Candidates Fail Education Debate

As a teenager, I started smoking because everybody else was doing it and I didn’t want to feel left out. For the same reason, I finally broke down and bought a cell phone-but so far, the only use I’ve found for it is to ring up the kitchen phone from the bedroom and make my husband tell me if there’s anything on television. It beats yelling, and it gives him a little exercise, but is it worth $40 a month? Out of a similar craven need to be au courant , I broke my pledge to avoid the stress of debates and playoffs and watched along with everyone else.

While George W. Bush, the proud non-reader, whined and mumbled and showed his fangs over capital punishment, Al Gore was the male equivalent of Tracey Flick, the Reese Witherspoon character in Election , a pesky overachiever who always has her hand raised. Mr. Bush got points for just showing up and not falling on his verbal fanny, while Mr. Gore was held to egghead standards and found wanting in laidback-ness.

I departed from the consensus in thinking Mr. Gore beat his rival at every turn but grew less effective as he went on from sheer repetition. For all his wonkish grasp of data, Mr. Gore’s answers were so rote he could have phoned in his performance or, better still, issued a recording: “Jim, Tipper, my fellow Americans, welcome to the Al Gore Debatefone: If you wish to hear me on the issues, please listen to the following instructions. For health care, press one. For support of the military, press two. For views on education, press three.… After you’ve made your selection, choose a preferred attitude by pressing the pound sign for aggressive; the star for passive.”

The few times questions were asked that weren’t in the script and might have elicited a moment of reflection or even an unprogrammed response, the candidates ignored them the way they would bawling children at a wedding. One such question, in St. Louis, came from a woman with a background in education, who said she’d heard a lot from the candidates about holding schools and teachers accountable, but what about uninvolved parents?

What? Take parents to task? Alienate the backbone of America? Are we the greatest country in the world, or what?

Mr. Bush wished there was a law that could make people love each other, and he’d darn sure sign it. (Sincere, but not quite as heartfelt as his promises about killing those guys in Texas.) He moved quickly to parents’ complaints that schools weren’t doing their job, while Mr. Gore bypassed parents completely and launched into Spiel No. 4: teacher accountability.

Teachers-being a smaller voting bloc than parents and less powerful than administrators-make a perfect fall guy for the ills in our society and, it follows, a no-less-wonderful repository for all our hopes for Improvement. Once the problem is located and defined as the failings of ill-equipped teachers, it can be cured by altering the way teachers teach. Regretting that he can’t pass a law making people love one another, Mr. Bush assumes he can pass one to make teachers teach and students learn.

That each and every parent cares deeply and desperately about children and their education is an article of faith so immutable, so glibly and reflexively reiterated in every political debate, that it stands right up there with the adorableness, beatitude and teachability of children as an unchallenged Truth at the heart of this great union.

Like that other favorite bogeyman-Hollywood-teachers can be turned into an all-purpose scapegoat to blame for the anxiety parents feel over the chasm between them and their children. Politicians won’t say the problem is multifarious and complex-or, worse yet, that it is endemic: In our sports-loving, anti-intellectual culture, it’s cool to be stupid (George W.) and square to be smart (Al). Perhaps the proposal for a five-year re-evaluation test for teachers should be accompanied by one for parents and children.

Questionnaire for parents:

1) Have you noticed any signs of anxiety, depression, sexual confusion, lethargy or drug use in your children? Have you observed any signs of the same in yourself? Or do you expect teachers to pick up on troubled psyches?

2) Do you establish boundaries and rules, curfews and telephone limits, or do you shrink in terror from your children?

3) If your child disputes a reprimand or grade given, do you show solidarity with the teacher?

4) How many hours do you spend reading? Keeping up with current events? Drinking? Partying? Watching television? Do you think of yourselves as parents or as two fit and youthful hipsters, still in the game, who just happen to have children? Or do you just want to steal a few hours for yourself from the greedy little monsters?

Questionnaire for children who see the emperors as having no clothes:

1) You hold parents and politicians to an exalted standard of morality and truth-telling; do you maintain that high standard yourself? Or do you manipulate your parents and try to get away with murder?

2) Are you impatient and irritable with your parents, storing up examples of mom’s stupidity, holding them hostage by withholding your love?

3) Are you (as Al Gore wittily-yes, wittily-suggested) the only one in the family who could insert a V-chip? Do you want to keep the Internet all to yourself?

4) Do you pay attention in class, or do you spend valuable time strategizing playground politics, plotting your maneuver to get in thick with A by trashing B?

The way political campaigns have evolved with polls and focus groups prevents the candidates from accepting the sheer variability, perverseness and just plain orneriness of human nature. It’s bloody hard to be a child or a parent, even with the best of intentions and the steadiest of purposes; and who among us can claim that unfailing virtue whose tactical assumption by politicians is the most insidious form of political correctness?

Candidates Fail Education Debate