School Daze

Graphic by Frank Horton

This Week — Re-thinking Schools in the Devos Era — with Jack Schneider, Jennifer Berkshire, Malcolm Harris, Charles Peterson and the kids and teachers of Somerville High School. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Mary McGrath: Back to school feels a little different in Trump time. The president’s education secretary is ripping it up on her “Rethink School” tour, which feels more like a mission to dismantle the whole system, specially public schools. Choice, charters and change are DeVos’s code words, along with a call for more and more competition. Education today is a mundane malaise, Betsy Devos says, that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.

Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the “average” student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine — just waiting to be saved by the bell. It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.

And like those western settlers, anyone who dares to suggest schools ought to do better by their students is warned off: It’s too hard. It’ll take too long. There’s not enough money. It can’t be done.Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education “system.”What’s an education “system”? There is no such thing! Are you a system? No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers.

If that sounds like Margaret Thatcher, you’re right, and in fact, Devos quoted the Iron Lady directly over the summer:

What, exactly, is education if not an investment in students? I was reminded of something another secretary of education once said. Her name was Margaret. No, not Spellings — Thatcher. Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on “society.” But, “who is society,” she asked. “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families” — families, she said — “and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” The Iron Lady was right then and she’s still right today.

For a completely different view, like about 180 degrees, we turned to a young millennial writer Zach and Conor introduced us to — Malcolm Harris who’s forthcoming book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials reads like an apocalyptic parenting manual that would make Dr. Spock spin in his grave. On one level it’s a snarky marxist take — young people are trained and educated just to be productive machinery for capitalist owners; kids need to work to learn to work. On another it’s a sadly true dystopian picture of what we’ve done to kids and parents with an accepted norm of an anxiety-filled rat race of child rearing and high stakes test prep for the hypercompetitive college admission game, which leads to mountains of debt and finally to bleak job prospects and in some cases poverty.

Harris assured us that the letter he reprinted to parents of kindergarteners at Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, New York informing parents that the school was cancelling the annual Christmas play because the kids couldn’t spare two days off from their regularly scheduled work wasn’t a joke. The changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world…we are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills… but know we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

And our guest Charles Petersen gave us some more fascinating historical context, reminding us that this just isn’t a story of neoliberalism: the history of meritocracy goes much deeper than that:

The news isn’t all bad; there are reformers and truth tellers out there like Jennifer Berkshire and her Have You Heard ?podcast partner, Jack Schneider. Schneider has come up with his own way to measure schools, and it doesn’t take into account test scores and the way they’re gamed and manipulated by real estate companies. Test scores measure demographics and more particularly income, Schneider says, and lots and lots of great schools are left out of the mix.

Bonus Pod: Claire Messud at the Brattle Theatre

Illustration by Susan Coyne

Novelist Claire Messud talked with Chris about her new novel, The Burning Girl on the stage of the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square a couple of weeks ago. Here’s their conversation.

Department of Correction

Zach Goldhammer: In response to our newsletter write-up of the NYT Michelle Jones story last week, we received two amendments from members of the Harvard faculty. The first came from the English and comparative literature professor James Engell, who noted that John Stauffer did not have the power to “veto” (my phrasing) any decision about Jones’s application. I should have written that Stauffer “had raised concerns that led to administrative action.” I apologize for the poor word choice and misrepresentative framing.

John Stauffer also sent us his corrections to the original NYT story. These corrections, which were also sent to the New York Times and the New Yorker, have been posted online by the Harvard Crimson

In his article, “From Prison to Ph.D.,” published last week in the New York Times, Eli Hager argued that Harvard University did not give Michelle Jones a fair review, owing to her criminal record.

Hager writes for the Marshall Project, an advocacy group that seeks to “create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system,” according to its website.

In developing his argument, Hager said that “top Harvard officials” rejected Jones’s admission “out of concern that her background would cause a backlash among rejected applicants, conservative news outlets, or parents of students.”

This is simply wrong. It misrepresents what I emphasized in my interview, which was that Jones’s Ph.D. application garnered widespread support, including my own, despite concern about possible backlash

Hager further suggested that the memo my colleague, Daniel Carpenter, and I circulated was a highly unusual procedure. In fact it was standard procedure. In the past fifteen years, I have regularly contacted deans over questions I’ve had in admissions cases, and their feedback has been invaluable. In Jones’s case, while Professor Carpenter and I continued to support her candidacy, we noted some discrepancies that merited additional investigation.

