Keeping the secrets

What government information should be kept secret? And who should decide?

Those questions don't have easy answers; they didn't in (supposedly) simpler times, and they clearly do not in 2006, already the unofficial Year of the Leak.

You can believe in the principles of openness and full disclosure, in the responsibility of the press to report what is happening in the corridors of power, and yet readily concede that there are some things that should be kept secret. Troop movements in wartime. The identities of covert CIA agents. What is called, in spook jargon, "sensitive sources and methods of intelligence collection." National security-related estimates and plans.

Keeping these secrets seem legitimate. The devil, of course, is in the details. Who decides what is secret and what is not?

I'd argue for a policy of maximum transparency when it comes to government information. Classify only the most vital secrets–the "crown jewels"–and harshly punish anyone who reveals them.

The other school of thought–subscribed to by many in the permanent bureaucracy in Washington–is to classify as much information as possible. Why take any chances? When in doubt, classify. (Here it may help to visualize that huge warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark crammed full of top secret crates and boxes as far as the eye can see). This desire to classify becomes almost pathological. Take, for example, the Washington Post report on Wednesday that:

The National Archives helped keep secret a multi-year effort by the Air Force, the CIA and other federal agencies to withdraw thousands of historical documents from public access on Archives shelves, even though the records had been declassified.

According to the Post, the CIA and other federal agencies "began recalling documents they believed were improperly released under a 1995 executive order requiring declassification of many historical records 25 years old and older."Some historians have protested that these withdrawn and reclassified documents posed no security risk.

This illustrates the problems of over-classification. When nearly everything is declared secret, how do you know what is really secret? When every other document is reflexively classified as secret, the real distinctions about what is vital (and should be protected from disclosure) and what is not become blurred. Tasked with reviewing mountains of paperwork, it would not be surprising if some of the wrong documents were declassified.

At the same time, there is also the nagging concern that, to quote one official, the reclassification is "being done for some sort of nefarious reason such as trying to cover up agency embarrassments."

To his credit, Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, has halted the document removals. Weinstein, a prominent Cold War historian, will get the results of an audit of the program this month.

Weinstein seems particularly well suited to judge the merits of the dispute. His experience with both U.S. and Soviet classified materials, and his training as a historian, should help in balancing the competing claims. Some on the Left will never forgive Weinstein for his conclusion (in Perjury: the Hiss-Chambers Case) that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent. I interviewed Weinstein in the mid-1970s while he was researching the Hiss case and was struck by his intellectual integrity. Weinstein had begun his study convinced that Hiss had been framed, but when the evidence led him in a different direction, he had the courage to publish his conclusions (knowing that he would face a hostile reaction from many in academe.)

Weinstein deserves the benefit of the doubt as he considers the question. There is some irony in the situation: as the CIA and other agencies seek to reclassify historical documents, the White House seems to have launched its own ad hoc declassification program. At the same time, someone is apparently leaking the details of U.S. war planning for a strike against Iran, and the fact that American clandestine operatives are on the ground there (or so reports Seymour Hirsch), which, it could be argued, is exactly the sort of sensitive and damaging information that should remain secret. It does suggest that the motives for keeping governments secrets, or leaking them, can be quite mixed. All the more an argument for openness and transparency.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Ivan Turgenev’s First Love

Ah, first love!

That crazy, intoxicating feeling of being infatuated by another–totally lost, drawn magnetically to the object of your desire–for the first time.

Trust me, with two sons in college, and a third in high school, I can testify that this primal experience hasn’t changed. The iPod-Facebook generation rides the same emotional roller-coaster as did their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, when it comes to l’amour.

Who has better captured that heady universal experience–and the dismay and despair when it doesn’t work out–than the great Russian short story writer Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, in his elegant novella, “First Love”?

