My reply to Birnbaum

Dear Mr. Birnbaum,

Many thanks for your excellent letter, which I’ve sent out to my list, and which should end up on my blog ( sometime today.

Let me say only that my dark assessment of the Bush regime’s agenda vis-a-vis American public education is based on long attention not just to their statements but, more important, to their policies and appointments. That America’s schools are largely mediocre doesn’t mean that Bush et al. want to improve them: on the contrary. They’ve used such evidence as you adduce to make a rotten situation even worse, by (for example) imposing standardized tests, spending millions on abstinence-only sex education, treating creationism as a theory just as credible a
natural selection, giving local cops and Homeland Security goons free rein on high school campuses, and, of course, cutting millions in essential funds-while also promoting tuition vouchers, which starve the public schools still more.

These steps are intended not to better US schools but to wipe out public education, which Bush’s allies on the right perceive as un-American (to put it mildly). That drive is of a piece with this administration’s radical assault on government in general. While it is true that Bill Clinton, as a candidate, took several shots at public education, there is simply no comparison between his record and Bush/Cheney’s.

While we must certainly pay close attention to the findings of those intellectuals whose work you’ve cited (and, again, I thank you for invoking them), we also need to pay some heed to what you’d call “the evidence” of Bush & Co.’s manifest intentions.

Mark Crispin Miller

>Dear Mr. Miller,
> I am an admirer of your
>work and a former teacher whose hobby is
>comparative education (a little-known discipline
>founded by the French thinker Marc-Antoine
>Jullien in 1817). While it may be well be true
>that Bush and his acolytes badmouth America’s
>schools as a pretext for privatizing,
>evangelizing or dynamiting them, it is the
>mediocrity of American education which supplies
>them with the cartridges for their crusade.
>Consider the evidence:
> According to the French
>social historian Emmanuel Todd (a
>philo-American), the center of research in many
>scientific fields has shifted to Europe, if only
>because immigrants to the U.S., who formerly
>originated from Europe and for many years
>quietly raised the level of U.S. education in
>the sciences, now come chiefly from countries
>(Mexico, the Philippines, etc.) not known for
>scientific achievement. At the same time (and in
>no way contradicting Todd), Elisabeth Altschull,
>the Franco-American writer on educational
>issues, notes the preponderance of non-American
>scientists in U.S. graduate schools and
>attributes their disproportionate numbers to
>the feebleness of science courses at lower
>levels of American education.
> E.D. Hirsch, the professor
>of English at the University of Virginia who has
>launched a movement to toughen American schools,
>states that he has ceased to apprise American
>educators of the decline in their country’s
>educational attainments, because his audiences
>simply cannot bear to confront it. The article
>that you distributed to your readers is a
>disingenuous case in point: while boasting that
>SAT scores have risen, the author skirts the
>recent, deliberate dumbing-down of college
>boards to compensate for sagging student
>performances. Like the intransigeant American
>doctors and other chauvinists who defend the
>U.S. health system by incriminating America’s
>immigrants (while ignoring the rise in infant
>mortality in all segments of the U.S.
>population), the author of the article that you
>sent us attributes America’s undistinguished
>record on international evaluations to unfair
>competition with “small countries” and
>asymetrical “test populations”. Translation: We
>Americans inhabit a big, open land teeming with
>wretched refuse which pulls down our stats,
>while the homogeneous postage-stamp states of
>Europe educate only their élites.
>Pishposh. As E.D. Hirsch has observed, the
>classrooms of France, with the world’s
>second-greatest pool of immigrants per capita,
>are as ethnically diverse as any in the U.S.,
>and France now squeezes sixty-eight per cent of
>its students into the senior year of academic
>high school. The article that you clipped
>for your readers mentions the international
>tests TIMSS and PISA, but fails to explain what
>they are. TIMSS stands for “Trends in
>Mathematics and Science Studies”. It
>measures student attainment and (to ensure
>comparability) encourages all participating
>countries to eliminate any question whose
>subject has not yet been covered by the national
>curriculum at the time of the test. PISA
>(Project on International Student Assessment),
>the brainchild of the OECD (the Organization for
>Economic Cooperation and Development, a
>thinktank of developed countries), evaluates
>students on their ability to make future use of
>their skills. These tests are hardly
>anti-American plots. They deliver salutary jolts
>to complacent educational systems (including
>those of France and Germany).
>Yes, Bush and Co criticize American public
>education, but so did Bill Clinton (on three
>occasions in 1999 alone). Must we suspect
>Clinton of harboring ulterior motives? And what
>if, like Bush, Clinton indeed possessed a hidden
>agenda? How would it cancel the proof of
>America’s decline? For how much longer must E.D.
>Hirsch and other reformers softpedal the
>evidence (provided by international testing)
>lest it jar the sensibilities of Americans blind
>to the mediocrity of education in our country?
>Thank you for your attention. Sincerely — Daniel Birnbaum, Paris

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