Unlike Chelsea Manning, whose visiting fellowship was rescinded, Michelle Jones never received an admissions offer from Harvard. Jones’s case became front-page news only because the Marshall Project, which encourages leaks, received some, and then distorted facts in the service of its advocacy goal.

We very much appreciate these corrections and amendments. They do not, however, minimize the very real concerns about the Harvard admission process or the treatment of formerly incarcerated people more generally. The emphasis on the idea that these procedures are routine, not “highly unusual,” also raises more questions than it necessarily answers (The Marshall Project is continuing to survey colleges about how they handle admissions procedures for formerly incarcerated students).

Bruce Western, former Harvard sociology professor and past OS guest, provided his own commentary on Michelle Jones’s story for the Marshall Project:

The murder of a child triggers inexhaustible outrage. That outrage echoes over decades and seeps through the walls of remote places, even a graduate school at Harvard. Harvard, however, got it wrong. Jones’s case, like many acts of terrible violence that yield long prison sentences, was rooted in a vicious and chaotic kind of poverty. These cases are morally complex, resisting easy judgment about guilt and accountability.

159 faculty members also signed on to this op-ed published in the Crimson with the headline, “We Are Educators, Not Prosecutors”:

We, the undersigned faculty, write to protest the University’s decisions to overturn Michelle Jones’s admission to the Ph.D. program in History and to rescind a fellowship offer to Chelsea Manning at the Kennedy School. With both decisions, Harvard has prioritized political expediency over scholarly values. Rather than stand on principle and procedure, Harvard has undermined the pursuit of its core academic mission by acting out of fear of negative publicity.

And finally, many graduates of the Harvard American Studies and History Phd programs also signed onto this four-point statement expressing their “sadness and anger” about the case:

We believe in personal transformation. Ms. Jones committed a crime, and she served her sentence according to the law. But that crime should not define her worth. Lamenting Harvard’s decision to reject her, the Harvard historian Alison Frank Johnson said, “It’s like we only have enough imagination — and courage — to envision second chances for the people who shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place.” We agree with this assessment and wish that Ms. Jones had been offered a chance to flourish at Harvard University

From the Archives: Amiri Baraka: Ennobled by Coltrane

We posted this podcast around Labor Day at the news of Amiri Baraka‘s death. Chris talked with him a few years ago about the music of John Coltrane, which inspired Baraka and ennobled the ambitions of his Black Arts movement. “Trane was our flag,” Baraka remembered back in 2007. “We could feel what he was doing. We heard our own search and travail in the opening of ‘Giant Steps.’”

Watch: Transparent and Neo Yokio

This is a dual reminder that Eileen Myles, one of our favorite homegrown Boston poets, is also the “the instagram artist of our time” (according the Los Angeles Review of Books) and that Transparent Season 4 is now online.

While you’re at it, check out Neo Yokio, the gorgeous new anime / New York high society satire produced by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and featuring an all-star cast of voice actors, including Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, and our favorite Bronx podcasting duo, Desus and Mero.

RIP Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas

What a face. We owe Sam Shepard for giving Stanton the role of a lifetime as the anguished Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas and Ry Cooder for the killer slide guitar soundtrack. One of my all time faves.

And Lillian Ross

A New Yorker legend. Her profile of Ernest Hemingway from 1950 “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen,” is a classic of the form and surely added to the Hemingway legend. James Thurber famously said of the piece, “she loved him so much she shot him.” Ross got off some classic lines, just copying down what Hemingway said over a weekend she spent with him in New York.

Coming Soon:

“Isle of Dogs,” the latest from Wes Anderson. You can watch the very Andersonian trailer here. We never miss one of Wes’s flicks.


For the Hubsters — go see Strongah, or save the money and read this piece by Michael Hare: IF BOSTONIANS LOVED OTHER LOCAL INSTITUTIONS THE WAY THEY LOVE THEIR LOCAL SPORTS FRANCHISES.”

T-Shirt Brigade

From a fan in New Jersey

“Mary and Chris: My T-shirt arrived this morning. So beautiful. That great logo, hip color and super-soft cotton/poly fabric. It will be like a wearable version of Linus’s blanket.”

Til next week,

Mary, Zach & the OS school




An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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