Hucksters We Have Always with Us

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  • Hucksters We Have Always with UsAuthor(s): Anne C. LewisSource: The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Dec., 1994), pp. 268-269Published by: Phi Delta Kappa InternationalStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20405313 .Accessed: 28/06/2014 18:15

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  • b~~omment~ary

    Hucksters We Have Always with Us

    By Anne C. Lewis T H HOSE WHO hawk their wares

    to public educators used to be relatively benign sorts. One study referred to them as "huck sters in the classroom" - the

    cigarette companies, the oil companies, and the finance industries that plied class rooms with thinly veiled promotions in the name of public service. Most teach ers learned to spot the hidden messages rather quickly, and, if they used the ma terials, at least they had the know-how to balance them.

    Somewhat more odorous were the so called legitimate producers of resources who twisted what students were being taught because they cared more for the almighty dollar than for truth. Harold Howe II, in his kind but strongly worded book, Thinking About Our Kids, cites the 1966 congressional hearings on text books that were used to educate the chil dren who are now in their forties and fifties. According to Howe, these books taught, for example, that "slavery was a useful and humane way to care for the needs of simple people who would be lost on their own in the complex American scene." There was no truth here, but there

    was lots to please textbook buyers in the South at the time.

    In recent years, the hawkers have come to school wearing nice suits and carry ing portfolios that promise improved "ser vices" for students and schools. And they're not selling only janitorial and food preparation services; they're offering to deliver better teaching and better learn ing. No one would argue that a group such as Education Alternatives, Inc. (EAI) -

    now about to take over the schools in Hartford, Connecticut -has produced cleaner hallways and more timely main tenance in the several Baltimore schools

    that it has been running. But to date stu dent achievement has failed to improve in those same schools; indeed, some of them are slipping behind the district's average performance.

    Frankly, I think it's too early to say that an intervention such as this has failed or succeeded, because student performance in our urban schools does not turn around

    on a dime. Improving performance will involve a long, arduous effort that even tually will depend on teacher attitudes and skills more than anything else. But the promise was made in EAT's business plan, and that is what critics arejudging the firm by.

    Schools have also faced the Chris Whit tle huckster dilemma: accept a couple of

    minutes of commercials in a 15-minute television broadcast of news broadcasts and features and get a windfall of high tech equipment, or reject the intrusion of the commercials and lose the equipment.

    About 12,000 schools decided that the equipment was worth the price of the lit tle ads. Many cited the benefits of the news broadcasts that the deal would bring to students. Other observers may have had a different experience, but I have watched students watching Channel One and have been both amused and appalled to find that they pay the most attention during the commercials, which are flashier and more upbeat than the news items. Oh well, it's just a few minutes a day.

    The Whittle enterprise decided to go for hucksterism on a larger scale by start ing a national system of for-profit schools that would be better than anything the public school system could come up with using similar per-pupil spending. In speak ing to awed groups of educators, business people, and citizens around the country,

    Whittle promised a network of 1,000 schools to be called the Edison Project.

    The original figure has since been scaled back to 200 sites in public school build ings; 15 are promised to be operating by

    next year. It looks as if about half that many may actually open. Oh well, we've got some good ideas.

    Meanwhile, Whittle sold off Channel One and may be asked to step out of the management of the Edison Project by those he brought in to develop it - the

    most prominent among them being Ben no Schmidt, former president of Yale Uni versity. It seems that the business-smart

    Whittle is more balding than fair-haired when it comes to education.

    A S THIS is being written, howev er, the worst form of hucksterism is emerging on the radio and tele

    vision interview circuit over The Bell Curve, by the late Richard Herrn stein, a Harvard psychologist, and Charles

    Murray, a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute. This par ticular example of hucksterism involves the deliberate selling of the idea that ed ucation doesn't really make much differ ence, especially for those who the authors believe have inferior capabilities caused by their genetic endowment (e.g., blacks). The uproar, of course, revolves around the conclusions they seek to buttress through pseudoscientific means, convincing to those who don't have the knowledge to argue with them, but so scurrilous that people who believe in human dignity and the value of truth feel compelled to an swer them.

