choir when you're preaching to it.) I was also turned off by her exaggerations, which ranged from the claim that the U.S. leads the world in child poverty3 to anecdotes about great schools and teachers – her example of a teacher with 92% raised scores failing to get the predicted 93% the following year – getting F's from the District. She also summarily dismissed homeschooling, of which I am a product.

My point, as far as our current discussion is concerned, is that I neglected to raise my hand and challenge her during the Q&A. The nosebleed I got halfway through didn't help, but even without Joe there to help me control it, I can't fully blame it for the fact I didn't ask a question. The event was sponsored by the Cleveland Teachers Union and they loved Ravitch; if the audience had been any friendlier, we would have been at a Quaker meeting. Put differently (and in Roger's words), it was a bit of a circle jerk, and so I kept quiet. The one guy who did challenge Ravitch, on homeschooling, was shouted down by the audience. I wasn't in the mood to have two hundred people scowl me while trying to suppress the nasal flow.

On the other end of the spectrum of audience friendliness, John Bolton recently came to give a talk at Oberlin. If you, like me two days before, have no clue who John Bolton is, here's his Wikipedia entry. In short, he was U.S. ambassador to the UN under Bush II and his stances on foreign policy are strongly neoconservative. At the door, we were handed a sheet from the Dean of Studies Office entitled "General Principles for Dissent/Protest," which included "Responding vocally to the speaker, spontaneously and temporarily, is generally acceptable."

A few of my peers took that to heart straight away. When Bolton finished a sentence with "safe to preserve American prosperity," a girl sitting just in front of me shouted out "for the rich!" Aside from the fairly uncontroversial point that not having nuclear missiles hit U.S. cities is a benefit that extends to sundry socioeconomic demographics, I was rather dismayed at this display of obnoxiousness. But it was only the beginning.

I think "responding vocally to the speaker, spontaneously and temporarily" is generally unacceptable. The issues Bolton hit on are not black-and-white; we agonize over them in my international democracy course on a daily basis. I can't imagine a student being rude – and cocky – enough to shout out comments in class during a professor's lecture. And yet ten minutes or so into Bolton's speech, as he was making a point about the downside of democracy, someone (same girl, in fact) called out "Better than a dictatorship!" This is often not the case, as she would have known if she'd ever read the first ten pages of Zakaria's The Future of Freedom (something I hadn't done till a month ago and before which life milestone I would have been inclined to agree with her comment, though not her prerogative to shout it out; sort of the anti-Voltaire).

Alas, the more ignorant you are, the more confident you are in your pronouncements; Rush Limbaugh has made a career of this axiom. Still, if a prof took a rare departure from the Socratic method and made a point a student disagreed with, the student would raise his hand, wait to be called on, and stutter out a comment that the professor might then question until the student tripped over his own logic. But in a situation like this when students, armed with their Dissent Handouts, feel virtually encouraged to shout stuff out without having to defend themselves, suddenly everyone's an expert. There was a dude sitting to my right who would chortle – actually chortle! – whenever Bolton made a point he disagreed with. This does not count as creating dialogue.

It wasn't just that these haughty few thought they owed this guy no respect because of the decisions he made while in power; I can at least sympathize with that. What bothered me most was their rudeness towards the townsfolk (and its reciprocation), Bolton fans who had come out to hear him speak. Again, I can't help but imagine interactions between community members and college students outside of this arena. Profuse apologies would follow a bump on the street. If either party learned the political leaning of the other during a casual conversation, little would be made of it. But at this talk, the same student who could very well tutor these people's kids at Oberlin High School felt justified shoving the Dissent Handout into a man's face after he turned around to tell him to stop disrupting the speech. Talk about town-gown problems.

After a while, our "for the rich" friend got restless and stood up mid-lecture to start delivering her own. She eventually announced "I'm leaving" – to great cheers from audience – "to protest imperialism" and told everyone who agreed to follow her out. "We are the 99%," she cheered, and you could only admire her confident use of the plural. No one else in the room had gotten up, except Dean Estes, who was approaching to escort her out. "C'mon, guys," the Pied Piper said. "C'mon!" Maybe two other people left the lecture hall.

To be clear, I don't want to defend Bolton. I didn't get the impression he was genuinely seeking to engage us: the few questions he took were from people carefully chosen as safe targets; he was sorely lacking the all-important sense of humor and good ole fashioned reasonable demeanor that you need when facing a hostile audience (and which Newt Gingrich at least pretended to have when he spoke at Oberlin three years ago); and after 99% of the crowd had left (i.e., that girl), Bolton said something like, "This is what four years of Obama has done to us. I was a student in the '60s; compared to protestors back then, these people are insignificant. But another four year of Obama and..." He ended this tirade with "We'll get 'em in November!", to great cheers from the conservative contingent. ("Little partisan for a diplomat..." my friend Stephen observed.)

What I do want to do is defend Bolton's ability to give a talk undisturbed by foolishness (other than his own, as far as that goes) and the audience's right to hear what he has to say. Bolton certainly wasn't the best ambassador of his ideas, but the time is spent more productively listening and then asking smart questions. "Discourse" and "dialogue" are the ironic war cries of people like 99% Girl, but they really only want to hear themselves talk. There's no discourse possible without a foundation of basic respect. But I'm bumping up against the Serious Ceiling of my blog...