Turgenev isn’t given his due in today’s literary circles. His detail-laden realism and attention to social class are out of literary favor; moreover, his work is deemed too spare emotionally by some modern critics. Further, Turgenev, like Thackery in “Vanity Fair,” explores with an unblinking scrutiny the importance of class and wealth and ambition, and its hold over humans. As Joseph Finder notes in “Where Have All the Strivers Gone?” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, it isn’t fashionable to write about the intersection of class and commerce; he argues that perhaps only Tom Wolfe and Jay McInerney “remain defiantly old-school in their portrayal of ambition as a basic aspect of the human character.”

That being said, Turgenev was admired–for good reason–by some pretty damn fine writers, including Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and (perhaps surprising to some), Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway recommended that young writers read all of Turgenev’s work.

Turgenev understood the travails of the human heart–he spent his life in pursuit of a married woman, the then celebrated singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot–and his fiction often provides a window into that secret and guarded space.

“First Love” ostensibly tells the story of a 16-year-old Russian student, Vladimir, who falls hard for the 21-year old Princess Zinaida. Turgenev shows us how Zinaida’s family is clinging to a shabby social respectability; Vladimir’s mother dismisses Zinaida as an “adventuress.” But Vladimir is drawn into the circle of suitors around the young beauty, and, while he is aware he is acting the fool, can not help himself–he becomes obsessed with the girl. Turgenev’s story captures the sway an enchanting young woman full of spirit and life can hold over men; the crazy, intoxicating feeling of being deeply infatuated for the first time; the gut-churning attraction of the unattainable Other.

But first love is not restricted to the very young. We begin the story thinking that we are exploring Vladimir’s coming-of-age initiation into the mysteries of love; we quickly learn that Zinaida and Petr Ivanych, Vladimir’s father, are not immune to the power of love and desire. We watch as, compelled, the pair are pulled by a powerful attraction towards each other. The triangle becomes a complex one: Zinaida wants to treat Vladimir as a younger brother, but she also responds to his resemblance to his father (“‘The same eyes,’ she added, sinking into thought, and she hid her face in her hands.”) Vladimir spends much of the story blind to Petr and Zinaida’s entanglement, and only realizes late on that he is not the only one consumed by passion, his remote and seemingly masterful father is transfixed by it as well.

Turgenev’s appreciation of the transforming power of love is shown when Vladimir witnesses the final encounter between Petr and Zinaida. Turgenev handles the scene deftly; he holds back specifics of their quarrel, but lets us glimpse some of the tragic tug-of-war between the lovers. When Petr slashes at Zinaida’s bare arm with his whip, we recognize his frustration–he lacks the courage to defy social convention–but it is Zinaida’s disturbing reaction that seems compellingly authentic. “Zinaida shuddered, looked at my father without a word, and then, slowly lifting her arm to her lips, kissed the streak of red that had appeared upon it. My father flung the whip away from him and, hastily running up the steps, dashed into the house…”

The intimacy of the scene shocks. Petr, the “cold, reserved” aristocrat, is lost when confronted by Zinaida’s unconditional love; he has clearly also surrendered the “whip-hand” in the relationship. The story, we know then, will end badly (in the gloomy Russian way) and it does. Petr writes to his son: “fear a woman’s love, fear that bliss, that poison…” just before he dies of a stroke. Zinaida is doomed as well; she will die in childbirth.

Turgenev could never write the same story today, with its driving force the conflict between romantic love and a rigid social order. Today Petr could resolve his mid-life crisis by divorcing Vladimir’s mother and installing Zinaida as his trophy wife. After all, few care about society’s disapproval any more. It’s not as if there are significant negative social consequences to the break up of modern marriages–personal consequences, perhaps, but we seem to have exchanged the tragedy of being trapped for the tragedy of being abandoned.

It is telling that in the book and movie “Damage” (1992) which touches upon similar themes–a father and son in love with the same woman–the father’s passion for the mysterious Frenchwoman, Anna Barton, is made transgressive for us only because she is already his son’s lover and fiancee. We see the father, Dr. Stephen Fleming, as violating moral boundaries by this betrayal of his son, not by his adultery. Yet the pain, and the guilt, mirror that of “First Love.”

