The New York Times’ Latest Anthropological Expedition Isn’t So Bad, After All

Very rarely do we have kind words for the New York Times Magazine, but we thought that its recent article on “The Kansas Experiment” was well-written, very even-handed, and remarkably free of the snobbish condescension that usually accompanies the paper’s reports on this part of the world.
As author Chris Suellentrop confesses in his charmingly confessional account, he’s not only a native Kansan himself, he’s also the loving nephew of State Rep. Gene Suellentrop, who is early on identified as “a partisan political warrior … if you’re a liberal, coastal, cosmopolitan sort, at best you see him as a deluded if well-intentioned peddler of what The New York Times’ columnist Paul Krugman has called ‘right-wing derp…'” The article concerns all the radical tax-cutting and budget-cutting that has happened in Kansas since Gov. Sam Brownback was elected along with a solid legislative majority of like-minded state representatives and senators who had ousted mostly more moderate Republicans, and the uncle was very prominent among them, so no matter how liberal and coastal and cosmopolitan the nephew might consider himself he does provide a fair hearing for both sides.
In fact, he goes into more rather detail than the average New York Times Magazine might need about Kansas politics. The gist of it is that Brownback and his allies significantly slashed taxes, with an emphasis on offering relief to businesses and a special emphasis on businesses moving to the state, slashed the budget by a smaller amount but enough to elicit squeals of agony from the teachers and university professors and their administrators and other affected interest groups, and promised that the resulting economic expansion would make up the difference. This did not happen immediately, shortfalls ensued, further budget cuts were proposed, more squeals of agony from the affected interest groups ensued, they wound up raising taxes on cigarettes and booze and couple of other things, found a couple of new cuts and filled in a couple of others. Those liberal and coastal and cosmopolitan readers of The New York Times would likely find that sufficient to conclude that Kansas has once again crazy, and although the Gray Lady has treated its readers to that very story on a few occasions already Suellentrop the Democrats and the last of the moderates to do their gloating, and he also gives Brownback and such allies as the author’s uncle a chance to make the case that there’s a lag between you when offer a tax break and somebody can get a tax-paying business up and running as a result, and he even lists the various factions within the Republican party and the strange deals that result with the small number of Democrats.
There’s some nice local color, too. The article’s portrait of Brownback as a strange combination of easy-going and easily-likable small town boy and a radical every bit as fire-breathing as John Brown is portrayed on the capitol walls strikes us as quite accurate, and we’ve known Brownback since we were Sen. Bob Dole’s interns together way back in ’78. He notes the state’s motto of “ad astra per aspera” and its long history of fomenting radical ideas, from abolition to Prohibition, its obsession with basketball in general and the intrastate rivalries in particular, the peculiar sound of Kansans’ voices, and he even throws in a reference to the Golden Bell diner over on the west side of Wichita. He’s got all the numbers down, too, and the mind-numbing minutia of the after-midnight wrangling that goes on in the extended days of a Kansas legislative session, complete with the teary speeches at 1:30 in the morning, and he accurately conveys the red-hot hatreds that result.
We might quibble with the conclusion, though. The author’s attempts at even-handedness are such that he finds the state’s final — so far — budget resolution a triumph of Kansas politics. He embraces the Democratic notion of higher taxes and more spending, credits the Republican conservatives with winding up voting for it and acknowledges that the Democrats’ cravenly political vote against it was an even greater betrayal of their principles, but this doesn’t quite convincing us that there’s no longer anything wrong with Kansas. The deal did work to the extent that Kansas isn’t Greece or Puerto Rico or Illinois, none of which, by the way, have any of the kind of right-wing crazies we have here in Kansas, but we’re not going back east and will have to live with it and are not at all satisfied.
Of course, no around here is at all satisfied. All our teacher and professor and newspaper-writing friends along with the rest of liberal pals continue to hate Brownback and his allies with that aforementioned red-hot hatred, and even those of us more favorably inclined to Brownback and his allies are disappointed. The budget cuts into education didn’t keep the state from spending more pupil than the national average and more than any countries except a couple of Scandinavian ones, more educational bang for the buck could have been achieved by dis-establishing some of the urban school districts and replacing them with a voucher system, the cuts to the regent universities probably would have forced them to fire some of their extraneous personnel and start lowering tuition rates, the Kansas Supreme Court justices insisting otherwise should all be removed at the next election, all that federally mandated spending on Medicare other bureaucratic compliance should be blithely ignored until the inevitable federal court rulings bring the hammer down, and sooner or later those tax cuts will show results and the alternative is Greece or Puerto Rico or Illinois.
We’re even more fire-breathing than our friend Brownback, though, even if we like to think ourselves just as easy-going and easily-likable, all the more so because we’ll have an occasional smoke and beer, and we’re not writing this for The New York Times’ Magazine. We have contributed to the times, on occasion, and know how very scrupulous they are about being even-handed, so that’s our only quibble with an otherwise fine article.

