News and Features
Was it lack of space or was it lack of time that made Katha Pollitt so bland and lenient about the current state of religious leadership in our country and our culture ["God Changes Everything," April 1]? She mentioned the obvious degeneration of the Roman Catholic Church into a protection racket for child rapists, true. She also instanced the way in which Judaism has become prostituted to the uses of messianic colonialism in Palestine. But this is merely to tinker with the problem. What about Billy Graham, who has been Protestant father-confessor to every President from Eisenhower to Clinton, and who has achieved the status of America's mainstream cleric?
Back in 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers accused The New York Times Book Review of unfairly assigning her attack on the women's movement, Who Stole Feminism?, to the distinguished scholar of Victorian literature Nina Auerbach for review. Sommers claimed that Auerbach was an unethical choice: Although not named in the book, she had been present at one of the many feminist academic conferences disparaged in its pages and was allegedly the author of a rather overbearing comment, cited in the book, scribbled on a paper written by Sommers's stepson, who had taken a course with Auerbach at the University of Pennsylvania (Auerbach denied writing the comment and suggested it was the work of a TA). Sommers's absurd bid for publicity stirred up a media chorus of sympathetic harrumphs about feminist conspiracies (the Review was at that time edited by a woman, Rebecca Sinkler): Columns ensued by Jim Sleeper, Howard Kurtz, Hilton Kramer. Rush Limbaugh accused the Times of trying to "kill this book."
None of these mavens of literary ethics saw fit to note that Cathy Young raved about the book in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in Commentary despite being vice president of the right-leaning Women's Freedom Network, where Sommers was on the board, or that Mary Lefkowitz gave it high marks in National Review despite being Sommers's very good friend. The Times Book Review ran two weeks' worth of letters (including a particularly rabid one from Camille Paglia, bashing Auerbach as if she were some PC criminal and not an important academic whom any author in her right mind would feel honored to be reviewed by, and who had been, in point of fact, much too high-minded and polite to give Who Stole Feminism? the pasting it deserved).
Fast-forward to the Washington Post Book World, which has landed in hot water for publishing a review of David Brock's Blinded by the Right by Bruce Bawer. Much of Brock's book deals with skulduggery at the Scaife-funded American Spectator--a magazine for which Bawer was a movie critic for several years prior to Brock's own stint there as, he now confesses, a hired mudslinger and fabricator of slanders against Anita Hill, President Clinton and others. Bawer did not mention his connection to the Spectator when offered the assignment, nor did he mention it in the review, even parenthetically, and having spent several years as The Nation's literary editor, I'm not a bit surprised: Reviewers were always neglecting to tell me that the author under consideration was their colleague, best friend, former lover or the editor of the magazine that was publishing their fiction. When I would belatedly find out and confront them, were they embarrassed? Dream on. One even wrote me an outraged letter comparing his panegyric on the poetry of his department chairman to Shelley writing about Keats. Caveat editor, indeed!
Did the Washington Post engineer a pan for Brock by knowingly choosing a reviewer too closely allied with the people and politics he attacks, as claimed by the Media Whores Online website, which is calling for the public beheading of the Book World editor, Marie Arana? Bawer is mentioned (briefly and favorably) in the book, but there is no index and--I hate to be the one to break this to MWO--"previewing" a book before assigning it is not the same as reading every page. (Truth in advertising: I've written a few reviews for Arana and think she's an excellent editor and swell human being, even if the Book World didn't review my last book.) Still, it's a little hard to believe that nobody at the Book World knew that Bawer is a pretty conservative fellow, and, as MWO points out, there is a bit of history here: Two years ago, the Post assigned Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President to James Bowman, who was also associated with The American Spectator. On the other hand, Bawer, who, like Brock, is gay, says he left the Spectator over its slurs against homosexuals. Gee, two gay guys who both quit the same rightwingnut magazine--had Bawer loved the book, conservatives would be claiming the fix was in. In fact, Bawer's review was fairly trivial; mostly he made fun of Brock in a feline sort of way--slyly noting his love of elegant tailoring, fancy parties, attention and money, and observing that Brock is still talking trash, only now his targets are his erstwhile friends on the right. Compared with Helen Vendler, whose poetry criticism Bawer skewered in the Hudson Review some years ago with such relish and in such detail that anti-Vendlerites bought up the entire print run within minutes, Brock got off easy.