In an age of divorce, it may be harder for novelists to make star-crossed lovers believable, and consequently few try. Nonetheless, Turgenev’s basic themes still resonate–the power and pain of eros, the unexpected and inconvenient spark between a man and a woman, remain a mystery to us now as then. And we are most human when we experience the joy, and suffering, the twists and turns, which accompany that elemental connection.

Excerpts of “First Love” are from “The Essential Turgenev,” edited by Elizabeth Cheresh Allen, (Northwestern University Press).


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Those lying eyes

Why Boston-based academics Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett would want to downplay the severity of the growing gender gap on America's college campuses, I can't imagine. Their extended denial of this reality in Sunday's Washington Post, "The Myth of 'The Boy Crisis'," reminds me of comedian Richard Pryor's famous question: "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

What my eyes have seen at New York University is the same imbalance—significantly more female students than males in the classroom—that surfaces nationally. The gender gap, according to USA Today, has widened to a 43% male- 57% female ratio, despite the fact that "there are more men than women ages 18-24 in the USA — 15 million vs. 14.2 million, according to a Census Bureau estimate."

NYU's male-female ratio is 40-60. Boston University, where Caryl Rivers teaches, is 40-60; Rosalind Chait Barnett's school, Brandeis, has a 46-54 imbalance. No one seriously disputes this persistent gap. In a widely quoted op-ed piece in the New York Times, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College admitted that there's a thumb on the scale these days to insure that enough men are admitted.

The elephant that looms large in the middle of the room is the importance of gender balance. Should it trump the qualifications of talented young female applicants? At those colleges that have reached what the experts call a "tipping point," where 60 percent or more of their enrolled students are female, you'll hear a hint of desperation in the voices of admissions officers.

Beyond the availability of dance partners for the winter formal, gender balance matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus. Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.

So how can Rivers and Barnett argue that there is no gender gap crisis and that boys are not in "academic free fall"? I'll let them speak for themselves:

The boy crisis we're hearing about is largely a manufactured one, the product of both a backlash against the women's movement and the media's penchant for continuously churning out news about the latest dire threat to the nation. The subject got a big boost last year when first lady Laura Bush announced that she was going to turn her attention to the problems of boys.

But those problems are hardly so widespread. The alarming statistics on which the notion of a crisis is based are rarely broken out by race or class. When they are, the whole picture changes. It becomes clear that if there is a crisis, it's among inner-city and rural boys. White suburban boys aren't significantly touched by it. On average, they are not dropping out of school, avoiding college or lacking in verbal skills. Although we have been hearing that boys are virtually disappearing from college classrooms, the truth is that among whites, the gender composition of colleges is pretty balanced: 51 percent female and 49 percent male, according to the National Education Association. In Ivy League colleges, men still outnumber women.

I read these passages several times, incredulous. The Rivers-Barnett argument boils down to this: there is no gender balance crisis in education because white boys/men are still going to college in proportions near those of white women, and the Ivies remain slightly more male. Apparently the boy crisis is "manufactured" because (if it exists) it touches only "inner-city and rural boys." (The "soft bigotry of lowered expectations," anyone?)

Sorry, but I'll believe my lying eyes. If you look at data from the Department of Education (found in the USA Today article here), it is clear that, with a few exceptions, the problems with male college attendance exist no matter what race, class or income level you examine! Males, white or otherwise, are in trouble. The percentages of young men attending college has dropped over the past decade, across the board. Among whites, low- and middle-income men attend college at the 42% and 43% level respectively, down from the mid-1990s. In fact, even the percentage of upper income Asian males has dropped a percentage point (suggesting something may be going on even with the "model minority").

But even if Rivers and Bennett were right about white male participation (and they are not), the educational crisis for blacks, Hispanics and rural American boys remains. There should be significant urgency in addressing this challenge. Our two largest states, California and Texas, no longer have white majorities. Would Rivers and Bennett accept the notion that there's a "boy crisis" there?

