Politics in the Post-Gutenberg Age

Suzanne Fields

1/7/2008 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Good theater demands an intermission. So, too, the loudest show on earth: the campaign for president. It was great fun to watch Mike Huckabee strum the guitar with Jay Leno's band on "The Tonight Show" as he was soaring to the top of the Republican class in Iowa. Hillary Clinton's icy joke, needling David Letterman for his absence for two months on CBS ("all good things have to end") and dropping to third place in Iowa, was slightly less amusing. But that's showbiz.

"Entertainment Tonight" is the way to watch the candidates show off their talents and personalities, if any, but it doesn't cure what ails us and it doesn't make us think about tomorrow. Between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, we need the short pause that refreshes. "Caucus," as Jay Leno reminded us, "is a Greek word which means the only day anyone pays any attention to Iowa.'" (He wrote that himself.)

New Hampshire is a horse of a different color in a race of a different order. While the jockeys nudge their nags into the starting gates and the tote boards adjust the odds, we might give a thought to what a race for president should be about -- a debate about real things. One of the most important real things is the sorry state of public education in our not-so-United States.

The sorriness varies from state to state, but almost nobody is talking about the dumbing down of education because so many people have too much to lose if we change things. Chester Finn, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, put it bluntly in the Wall Street Journal: "The federal mandate to produce 100 percent proficiency [in math and reading] fosters low standards, game-playing by states and districts, and cynicism and rear-end covering by educators."

Conservatives who want local control of schools (as I do) shouldn't overlook the enormous disparities caused by federal standards that allow and enable each state to determine the meaning of "proficiency." Congress and the White House got behind "No Child Left Behind" legislation in 2001 as an efficient way to encourage the expansion of children's minds as the global stage expanded. We're still reeling from the unintended consequences of good intentions. These consequences cover a multitude of sin(ecure)s that makes it impossible to correct course.

Unintended consequence No. 1: Each state gets to set its own standards and score its own tests. Consequently, states adjust criteria to their advantage, which often camouflages failure. Wisconsin, for example, sets its passing reading level in the eighth grade at the 14th percentile, considerably more difficult to achieve than the scoring in South Carolina, where it's set at the 71st percentile. "A youngster moving from middle school in Milwaukee to high school in Charleston would be grievously unprepared for what lies ahead," says Mr. Finn. What do the candidates in the South Carolina primary say about that? You might as well not ask.

Unintended consequence No. 2: Mindful of the importance of math in the global economy, states typically set higher standards for math than for reading. (The young can always get their learning from watching television.)

It shouldn't surprise us, but it should certainly scare us, that children and their parents are reading less than ever, surrendering without a fight to a culture where the media, racing for the bottom, is not only the message but the only message. It's amusing to have to ask the kids to show us how to "text message" on our cell phones, but the short-speak they use stunts their vocabularies beyond teenage slang. Insisting that they learn to read, to use real words, would deepen their understanding of the real world.

"Geek-speak" in our post-literate, post-Gutenberg age makes reading real literature difficult; the classical and Biblical references, base-line standards for understanding historical culture and plumbing the wisdom in the humanities, makes the treasures of the ages difficult to retrieve. (Even Google can't do it.) The global economy will be a field for failure, where only low wages and unemployment thrive. One-third of American teenagers who drop out of school are already stuck with not-so-great expectations.

In polls on the major issues in this campaign, education doesn't make the top 10. We're hearing a mantra for "change," but the rhetoric is empty. "Change" to what? For all the big talk, there's nothing to suggest how to pull our public schools out of the quicksand of institutionalized selfish interests. It's time to change that, too. From what we've heard so far, fat chance.