But then Helen Vendler's taste, like all taste, is open to question, while so far no conservative, Bawer included, has seriously disputed Brock's revelations beyond expressing a general skepticism that this self-confessed liar and suck-up artist has changed his spots. Is Brock lying when he describes how wealthy right-wing foundations created and fueled a media apparatus devoted to smearing liberals, feminists and Democrats, especially the Clintons, with whatever mud it could find or fabricate? Are his unflattering characterizations of his former cronies false? Brock portrays peroxided pundette Laura Ingraham as an ignorant drunk who does not own a single book; he charges Ann Coulter with "virulent anti-Semitism"; he says Spectator editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. urged him to attack women because that sold papers. He claims the only thing Simon & Schuster publisher Jack Romanos wanted to know before handing him a million dollars to write a hatchet job on Hillary Clinton was whether she was a lesbian. He says Ricky Silberman, vice chairman of the EEOC under Clarence Thomas and one of his most stalwart supporters, was thoroughly persuaded by Strange Justice, in which Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson validate Hill's claims, but helped Brock savage the book anyway. Virtually every page of Blinded by the Right makes an assertion that is, if true, embarrassing, and if false, libelous. The silence is curious, to say the least.
After much urging, the Post acknowledged that Bawer's review was inappropriate. Meanwhile, you can be sure that none of the pundits who raked Nina Auerbach and the New York Times over the coals will be firing up the barbie this time.
Black filmmakers seize the moment.
While most of the media focused, with good reason, on the huge increase in military spending and dramatic cuts in domestic programs in President Bush's $2.1 trillion budget proposal for 2003, a fe
Call it the year of the yellow notepad. Doris Kearns Goodwin, ejected from Parnassus, Pulitzer jury service and kindred honorable obligations, sinks under charges of plagiarism consequent, she claims, of sloppy note-taking on her yellow legal pads.
Michael Bellesiles, flayed for knavish scholarship in his Arming America, says that his notations from probate records, central to his assertions about gun ownership in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, were on legal yellow pads that were irreparably damaged when his office at Emory University was flooded in May 2000, the year his book was published.
Stephen Ambrose, overtaken by charges of plagiarism, did not have recourse to the yellow-notepad defense, presumably because he had become rich enough not only to discard them in favor of teams of researchers, including his family, but to make an out-of-pocket, $1.25 million donation for environmental good works, including restoration on the Blackfoot River, no doubt hoping that water in Montana would be as efficacious as at Emory in purging the record.
The plagiarist lurks in all of us, and temptation or carelessness looms closer with the cut-and-paste function of the computer, though Shakespeare managed to steal a lot of Holinshed without electronic assistance.
With Bellesiles the stakes are high, because he addresses the issue of gun ownership in America and the Second Amendment. By the mid-1990s the battle was tilting decisively in favor of those arguing that the amendment asserts the right of individual citizens to own guns for self-defense and, if necessary, to counter government tyranny by means of armed popular resistance. (NB: The preceding sentence concludes with twenty-two words lifted from a piece by Chris Mooney in Lingua Franca.)
Like any good tactician, Bellesiles shifted the terms of discussion. He said he'd reviewed more than 11,000 probate records between 1765 and 1850 from New England and Pennsylvania, and discovered that roughly 14 percent of all adult white Protestant males owned firearms, meaning about 3 percent of the total population at the time of the Revolution, and that hence "all this talk about universal gun ownership is entirely a myth that I can find no evidence of." (More cribbing from Mooney.)
So if the people weren't armed, and if even official militias were mostly a disheveled rabble without arms, the Second Amendment was really an antic fantasy, like feudal armor in the mock-Tudor hall of a Bradford cotton millionaire.