The two apparently don't like some of the solutions proposed to address this challenge (single sex education, different teaching models for boys, male affirmative action in admissions, an emphasis on male role models), but denying the facts and the trends won't make them go away.

There are other touchy issues to consider. Shouldn't we learn more about the way boys and girls mature and process information, and not let political correctness stand in the way of alternatives to the current gender-free "one size fits all" approach to education? Isn't there work to be done on the values front? Young men find a glorification of Alpha male violence and misogyny in much of popular culture, and scholarship and academic achievement is often portrayed—especially in those inner city and rural communities where boys are particularly at risk—as "soft" or "sissy." That has to change.

The first step, however, is to acknowledge that there is a "boy crisis" in education; it may offend some people's ideological notions, but it can not and should not be denied. Sadly, for those who will look, it is there in plain sight.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (April 7th): Nobody asked me, but…

With a quick salute to the incomparable Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

MORE EVIDENCE ON Thursday that Joe DiMaggio's major league record 56-game hitting streak, set in 1941, will be near impossible to break: the Phillies Jimmy Rollins went went 0 for 4, ending his 38 game streak (which spanned two seasons). If the DiMaggio record is to be seriously challenged, I think Ichiro Suzuki represents  more of a threat. Ichiro might also flirt with matching Ted Williams' .406 season batting average. Suzuki is the fastest player I've ever seen from home to first base, and can manufacture base hits almost at will.

IF LEAKS TO journalists are so evil, as the Bush Administration has maintained, how does the White House rationalize the President authorizing the release of secret CIA information to reporters? Bush may not have technically broken the law, but he looks like the consumate hypocrite after saying in 2003: "There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington. There's leaks at the executive branch, there's leaks in the legislative branch. There's just too many leaks. And if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is." Do as I say, not as I do?

THEY SERVE A marvelous warm Indian pudding with vanilla ice cream at the Colonial Inn in Concord, MA. Is there a better-tasting dessert in America?

ACTRESS JESSICA ALBA has forgiven Hugh Hefner for putting her bikini-clad image on the cover of March's Playboy, after he pledged to donate to charities of her choice. We should be glad that Miss Alba will now not be mistaken for one seeking to capitalize on her physical charms…

ONE OF THE MORE interesting U.S. Senate races in 2006 should be Virginia's, where former Navy Secretary James Webb has thrown his hat in ring, describing himself a populist Jacksonian Democrat. Webb has to defeat Fairfax County businessman Harris Miller in the June 13 Democratic primary to earn the right to take on incumbent Republican Senator George Allen. Webb, a former Marine and best-selling novelist, is a friend of John McCain, which makes the situation even more intriguing (as Allen is seen as a McCain rival for the GOP Presidential nomination.)

Are we seeing the rebirth of the national Democratic Party in Virginia? First, Mark Warner, then Tim Kaine, and now James Webb? Are there implications for the future direction of the party in this sudden emergence of idea-driven Democrats in a formerly safe Red state?

DAVINCI CODE conspiracy buffs would be puzzled by the media campaign being run by the Freemasons in Massachusetts. The Masons are encouraging prospective members to ask to join their ranks with clever radio and TV ads featuring Ben Franklin. But what self-respecting secret society bent on world domination would publicly advertise for new members?

MAO MUST BE rolling over, as the Rolling Stones visit Shanghai for their debut concert in mainland China. With Chinese culture's respect for the elderly, however, the Stones should be well-received. Whether the censors will let them perform their entire play-list is another matter.

AN IDLE THOUGHT as Amtrak's Northeast Regional train stopped at Westerly, Rhode Island the other day. Why isn't there also an Easterly, Rhode Island?


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The ideas candidate

Do ideas matter in presidential politics?

If they do, then Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia, is well positioned for the 2008 campaign should he decide to run (which most observers feel is a foregone conclusion).

