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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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Swine Flu, the other White plague: The Great Pandemics of History

spanish_fluAmazing.  After a torturous week of funerals and memorial services, I end up smack in the middle of a pandemic in the making.  Good thing I have bereavement leave right now.

H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu, is spreading worldwide at a breakneck pace.  As of this post, there are 527 confirmed cases of the virus, although the projected actual number could reach over 4500.  168 people are suspecting of succumbing to the swine flu globally, and it has sent us into a hysteria not seen in almost a century.  Schools are closing.  Mexico is practically cut off from the rest of the world.  Surgical masks are the hot-ticket item, as well as illicit stockpiles of drugs such as Tamiflu.

If you are not one of the 300 schools closed due to the flu, please take precautions.  Make sure you wash your hands and sanitize thoroughly.  Avoid contact with children whenever possible.  Most importantly, send a child with symptoms to your health office immediately, using guidelines provided by your school district.

However, lets not check for the sign of the beast yet.  Before we start confessing our sins prior to the end of days, let’s check out some of the historic pandemics of the past milennia.  These outbreaks have been so widespread and so deadly that many have changed the course of history:

(1) Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD) – This outbreak of bubonic plague killed 5,000 people a day at its peak in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Estimates are that up to 100 million people died worldwide.  It effectively ended any hope of reforming the Roman Empire, as Justinian’s plague-stricken armies were held in Italy by Goths and Lombards.  By the 600s, Byzantium retreated back to Asia Minor and had the Muslim armies to contend with.

(2) The Black Death (1347-1351) – A combination of bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plagues swept through Europe.  It is believed that anywhere from 75-200 million people perished during the plague years of the 14th Century.  It killed between 1/3 to 2/3 of the population of Europe, causing lasting societal change.  Because of the decreased population, peasants and workers were at a priority.  The plague weakened the feudal authority of nobles and the Catholic Church.  Widespread riots led to persecution of Jews, Roma and other minorities.  Ultimately, it helped usher in the Renaissance and the beginnings of modern Western civilization.

(3) Spanish Influenza (1918-1920) – An outbreak of a strange flu strain among US servicemen in France came home after World War I ended in 1918.  This flu, which managed to kill healthy people between age 25 and 50, ended up killing 50-100 million people within two years.  This is the outbreak that brought influenza into national consciousness.  Ever wonder why the big push for flu shots?  This is why.

(4) Smallpox (430 BC – 1979) – Smallpox, which was officially eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, had been a scourge for centuries.  Scientists believe it broke out as early as 10,000 BC.  It is responsible for the near-annihilation of many Native American peoples of the Americas, as well as periodic outbreaks in Europe during the 18-19th Centuries.  Thanks to concerted efforts to inoculate people during the 19th and 20th century, it is the only pandemic that has been eradicated completely.

(5) Cholera (1817-present) – Cholera showed the world the need for adequate plumbing and clean drinking water.  The disease spread from contaminated water supplies, and several pandemics–the First: 1817-1823, Second: 1829-1851, Third: 1852-1859, Fourth: 1863-1879, Fifth: 1881-1896, Sixth: 1899-1923  and Seventh: 1961- 1970–decimated populations from India to London to New York.  A local footnote: the Cholera Epidemic of 1834-1835 spread across New York, and resulted in the first reservoir and plumbing systems in the city.

(6) Malaria (1600?-present) – Malaria, a disease spread by mosquitos in tropical and subtropical regions, kills 2 million people a year and gets little media attention.  400-900 million people contract it each year, and it causes at least one death every 30 seconds.  Along with hampering economic development in developing countries, malaria probably gave rise to an alcoholic beverage.  Take British gin, add tonic water that includes quinine, a known drug that interacts with malaria, and you have the gin and tonic.

(7) AIDS (1981-today) If you were a child of the 1980s and 1990s, you were familiar with AIDS.  Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, was first documented in isolated pockets in New York, San Francisco and other urban areas, particularly among homosexuals and intravenous drug users.  It has since spread to the general population at a frightening clip.  Up to 25 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses thus far, and has caused widespread devastation to populations in Africa, Asia and South America.

If swine flu wants to aspire to pandemic status, it has to contend with those bad boys.  My guess is that it will not come even close.

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