The antigun crowd greeted Bellesiles with as much ecstasy as any relief column by early settlers in Indian Country. The Organization of American Historians gratefully pinned the Binkley-Stephenson Award to Bellesiles's bosom for his 1996 essay on the origins of American gun culture. Arming America elicited not only fervent applause by Garry Wills in The New York Times Book Review and Edmund Morgan in The New York Review of Books, but also the Bancroft Prize.
Bellesiles came under attack, but since his assailants included NRA types and even Charlton Heston (who cut to the heart of the matter by charging that Bellesiles simply had too much time on his hands), their often cogent demolitions were initially discounted as sore-loser barrages from the rednecks. Even so, the sappers pressed forward and began to penetrate Bellesiles's inner defenses.
A crucial chunk of battlement crashed to the ground when Bellesiles's most sedulous critic, James Lindgren, investigated his claim to have researched probate records at a National Archives center in East Point, Georgia. The center told Lindgren no such records existed. (Cockburn's source here is Danny Postel in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since Cockburn once borrowed Postel's car in Chicago and saddled him with a couple of parking tickets, he definitely owes him a cite. These two tickets were probably the final straws in a load of fines that prompted Postel to flee Chicago for Washington, DC.) Then more chunks fell when other archival records cited by Bellesiles, in San Francisco and Vermont, turned out not to exist.
Bellesiles's Little Big Horn comes in the January edition of the William and Mary Quarterly. Primed in part by Lindgren, Gloria Main of the University of Colorado pounds Bellesiles with medium-range artillery, as in "[Bellesiles] found only 7 percent in Maryland with guns. My own work in the probate records of six Maryland counties from the years 1650 to 1720, ignored by Bellesiles, shows an average of 76 percent of young fathers owning arms of some sort." Ira Gruber of Rice slides the bayonet into Bellesiles with incredulous harrumphs about misrepresented evidence on casualty rates in American and European battles ("But Bellesiles has counted 18,000 prisoners among the killed and wounded at Blenheim"). In an interesting essay on guns, gun culture and murder in early America, Bellesiles is finally dispatched by Randolph Roth of Ohio State ("every tally of homicides Bellesiles reports is either misleading or wrong").
To give him credit, Bellesiles falls with some dignity ("Arming America is admittedly tentative in its statistics"), but fall he does. Now Emory is making nasty noises, and erstwhile allies are fleeing into the hills. Morgan, who whooped him up in the New York Review, says he's rethinking. Garry Wills says he's too busy now to address the matter, which is pretty lighthearted, considering that Bellesiles's phony scholarship is as devastating a blow as the antigun crowd has sustained in decades of fighting over the Second Amendment. (I speak contentedly as the owner of a 12-gauge and a .22, though I think too many discussions, pro and con, of the Second Amendment lack any sense of dynamism in the surge and ebb of class struggle in America.)
What about Knopf, which published Arming America? Editor Jane Garrett tells Postel that the house "stands behind" Bellesiles, that his were not intentional errors but the result of some "over-quick research." Knopf is renowned for its cookbooks. Suppose Bellesiles had suggested putting Amanita phalloides into the risotto. I don't think Garrett would be so forgiving.
A Mexican migrant acquaintance once told me that he'd love the opportunity to brief Congress on immigration policy. Let us imagine him now, walking into the hallowed chamber, dressed in his typical migrant attire: a fading Oakland Raiders jersey, oversized bright orange painting pants, imitation Air Jordans. He wears a baseball cap with the epigram ¡qué viva México, cabrónes! rendered in red, green and white--the colors of the Mexican flag. He reaches into his well-worn backpack and pulls out some handwritten notes on crumpled sheets of paper, and begins:
First, I would like to tell the distinguished sirs and madams a bit about the migrant life. I'm from a luckless southwestern Mexican town whose timber-based economy is in tatters--no sign of economic development on the horizon, NAFTA or no. I made my first trip to the States at 13, a solo journey that included a few months of indentured servitude to a "coyote," a real cabrón. I paid off what I owed him by picking aluminum cans out of the garbage. When I finally broke free, I took to the road.
I never had a problem getting a job. With a cheap forgery of a green card, the bosses never looked twice. As the years went by, I cruised from state to state. I got married to a girl from home and soon we were on the road together, hopping back and forth across the border that supposedly separates our nations.
