Tag Archives: David Brooks

Response to David Brooks's recent piece on Ta-Nehisi Coates

In what he writes David Brooks is just being David Brooks, and in his piece, Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White, as in most of what he writes for the Times, he is still being highly reasonable.

To read David’s piece, go here, and to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Letter,


go here.

—To download from Amazon’s Kindle page onto your smart phone. It will cost you only $10. I wonder why this writer didn’t make his brief essay freely available online to anyone interested. It beats me. A missed opportunity to do a neat thing. I wouldn’t have any idea why he didn’t do so. To me it seemed like an obvious thing to do, not to put a ticket price on this important essay, even if only $10. For he clearly wanted us all to hear, better, to feel his anger.

Anyway, to return to David’s piece I have this to say: — If reason be the filter through which I pass David’s words I have no quarrel with anything he says. In fact I pretty much agree with him.

However, in the world that Mr. Coates is evoking reason has absolutely no place. And that’s why many who have commented would have preferred if David had not spoken at all, had responded with silence, had left the voice of reason, where it probably wasn’t appropriate, out of it entirely.

Coates is angry, and we hear his anger, and we understand, but no way, if I too may respond inappropriately and not remain silent, no way is his private version of America any more than that, his own, private version. It’s probably not even that of his teen age son to whom he addresses the Letter. Will it be when his son is a grown man? I don’t know, but his vision is certainly not mine.

Between the World and Me is rather a letter/message to himself, and to all of us with a $10 price. But it is his own private cry, and yes the best response would perhaps have been to listen quietly, and then move on and back into the real world, our world which is made up of hundreds, thousands of no less loud and colorful voices, cries and shouts, all just as important and legitimate as those of his Letter.

More on Chester Finn and school reform

Chester Finn, no less than Arne Duncan and his “Race to the Top,” labors under the (mis-)conception that student achievement levels depend primarily on what the educators, – the teachers, administrators, and politicians — do, and that downward or flat, as at the present time, achievement levels call for additional reforms.

Maybe, but so far a long series of public school education reforms  beginning in this country in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik into orbit 4 October 1957, have done little or nothing to raise the achievement levels of all our students, and have done particularly little for our most vulnerable, most impoverished and most often minority, Latino, Black and other, students, those for the most part living and attending school in our largest inner cities.

Why is this? The answer is obvious but so far educators have not been paying attention. What have we ever learned ourselves that has not come primarily from our own efforts, from our own active involvement in the learning process?

Why would it be any different for kids? For what students learn, translated into measurable achievement levels, depends most of all (as for the rest of us) on what they do for themselves, not on what we do for them.

What reforms, if any, have sought to make the students primarily responsible for their own education, for their own learning? The three reform movements of which Chester Finn speaks, national standards, data driven instruction (testing), and school choice, have little or nothing to say about the role of the students in all that.

As it is now, even the best students, the so called “good students,” are probably doing what they do in school to please their parents or teachers rather than themselves. Although they may be learning the lessons of the school and classroom, what they’re really learning, what’s becoming an integral part of their makeup, and most important for their future lives, is probably not what they’re doing in school.

When and if learning does take place, if progress is made and achievement gaps are narrowed or closed, it will be most of all thanks to the efforts of the learners, of the kids themselves.

I thought of all this while reading David Brooks writing about the devastation brought about by the earthquake in Haiti. The extent of the devastation, he says, is much more to be blamed on poverty, that which had made for a totally inadequate infrastructure of support systems, as well as permitting contractors to build without meeting proper building code requirements.

Brooks reminds us that an earthquake in the Bay Area of Northern California, on October 17, 1989, just as powerful, 7.0 on the Richter scale, did a tiny fraction of the horrendous people and property damage that we are now witnessing via the Media’s constant coverage of the aftermath of the quake in Haiti. The poverty of Haiti and affluence of Northern California are the explanation of the hugely differing quake damages in the two places.

Then Brooks goes on to say that all the development aid of the past several decades has done little or nothing to reduce, let alone dispel the poverty not only in Haiti, but in the under developed world generally. He concludes with the simple admission that “we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty.”

Brooks then quotes the economist Abhijit Banerjee who has this to say about the effectiveness of aid to the undeveloped world: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.”

And it was here that I thought to myself that similarly, or analogously the best way to raise our students’ achievement levels was not to go on tinkering with the public school environments and curricula, for perhaps making real progress in reducing ignorance and raising achievement may also not be within our power or control.

And in fact the real growth and development, that is taking place in countries like India and China, is not to be attributed to international aid efforts, such as those of the World Bank and others, but to the efforts of the Indians and the Chinese themselves. Similarly perhaps real student achievement will only take place when the students themselves assume the major responsibility for their learning.

This clearly has not yet happened.

The Jews

David Brooks citing Steven L. Pease’s new book, “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement,” reminds us, or rather spells out for us, just how well the Jews have done throughout many of their adopted countries and most of all in the United States since the end of World War II.

“Jews are a famously accomplished group,” he says. “They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates….

“They make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.”

I have often thought to myself that perhaps the very biggest errors of first Hitler, and then Stalin, were to not treasure this obvious treasure of highly ambitious, highly intelligent, highly creative, and highly sensitive, highly whatever people.

Instead, Hitler tried to exterminate them, and with some success in regard to the 6 million or more of them whom he sent to perish in the Holocaust camps of Eastern Europe. Happily, however, he did not accomplish what he had intended and exterminate an entire people.

Stalin, following the defeat of Hitler and Germany, did allow the Jews to go on living, but refused to fully accept them as Russians, as full citizens of the Soviet Union.

Stalin never ceased to remind the Jews, right down to their Jewish identity cards that they were forced to carry, that they were a people apart, although he did not hesitate to profit from their achievements, in particular in chess, in the arts, and especially the theoretical sciences, claiming their achievements as the Soviet Union’s own, which of course they weren’t.

In the Soviet Union the Jews, although not in large numbers confined to perish in the Gulags, did remain a people “apart,” right up until the demise of the Soviet Empire in the 1991, and even afterwards in the new Russia that emerged from the ruins. Those who were able to leave, first with great difficulty from the Soviet Union, and then much more readily from Russia, settled in Western Europe and in much larger numbers in the United States and Israel, with all the truly extraordinary results that Pease outlines in his book.

What might, I have often wondered, the world be like today if the millions of Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia had been allowed to remain in the places of their birth, had been nurtured, not forced to suffer pogroms and holocausts, had instead been actively encouraged to turn their intelligence and great talents in active support of the societies in which they lived?

But of course it was not to be. Instead we had first Hitler’s then Stalin’s grotesque errors in regard to this people. Only did the United States, after a rocky discrimination filled beginning, get it right in respect to the Jews.

Most of all we eventually got it right for here to meet the Jews, as well as all new comers to the country, there was and is the well established belief that the government’s principal role is not to primarily use and abuse its peoples, but to nurture and protect them, in particular their lives, liberties, and their individual pursuits of happiness.

In regard to the Jews, and the other peoples who have never ceased to come here, opportunity is what is here awaiting them. The Jewish people, rejected in their homelands, came here, took full advantage of the opportunities awaiting them, flourished, and continue to flourish, to the great benefit of themselves and us.