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Fisking on Global Education: Washington Post Jay-in-the-Box Edition

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If your message fails, blame the medium – or otherwise go for semantics over substance.

That’s a fair charge for Jay Mathews’ latest WaPo-whine titled “Why I Am A TV Loser.”

You’ll remember that Mr. Mathews debated Two Million Minutes’ Executive Producer Bob Compton about a month ago. And if you’ve forgotten, or missed it the first time around, here’s a recap:

It’s apparently taken Mathews a good six weeks to get up the courage to seethe publicly.

There are two major issues here. The first is about his latest piece; the second is about the global economy/education. I think we’ve got to look at these one at a time.

From Mathews’ opening line, you’d think that he’d been shouted down by Malik Shabazz:

“Don’t ever go on CNBC to debate Bob Compton, one of America’s most energetic prophets of doom, without careful preparation and a willingness to be rude.”

One of the things that initially interested me in Compton’s film was that he wasn’t a “prophet of doom.” He and his associates don’t wear sandwich signs warning that the end is nigh, or that our traffic signs will be in Hindi in 10 years if we don’t shape up. Two Million Minutes is a sensible, realistic look at how we approach education in comparison to India and China. Reality, though, doesn’t get in Mathews’ way:

“I appeared with Compton on Erin Burnett’s show “Street Signs” in early June. He killed me. I thought we would have a scholarly discussion of American public schools. Were they, as Compton argues, losing out to the rising Indian and Chinese schools or were they, as I had written, needing help but unlikely to cause a collapse of the U.S. economy? I got a few words in occasionally, but Compton — whose enthusiasm I applaud, don’t get me wrong — interrupted, sideswiped and left me looking like I was incapable of completing a sentence.”

The tendentious implication that Compton’s contribution wasn’t “scholarly” aside, Mathews appears to have gotten his own television appearance wrong. Mathews was, however, “killed,” partly by his own sputtering ineptitude, partly by Compton’s spirited argument.

And really, Jay, if that interview was the harshest, most rude encounter you’ve had in your 37 years at the Post, you’ve had a Hell of a gentle journalistic career.

99.99%+ of Washington Post readers haven’t – and won’t – see the interview in question. They’ve got to take him at his distorted word. You, dear reader, can watch the video and judge for yourself.

Mathews attempts to re-frame the debate for his unknowing readers. It was Compton’s “enthusiasm,” not evidence; it was his fascist, tour-de-force aggression, not the swift rebuttal of Mathews’ useless arguments. Again, watch and draw your own conclusion.

“That was, of course, exactly what he was supposed to do. It was cable TV, for goodness sake. Discussions there are supposed to be fast and loud. Compton tells me he thought he was being aggressive, not rude. That’s not the way my mother would see it, but I agree with Bob. I just wasn’t ready.”

The debate was your standard splitscreen talking-head matchup with the occasional full shot. But this was CNBC, and Erin Burnett isn’t Jerry Springer [though a love triangle or paternity test would have been that unexpected cherry on top].

Mathews got beat because, as he said so gently about himself, he “wasn’t ready.” And though Mathews’ mother would apparently scowl at the treatment of her little boy, I think mine would’ve found his drubbing a fairly unremarkable result considering the mismatch [my mother tends to value the substance over semantics].

Thankfully, the whining stops:

“I interviewed Compton and responded to his film twice, in a Feb. 11 column and in a piece in the spring issue of the Wilson Quarterly. I confessed I, too, was distressed to see, in his film, Carmel High’s Brittany Brechbuhl watching “Grey’s Anatomy” on television with her friends while they were allegedly doing their math homework.”

Since we’re all being honest here, I should disclose that I’m watching re-runs of “Charmed” as I allegedly write this.

“Many economists argued, I said, that our social, political and economic freedoms, not our education system, make us more productive and creative than other countries. I said Compton, an admittedly mediocre student at James Madison High School in Vienna and Principia College in Elsah, Ill., exemplifies the point. His energy and imagination found the room they needed to prosper in this country which, I said, “gives even B and C students more chances than A students in China and India have.”"