Beginning in the latter half of the 1990s, our border-crossings became increasingly difficult. Suddenly, you built walls on the US-Mexico border. Big ones, made of coppery steel. These you have referred to as "interdiction measures," which include programs with names like Gatekeeper, Safeguard and Hold the Line. Since 1995 as many as 1,400 migrants died on that line, pushed by your Border Patrol into the remote, deadly desert and lonely stretches of the Rio Grande.
You recently deployed the first of more than 1,600 National Guard troops along the frontiers with both Canada and Mexico, to provide "tactical" support to the other agencies on the line. The last time you put the military on the line, the result was the shooting of an 18-year-old who was out herding his goats; you did the sensible thing and pulled them out. Now they're back; so far, thankfully, they are unarmed.
I tell you that this is a dangerous situation, and yet, in the wake of September 11--when I grieved as much as if Mexico herself had been attacked--I am mindful of your security concerns. I submit to you that you cannot secure your borders alone. I humbly suggest consultations at the highest levels between the federal law-enforcement agencies of our two countries, a starting point for recognizing that American homeland security is Mexican homeland security and vice versa.
We must re-imagine the border between us. All the money you've poured into "holding the line"--some $4 billion a year for the total INS budget--does nothing of the sort. Yes, it makes it more difficult, and sometimes deadly, to cross. But we still do cross back and forth over that line.
Dear legislators, I watch CNN en Español and have been following your recent debates over immigration policy very carefully. Let us speak frankly here: You've been playing an age-old shell game--appeasing the rabid dogs of nativism but leaving the border open enough to supply labor to big business, which keeps getting you re-elected.
What a great buzz there was in the migrant communities before 9/11! You were speaking (well, some of you) about an amnesty--pardon me, a regularization--of the immigration status of the nearly 9 million estimated "illegals" in your midst. Then for several months you shied away from such discussions. But now your President is on his way to Latin America, and he will meet with my President. It is clear to us, the migrants, that these men want to see some movement on the issue--Bush, to bolster his standing among Latinos and his business cronies, and Fox, to please paisanos like me--but this makes many of you uncomfortable. I know why. It's Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, I might look a bit like Caliban (especially in these surroundings), but I'm no Taliban, no terrorist! What are my weapons? Leaf blowers and dishrags?
You must place regularization and some version of a "guestworker" program back on the fast track. Everybody wins with real reform: Your labor-hungry industries will be happy, and you might even get some of that coveted Hispanic vote. But you need to understand one thing: We migrants will not accept any kind of program modeled on the infamous, exploitative Bracero Program. Braceros, my grandfather among them, had no right to leave an abusive boss, had no recourse to better their working conditions and wages, could not join unions. The guestworker program of the new century must give us the rights that all American workers enjoy. And there must be a mechanism for affording those workers who spend, say, six years living and working in your country the opportunity for permanent legal status.
When Vicente Fox rose to power two years ago, he made a statement that caused you much anxiety: He foresaw the border between the United States and Mexico disappearing within a decade. I tell you today that this prophecy will come to pass. There are no lines in nature, dear sirs and madams. The fact that I am here before you today proves that this is so. I thank you for your kind consideration in allowing me to speak before you today. ¡Qué vivan los mojados! Long live the migrants!
When Bill Clinton signed the welfare overhaul in 1996, he and his supporters promised that its problems could be fixed later. One problem at the top of the list was the bill's savaging of the food stamp program, including sharp financial cuts and the removal of legal immigrants from its rolls. It wasn't fixed.
Six years and lots of empty plates later, there's a chance to make a considerable improvement--if the senators who see the need to fix it hold out. The 2002 farm bill, with a price tag of $75 billion, has passed both houses and is now in conference committee. The Senate version adds $8.9 billion to the nutrition budget, mostly for food stamps, and requalifies most legal immigrants, including all children and also the disabled--which would add an estimated 400,000 people. In determining general eligibility, it also takes a more realistic view of what poor people have to spend for shelter and to keep a car running. The House adds only a bit more than a third of that and, in the spirit of both the House leadership and the 1996 welfare bill, doesn't fix much.