The majority of Obies are liberal, to be sure, but the majority of them are not obnoxious.4 Unsurprisingly, they tend to demonstrate their respect in ways that are less attention-grabbing than the methods of 99% Girl, leading to a perception – held both by townsfolk and students themselves – that Oberlin the College Community is radical/closed-minded.

That perception in turns makes certain students comfortable in throwing their Bolton tantrums, and other students less comfortable in expressing differing opinions, thereby reinforcing the stereotype. Rather than representing Oberlin values, these self-indulgent protests reveal the effects of presumed cultural dominance on those who feel so entitled. It's like realizing you're popular in middle school.

This is not a problem unique to Oberlin or liberals. Nick Miller, head of the OC Republicans, told me that at the young libertarian conference he attended last month, he was appalled when the crowd started heckling a liberal speaker.

I came across a passage recently in James Burns' Running Alone that seems applicable:

Arthur Schlesinger, one of the few on JFK's staff to challenge the experts, fired off a series of private memos to Kennedy expressing opposition to the invasion. But in group meetings, intimidated, he later acknowledged, by "a curious atmosphere of assumed consensus," he sat silent.

That curious atmosphere of assumed consensus is what occasionally plagues Oberlin, and we need students to realize it's an illusion and not sit silent like I did during the Diane Ravitch Circle Jerk (in my defense, I'm pretty sure that wasn't an illusion). This is the only way to avoid the Bay of Pigs.

About a month ago, my friend Truc invited me to a weekend-long Posse retreat held about an hour away from campus; the topic of the conference was gender and sexuality. Springing this topic on Oberlin students is like covering a three-legged cat in steak sauce and releasing the hounds.

But because people were so wary of stepping on each other's opinions or saying something un-Obie-like, the discussion remained constrained. In private conversations, I learned that many people were frustrated by the fact we were not going into more daring places with the discussion. We were pandering to our perception of the "right" answers and playing it safe under social pressure that only existed because we all imagined it. We were self-censoring.

On the last evening of the conference, a dozen of us were picked to give some closing remarks, and I finally had the chance to say my piece. It was my big Oscar Moment and I had a little speech prepared: "Everywhere should not be a safe space. There's a reason you wear a hard hat in a construction zone. We're not being constructive by automatically 'respecting' or revering everyone's feelings on these matters..."

I was worried it might lose me a few new friends, but afterwards several people came up to me, including my longtime adviser Professor McMillin, to say something to the effect of "Amen, brother."

Maybe I redeemed myself a little bit from the Ravitch mumfest (probably not), but the fact remains that only through people speaking up will we challenge the mirror poxes of self-righteousness and self-censorship on campus.

To students considering Oberlin who prefer Milton Friedman to Paul Krugman, who prefer Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, who prefer David Brooks to Gail Collins--I am not one of you. But I encourage you to come to Oberlin even more than I do the students who agree with me. We need you! Let me quote a lil Nancy Dye at you, from a speech she gave as President of Oberlin in 1998:

For a brief few months sometime in the 1840s, Oberlin was the only College on the planet goofy enough to make its students subsist entirely on a diet of Graham crackers and water. (And if you think you don't like Graham crackers now, let me tell you that the original, unimproved 1840s Graham crackers were really terrible!) The faculty came to this policy decision because they were utterly convinced by one Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the Graham cracker, that eating only Graham crackers and drinking only water made you a better person...

The moral of this story about Graham crackers is that there will always be people like Sylvester Graham who are absolutely sure that they have just the right diet or nostrum or panacea or social theory or political philosophy to put people on the path to a perfect social order. A good liberal education should inoculate us against the tendency to be absolutely sure that we, or others, are right. It should give us the courage to question, to be critical, and to be tentative. It should also serve to remind us that the unhappiest times in human history have been when people were absolutely sure of themselves.

Please matriculate here and help campus become less sure of itself! In the process, you will gain a great deal of debate practice, have your own assumptions challenged and change your mind about some things (if you don't, you're probably doing it wrong), learn to be more assertive (greater assertiveness = a higher salary later in life), and get to see great conservative speakers, who come to campus a lot more often than you think thanks to the exceedingly generous support of hedge fund managing grad Steve Shapiro. And you will help battle the assumed consensus on campus, particularly by inspiring more timid voices with your own. Our student body is by far more ideologically diverse than it seems at first glance, and I want that to bloom.

Even my friends Rene and Roger, who really enjoyed Ravitch's talk, remarked that it would have been better as a debate between her and Michelle Rhee.5 And so it is with Oberlin.6


1 Statements like "teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions" certainly resonated with me, but did not culminate in a coherent defense of her resistance to letting school administrators make personnel decisions, i.e. fire bad teachers.

