Monthly Archives: January 2011

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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Cathie Black tells NYers to let them eat Birth Control

Well, it took two weeks for New York Schools Chancellor Cathie Black to put her foot in her mouth.

In a meeting with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver‘s task force on school overcrowding in Tribeca, Black briefly shocked the concerned parents of this affluent neighborhood in suggesting more “birth control” to stem the problem.  Most at the meeting seemed bewildered and stunned at her flippant attitude.

Imagine her feelings towards less-wealthy boroughs and neighborhoods in the city?

Cathie, you obviously didn’t read our action plan on doing a good job.  This will go on your permanent record.

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In Defense of “The King’s Speech”

During my winter break, I saw one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

A week later, I saw a review of that movie—from a respectable magazine—that missed the point entirely.

I’m a bit of an Anglophile at heart, and watching The King’s Speech reinforced my love of all things British. Tom Hooper’s magisterial film about the accidental accession—and heartbreaking speech struggles—of George VI (played by Colin Firth) is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. It reminded me of how movies used to be made: with purpose, elegance, painstaking detail and thoughtful gravitas.

As a director, Hooper is already developing a fan base among my students. As the force behind the HBO miniseries John Adams, Hooper gets serious kudos in the classrooms where I integrate his work in my lessons. The direction and lighting of the Boston Massacre scene in the first episode is particularly noteworthy, and gets plenty of airtime with my students.

That said, it was something of a shock when I read Isaac Chotiner’s review of The King’s Speech in The New Republic last week. In a scathing blast, Chotiner dismisses the work as “historically inaccurate, entirely misleading, and, in its own small way, morally dubious.” Specifically, he cites the downplaying of Edward VIII’s pro-Nazi tendencies, the “distortion” of Churchill’s character, and the supposed ingenuous conclusion that “Bertie”, George VI’s nickname, was anti-fascist from the beginning, overlooking political missteps.

Chotiner’s review, apart from dripping with Anglo-hatred and smug intellectual doubletalk, suffers on two points. He is very selective himself of certain historical inaccuracies. Furthermore, in his nitpicking, Chotiner neglects to see the film for what it is.

Anyone can pick and choose the facts that best suit them, and Chotiner gives us a smorgasboard.

Yet the best facts are those that are overlooked.

While Chotiner harps on Edward’s flings with Nazis in 1937, subsequently to be put out of the way as governor of the Bahamas, he neglected to look at things from the German point of view. Hitler, even before Edward and Wallis’ visit, had a fond view of Britain, especially her colonial empire. This was cultivated not by any crowned head, but a former prime minister, David Lloyd George, who visited Hitler in 1935 and had got along smashingly with the Fuhrer.

Looking at Operation Sea Lion, Germany’s presumptive occupation of Britain, supports this view. The occupation had no role for Edward, partly due to his place in the Caribbean, but mostly due to Nazi understanding that more important leaders, such as Lord Halifax, could manage the occupied British Empire, especially her other dominions. Edward’s threat to British liberal government is thus grossly inflated.

Churchill, an early supporter of Edward, also warrants scrutiny, according to Chotiner. Here he bears some credit—some. Winston Churchill was a steadfast supporter of Edward during the 1936-1937 accession crisis, a fact glossed over by the film (although in the film, it isn’t clear at what point in the crisis Churchill discusses the succession with Bertie). Yet although his decision was shocking to his allies, as Chotiner claims, it was not so deplorable to the majority of British voters that supported Edward as well.

Churchill was (gasp!) practicing good politics in supporting the wayward Windsor, even as the political elites in both parties expressed disapproval. Edward, as a dashing force for modernizing and de-formalizing the royal family, was seen as a humanizing force by the British public, who overwhelmingly supported Edward over his stammering younger brother Albert.

In bad taste? Most certainly. Yet Churchill the politician was simply pandering to the electorate, which keeps in line with his political comeback of the 1930s.

Lastly, Chotimer claims that the future George VI was a reluctant anti-fascist, although the film supposedly depicts him as anti-fascist throughout. His evidence is the viewing of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 at Buckingham Palace after the Munich agreement, an agreement that postponed World War II for less than a year.

Really?

Show off your own prime minister off a balcony and he’s an appeaser who “violated protocol” in endorsing the actions of a prime minister—which were disastrous in HINDSIGHT?

It’s flimsy, to say the least. And he neglects to paint the same bleak picture when George VI does the exact same thing with Winston Churchill on V-E day in 1945. He certainly endorsed a prime minister then for his foreign policy: shouldn’t he merit the same scrutiny then?

There is plenty of evidence that proves George VI’s loyalty and duty to his people. He worked a remarkable personal relationship with Franklin Roosevelt and his wife during the desperate period of the Battle of Britain. When advisors warned him to escape, George stayed in London with his beleaguered people, enduring blackouts, rations and boarded-up windows at Buckingham Palace (just ask Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited). A German bomb landed on their lawn, to demonstrate the danger. George and his family made a point to visit military bases, towns, bombed-out factories and villages all over the British Isles, even at great personal risk.

That was just during the war. The New Republic being a more liberal tome, it would hearten Chotimer to see George’s early advocacy of racial equality. He was the first royal to play tennis with a black man in 1927 in Jamaica, which shocked local elites as a perceived sign of racial equality. In 1947, in a tour of South Africa, George was appalled when the white racist government insisted that the king shake hands only with whites. He would have none of that, referring to the South African security forces derisively as “The Gestapo.”

In sum, although Chotimer brings up interesting points about the film’s subject matter—even alluding that it would make a superb film—he misses the point entirely, largely due to a bias against royals and for deeper accuracy at the expense of quality filmmaking.

Chotimer remarks, in words dripping with disdain, that

“This heartwarming tale plays out predictably and unsubtly—The King’s Speech is one of those films that is not content to show us a friendship developing over two hours; no, the characters must also tell us how much the friendship means to them.”

Liberals don’t like to be told anything. Heck, I can’t stand being told things myself.

Yet in a vapid cinematic landscape, where amateur directors bend over backwards to be subtle, ironic, and overly symbolic to the point of tedium, we often need to be reminded—not TOLD, but reminded—of the way films used to be made, of heroes and foils, of dark times and heroic deeds that gets lost in the minute inconvenience of fact.

I saw The King’s Speech with my sister, herself a left-leaning liberal with a low opinion of the royal family. We both wept numerous times during the film. She turned to me and asked in the most sincere way, “Where are the people like that today?”

Where, indeed.

George VI, to be sure, was a reluctant monarch who had his faults and would misstep during his reign. Yet the film was not about his politics. It was not about Edward’s appeasements or his Nazi sympathies. It wasn’t about Winston Churchill. It certainly wasn’t about Hitler.

At its heart, The King’s Speech is not about king nor about any one address he gives. It is about a man with a tough childhood that produced a debilitating speech impediment. He gives up on his improvement until fate, and world events, hand him an enormous responsibility. In building a relationship with his teacher, as well as confronting his own demons, George VI learned to overcome his disability to deliver a message of hope and encouragement to his people when they really needed it.

It’s about how a man from who little was expected could deliver so much to his people.

This is what made George VI among Britain’s greatest monarchs.

It is why I loved The King’s Speech. I only wish that others, especially other writers, felt the same way.

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