The Senate pays for its nutrition increases by limiting the farm subsidies that can be paid to individual and corporate farmers. The House--and some senators--would rather keep the money flowing in the same old streams. "The problem is that the House doesn't like the payment limits," says Andy Fisher, spokesman for Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. "You would think that members would be ashamed to take that position, but they're not."
It's one of the quirks of Washington that the major federal nutrition programs are part of the farm bill, written by legislators generally more interested in peanut price supports than peanut butter sandwiches. This year the bill was complicated by the large number of vulnerable Democratic senators from farm states--including Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jean Carnahan of Missouri, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota--and Democratic nervousness about the effect of subsidy limits on their chances this fall. But, insists Wellstone, "There's no reason why we can't get it right on both family farms and nutrition."
The issue comes up as the need for food help is surging, spiked by the unemployment jump of the past year--especially in areas like Florida and Las Vegas, where the drop in airline traffic belted low-wage (and heavily immigrant) tourism workers. America's Second Harvest, the national alliance of food banks, issued a call to action in February to raise 365 million pounds of food. "When legal immigrants lost eligibility," says Doug O'Brien of Second Harvest, "it just shifted responsibility from the federal government to food banks." With the small difference that it's a lot harder for food banks to pay for it.
In January the Bush Administration--driven by the realities of hunger in Texas and by GOP interest in the Hispanic vote--came out for sharply relaxing the legal immigrant exclusion, giving the idea momentum. The National Governors Association, seeing hunger from closer up than Congress does, backs the Senate bill.
But in early March the Senate plan was hurt by the discovery that its bill would cost $6 billion more than expected and more than the budget allowed. Still, the senators on the conference committee include longtime nutrition advocates like Lugar and Patrick Leahy, and a high-ranking Senate staff member insists that the Senate side has so far refused--even after the revelation of its faulty accounting--to put nutrition cuts on the table. "I'm very hopeful," says Representative Eva Clayton, the first black woman to represent North Carolina and described by O'Brien as a "heroine" on hunger issues. "The House has not been very strong or aggressive on the issue of nutrition. We really need a little more pressure on us."
Senators--and all those who think it's a good idea to feed more hungry Americans--should turn up the heat on the nutrition conference committee.
He ain't heavy, Father, he's my brother.
I can take him by myself from here.
Also, after what we've all been reading,
We don't like to have you priests too near.
The new Daedalus is out. I have to admit to having not read Daedalus with much fervor in the past, say, fifteen years (well, if ever, to be honest), but I was curious about the venerable journal now that it's under the editorship of James Miller, professor of political science and director of liberal studies at the New School, and author, most notably, of Flowers in the Dustbin, a book about rock and roll that actually won a music-book award, to say nothing of his other books (one on Foucault, another on the SDS, another on Rousseau, plus History and Human Existence: From Marx to Merleau-Ponty).
Miller's first issue (Winter 2002) is about inequality. Whoever would have suspected twenty or thirty years ago that inequality could be considered good or that a discussion about its attributes could fuel an entire 117 pages of intelligent commentary? I'm aware of the debates--say, since Reagan--about the societal advantages of greed and inequality, but has any decent person ever seriously thought that inequality was good for anything other than sustaining the kind of high culture that produces journals like Daedalus, and of course for people like Marie Antoinette and Kenneth Lay? Anyhow, as Daedalus has traditionally, the new magazine suffers painfully from the kind of writing academics do ("In this essay, I shall attempt...," etc.) and the kind of writing policy wonks do ("The Luxembourg Income Study, which is the best current source of data on economic inequality in different countries, has calculated 90/10 ratios for fourteen rich democracies in the mid-1990s").
Yet because Daedalus has in the end a liberal mind, the new issue provides, if you can plow through it, a strong restatement of the value (economic, political and moral) of equality; and convincing arguments that inequality is pretty regularly--if sometimes more subtly than one would imagine--an evil. A historical essay that happens to be written by my distant cousin Sean Wilentz offers, among other things, lively illumination of the idea, dimly seized by me in my sporadic and unsuccessful attempts to buy a house, that the ability to purchase real estate lies at the heart of all equality or inequality.
