HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 7, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Genuine Effectiveness

Nicholas Kristof says some presidential candidate ought seriously to take up the question of improving the nation's schools. The key to doing it is to get better teachers and that requires bold action.

Following a report by the Hamilton Project, a program associated with the Brookings Institution, Kristof argues we ought to drop certification as a qualification for teaching. It reduces the number of people who might serve students well, and does nothing to insure that anyone will teach better.

Kristof is right, but he doesn't understand the purpose of certification. It was never intended to improve teaching, not really. It is a measure of guild control, a way to insure that jobs go to the right people, those who see education as an appropriate process rather than as the pursuit of curiosity. That's always the purpose of credentials and they always screen out people who could perform better than those who take the approved track.

Only in areas where the ability to function clearly matters more than dutifulness can the performance standards Kristof recommends be accepted. Schools and colleges will never agree to that method because the production of credentials is their reason for being. You can scarcely expect institutions to turn against the source of their reward. Schools and colleges provide credentials in return for money. Education is always, and necessarily, secondary.

It's unlikely any major politician will take up Kristof's recommendation. It would only rouse opposition. America is not a country which grasps that schooling and education are different things and, consequently, there can be no effective political effort to bring them closer together.


Mr. Blindness

Thomas Friedman is surely the premier naif of our time. His column today is in the form of a speech he says President Bush should give at a regional conference in Egypt, a conference, by the way, that Mr. Bush is not going to attend. It is the most un-Bushlike statement anyone could dream up, It starts off with the confession that the United States has fouled up the Middle East with its invasion of Iraq.

Then, having admitted the past stupidity, Bush is supposed to proceed and tell the Arab nations what to do now. That would go over well. The message is that all Arab nations should unite against nihilistic suicide bombers because they are the great scourge of our time.

Expecting Bush to be contrite is childish but propounding that because a tactic is new, and, yes, unpleasant, it is employed in the interests of nihilism is idiotic. I wonder if Friedman even knows what nihilism means.

The comforting myth of our time is that we are now waging a great and heroic war against people who have no purpose, nothing they want, nothing they can envision. They just want to kill others because they like killing and want the world to be turned into a cauldron of death. And all of a sudden they have become really dangerous because they have found an effective weapon, a bomb that is delivered by someone who's willing to die in order to deliver it.

It's okay, of course, to deliver bombs out of airplanes. That's perfectly legitimate. But to deliver them personally, that's just plain out awful.

If the purpose of the suicide bombers were really what Friedman, and Bush, and all the other advocates of globalism -- meaning the economic rule of the world by capitalistic development -- were what they say it is, it wouldn't constitute much of challenge at all. That's because it would be a psycho-pathology that would burn itself out pretty quickly.

The truth, however, is that the people who are fighting against the extension of American power in the world have a very clear purpose, one they find animating and worth great sacrifice. There is no evidence they're going to stop, and they're certainly not going to give up the tactic that allows them to compete with the U.S. military mega-machine. You can call them nihilists if you wish, but misnaming them will simply render efforts to understand and deal with them ever more foolish.

The issue is not whether you like what they want or not. They exist. They want something. They are not going away. These are the problems a mature person would attempt to address. But not Tom Friedman. He wants to keep chirping his happy little tale of a war against nihilism. And as long as we listen to people of his stripe, the wars are likely to get even more vicious than they are now.


Literati

Here's a note on Mitt Romney's choice of his favorite novel. Reporters ought to stop pretending that politicians are people with serious minds who have read serious books. We haven't wanted persons of that sort in public affairs, so we haven't got them.

Recall that a while back, presidential candidates were being asked who their favorite philosopher was. Not a one of them mentioned an actual philosopher. Thomas Jefferson was the closest anybody came. But to call him a philosopher is a stretch. He was merely a thoughtful politician and even that degree of mental activity would make him into an impossible intellectual elitist among the current crop.

We ought to get clear in our minds who it is we're putting into public office. Then, at least, we could decide whether we like what we're getting.

For some reason many voters seem to forget that whatever powers politicians may have, they don't have the power to expand the number of hours in a day. They have only twenty-four, just as you and I do. Reading books takes time, and reading serious books takes even more. When are politicians supposed to do it? Do voters have any idea what their schedules are like?

I'm not saying there's not an occasional maverick politician who actually reads and thinks. But such people are rare, more rare than the public or journalists imagine. Many politicians lie about what they have read, just as they lie about other things. That's a regular feature of public relations. But actually to sit down and read a serious book is a chore, one politicians see no reason to take up. It's probably the case that most Americans don't know what it means to have Battlefield Earth as one's favorite novel. They don't get that it brands one as a literary dolt. And, probably, they don't care.

It might be pleasant to have well-read politicians. It might even shove our public affairs in the direction of good sense. But it's not a condition we have cared about, so we ought to stop pretending that leading candidates can name either books or thinkers which will tell us anything about political preferences.


The Wolfowitz Effect

I assume it's clear to everyone who has been following Paul Wolfowitz's troubles at the World Bank that they are not about a cozy job and a sizable raise for his girlfriend. Charges like this are almost always excuses for people who dislike someone and want to get him. And they are usually accompanied by spasms of fake indignation and outrage.

Mr. Wolfowitz is not liked by most of the people who work at the World Bank, and the real issue is, why not?

Some say it has to do with his part in launching the invasion of Iraq. That may account for some of the disdain but I doubt it's the main thing. Nor do I think his desire to root out the corruption inherent in granting loans to poor countries is the reason.

That Wolfowitz is arrogant scarcely needs to be said. But arrogance in itself is not a reason for being despised. There's a cheery sort of arrogance that, coming across as self-confidence, can actually win a person favor. That's not the kind Wolfowitz has. His arrogance is probably another variety -- glowering, seething, showing perpetually that he's frustrated by the inferiority of the people around him. That kind isn't a people winner. Even when it's justified, which in this case it may be to some extent, it doesn't play well.

The Nation for May 14th has a well-argued piece by Naomi Klein pointing out that the World Bank was not exactly a palace of benevolence before Wolfowitz showed up. It has been for a long time an instrument by which the West attempted to control economies in the Third World, with little concern for the well-being of the people who live there. So the war between Wolfowitz and the World Bank staff is not a war between darkness and light. Even so, when one considers Wolfowitz's full career, it's hard to summon much sympathy for his difficulties. If he is not the villain in this piece, he has clearly been villainous in others and the fates often include a dollop of irony when they decide to withdraw their favor.


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