I’ve been scanning the local news I missed during the past month, and duly noted coverage of a recent speech by Melina Kennedy on education. Kennedy (no relation–honest!) has focused her mayoral campaign on public safety, education and economic development, and has been delivering substantive proposals on those and related issues.
In her education speech, she criticized Greg Ballard for a lack of leadership in education, pointing out that he has done little other than continue the charter school initiative begun by Mayor Peterson. Asked for his response to the criticism, Ballard said that just because he hadn’t been “pontificating” about the subject didn’t mean he hadn’t been engaged.
The biggest problem faced by educators today isn’t whether a school is public or private. It isn’t whether reading instruction is via phonics or “whole word” methodology. It isn’t even discipline. The biggest problem is cultural: Americans today do not value education. If we do not change the culture, nothing else we do is going to work. And let me be VERY clear: I am not talking about the regrettable tendency of some inner-city black students to label peers getting good grades as “acting white.” I am talking about the broader American disdain for expertise of any sort–the widespread attitude that intellectuals are “elitists” to be scorned.
There is a long history of anti-intellectualism in this country, and it has clearly been on the ascendance for the past decade or more. The mere fact that anyone takes political figures like Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann or Mike Pence seriously ought to be evidence enough that the American electorate prioritizes celebrity and pandering over substance. A terrifying percentage of the American public rejects science–whether the subject is global climate change or even something as basic and settled as evolution. Stephen Colbert has captured our current culture brilliantly in his riffs explaining why he elevates his “gut” over the exercise of reason.
This is the culture we need to change, and we cannot and will not change it unless those we elect make it their business to “pontificate” about the importance of education. Real leadership requires political figures who are willing to elevate the value of knowledge and expertise–who are willing to remind citizens that this country was a product of the Enlightenment, a philosophy that prioritized reason, evidence and intellect.
A Mayor who fails to use the bully pulpit on behalf of those values is not “pontificating.” S/he is leading.