In an appearance Monday night at the John F. Kennedy, Jr. forum at Harvard University's Institute of Politics (available in video and podcast here), Warner's visionary approach was on full display. It was fascinating to see how the Democrat dubbed the "anti-Hillary" thinks about the challenges of the day.

Warner thinks big: how to fashion a winning Democratic majority that can govern (not just recapture the White House); how to create jobs in rural America (broadband access and training); how to maintain American competitiveness in a flattened global economy; how to build the capability for a rapid response to rebuild infrastructure after disasters and after American military interventions.

And Warner makes it clear that he wants to transform those ideas into action, as, he suggests, he did in Virginia where he turned around the state's dismal financial situation through tax reform and good government practices.

Warner brings other strengths to the national scene. He offers an attractive resume that includes real world business success (co-founder of what became Nextel) and a proven ability to relate to socially-conservative Red Staters (winning in heavily Republican Virginia).

Yet he faces an uphill climb in the Democratic primaries where liberals, union-members and single-issue voters predominate. Warner distanced himself from Bush-bashing Monday, arguing that Democrats should be known for what they are for, not what they are against. That may not play well with the angry Left.

His comments on the war in Iraq were cautious and conventional (in sharp contrast to his Big Ideas for domestic policy); it was clear that Warner is educating himself on the issues (he mentioned discussions he was having with foreign policy experts), but he also make an interesting point–that the Bush Administration's unilateral focus on Iraq had left numerous domestic and foreign issues unaddressed.

Warner's positions on gun control, nuclear power, abortion rights, the death penalty and free trade will not endear him to the Howard Dean wing of the Democratic Party. Warner confronted the question directly on Monday, saying that if Democrats "want somebody who is going to check every box in terms of traditional Democratic orthodoxy, I’m not the guy."

If Senator Clinton runs, it is hard to see how Warner can capture the nomination in 2008. There are other scenarios to consider, however. A Clinton-Warner ticket would put Virginia's electoral votes in play (Warner has stratospheric approval ratings in the state) and would signal NASCAR voters that they weren't being written off.


End Game

So the Duke University lacrosse program, expected to contend for a national title in 2006, has melted down in the wake of allegations that three of its players raped an exotic dancer at an off-campus party. Today's resignation by head coach Mike Pressler, and the announcement by Duke President Richard Brodhead that the rest of the season has been cancelled, suggests that the scandal, which has ugly racial overtones, is far from over.

Team captains and attorneys for members of the team have insisted no crimes were committed at the party, yet the local district attorney says he is "pretty confident" that a rape occurred. The truth of the matter will be resolved by the criminal justice system.

What is clear, however, from much of the on-the-scene reportage is that Duke lacrosse players had a sense of entitlement, that there had been incidents with the police in the past, and that the team was infected with the worst of Alpha male jock culture.

There can be no doubt that President Brodhead must act decisively to root out that culture. Duke's reputation hangs in the balance. Every University president and athletic director in the country should be paying attention to the consequences of lax oversight.

The sport of lacrosse has suffered as well, with some of the media coverage suggesting that it is an elitist game played only by rich, white preppies from the Northeast. That's just not the case. Most of the game's greatest players have been ethnic working class kids from Canada, upstate New York, Long Island, New Jersey and Maryland. And as it happens, the men's winner of 2005's Tewaaraton award (for the best player in college lacrosse) was an African-American, Kyle Harrison of Johns Hopkins University.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Mere journalism

One-time “Crossfire” pugilist Michael Kinsley has wondered out loud in the Washington Post and Slate whether it “might even be a healthy development for American newspapers to abandon the conceit of objectivity.”

Kinsley, the former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, posits that: “Writers freed of artificial objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world.”

