The End of the Fact as We Know It

Like a lot of writing teachers, I use Anita Garland’s essay, “Let’s Really Reform Our Schools” in my class. I like it because while it proposes something no on can argue with– better schools– it does so in a way that is rhetorically quite dubious. It’s basically a Fox News kind of argument, in which one group– “we”– is pitched against another: the “they” or “them.”

Even worse, the “we” or “us” is a very vague group of people “who only want the best for our children” (who wouldn’t want to be a part of that group?) and the “they” are both the so-called trouble makers (students who don’t want to be in school) and teachers, administrators, and policy makers who emphasize extracurricular activities over what Garland defines as academia.

In a nutshell, Garlands solution sounds simple: end the prom and minimize sports and other extracurricular activities, make attendance voluntary, and kick out the kids who don’t want to learn. It’s a mean-spirited, ugly set of ideas couched in a disingenuous populism. What I find fascinating is that my students seem unaffected by the essay’s scapegoating tendency or its complete lack of facts.

I can’t fault Garland for these strategies; they are a part of our cultural heritage.  We all, to one extent or the other, create enemies in our arguments and too often we neglect facts. At times, we don’t need or want objectivity. Still, informed readers need to be able to understand that these sorts of arguments have strict limits. They don’t include the facts we need to make good decisions.

Garland’s style of argument has been carried to the extreme in Republican rhetoric over the so-called debt crisis. A certain amount of cheer leading is all part of the process. We need some reference to the facts, too.  Even worst, what’s was once a Republican strategy has now become the political norm– the Democrats as just as guilty. Where are the facts on the size and history of the debt?

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn’t want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so.

I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com.

I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that ‘at’ symbol] writinginthewild.com

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