This is the second time, curiously, that Mathews has mentioned Compton’s academic “mediocr[ity]” without referencing Mr. Compton’s Harvard Business School pedigree.

“”I tried to say this on CNBC, too. But Compton cut me off, saying I obviously didn’t know what was going on in Asia because I have never been to India and haven’t visited China (where I was once The Post correspondent) since 1989.”"

This is a terribly important point, and it’s one I held off from writing about the last time I fisked Mathews because I was fairly certain he’d give me another opportunity.

It isn’t always necessary to engage in something or to witness something firsthand in order to know it. If either of those two were requirements for knowledge, we’d have no way to study history, or a host of other disciplines, with any degree of certainty.

I can’t get in Bob’s head, but I assume that he was suggesting that Mathews visit India and China because his information was, in Bob’s assessment, inaccurate. If your information isn’t solid, the most efficient way to acquire better information is to go get it yourself. This is why our most earnest politicians visit Iraq and Afghanistan to meet with our military commanders [and it's also why other politicians posture with these visits].

“Vivek Wadhwa, a high-tech entrepreneur teaching at Duke University, has shared with me some of his research, and his occasional e-mail exchanges with Compton. Wadhwa, like Compton, is a successful businessman with a first-hand grasp of the difficulties American companies have finding engineering talent. He tells both sides, supporting Compton on some points and criticizing him on others.”

Mr.  Wadhwa appeared in Two Million Minutes and has written recently about global education. In May, he wrote “US Schools: Not That Bad.” If I could fund it independently, I’d invite Mr. Wadhwa to do a speaking tour in upstate New York where he told taxpayers burdened by ever-rising school taxes [oddly enough, in the face of decreasing enrollments] that they should relax because, after all, their local schools aren’t “that bad.”

BusinessWeek couldn’t get enough of Mr. Wadhwa; they published his piece, “What the US Can Learn From Indian R&D” just this week. Its implications for this debate are clear, but there is one facet directly related to public education: Wadhwa’s latest article sweeps so broadly that it reminds me of those gigantic brooms a custodian uses to clean an entire hallway in one pass.

“What is happening in India and China is that private companies, not public school systems, are doing the training that is producing the technical elite building those economies, Wadhwa said. If U.S. corporate leaders such as Bill Gates, he said, are worried about losing to competing nations, they should do more as executives to train their own workforce. “All they are doing now is to blame our teachers and put the burden on our children,” he said.”

This is partly accurate – private companies in India and China are making up for the public school’s shortcomings [we'll get to the truth about that next time]. It also misses the point; we aren’t just concerned with our economic success, as we may be able to shore that up privately as Wadhwa claims. We have to be concerned with bleeding anywhere from $7k to $25k in per pupil expenditure – a significant factor in local taxes in some areas – and seeing little benefit for students or their communities.

Wadhwa is wrong, though. Some of us blame principals as well.

“I hope I am in better shape if Compton and I have a rematch.”

Doubt it.

“But whatever the outcome, it won’t mean much. I encourage scholars and journalists living China and India to further examine those economies and education systems and give us something more than two-week-visit impressions.”

Touche, Mr. Mathews.

“Personally, I think prosperity in other parts of the world is good news. It means happier people with more choices. It may even mean more freedom and less war. Compton and I agree that would be a good thing.”

I hasten to point out that the German higher education model was excellent; that’s why we modeled our universities after theirs. Despite this, Germany was the aggressor in two World Wars that left about 90 million dead.

If one wasn’t sure why I had to split this up into two posts, there you go – what started as a whine and a moan ended up as a third-rate college admissions essay about how better education will end war.

We’ll handle that other issue – the arguments re: Indian and Chinese businesses and how they cope with the education of their hires – next time.

One Response to “Fisking on Global Education: Washington Post Jay-in-the-Box Edition”

  1. This film really made me open my eyes on how the global education is playing out.

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