Sunday, February 17, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #4

In her Feb. 17 op-ed (“Call Me a Snob…”) Susan Jacoby asserts that we are living through a period characterized by “a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations” and says we ought to begin a national discussion on “the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects.”

But Jacoby doesn’t get us to an adequate starting point. Dumbness, arrogance and a shrinking attention span characterize a rising number of Americans, she claims. Unfortunately, these are not precise analytical terms; they are mere insults.

Perhaps a 1500-word piece does not allow sufficient space to make Jacoby’s point, but surely it’s room enough to at least mention the sustained neglect the American public school system has suffered over the last 30 years. My guess is that single parents with low-wage jobs, two-parent households with both parents in the work force, lack of childcare, crumbling school buildings, lagging teacher salaries, a shift of infrastructure investment from cities to suburbs and from schools to prisons, the increasing cost of higher education and the diminishing availability of need-based college scholarships have much to do with our collective lack of time and preparedness for the discussion Jacoby desires.

Shifting focus to the failures of policy-makers since the Reagan administration to honor and sustain the past achievements and real potential of high-quality universal public education might be a better place to begin that conversation.

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