Tag Archives: Diane Ravitch

Wendy Kopp, Princeton Tory

11 Mar

Going through some old files, I found copies of the Princeton Tory, which was Princeton University’s right-wing undergraduate magazine in the 1980s.

Today it bills itself as “a journal of conservative and moderate political thought.” Back in the day, the Tory ran articles in praise of abstinence and against the campus divestment movement (“Although Jerry Falwell’s claim that [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu is a ‘phony’ is exaggerated, it is true that he has little support within South Africa. The image of Tutu as a prominent figure is a creation of the international community”). It staged reenactments of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. Nothing outlandish or outré; just a slightly fustier version of the campus right of the 1980s.

Most of the staffers were smart. Some, like the magazine’s founders Dan Polisar and Yoram Hazony, were scary: hardcore Zionists, Polisar and Hazony went onto storied if peculiar careers on the Israeli right; Hazony, once a close aide to Netanyahu, wrote a eulogy for Meir Kahane.

But what caught my eye as I was leafing through the magazine’s pages was a name on the masthead.

Princeton Tory masthead

Wendy Kopp, in case you haven’t heard of her, is the founder and recently retired head of Teach for America (TFA), the controversial organization at the center of the country’s education wars. Diane Ravitch has been tangling with her for years.

Kopp came up with the idea for TFA while she was an undergrad at Princeton, and though its do-gooder image can seem at odds with the selfishness of the market, from the beginning Kopp has seen TFA as an emblem and instrument of capitalism and its hierarchies. With seed money from Mobil and Union Carbide (the public relations disaster of Bhopal still in its rear view mirror), Kopp announced in 1989 that “we really want to get the cream of the crop.”

Since I couldn’t find anything she wrote for the Tory, and their archive doesn’t go back beyond 2001, I have no idea what she was thinking when she joined it. She and I were in the same class at Princeton, and I met her in the first weeks of our freshman year (are you noticing a pattern to my past?) We worked together as stringers for newspapers and wire services across the country. But beyond her telling me, proudly and repeatedly, that she was a “corporate tool” (the phrase, I think, was just coming into vogue), I have no idea what her political views were.

Why Do People Hate Teachers Unions? Because They Hate Teachers.

12 Sep

Like Doug Henwood, I’ve spent the last few days trying to figure out why people—particularly liberals and pseudo-liberals in the chattering classes—hate teachers unions. One could of course take these people at their word—they care about the kids, they worry that strikes hurt the kids, and so on—but since we never hear a peep out of them about the fact that students have to swelter through 98-degree weather in jam-packed classes without air conditioning, I’m not so inclined.

Forgive me then if I essay an admittedly more impressionistic analysis drawn from my own experience.

Like many of these journalists, I hail from an upper middle class background. I grew up in Chappaqua, an affluent suburb of New York. My parents moved there in 1975 for the schools, which were—and I believe still are—terrific. From elementary school through senior year, I had some of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered.

Two of my social studies teachers—Allan Damon and Tom Corwin—had more of an impact on me than any professor I ever had in college or grad school. In their classes, I read Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, Michael Kammen’s People of Paradox, Hobbes, Locke, Richard Hakluyt, Albert Thayer Mahan, and more. When I got to college, I found that I was considerably better prepared than my classmates, many of whom had gone to elite private schools in Manhattan and elsewhere. It’s safe to say I would never have become an academic were it not for these two men.

We also had a terrific performing arts program. Phil Stewart, Chappaqua’s legendary acting teacher, trained Vanessa Williams, Roxanne Hart, Dar Williams, and more. We put on obscure musicals and  destabilizing plays like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Ronald Dunn, our choral teacher, had us singing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Vivaldi’s Gloria, and the works of Fauré. So inspiring were these teachers that many of us went onto organize our own plays, musicals, and a cappella groups, while we were still in high school.

Despite this, many kids and their parents held teachers in contempt. Teachers were not figures of respect or gratitude; they were incompetents and buffoons. Don’t get me wrong: like most people, I had some terrible teachers. Incompetents and worse. But like most people I’ve also had some terrible friends, some terrible co-workers, some terrible neighbors, some terrible doctors, some terrible editors, and some terrible professors. Mediocrity, I’d venture, is a more or less universal feature of the human condition. But among the upper classes it’s treated as the exclusive preserve of teachers.

It’s odd. Even if you’re the most toolish striver—i.e., many of the people I grew up with—teachers are your ticket to the Ivy League. And if you’re an intellectually ambitious academic type like me, they’re even more critical. Like I said, people move to Chappaqua for the schools, and if the graduation and post-graduate statistics are any indication—in my graduating class of 270, I’d guess about 50 of us went onto an Ivy League school—they’re getting their money’s worth. Yet many people I grew up with treated teachers as bumptious figures of ridicule—and not in your anarchist-critique-of-all-social-institutions kind of way.

It’s clear where the kids got it from: the parents. Every year there’d be a fight in the town over the school budget, and every year a vocal contingent would scream that the town was wasting money (and raising needless taxes) on its schools. Especially on the teachers (I never heard anyone criticize the sports teams). People hate paying taxes for any number of reasons—though financial hardship, in this case, was hardly one of them—but there was a special pique reserved for what the taxes were mostly going to: the teachers.

In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.

No one, we were sure, became a teacher because she loved history or literature and wanted to pass that on to the next generation. All of them simply had no other choice. How did we know that? Because they weren’t lawyers or doctors or “businessmen”—one of those words, even in the post-Madmen era, still spoken with veneration and awe. It was a circular argument, to be sure, but its circularity merely reflected the closed universe of assumption in which we operated.

