2008-08-21

George Will - Loquacious Propagandist

The more I read supposed Conservative intellectuals, the more I realise how intellectually bankrupt they are.

I blogged about this subject recently, with Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post commentator firmly in my sights. Now it's the turn of George Will.

George Will's latest piece focuses upon a particular issue that "liberals" are interested in - education. Let me summarise his article for you:

  1. There's a great school in California called the American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS).
  2. This school picks students from a minority group (American Indians).
  3. The school is producing great graduates.
  4. There is no teacher's union at the school.
  5. The school is very strict on students, forcing them to wear uniforms, preventing them from wearing jewellery and having extra long days.
  6. The school is "paternalistic" because it assumes control over its students lives and behaviour in order to develop strong academic performances.
  7. "Liberals" are hypocritical because they advocate paternalism throughout society in the form of laws and welfare, but don't see how important such paternalism is in a school like AIPCS.
Of course, scattered throughout the article are the standard digs against teachers following fashionable educational trends, words like "romantic progressivism" and "group learning" are spoken of derisively, and so on. The basic thrust of Will's article about the AIPCS is that it is a successful school that is producing great graduates despite having a complete lack of "liberal" thinking and practice.

Well, as Samuel Jackson says in Pulp Fiction, allow me to retort.

As a Ph.D from Harvard, George Will should have some experience in understanding how dangerous it is to practice post hoc ergo propter hoc - making the assumption that two separate facts are related by causation - one fact exists because of the presence of another fact. In this case he presents one fact - the academic success of AIPCS - and assumes that it is the result of another fact - the ejection of all forms of liberal thinking and practice at AIPCS. Fortunately WIll does provide some level of coherent argument here by pointing out that the school was previously influenced by liberal thinking, but, once it was ejected by the new head, a man by the name of Ben Chavis, the results improved.

Will's argument is not, however, waterproof. In fact I could probably describe it as riddled with holes. The school's academic improvement (which is beyond dispute) could have been achieved through other means. These include endogenous ones, such as a more dynamic leadership, better qualified teachers and an improved curriculum, or could be exogenous ones, such as a change in the quality of students entering the school due to local demographics. None of these alternative reasons could be described as being the result of ejecting liberal thinking and practice. George Will, however, would like us to believe that it is the inevitable result of Ben Chavis' peculiar brand of conservative educational thinking and practice.

What George Will does not tell us, however, is the extent to which Ben Chavis has embraced conservative thinking. After some quick searches on Google, I discovered the school's webpage and read through their "common sense" page, which outlined how the school functions. Here are some highlights:

2. The staff of AIPCS does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance. Anyone who does not follow our rules will be sent packing with their rags and bags!

3. Squawkers, multicultural specialists, self-esteem experts, panhandlers, drug dealers, and those snapping turtles who refuse to put forth their best effort will be booted out.

7. Dr. Chavis does provide psychological evaluations to quacks and Kultur specialists on a sliding scale. See him immediately for such rates.

8. All solicitors should note the nearest exit upon entering this institution of learning. We view such alley cats with a fishy eye.

9. No more than one psychologist or school administrator is allowed in our school at a time. This rule is part of our commitment to high academic standards.

12. Visitors are welcome daily. Due to the time it takes to re-educate university visitors, we are limiting their number to a maximum of four individuals a week.

13. It will be difficult for our staff to meet with those educational experts who "know it all." We are willing to meet with such tomcats on Halloween night.

14. How does anyone convince a Billy goat or taxpayer that school administrators possess above average intelligence? How will we address this educational dilemma?

15. Our staff does not subscribe to the back swamp logic of minority students as victims. We will plow through such cornfield philosophy with common sense and hard work!

16. If you wish to share any suggestions regarding this page, our common sense committee accepts suggestions from 8:30am to 8:31am each holiday.
Who wrote these? None other than Ben Chavis himself. So, what can we learn from these particular points?

  1. Will will expel any student who doesn't toe the line, or sack any teacher who questions our methods (point 2, 3)
  2. Modern Psychology is nothing but quackery (points 3, 7, 9)
  3. Modern Educational methods and thinking are stupid (points 3, 7, 12, 13, 14)
  4. People who advocate modern educational methods and use modern psychology are equivalent to "panhandlers" and "drug dealers" (point 3)
  5. We hate know it alls. We also know it all. (points 13, 16)
  6. Don't even try to get us involved with lawyers. (point 8)
There's a lot about this list that makes me wonder not just about Mr Chavis' mental state but also the emotional state of the students at the school. If the school isn't just some elaborate hoax set up by right-wingers to trap unsuspecting left-wing commentators, and if it actually IS a real school which has real students and teachers, I would seriously wonder how it could be possible that the school be funded by taxpayer money and regulated by whoever regulates charter schools in that part of California.

