Sargent Shriver’s Unlikely Contribution to Education Reform

Sargent Shriver

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“Make mine a Courvoisier!” ~ Sargent Shriver, as working men call out their beer orders at a Youngstown, Ohio tavern during the 1972 campaign.

You wouldn’t think so, but Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Geoffrey Canada, and the rest of the education reform crowd owe a great deal to Sargent Shriver.

The longtime liberal activist, Peace Corps founder and Kennedy appendage, passed away Tuesday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.  He deserves recognition as the charismatic, energetic political operator who, through his work with the Peace Corps and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, re-aligned Democratic politics for generations to come.  In the process, Shriver embodied a liberal idealism and ideology that reflected his times–and alienated his more pragmatic family members of the Kennedy clan.

Yet few moments describe his shortcomings more than Shriver’s 1972 faux pas at Youngstown.

As he is campaigning as George McGovern‘s running mate, Shriver attempted to endear himself to working-class locals at the neighborhood watering hole.  Instead of calling for a domestic beer, Shriver shrieks out for a Courvoisier cognac, a drink more associated with the upper classes that so often exploited these workers.  In response, Congressman Tip O’Neill exclaimed, “”That’s it.  I’m getting back on the plane and going back to Boston. There’s no hope here.”  He was right: Nixon won the election in a landslide.

This episode, while largely comic, demonstrates a dangerous notion in the minds of idealistic, wealthy reformers–that singular action by individuals of means are solely necessary for social change.  It’s paternalism at best, and class exploitation at worst.

In the Peace Corps, Shriver was a singular force, acting as a manic, always-innovating autocrat.  All the while, he is impelling young students from America’s best families to spread American democracy and values worldwide to the poorest regions on Earth.  Of course, this didn’t mean that the world (a) really wanted them, or (b) actually benefitted from these meddling preppies teaching the local children how to read the Saturday Evening Post and listen to a Perry Como record.

The Peace Corps’ ancestors have arisen today, in similar guises of mildly-patronizing philanthropy:  Teach for America,  New York City Teaching Fellows,  the KIPP Foundation,  Bill Gates, Eli Broad and their money-tossing cronies.  These groups, some of their disciples and many of their graduates have that same notion of top-down management of social action.  They believe that the “best and brightest” must manage and control the “betterment” of America’s disadvantaged–largely without the feedback of those they purport to help.

Even Shriver’s contemporaries pointed this out.  Even though he managed government programs like the Peace Corps, Head Start, and the War on Poverty with almost missionary zeal, Shriver was still viewed as a political lightweight.  Even if he was a suave, likeable leader, he never seemed to connect with people at all.  The Youngstown incident is proof positive of this.

Furthermore, it is now seen, even by liberals, that Shriver’s programs were haphazard in organization, implementation and results.  The Peace Corps made some headway in terms of health care and education, yet groups such as the World Health Organization do a much better job and are not so annoying.  The Great Society, in the beginning, was a hodgepodge of programs that were created and added at will, without planning or organization.  Today, even advocates of the War on Poverty wished that Shriver was more pragmatic in these programs, often to create better results more efficiently.

Nowhere does Shriver’s influence reflect more than on education reform’s magnum opus, the documentary Waiting for Superman.  The premise is simple: students are looking for some magic-bullet program, or individual, to save American education.  In this case, the Shriver-esque solution is charter schools funded by philanthropic captains of industry–without any input from the education professionals that actually know how to teach children.

Sargent Shriver’s life and achievements, while commendable, give us a warning about our public policy.  His accomplishments left many more questions than answers to the problems they set out to solve.  Shriver’s top-heavy, paternalistic attitude and style hindered real progress in the serious crises that demanded his attention.

The same might be said for today’s education reformers.

So in Sargent Shriver’s memory, I’ll correct his mistake.  I’ll go have a beer.

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