Jewish World Review July 7, 2004 / 18 Tamuz, 5764
Educational Landscape by Dali
Here's a phantasmagoric tale. One of the global advertising industry's leading lights is teaching an advertising workshop at major university's school of journalism and communications. The theme is "creatively facing fear" by doing something transgressive, and capturing it on video.
After getting students to talk about their greatest fears, the guest instructor and three ad agency colleagues hand out the assignments. These include instructing students to, variously, run naked through a golf course; try to torpedo a wedding when the officiator asks if anyone objects; convince your parents you're gay; play Twister with a trucker; and interview for a job as a stripper.
Now, an even taller tale. What you just read isn't fiction, but reality: an alarming conflation of deconstructionism and hyper-commercialism at a state-funded institution.
Leading the recent workshop at the University of Oregon in Eugene was Dan Wieden, president of international advertising for the famed and ever "edgy" Portland, Oregon-headquartered Wieden+Kennedy. You may recall their work for Nike sneakers, including the "Just Do It" campaign.
The would-be streaker - senior Joe Leineweber - just did it. He believed that the assignment was, in the words of the campus paper, "meant to help him overcome future challenges he will face in the advertising industry." In the same Oregon Daily Emerald article, UO's journalism and communications dean Tim Gleason argued Wieden was merely presenting students "with a rather interesting challenge. Their obligation is to determine the appropriate response."
As the story gained momentum in Oregon newspapers, Gleason (to use one of his phrases) "determined the appropriate response," and issued a half-hearted, belated apology in the campus paper. It included this revealing, passive-voiced lament on the social constructs underlying the recent unpleasantness.
"It is clear that some students found themselves in a position that resulted in behaviors that are inconsistent with the mission, ethics, values and vision of the School of Journalism and Communication and the University of Oregon. For that, I express my deepest regret and accept full responsibility."
Apparently this is how, from within the halls of academe, one must discuss the distasteful sexual obsessions of powerful advertising executives who are toying with the minds of impressionable undergraduates.
The intertwining of shock marketing and B-grade pop psychology with education at The University of Oregon is indeed regrettable. Yet it is of piece with a contemporary educational culture deeply intimidated by decency, discipline and rigor.
Consider what passes for highly praised children's reading material nowadays. The Sacramento Bee proffered a glowing story inspired by a book called "Walter The Farting Dog." The volume spent 40 weeks on The NY Times best-seller list for children's hardcovers; and there's a recent sequel published by a Penguin imprint.
The first "Walter" book, The Bee informs, was meant for four- to eight-year-olds, but attracted readers of all ages. Must have been the set-up. The Bee noted:
"Walter's family is about to return him to the pound because of his antisocial habit. Walter understands people-speak, and he tries to hold in his gas. Just as he is about to explode, two burglars enter the family home, and he blasts them away with a heroic burst."
The oeuvre was rejected again and again over 10 years, until a Berkeley, CA publisher took the plunge. As author Glenn Murray explained to The Bee:
"Something happened in those 10 years. Walter's time had come. Kids know a lot more than we'd like them to know…You've also got to give kids something they want to read…We use the word 'fart' because we know it attracts attention."
And if fictional farting dogs can win respect and understanding in this compassionate age, why not also - one might ask - people who cannot spell English properly? "Spelling reformers" from the American Literacy Society protested recently outside the 77th annual national spelling bee. They argued that convoluted English spellings contribute to dyslexia, illiteracy, unemployment and incarceration; and carried signs reading "Spelling shuud be lojical," and "Spell different difrent."
We will yet make public schools safe for Ebonics.
Fresh in my mind is a meeting of private school parents in my neighborhood of West Seattle, with local public school officials eager to win back lost market share. The skeptical questions flew fast and furious, especially regarding glib assurances bright students wouldn't still be left behind.
Finally, a middle school principal put her foot down. Reaching high achievers was not really that important, she said. What was paramount, in her view, was this: children "can't make it in society if they can't relate to other people. Affectively, they need to learn how to be human beings. They can have better lessons in a diverse setting because we live in a multicultural world."
To put academic rigor for one's child first, then, is to somehow deprive them of becoming a "human being."
Or worse, according to a Seattle-area adjunct of the National Education Association, it is to embrace the ethos of the Nazi Party. After a 10-year struggle, state lawmakers finally passed a modest charter school bill in Washington this spring. Before the dramatic endgame in Olympia, Michael Comstock, president of the Federal Way Education Association (in south suburban Seattle) issued a call to arms in an FWEA newsletter.
The article was titled, "The Forces Fighting For Charter Schools Won't Give Up." Comstock wrote:
"The forces for destruction of our public schools as we know them are on the march and we, as public educators, must form the first wall of defense...we must educate our parents, our legislators, our neighbors...To paraphrase what Joseph Gerbles (sic), the Nazi propaganda minister said, 'Repeat anything enough times loudly enough, no matter how untrue it is, and people will begin to believe it.' That is what we are beginning to see now."
WEA allies have recently began petitioning in hopes of forcing a fall ballot initiative on rescinding the recently enacted charter school legislation.
Nutty college workshops canonizing "reality" TV stunts; the luring of children to literature with bathroom humor; a "literacy society" campaigning against English spelling; and public school educators intractably opposed to educational choice and excellence.
The educational landscape is increasingly warped and surreal, as though painted by Salvador Dali.
My wife and I are the proud parents of wonderful, bright and highly inquisitive boy, soon to be eight years old. He wonders, how can space and time be infinite? How does money get its value? And more. His sister, four, seems cut from the same cloth. But as near as we can tell, it is the cutting, not the cloth; nurture rather than nature. And the nurture part, as any responsible parent knows, is hardly rocket science.
Yet it is quite an investment; of energy, love, and discernment. We will shepherd our investment ever more cautiously as time passes, given the state of our culture today.
Freelance writer Matt Rosenberg contributed a regular guest op-ed column to The Seattle Times for three years. Click here to visit his site. Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Matt Rosenberg