With his piece, “The Twilight of Objectivity,” Kinsley joins the Higher Truth squad of journalism professors and media critics who—wrongly, I would maintain—argue that objectivity stands in the way of providing readers and viewers the “whole truth.” This post-modernist critique of American journalism often includes the notion that journalists should abandon the notion of balance and weigh in with their unvarnished views of “what is really happening.”

As Kinsley sees it, once journalists shuck the “pretense of objectivity” they will be free to hammer home what they know to be the truth. “Their ‘objective’ counterparts have to sort their subjective observations into two arbitrary piles: truths that are objective as well, and truths that are just an opinion. That second pile of truths cannot be published, except perhaps as a quote from someone else.”

The European model of a partisan press is often cited approvingly by the Higher Truth advocates (and Kinsley is no exception): “Most of the world’s newspapers, in fact, already make no pretense of objectivity in the American sense. But readers of the good ones (such as the Guardian or the Financial Times of London) come away as well informed as the readers of any “objective” American newspaper.” Sorry, but to be as well-informed as, say, a loyal New York Times reader, you would have to supplement the Guardian with numerous other sources to correct for its lefty slant. (I enjoy the Guardian‘s bite, but have found that a balanced journalistic presentation of facts on, for example, issues in the Middle East, is clearly lacking).

So I don’t buy Kinsley’s argument. Count me as one who has little patience for a mediated Higher Truth.

Just give me mere journalism, one focused on the basics: who, what, where, when, how and (if possible) why. I have confidence that the truth (with a small “t”) will emerge over time. I don’t want premature filtering or interpretation. Healthy skepticism, and a willingness to admit what isn’t clear or yet known, are worth a lot more to me than Kinsley’s second pile of “truths that are just an opinion.” Unfortunately I’ve heard those “second-pile truths” from journalists and pundits over the years, and know how unsubstantiated and false they often prove to be.

Underlying Kinsley’s thinking, it seems to me, is the notion that journalism offers transcendence, that it can somehow create a better world or advance the cause of justice. Admirers of this philosophy often see journalism as a means to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (I agree with the Poynter Institute’s Dr. Ink: “If journalists want to comfort the afflicted, they should send money to the Red Cross.”) In practice, by the way, this grander vision inevitably leads to a journalism in thrall to a given political agenda or platform.

I would argue for a more modest view of what journalism—mere journalism—should aim for. How about an attempt to explain and illuminate the world, the world as it is, not as we may wish it to be (to paraphrase the educator Michael Bugeja)? Journalists should report and inform, recognizing that different people presented with the same facts will make different decisions. The improvement of society should be left to the do-gooders (and I say that without meaning to denigrate the role of voters, elected officials and other stakeholders who seek to “do good.”)

Underlying this bare-bones philosophy of journalism is the notion of objective-means methods of reporting and editing. Report the facts and the context—with as much accuracy as possible—and let the facts shape the story, not the other way around. Newsmen Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their engaging primer “The Elements of Journalism” stress a few other objective means fundamentals: journalistic independence, the need for verification and original reporting, and transparency about motives and methods.

In fairness, Kinsley recognizes the need for fact-finding under his new, non-objective model: “Without the pretense of objectivity, the fundamental journalist’s obligation of factual accuracy would remain.” In practice, however, that obligation wouldn’t count for much.

Human nature being what it is, once the “pretense of objectivity” disappears, a journalism of exaggeration, omission and fabrication, will emerge. Ideologues and partisans are notorious for forgetting to include any evidence that undercuts their argument. My European friends laugh about their need to read multiple newspapers to collect enough information to triangulate the facts.

The intractable problem with the Higher Truth approach is that it becomes easy to justify a trim here and tuck there—after all, what has been called the “cold arithmetic of fact” might not support that Higher Truth—and before long we are in the territory of the novelist, or, perhaps more accurately, that of the propagandist.

