Pushing Back at Anti-Intellectualism

One excellent selection from the commencement address President Obama delivered at Rutgers University last Sunday.

Which brings me to my third point:  Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy.  These are qualities you want to continue to cultivate in yourselves as citizens. That might seem obvious. That’s why we honor Bill Moyers or Dr. Burnell.

We traditionally have valued those things. But if you were listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from. So, Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be. In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. That’s not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about. And yet, we’ve become confused about this.

Reading the text is good but the listening to the president speak is even better (for those not part of the Fox “news” fan club). If you have 45 minutes, watch the whole address:

Speaking of the current “strain of anti-intellectualism” in American society, I also recommend reading an opinion piece, “A Cult of Ignorance”, written more than 35 years ago by the great Isaac Asimov.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

I’m hopeful Asimov’s essay and the president’s remarks will not still be valid in another 35 years. But I’m not optimistic about that.

Flawed Logic

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama addressed education reform, including this statement about teachers.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.

In the Post’s Answer Sheet blog, a veteran educator points out a huge logical flaw in what the President had to say.

The second problem is a glaring contradiction, a logical flaw that is huge even though it has been overlooked by almost every journalist apparently too polite to challenge the administration on it. If you do not wish teachers to teach to the test, if you want them to be passionate and creative, then how can you insist that their performance be measured by the use of test scores?

You cannot have it both ways. You cannot tell teachers to be creative, you cannot pretend you are “flexible,” when you mandate the use of test scores for teacher and principal evaluations, and continue to use them as the basis by which schools are condemned as failures. [emphasis mine]

I suspect the President, and many other education reform “leaders”, will continue to miss the disconnect between what they say and what they do.

They will produce even more lofty speech about the importance of teachers, while still demonizing the profession and implementing policies that marginalize the practice of teaching.

Presidential Communications 2.0

The BBC explains how Obama will use the web while in the White House.

“I think a year from now we’ll see streaming of the news conferences… there’ll be that deeper communication and broadcasts directly to people as opposed to through the traditional media… On the technological side, I think there’ll be more applications on mobile devices, more and more video. That will naturally develop as the industry does.”

Barack Obama has already said he wants members of his cabinet to host regular webchats. Some campaigners have suggested that the new president himself should answer questions from the public at the end of his YouTube addresses and White House briefings.

All good ideas. Especially anything that makes communications with the public a two-way process.

However, they’re likely to get a lot of push back from those folks in the “traditional media” who won’t like being ignored.

White House Connections

David Weinberger asks a very good question: Can the White House blog?

Certainly it wouldn’t be the president writing the posts (hopefully he’s working on more important stuff).

But David suggests that it could be a group effort.

Or perhaps you offer a full plate of bloggers. A White House online magazine, so to speak. Lots of voices, opinions, and styles. A Greek chorus for the President, made up of divergent voices. How divergent? For an official White House blog, I would think it’d have to be pretty mainstream, because it’d be speaking for the President’s administration. Even so, knowing that this blogger is an amazing font of facts about telecom policy, and that one is able to put industrial policy into an historical context, and that other one is capable of occasional crackling sarcasm when discussing energy policy, well, that’d be extremely cool.

Way cool!

While the incoming administration may or may not be considering blogging, that doesn’t mean they don’t plan to continue leveraging all the social networking tools they used so well in the campaign.

The Obama transition team now has a director of new media, along with a team responsible for online communications and outreach.

So even if they won’t be writing a blog, at least it appears as if they plan to make the White House part of the online conversation.

The Analog Candidate

A writer in the New York Times discusses why so many people gave McCain a hard time for basically admitting that he was computer illiterate.

So why have Mr. McCain’s admissions of digital illiteracy sparked such ridicule in wiseguy circles?

Computers have become something of a cultural marker – in politics and in the real world. Proficiency with them suggests a basic familiarity with the day-to-day experience of most Americans – just as ignorance to them can suggest someone is “out of touch,” or “old.”

“We’re not asking for a president to answer his own e-mail,” said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley futurist who teaches at Stanford. “We’re asking for a president who understands the context of what e-mail means.”

The “user experience,” Mr. Saffo said, brings with it an implicit understanding of how the country lives, and where it might be heading. As Mr. McCain would lack this, he would also be deficient in this broader appreciation for how technology affects lives.

Exactly. Certainly no one expects the president to spend hours on line.

However our leaders do need to have a good understanding of the public policy issues involving telecommunications that will need to be addressed very soon.

Not to mention some idea of why many of us believe the web is important for something other than boosting the bottom line of the big telecoms (and other large campaign contributors).