Anthropomorphizing the ideal

Liam Julian

In 1973 William F. Buckley Jr. gave a speech at the New York Conservative Party's annual dinner in which he addressed the fall of Spiro Agnew, who had resigned his office just five days earlier. ?There was,? Buckley recalled years later, ?a fleeting temptation, encouraged by emissaries of Mr. Agnew, to think him victimized.? The speechmaker resisted temptation. The ?tendency to anthropomorphize our ideals is an American habit that can get us, indeed has just now gotten us, into deep trouble,? Buckley told his audience. How true. And is this troublesome tendency more reliably followed anywhere than in education policy, a storybook realm of heroes and their nemeses?

Look at Michelle Rhee. Here is a well-intentioned but flawed woman who by some bizarre, secret ritual was anointed Chosen One by education ?reformers.? Michelle Rhee was not simply one among many who had little patience for status quo K-12 governance. No, Michelle Rhee became education reform. The two were and still are one?and the same, inseparable. Is she uniquely intelligent? Uniquely courageous? Uniquely successful? She is not. In fact, her avowed monochromatic beliefs?are rather unintelligent, and her recent departure from her post as D.C.'s schools chancellor was?hardly the manifestation of success (and as for being a paragon of courage, come on: if a feisty school superintendent is the new pinnacle of this virtue, Theseus is turning over in his grave, er, temple). Oddly, Rhee's discharge from DCPS has only made her stronger; she has become the still-alive-yet-martyred anthropomorphism, if that's even possible, of education reform.

And now, cracks in the fa?ade. Perhaps the students Michelle Rhee taught in Baltimore did less well on standardized tests than she has said they did? Rhee's new organization has responded with predictable pomposity:

Our public schools are in crisis. Instead of talking about how to fix them, we're getting unfounded attacks on Michelle. To get back to the debate about public schools, we want to address this misinformation head-on. [To question the veracity of Rhee's statements is a distraction, and those who would do?so are presumptuous and petulant. Rhee is education reform, you know. She can and will determine what is and is not important in this realm.]

Some have expressed surprise that credible journalists would swallow a blogger's analysis without looking at the facts for themselves. We were quite frankly surprised ourselves. To our members, this episode is further proof of what we're up against and why we need your support to get the message out. [They?journalists, bloggers, undefined nefarious elements?are trying and will always try to discredit our leader. We will not let them.] ?

One wearies of being fed this crass crisis-rhetoric, this hero-worship. Rhee is not above truth; she does not monopolize the determination of what is and is not ?unfounded? or a diversion from ?the debate about public schools,? does not monopolize the education conversation; she has no exclusive right to what constitutes ?reform?; and she can and does make, and has made, mistakes. Many mistakes. And ?reformers? do no good to look away, to deny them.

Rhee is not alone. Education reform is forever anthropomorphizing its ideals. Time to stop.

UPDATE: From an Orlando Sentinel blog: "Another problem is Rhee's penchant for self-promotion, in which reform becomes so closely linked to Rhee that the credibility of reform becomes too closely linked to the credibility of Rhee."

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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