In spite of the general impenetrability, many of the pieces have good bits. Martha Nussbaum's essay on women in India begins with an unforgettable story: A Bangladeshi woman waiting for a train at Howrah Station in Calcutta is first gallantly helped by railroad officials, and then drugged, kidnapped and gang-raped by four station employees; when she finally makes her way back to the station, battered, blood-stained and disoriented, she's tricked once again by other kindly, courtly, decent-seeming chemin de fer types into another gang-rape hideaway. Amazingly (cheerful Indian ending), she survives to bring suit against her attackers. This one anecdote brings life to Nussbaum's piece, while reminding us (as if one needed reminding, after the recent train burnings, etc.) that all the exotic incident and violence in Indian literature does not come from nowhere.
Quarrel & Quandary
As long as we're looking at venerable journals that I haven't read recently (an ever-widening category, it seems), let's talk about Partisan Review. I picked up the first issue of 2002 because it contains an article arrestingly titled "Melville's Skull and the Idea of Jerusalem," by Cynthia Ozick. Ozick is a great writer; her style is fluid and personal, and there is wonderful voice in everything she touches. This essay is no exception--if I agreed with any of its passions or arguments, it would be a beloved object of reflection. In it, among other things, Ozick claims that the modern state of Israel has at its foundations "ethical visionariness," unlike the states of Europe and other contemporary nationalist movements. Zionism, she says, "is distinct because it is inextricably bound with a coherent concept of the moral obligations of civilization: land cannot mean land alone, land bare of civilized purpose, land bare of law." This, by the way, is someone writing about Zionism not in the nineteenth century or two years ago, but today, as Israel's tanks roll back into the territories (land bedecked, no doubt, in "civilized purpose," so long as it remains occupied by those equipped with ethical visionariness). Ah, well; in her Zionist arrogation of all indignation, all righteousness, all suffering, Ozick even indicts Herman Melville for not recognizing Jerusalem's holiness, because he preferred the whiteness of the whale. She can't bear that.
Woman Is the Deejay of the World
Yoko Ono, an equally self-possessed woman, is on the cover of Mixer magazine, a decidedly unvenerable journal devoted to "music, clubs, life." In my house, we have a Don't Diss Yoko rule. Amazingly, my small sons have learned to despise her. They've informed me that Yoko "broke up the Beatles" and that she is "bad"--by "bad" they mean "bad." The great thing about Yoko is that, at age 68, she goes on being herself. She recently refused to give Paul McCartney any special credit on the Lennon-McCartney songs that he in fact wrote himself ("Yesterday" comes to mind), keeping the old enmity with Sir Cheerful simmering. Ono's latest prank: She's become an occasional club deejay down in New York's meatpacking district. "It's weird," says Peter Rauhofer, a city deejay, "when you're in a deejay booth...and find Yoko Ono standing beside you...at 3 am." He goes on: "Her manager asked me if I had a microphone, because Ono wanted to do some 'orgasmic moans.' I thought he was joking." He wasn't, of course. She does the moans, to the supposed delight of the dance floor. Later she repairs with a reporter for further insight to her "vast, conservatively decorated kitchen" in the Dakota. Yoko's evolution from child of Japan's banking aristocracy to alternative artist and outrageous darling of New York's demimonde would make an instructive entry in the annals of inequality. But if someone has to be rich, it should be Ono. Why? Because at a happening in Hyde Park in 1968 or so, she blindfolded an entire fashionable audience with sanitary pads--and then silently left them there to contemplate their own ridiculous abandonment. That's visionariness.
It all began with a missing sheet of homework. "Contractions," my son had written very clearly in his assignment log. "What's this?" I asked when he announced he'd finished everything else, noting that there was no book or worksheet to which the reference logically applied. "Don't know," replied my son.
I was off to the races, astride my high horse, afroth with my mission of dutiful motherhood, my son sniveling that he had No Idea what it meant.
"The teacher made you write it down, n'est-ce pas?"