The irony is that today, just as Kinsley calls for the abandonment of objectivity, American newsrooms are struggling with reporters who haven’t been able to resist the siren song of the Higher Truth and have shaved, fudged or fabricated, often tailoring the facts to match prevailing anti-establishment (often left-of-center) preconceptions. Consider the list of those fallen from objective grace: Michael Finkel in the New York Times Magazine, Jack Kelley at USA Today, Eric Slater at the Los Angeles Times, Uli Schmetzer at the Chicago Tribune, Barbara Stewart at the Boston Globe, and Mary Mapes of CBS News. Some of these “journalists” may have been driven by ambition or pathological needs, but if you actually look at their fabricated reporting it is remarkable how often it supports a left-of-center ideological Higher Truth, an urge to “afflict the comfortable.”

Dropping the “pretense of objectivity” would only make this worse. ABC News just suspended the executive producer of the weekend edition of “Good Morning America” “over a pair of leaked e-mails in which he used inflammatory language to slam President Bush and Madeleine Albright.” In Kinsley’s brave new world, this bias would become routine, I am afraid. Imagine the over-the-top sermonizing of Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly as the model. No thanks.

A final irony. The transparency of the Internet makes a journalism of verification, of objective means, even more crucial for the future of newspapers and other traditional news organizations, and—by extension—a healthy and functioning Republic. We need the anchor of objective, original reporting in this sea of information and half-truths, in an age where conspiracy theories bounce merrily about the Web. Let’s hope that the best news organizations continue to embrace mere journalism and its principles of accuracy, balance and independence, for we will all be better off for it.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Show me the money?

The headline of Dante Chinni's Sunday Washington Post Magazine article gets straight to the point: "Heaven's Gate: Will gaining admission to one of the nation's elite colleges guarantee a prosperous future–or just a mountain of debt?"

"An Ivy League education has always been an American dream," the teaser for Chinni's piece notes. "But is the cachet worth the cash?"

It is a bit surprising that the Post's "Education Review" section has adopted such a reductionist, consumerist approach (maybe not that surprising, considering the intended audience). The "show me the money" tone of the story borders on the crass. Is a liberal arts education designed solely to insure "an instant pedigree, future wealth and an opportunity to mix with the country's next generation of movers and shakers"?

Perhaps this may come as a shock to Chinni or the "striver parents" he describes, but it's not always about the Benjamins. Some Ivy League graduates do not chase big salaries and financial comfort. Some teach in public schools, some go into nonprofit work, others pursue art or music or other generally low-paying fields. Some stay in academia or scientific research, passing on private sector jobs that would pay more, because they love the work and want to advance knowledge in their field.

I know some of these elite college graduates who have not thrived financially and yet treasure their four years in New Haven or Hanover or Providence: they valued the intellectual stimulation of their schooling, the exposure to ideas, the contact with amazing faculty members, and the intellectual connection with like-minded classmates. They didn't attend college to "build a network" or increase their net worth.

For those who insist on a strictly financial cost-benefit analysis of higher education, every study I've seen suggests that college graduates not only earn more, but are also better prepared for the continuous retooling and life-long learning that the 21st century global economy will demand. As to whether an elite private college is a better choice than a top-ranked state university (or for that matter, a non name-brand school): I'd argue that the prospective student should rely on their own best judgment (not their parents!) about where they will be most comfortable.

At NYU, where I teach, I've encountered several transfer students who found their way to Washington Square only after learning that they had paid too much attention to brand names or parental pressure and had not followed their gut about which school fitted them best.

I'll leave it to the cultural anthropologists to explain why labelling eight schools with the adjective "Ivy League" makes them magically the "best." The Ivy League is a sports conference, started in 1954. Seven of the eight schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth and Brown) date from the colonial period; Cornell was founded in 1865. Two now-public colonial colleges were not included in the Ivy League, the College of William and Mary and Rutgers' University (then called Queen's College).

Imagine, for a moment, that the Ivy League replaced one member school with William and Mary or, say, Washington University in St. Louis. No doubt the dropped school would see its US News & World Report college ratings rank suffer, and the new Ivy would find applications on the rise. Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet?


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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