Jewish World Review May 25, 2004/ 6 Sivan, 5764
Crispy critters: Most students can't write[ an impossible dream; fess up, Mr. Shrum; more
Crispin Sartwell, a teacher at Dickinson College (PA) and the Maryland Institute of Art, wrote an alarming op-ed in the May 20 Los Angeles Times headlined "The Lobotomized Weasel School of Writing." Sartwell, who a decade ago also contributed music reviews to New York Press, is justifiably aghast at the current methods of writing instruction at high schools today, including the computerized grading of student essays in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Oregon.
Sartwell offers this anecdote: "The other day, our 16-year-old son, struggling with his homework, asked his mother this question: 'Do you know how many paragraphs an American history essay is supposed to have?' The answer, of course, is one. Or seven. Or 700. Whatever. But that is not what he has been taught; he's been told there's a correct number. Once I was working with him on an essay and he told me we needed exactly three arguments. No more, no fewer, although he did not know yet what they might be…
"Every child in the United States, more or less, is being taught to write and think this way. I teach these kids when they reach college. I try to tell them that the idea that there is some specifiable way to write an essay is just hoo-ha made up by some bureaucrat in 1987. I am not particularly concerned about the youth of today; if the world goes to hell I don't really care. But I do care about coming to the middle of a semester and being forced, in order to make a living, to read 35 five-page papers written by thoroughly fried lamb chops whose writing style has been nurtured over the years by a computer."
Sartwell might've added that the actual curriculum crammed down the throats of adolescents for the past two decades an emphasis on the history of pottery makers in Kenya as opposed to much mention of Dead White European Males but since he doesn't particularly care if "the world goes to hell," that's probably of little concern.
It bugs me, a lot, but back to the problems of writing. The Internet has, obviously, been an enormous tool for students writing demanding essays. My 11-year-old just completed a 4000-word composition assignment he chose the topic of Akira Kurosawa's films and I was amazed that all his research was conducted at home, from a dozen website sources.
That's a far cry from when I wrote an 11th-grade term paper on Dylan Thomas. I trudged back and forth for a week from Huntington's public library, hoping books on Thomas hadn't already been checked out, and taking notes on microfilmed newspaper clips about the poet's final tour of America. And then, with the dining room table littered with books and scraps of paper, I labored to type (and re-type) the final product by deadline.
So that's swell. Here's what isn't: Kids have become so used to useful features like "spell-check" that they don't proofread their work sufficiently, resulting in any number of errors. Hey, if the computer says it's correct it must be, except, of course, when the author intends to use "an," makes a keypunch error winding up with "a" and it isn't caught.
One more beef: I hate instant messaging and won't allow my boys to communicate with me "Dad, let's get pizza tonight! via computer. They can simply walk the arduous one flight of stairs from the second floor of the house to my third-floor office. On occasion, I'm allowed to follow the chain of IM's to and from Nicky's friends and it's horrifying. "Yo, U doin' good 2-day?" is just one example. It's bad enough that adults, writing traditional emails, take shortcuts, skipping complete sentences and punctuation, but the effect of this shorthand on adolescents learning to write doesn't bode well for the future.
Fess Up, Mr. Shrum
I disagree with all the GOP scalp-hunters who are demanding that John Kerry's wife Teresa release her undoubtedly Byzantine tax returns, but political necessity will force the Senator to follow recent custom. The harassment of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 was a sorry spectacle and unfairly invaded the privacy of her family.
But, since reporters won't rest until they find out the details of the Heinz fortune at least those who don't regularly break croissants with the Democratic candidate why not expand the list of individuals connected with the Bush and Kerry campaigns to follow suit. Specifically, the public would be fascinated, and probably repulsed, to learn exactly how much money strategists like Kerry guru Bob Shrum is earning in salary and commissions for paid advertising. This would apply to the Bush team as well; and why not throw in party chairmen Terry McAuliffe and Ed Gillespie just for grins.
True, the bulk of income has been generated in the current tax period, and so returns won't be available until next year, but in the interest of full disclosure, Shrum and Mark McKinnon, for example, could reveal just how many millions they've racked up since the start of 2004.
Why The New York Times hasn't made such a request isn't really a mystery. While the paper's editors would salivate over printing the net worth of GOP operatives, Shrum, who plays Robin Hood while enjoying a lifestyle that's incomprehensible to the vast majority of Americans, is another matter. Just as Times owners preach one set of rules for the merely wealthy on issues like the inheritance tax, while they escape punitive action from the government when significant stockholders die, exposing rhetorical frauds such as Shrum and McAuliffe would run counter to their political bias.