For a school that prides itself upon its academic performances and meeting performance criteria, there is an amazing amount of anti-intellectualism present in the writings of Mr Chavis. Chavis seems to be saying "Our school has great academic results because we think academia has nothing to offer us".

And, I have to say, if this is the best that conservative thinking can offer us as an example, then God help them. Seriously.

History is replete with examples of thinking being challenged. Common assumptions and understandings have changed over time as a result of people brave enough to challenge them. This can be as spectacular as the Copernican Revolution, or as simple as realising that daddy long leg spiders are not venomous at all.

"Liberalism", in its wide definition, has made many mistakes over the years. Oftentimes liberals have even used the structures of power to silence offending thought. Yet this sort of thing is hardly new - so called "conservatives" have done the same thing. All it proves is that people in power are unlikely to change if it means losing power.

But thinking can only be challenged when it is free to engage with opposing views and is mature enough for self reflection. But that is precisely the thing which lacks both in the small world of Ben Chavis and the AIPCS, and in the larger world of conservative thought, as represented by commentators like George Will. Rather than engagement with opposing views, there is a combatative attitude - which is exactly what Ben Chavis expresses in his "common sense" points I have listed above. Moreover, it is also present in populist conservatism, as represented by people like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and pretty much the entire Fox news network. Worst of all, however, this combatative attitude is present within the current intellectual doyens of conservatism, represented by such people as George Will and Charles Krauthammer (amongst others).

But, by itself, a combatative attitude is not nearly as bad as the inability to self reflect. Without being able to examine one's beliefs continually, a person can quite easily become conceited, arrogant and completely ignorant of facts.

Let me just point out here that I am not defending "Liberalism". I have quite a number of conservative beliefs along with some that are quite liberal - and the reason I have chosen not to adhere to some form of liberal belief is because I have examined it and found it wanting. This is not to say that I am perfect and can make perfect judgments, or that my choice of belief is perfect, it's just that I find the process of self reflection and questioning my own beliefs to be an integral part of what it means to be a thinking human being. What my point is, however, is that modern conservatism - especially that expressed in American culture - is far more entrenched in combatative attitudes and an inability to self reflect than not just those who could be described as "Liberals", but also the majority of moderate and/or centrist thinkers.

Take Chavis' complete disregard for modern educational thinking. While it is true that mistakes have been made in educational policy, thinking and practice, to completely rubbish an entire branch of behavioural psychology - and then brag about how clever you are in comparison - indicates a complete breakdown in critical thought. Let me again post up the diagram on how to have an effective argument:

A cursory look at Chavis' "Common sense" points that I have mentioned above shows just how far down the guy is on the chart. Rather than publishing a set of carefully thought out, neutrally worded points, Chavis indulges in Ad Hominem attacks and Name Calling. This is the sort of tactic used by ten or eleven year olds when confronted with something they don't like. It is not the tactic that adults should use. Chavis does not argue, for example, that the basis of Modern Educational Psychology is flawed because of inherent biases in data collection. No. He says such people are "snapping turtles" who are "know-it-alls" that need "re-education". Rather than arguing, for example, that modern multiculturalist thinking is in error because of the flexibility of behaviour in young people when immersed into another culture, he says that such advocates are "demogogues" who will be "booted out".

Of course, the offending "Common sense" list may in fact be just an elaborate joke, though it is difficult to imagine why such a page of nonsense would appear prominently linked on the school's official webpage

The fact that George Will chose this school is bad enough. The fact that he indulges in it himself shows just how far he has fallen from the world of critical thinking. To George Will, those who oppose wonderful people like Ben Chavis and the wonderful AIPCS can be placed into convenient little boxes marked "teachers unions" and "their handmaiden, the Democratic Party".

The fact that George Will can use flowerly language and turns of phrase does not disguise the fact that his argument style is no better than that of Ben Chavis. Ben Chavis can call people "snapping turtles" while George Will can call them members of "education schools with their romantic progressivism". Different words, same style of attack - Ad Hominem and Name Calling.

But, worst of all for George Will, is the fact that he himself cannot construct a legitimate argument or criticism. For all of his flowery prose and rhetoric, Will is bereft of any form of critical engagement. For him, his ideology and belief system are completely correct to the point where it cannot be questioned, while those who oppose it can only be dismissed as evil or stupid or both.

