Banality in the NYT

I don’t know this guy, Joe Nocera, who wrote this piece on education. He probably has a lot of good things to say about education, but unfortunately (and apologetically) I want to use his piece to illustrate the point that you will likely come across really unhelpful and garbagey things in the news.

Read that article. It talks a big game. Nocera writes about how this story of a young boy, Saquan, keeps him up at night. And then he writes, in dramatic fashion, that merely improving teachers and institutions won’t work because “it takes a lot more than that [reforming schools]. Which is where Saquan comes in. His part of the story represents difficult truths that the reform movement has yet to face squarely — and needs to.”

Ok so I’m getting primed to hear something pretty new and interesting. But what is his point? That when a child is so deeply screwed by circumstances outside the school, the schooling itself will not be sufficient to create an educated person. NO SHIT.

There are hundreds of necessary conditions for someone to become educated: they must have a pulse, they must be able to use at least some of their perceptual faculties, they must be able to get to school, they must be able to understand English. The sun must not explode the morning they get up for school.

What help does it, in a policy debate context, to note that sometimes our society at large can be so shitty, that even the best schooling cannot help someone? What we’re interested in, I would have thought, in a piece on education reform, is how likely certain reforms can succeed, GIVEN that some reasonable set of necessary conditions is in place.

It’s just kind of laughable to think that this example shows that “school reform” isn’t enough. The case is so extreme that I think it shows that “societal reform” or “comprehensive everything reform” will never quite be enough, because bad things happen to people. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to help these people: of course not. We to open ourselves to the importance of acting WITHOUT institutions, but a point about the cruelty of life hardly helps us understand how to deal with school reform issues.

To be fair, Nocera’s point is that we need to address poverty before we can address school, but again that’s wrong. Why can’t we make strides in the classroom alone? We could do better, undoubtedly, if our society was fundamentally just, but that’s a long term, big picture goal. I mean, at root, almost all problems crop up because society is broken, but in THAT sense, society has always been broken — we have never lived in a utopia.


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