One recent example: Five bucks to anyone who can explain why the Times, champion of campaign finance "reform" hasn't yet (as of May 24) editorialized on Kerry's trial balloon of holding a pep rally at the Boston convention in July and then waiting to officially accept the nomination. It's a gimme 500 words, but the paper would have to square their hope of St. John McCain joining forces with Kerry as veep with the former's dogged pursuit of the First Amendment-busting legislation he authored.
AN IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
The Washington Post's David Broder is, one assumes from his writing, a middle-of-the-road Democrat who's probably strayed from the fold a few times in casting a November ballot. It wouldn't be surprising, for example, if he chose Bob Dole in '96 over Bill Clinton, a president he was clearly not crazy about (just as the Times' William Safire opposed President Bush in '92).
Broder wrote a curious op-ed last Sunday, sort of a filler column, in which he advised Kerry, if elected, to emulate the more famous JFK and lure the "best and brightest" people to his administration. "I know of nothing," he writes, "that would be more warmly welcomed by many voters… than the promise of a government that would bring to Washington the most talented, experienced and large-minded men and women, regardless of their past affiliations."
Expanding this bipartisan theme, Broder then said "as a single issue-voter" he'd back Bush if the President convinced MLB commissioner Bud Selig to "restore baseball privileges to the nation's capital. And that step alone would also improve the tone and temper of Washington. When Hastert and Pelosi, Daschle and Frist can leave the Capitol and go a few blocks to joint the president at a ballgame, Washington will become fit for human life once again."
What a jovial notion. Baseball in D.C. would suit me fine, although not Peter Angelos, the trial lawyer who owns the Orioles, but Broder's on a contact high if he thinks an Expos-Astros game would calm down the hysterical Nancy Pelosi. Also, it's even odds right now as to whether Daschle will win reelection this year; then again, even if he's defeated by Republican John Thune it's almost certain he'll remain in Washington as a seven-figure lobbyist.
ZIPPO CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Vanity Fair chief Graydon Carter, in my opinion, has turned a little nutty in the past two years, turning the usual throwaway editor's note into Noam Chomsky-like screeds about the Bush administration, but he's not a crook. Not that the stories about his Hollywood connections in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and, most repellent of all, The New York Observer, would lead an innocent reader to any other conclusion.
The East and Left coast Times' rushed into print on May 14 "gotcha" exposes on Carter, as if he were the new Jeffrey Skilling or Ivan Boesky, the ridiculous charge that his acceptance of a $100,000 finder's fee for suggesting to Brian Grazer that an excerpt from VF be made into a film. The result was the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind and one assumes all parties were pleased with the results.
That this benign deal has been tarred as "payola" and a breach of journalistic ethics is laughable, especially from The New York Times, which publishes daily sections most notably Thursday's "Circuits" that reek of advertorial.
Besides, Carter's moonlighting he's also received $12,000 for a small acting role in the upcoming Alfie is peanuts compared to the wholesale looting glossy magazines, including Tina Brown's Vanity Fair, conducted in the late 1980s with fashion companies. Now, this was pre-Jayson Blair (and in the L.A. Times' case, pre-Staples Center), so there were no scathing stories back then when Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein, among others, were on the covers of magazines accompanied by puffy profiles inside. It doesn't take the skills of even the ridiculous Seymour Hersh to figure out the "synergy" of such coverage: the advertising contracts secured from the suck-up stories dwarf, by a huge magnitude, any money Carter has received in the past several years.
A May 19 Observer editorial was hysterical in its excoriation of Carter, who briefly edited, and improved, the weekly before succeeding Brown at Vanity Fair. The writer says: "Graydon Carter, the star-struck bon vivant editor of Vanity Fair magazine, has crossed a line that no journalist can afford to cross, and few would dream of crossing… By placing his own self-interest ahead of the integrity of his magazine, Mr. Carter has permanently tainted the fruits of whatever success Vanity Fair has enjoyed during his 12 years as editor and made its motives suspect to its readers."
Oh, please. Does the Observer braintrust really believe that Vanity Fair's readers, who buy the magazine for gooey profiles of celebrities, highbrow gossip from the likes of the awful Dominick Dunne, as well as well-chosen book excerpts, long investigative articles and columns by the still-provocative Christopher Hitchens and James Wolcott, really care that Carter has gotten a little on the side?
Why didn't the Observer also smear the editors of magazines like Vogue, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Interview, GQ and Playboy, just for starters, for ethical transgressions? One reason: Jann Wenner and Anna Wintour, for example, never edited the Observer.
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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.
© 2002, Russ Smith