George Will is not an intellectual conservative heavyweight. He is unable to critique liberalism with any intelligence nor defend his own beliefs in a similar way. His words, while outwardly elaborate, can only be described as loquacious propaganda. He is like a computer that has been programmed to faithfully integrate simplistic ideology with sophisticated rhetoric, an unthinking, uncritical conservative HAL-9000 whose brilliance only makes his design flaws more deadly to those he influences.

8 comments:

BLBeamer said...

Interesting comments, but this bit was a snorter:

What my point is, however, is that modern conservatism - especially that expressed in American culture - is far more entrenched in combatative attitudes and an inability to self reflect than not just those who could be described as "Liberals", but also the majority of moderate and/or centrist thinkers.

First: I don't dispute a certain combativeness in American culture, but if you really believe that conservatives and centrists have cornered the market on an inability to self-reflect and admit when they are wrong, then you have not read as many leftist commentators as critically as your post implies you have. For example, has Paul Krugman ever admitted he was wrong about anything? I can't think of a single instance.

Second: if you are going to lump the entire Fox News network into the "conservative intellectual" camp, your argument loses much of its weight. Just what is an intellectual, anyway?

Last: I hold no brief for the conservatives you mentioned (viz, Hannity, Limbaugh and Coulter). I think Hannity is a hack, but none of them should be considered intellectuals. If you do, then I eagerly await your critique of that famous left-wing intellectual Keith Olbermann.

Mrs. Beamer said...

I would hardly say that Limbaugh, Hannity and Coulter are intellectuals. None of them would represent or think of themselves as intellectuals either. They are political commentators, authors and entertainers.

I wonder where you get your information from, Neil. I listen to Limbaugh everyday and thoroughly enjoy it. Do you? I wasn't aware that his show is available in Australia. The first hour of his 3 hour show is broadcast world wide on the Armed Forces Network (AFN). Do you listen to the AFN?

Perhaps your opinions, which I wholeheartedly disagree with, are coming via other sources and not by you directly listening yourself.

Dave Lankshear said...

I guess 2 comments are in order.

1. I think he's just decided on a 'style' of cranky presentation to the world — if he could be bothered I'm sure this guy would have more substantive arguments to back up what he says. It might even be an attempt at humour, with the joke on him, Ben Stiller style.

2. What is the 'new way of teaching' that he was going on about? I wish I knew more about education theory, but I've got some sympathy with him. "Hey, kid, pull that nose ring out or YOU'RE out!" Maybe that's just the army in me coming out. ;-)

Seriously, I know a few American families that moved to Australia to have public education with a school uniform. That was a BIG DEAL to them, and said something about the safety of Australian education. (Less gang war-fare, more common identity, less social isolation for the poor who can't afford Country Road every day, etc).

3. What is an intellectual? I wish I knew. Now... how many points was I making?

Dave Lankshear said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Lankshear said...

I woke up this morning and thought this next phrase would capture it better. I think he's saying:

"Yes I'm a Conservative in charge of a school, but at least I can be funny about it — aren't I a great guy?" The answer to which is: no, most parents don't think their child's education is a joke.

BLBeamer said...

Dave - I am interested in hearing more about the American ex-pats you know. Did they really move to Australia just for the uniforms?

I think there are plenty of excellent reasons to move to Australia, but it never would have occurred to me that school uniforms was one of them.

Dave Lankshear said...

They're fairly right wing, need their Fox news, etc, but from a conversation a few years ago I remember school uniforms and ... gun laws / culture / crime enticed them to move here. They were very worried for their kids — if I remember correctly they lived in a fairly crook area of LA.

So probably not a great indication of all the reasons of why they moved to Australia rather than a safer bit of America, or even LA for that matter, but then again... maybe a more traditional uniformed approach to education downunder was the clinching deal?

All anecdotal evidence of course, but another story that strikes me is a friend (who is now a missionary getting ready to go to Kosovo) was having trouble with her Australian HSC — Year 11. She did a year's exchange study in America and found their Year 12 so easy... as if the standards were not as high. She was blitzing in the marks.

But that was in the late 1980's, over 20 years ago!

BLBeamer said...

You'll get no argument from me that our educational standards are low - and our test results compared to other countries prove it. I'm afraid your friend would find them even lower now than in the late 80's.

We have pockets of excellence in our public schools, but the private and home schooled kids as a general rule do much, much better than public schooled kids. Although there's exceptions there, too, of course.

I'm sure there's probably more to it, but it seems to me that the cost of relocating to Australia and all the disruption involved, would be more expensive then if your friends had just paid for a good parochial school in LA, where uniforms are still required.