Like my teachers, I have chosen a career in education and don’t make a lot of money. Unlike them, I’m a professor. I’m continuously astonished at the pass that gets me among the people I grew up with. Had I chosen to be a high-school teacher, I’d be just another loser. But tenured professors are different. Especially if we teach in elite schools (which I don’t.) We’re more talented, more refined, more ambitious—more like them. We’re capitalist tools, too.

So that’s where and how I grew up. And when I hear journalists and commentators, many of them fresh out of the Ivy League, talking to teachers as if they were servants trying to steal the family silver, that’s what I hear. It’s an ugly tone from ugly people.

Every so often I want to ask them, “Didn’t your parents teach you better manners?” Then I remember whom I’m dealing with.

Update (September 13, 12:45 am)

I’ve gotten a fair amount of flak from liberals, on Twitter and in the comments, who claim I’m being unfair to liberal critics of the teachers union—I’m not taking their arguments seriously, making assumptions about their elitism, etc.

I want you all to have a listen to one liberal critic—Andy Rotherham, who has a column at Time— on the Diane Rehm Show.  This is what he says (at 50:30):

Part of this strike, it’s pretty clear, is that the union needed to have some theater for its members, let them blow off some steam, and that’s increasingly obvious.

Remember, he’s talking about a union led by an African-American woman, in a school district where 40 percent of the kids are black. Look at ‘em all, blowing off steam.

Yeah, I was really being unfair.

(Also on the show is the indispensable Diane Ravitch, who does a pretty excellent job — when Rehm lets her speak — of debunking the liberal shibboleths in this debate. If you’re wondering why I don’t engage the arguments more, it’s because Ravitch already has. Again and again and again and again.)

Making Love to Lana Turner on an Empty Stomach (and Other Things That Caught My Eye)

25 Jul

Kirk Douglas

In my first year of grad school, I read Naming Names, Victor Navasky’s study of the blacklist in Hollywood. That, and Michael Rogin’s The Intellectuals and McCarthy, made me a permanent junkie for all things McCarthy. The blacklist was a shameful episode in American history, but it had its bright spots.  One of them was Kirk Douglas, who helped break it by insisting that the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo receive the screenwriting credit for Spartacus.  The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is now honoring the 94-year-old Douglas with its Freedom of Expression Award. Douglas discusses his experiences with Spartacus—as well as being Jewish in Hollywood—here.  Best quote from Douglas: “I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked on the movie set, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”

A Sculpture of Two Women Kissing

Bill DeresiewiczOne of my favorite critics is Bill Deresiewicz. He’s got a newish book on Jane Austen, writes reviews for the Nation, and blogs at The American Scholar. “Severity of judgment is a great virtue,” wrote Blake, and Deresiewicz’s judgments are severe. But he’s also an irrepressible enthusiast, capable of a tremendous warmth and generosity of spirit that are infectious. As you can see in his take on who the real Greatest Generation is, and the monument to them he’d like to see in DC: “a sculpture of two young women kissing—right there, right on the National Mall.”

Terrorist or Talmudic Scholar

Islamophobia is hardly new, but the terrorist attacks in Norway have  shone new light on it and the hard-right ideologues in the US  (and elsewhere) who promote it. The attention is welcome, but this lead in today’s New York Times—in a piece strangely titled “Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.” (“thought” seems an awfully fancy word for what goes on in those corners of the blogosphere; would the Times call something comparable “Anti-Semitic Thought”?)—caught my eye:

The man accused of the killing spree in Norway was deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam, lacing his 1,500-page manifesto with quotations from them, as well as copying multiple passages from the tract of the Unabomber.

“Warned” is a peculiar choice. Warnings tend to come from one of two quarters: those with authority (cops) or those with vision (Cassandras).  These racist anti-Muslim bloggers have neither. “Warned” grants them both, suggesting they are in a position to see something coming down the road that the rest of us can’t, won’t, or don’t see. That combination of “small group” and “for years” only enhances the suggestion, conveying a sense of a lonely band of brothers, prophets without honor in their own country, steadfastly preaching the word to those who can’t, won’t, or don’t listen.  Then there’s that “deeply influenced,” as if the terrorist were a Talmudic scholar, immersing himself in the texts of Ibn Ezra late into the night.

If you think I’m making too much of this, just imagine reading the following sentence about Mohamed Atta a few days after 9/11:

The man accused of leading the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was deeply influenced by a small group of Arab bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from American power…


One of the most painful scenes to behold is an encounter—a conversation, debate, colloquy—between  individuals of mismatched intellect. In the past week, I’ve had occasion to witness two.

Wendy KoppDiane Ravitch is an educational historian and former under secretary of education; Wendy Kopp is the founder of Teach for America. No one knows more about education in America than Ravitch; no one knows more about hucksterism than Kopp. Ravitch is sharp, Kopp a charlatan. The two were brought together at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Take a look, have a listen, and pour yourself a drink.

Janet MalcolmJanet Malcolm is one of the smartest, shrewdest, and most disturbing voices in American journalism today. Katie Roiphe made herself famous in the 90s with an anti-feminist attack on the idea of date rape, which Katha Pollitt summarily dispatched in the New Yorker. She has since tried to reinvent herself as a woman of letters.  She could give Norman Podhoretz—of Making It fame—a run for his money (except that Podhoretz really did hoist himself up the greasy pole of success; Roiphe has always depended on the kindness of connections). Malcolm and Roiphe were brought together by the Paris Review. Have a look, and pour yourself another drink.


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