— Bud Norman

Rotten to the Common Core

For all the dire economic news and reports of political dysfunction, the most disturbing story of the past week was about the decision to replace literature with bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo in the nation’s schools.
Something called the Common Core State Standards in English, which has been embraced by 46 states, requires that 50 percent of all the required reading in elementary schools and 70 percent in high schools be non-fiction. Suggestions for the new assignments include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an excellent and surprising recommendation, but also such dry governmental fare as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s “FedViews” and the General Service Administration’s “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” The educrats responsible for the diktat insist that it’s no big deal, except to the extent it will better prepare the youngster to take their rightful places in society, but we are not reassured.
Any federal “one-size-fits-all” plan for education is destined to fail. What’s needed in a rural Kansas classroom might not be suited to the children in a crumbling inner-city school back east, and within either group the educational needs and capabilities of the individual students will vary even more widely. Each of the 46 states that have signed on to the new standards would do better to allow their school districts to decide what’s best for their charges, and the districts should leave the matter to every school, where the principals should in turn leave the matter to the discretion of the teachers whenever possible. If at any point in this process anyone concludes that the teachers aren’t capable of making the best decisions, they should reconsider their hiring standard for teachers.
There are several things about this particular plan, though, that are especially galling. It’s partly a very personal distaste, as literature afforded us the few enjoyable and genuinely enlightening moments of our desultory schooling, but it’s also an affront to our political, cultural, and educational sensibilities.
How very frightening, for instance, is the assumption that all functioning citizens of the brave new world of the American future will be required to slog through the turgid and deliberately incomprehensible prose of bureaucratic regulations. This assumption is likely correct, alas, but all the more reason that young people should instead be reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to be properly forewarned about the sterile society they’re about to inherit. Perhaps the point of the new standards is to shield the children from such subversive material. Without sufficient regulation some old-fashioned English teacher in flyover country might expose his students to Walt Whitman’s admonition to “Resist much, obey little,” and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Neither do we care for the inevitable cultural effects of this plan. The communication skills of the young people we encounter today are barely sufficient for “tweets” and text messages, and further evidence of the country’s increasing illiteracy abound. We note from the Washington Post’s account of the controversy that the man who played a key role in foisting the new standards on the country was unable to get through a speech at the New York State Education Building without resorting to an expletive that the more genteel editors of the paper felt obliged to delete. Holding up the jargon-laden soporifics of the General Services Administration as a model of well-written English will not better the situation at all.
In addition to teaching people to coherently and more elegantly express a thought, literature from sources other than the Government Printing Office also helps people formulate an idea. Those seeking any insight into human behavior, man’s relationship with God, the history of civilizations, or anything else that might be useful to a sentient being as he avails himself of whatever’s left of his freedom would do better to check with Mark Twain, Robertson Davies, Joseph Conrad, or a number of other dead white men than the GSA. Great literature fires the imagination and prompts one to ponder all the possibilities, which is precisely why it has lost favor with the generations raised on our empty-headed pop culture, but the country should expect its schools to remedy such cultural dysfunctions rather than acquiesce to them.
The proponents of these new standards will no doubt argue that anyone who can master the complexities of executive orders and bureaucratic reports should then be able to cope with mere literature, but deciphering the archaic language of William Shakespeare is more challenging and yields a better understanding of a vast world far more complex than anything dealt with by the Bureau of Weights of Measures.
Great literature is also a link to the past, with all its accumulated wisdom and warnings, and one wonders if the new standards are meant to create a break from that past and allow those who would impose their one-size-fits-all solutions on a new and more meticulously planned society. This distinct possibility is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the plan. Economic and political problems come and go, but when a culture goes it’s gone.

— Bud Norman