    One televised panel agreed almost unanimously that the references to racial differences in I.Q. seemed thrown in "just to sell the book." One radio interviewer asked Murray if he and his co-author did not stop to think about how what they were saying would affect the hopes and aspirations of young black people across the country. They thought about it, Mur ray replied, but decided that their message needed to get out.

    And what is the message they are sell ing? The privatization of schooling is one

    ANNE C. LEWIS, formerly executive edi tor of Education USA, is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C., area.

    268 PHI DELTA KAPPAN

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  • of their messages. Presumably, privatiz ing education would allow the most intel lectually endowed to thrive among their own in their own schools. Another mes sage is the elimination of intervention pro grams for the poor, such as Head Start, because "the poor [equated in the authors' thinking with those of low I.Q.] will al

    ways be with us," so we needn't waste public money on efforts intended to make them educated people or to improve their lives.

    TheAmerican public is once again hav ing to endure a debate that was thought to have been buried under a mountain of

    more realistic scientific knowledge or stamped out by the force of the opinion that democratic values cannot be meas ured by the same yardstick as scientific theories. Democracy and science are be

    ing treated as balanced partners in the de bate over The Bell Curve, notes a friend of mine whose whole career has been de voted to equity issues.

    What seems even more troublesome to me is that the evolution of hucksterism in American education has taken the issue further and further from the classroom. In the past teachers might have used their knowledge to protect children from the corporate messages of pamphlets. Teach ers have much less control over the com

    mercial invasion when principals and school boards make decisions that allow profiteers to benefit from public educa tion. And now the whole enterprise of ed ucation is at the mercy of hucksters who come in the guise of social scientists.

    That the debate has been taken so se riously is a reflection of what R. Freeman

    Butts, an educator and author devoted to the development of civic responsibility, terms "the dangers of popular ignorance."

    There is a fear among reasoned, civil peo ple that the public will be gullible enough to accept the garbage purveyed by these new hucksters.

    Though the issue seems to be out of their hands, the current debate really should give teachers a renewed sense of their obligation to their students, the ob ligation to search for truth steadily and passionately. Truth, says Butts, is an ob ligation of citizenship: "Citizens who can not distinguish between significant truth and plausible falsehoods, beguiling half truths, or outright lies cannot retain their freedom." However you measure it, it doesn't take much intelligence to under stand that. K

    Pett Peeves by Joel Pett

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    DECEMBER 1994 269

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    Article Contentsp. 268p. 269

    Issue Table of ContentsThe Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Dec., 1994), pp. 265-344Front MatterThe Editor's PageTalking Back [p. 266-266]

    Washington CommentaryHucksters We Have Always with Us [pp. 268-269]

    Stateline: Parental Support for Education [pp. 270-271]The Truth about Self-Esteem [pp. 272-283]A Special Section on Multicultural EducationReflections on Multiculturalism [pp. 284-288]Why Do We Need This Class? Multicultural Education for Teachers [pp. 289-292]On Being a Mexican American [pp. 293-295]Videocases: A Way to Foster a Global Perspective on Multicultural Education [pp. 296-299]Ten Commandments of Teaching Black History [p. 299-299]

    Urban Sanctuaries: Neighborhood Organizations That Keep Hope Alive [pp. 300-306]At Odds: The University/School ConnectionThe Testy and Ill-Tempered Tongue: Name-Calling and Fact-Bending in the Cause of Reform [pp. 307-309]Once Again, the Testy and Ill-Tempered Tongue: A Partially Penitent Response to Christenbury [pp. 310-312]

    How to Make Detracking Work [pp. 314-317]Performance Assessments for Beginning Teachers: Options and Lessons [pp. 318-322]Teaching Portfolios and the Beginning Teacher [pp. 323-326]Goals for Politicians [p. 327-327]ResearchGrade Inflation? [pp. 328-331]

    CourtsideHome Sweet... School [pp. 332-333]

    In CanadaThe Coming Debate: How Should Higher Education Be Financed? [pp. 334-335]

    Power ToolsAutomating the Past or the Future [pp. 336-337]

    Backtalk [pp. 338-344]Back Matter