"No buts--I am calling for reinforcements." So we called his best friend. No Idea. Aha, I thought, the two of them must be in league. We called his next best friend. No Idea. Three in league? Better try the girls, girls are sober, reliable, always bright as buttons. But girls were not home, out sick, at gymnastics, No Idea.
I called my mother: How will he ever get to college at this rate, I moaned. "Is this a joke or are you working out for the high blood pressure Olympics?" she asked quietly.
By 6 o'clock, I gave up, took two aspirin and went off to a school board meeting. Most unfortunate for my throbbing temples, gifted and talented programs were the topic of the evening, and the room was packed with parents, 100 percent of whom were banking on the hope that their children were in the ninety-ninth percentile. An expensive array of options was on the table, products and "packages," computer programs and reading lists. It was a veritable Tupperware party of the education industry, but what most people seemed to want most was A Separate Class.
One of the things I get to do in my profession is travel around to schools and talk about the benefits of equal access in all its forms. I find myself increasingly concerned that a kind of triage mentality has settled over schools, a vise of constraint that has led to a bottom-dollar hunt for top students. Triage is a theory that makes a certain sense in extremely dire settings where such a cruel cost-benefit analysis has the remote moral justification of salvage-under-fire. That educational opportunity should at all resemble such a configuration in this, the wealthiest and most technologically developed country on the planet, speaks of a deep and troubling class divide.
I cannot help thinking of this as I read headlines about libraries being shut, public universities shrinking, school music programs disappearing everywhere. I cannot help thinking about this as I sit in yet another roomful of parents desperately touting their children's special attributes, waving credentials about as though clawing their way up from the steerage deck of the Titanic.
The guest expert at this particular meeting defined "gifted" as the top 3 or 4 percent of the population, although that particular cutoff reflected a monetary limit, rather than any rational relation to the potential of a child "only" in the ninety-fifth percentile. In a different district there might be enough money to provide services for only the top 1 percent; in yet another, for the top tenth.
But I can't help believing that in a world of universally well-funded education, schools could provide for almost all their students much of the enrichment that is now reserved only for the most endowed. We seem to have forgotten that there are many successful models in which all levels are accommodated, in which neither gifted nor special education students are segregated but are given materials that both educate and engage; programs where individual differences in ability can be negotiated in small classes, by teachers who are well-educated and well-supported.
As I glanced around the room, I did the math that a lot of people seem to be ignoring: A Separate Class for the top 3 or 4 percent would mean that no more than one or two students in a given grade would have access to the truly wonderful materials being discussed--materials from which any child could profit. There will be a heap of hurt feelings if this plan comes to pass. But more important to the state of our union, it is wasteful of precious human resources. It is inconceivable to me why we Americans can't cough up enough money so that the "bottom" 95 percent are exposed to Shakespeare and calculus and music theory from as young an age as possible. If they can't all write a concerto by the time they're 7, at least a whole lot more of them will be able to enjoy one.
While I think programs and materials for the gifted are fine and good, I worry about meetings like this in which the dominant sentiment is that the only way to educate the gifted is to remove them from the company of mere mortal riff-raff. In a world where public schools are shuddering beneath hatcheted budget cuts, gifted programs have become a kind of status symbol, the equivalent of those new "designer" medical practices where doctors charge exorbitant fees to make themselves available to only a few patients for round-the-clock cell-phone access and midnight consultations.
The board meeting ended with a description of how a special class for the gifted had helped maximize the strengths of one particular child described as "brilliant but unmotivated"--a child of such genius that he was too preoccupied to get to school before the day was half over. His tardiness was so great that the teacher would actually go to his house in the morning and drag him to school herself. Hmm, I thought. What a wonderful world it would be if we put together the resources to push all children with such unyielding solicitude.
When I got home, I checked my e-mail to find a note from my son's teacher explaining that she had simply forgotten to give the children the worksheet on contractions. All the tension drained from me. Education has become such an awfully anxious rat race. I kissed my son--who in the meantime had come up with the inventive theory that contractions are the physical product of any given page of long division--on the tip of his nose. How lucky our worries. How perfect the children.