Now I love teachers; It feels like I'm interviewing for TFA again saying this, but I'm one of millions of kids whose life was shaped in profound ways by an army of superhuman educators. But I've also had a few terrible teachers, who wasted hundreds of hours of my life while enjoying pretty great working conditions and job security that would make the Supreme Court envious. Ravitch addressed this with a passing claim that all unions want is "due process," the same phrase AFT president Randi Weingarten uses in this mind-blowing New Yorker article, which shows how absurdly hard it is to get rid of bad teachers.

Charter schools, might I humbly point out, can get rid of bad apple teachers much more easily and also have the institutional flexibility to prioritize teacher pay (this school pays teachers $125,000 / year) and enact other reforms that have been proven to help, such as longer school days. In principle, I'm inclined to agree with my libertarian friend Ben: the combination of a monopolized product & a captive consumer is not the best idea. Kids have no choice but to attend school, and if they are too poor to opt out of a bad public school (or able to through a voucher system, for instance), you think that would rile people up more than this individual mandate business.

2 For example, the test successes Bloomberg rode to re-election were due to easier tests, not smarter kids. As far as the mind of Jacob Lamoureux is concerned, she also put the nail in the coffin of merit pay & teaching bonuses, citing two of my favorite thinkers named Dan, Dan Ariely and Daniel Pink. (Not to mention that by tying bonuses and tenure to test scores, you incentivize test tampering.)

The answer, article after article about Finland tell us, is that the profession holds a great deal more prestige over there. Only 10% of people who want to become primary school teachers are admitted to the profession. But, according to a policy brief put out by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education,

[Finnish] Teachers earn very close to the national average salary level, typically equivalent to what mid-career middle-school teachers earn annually in the OECD nations--about $38,500 in U.S. dollars (OECD, 2008).More important than salaries are such factors as high social prestige, professional autonomy in schools, and the ethos of teaching as a service to society and the public good.

Still, I'm all for raising teachers' salaries to show society values them as per the clever New Haven negotiation Nick Kristof talks about in this op-ed (worth clicking on). (To that effect, I turn to another Kristof op-ed talking about an awesome tradition at Williams I strongly suggest Oberlin adopt.) But Kristof also shares my anger about students suffering from poor teachers shielded by unions. And this brings us back to the narrative.

3 It is near the top of the list of child poverty rates among OECD countries.

4 Take college senior Andrés Feliciano, who was quoted in the Review after the event as saying, "It's hypocritical to say that you believe in having your voice heard, but you don't want to hear someone else's."

5 Interestingly enough, Rhee -- the former chancellor of DCPS picked by Oberlin grad Adrian Fenty while he was mayor of D.C. -- was the one-time boss of my friend CJ, who interned at Rhee's organization Students First last summer.

6 We recently had Jonathan Alter and Ross Douthat duke it out on stage in Finney Chapel. It was awesome. They met with my presidency class beforehand to tackle our research questions and came closer to tackling each other. Signing my copy of his book afterwards, Alter wrote, "Sorry for the domination." But I loved it; they were respectful, but aggressive; there was no room for Ravitch-esque exaggeration or Bolton-style bombast, and the facts flowed like champagne.

I didn't see Karl Rove when he came to speak, but I'm told the man can drop a fact like a hot potato. Which is more than you can say for most people, and most politicians. (Don't get me wrong, I still think less of Rove than I do of Jennifer Aniston, and I've only got one neuron devoted to her). At the start of his courses, Professor Dawson passes out a handout on how to have good class discussion. He encourages lots of questions like What's your evidence? to knock people spurting BS down a peg. It's a simple question, but it's incredibly powerful.

Since I've come to Oberlin, particularly in the last two years, my whole approach to arguments has changed. As someone interested in politics and growing increasingly aware of how humble I should be, I've learned that it's usually more valuable to listen to see how people outside of Oberlin are perceiving the political climate. My older cousin Danny, like many in my extended family, is conservative and when we talked last December, I put on my listener's hat instead of my debating one. Afterwards, Danny said "I gotta give you props--usually political discussions just amount to people trying to shout me down." Not only was it good for relationship, but it also showed what humility and civility can do: the one point I demurred on, the Keystone Pipeline, he seemed open to changing his mind about, admitting he didn't have all the facts right after I did. But I'd read them and sure wished I could recall them.

I find that my opinions and positions remain long after their factual infrastructure falls away, but I'm increasingly learning that this factual infrastructure is the hallmark of someone who's educated. Partly out of admiration for my fellow Cole Scholars Kevin Swanson and Michael Sadowsky, I've recently taken to noting facts in my pocket notebook and attempting to memorize them. I've used them to win several arguments (e.g., Oh yeah, did you know that every Republican candidate from 1856 to 1892 had a beard?)

There are, we may forget, facts supporting both sides of the political spectrum. Nobody (except Limbaugh) is crazy. It helps to assume the other person is coming from the best place possible (one of the ground rules at the Posse Retreat was no eye-rolling, which is sometimes more necessary and useful as a rule than it might sound). It helps even more to understand what the other side actually means.

I remember a moment a few years ago when I wondered how anyone could be a conservative. I think taking an econ course or two goes a long way towards answering that, but the issues are so arbitrarily aligned that political labels don't make a lot of sense to me. I've identified as an independent for as long as I can remember.


Similar Blog Entries