Saturday, September 6, 2008

Pakistan, Twitter, Schools and Shrinking Republicans

This week's Sunday New York Times Magazine is worth the price of the paper all by itself. Home delivery gives me the luxury of spending Saturday mornings with the Magazine, and today my lingering over coffee was especially stimulating.

Paul Tough leads off with 24/7 School Reform - What poor kids really need can't be taught in a classroom. He describes the two camps he sees in the Democratic Party regarding education - "the unionists" and "the reformers." The unionists argue that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the biggest problem in public education: that it encourages "teaching to the test" and blames teachers for the poor performance of disadvantaged children. The reformers, on the other hand, see problems with the implementation of NCLB, but applaud the accountability provisions and the encouragement of experimentation through charter schools. (Neither camp, it seems, are particularly attracted to vouchers - a policy I personally favor, which makes me persona non grata with much of my liberal cohort when it comes to discussions of education...)
The two camps are anxiously dissecting Barack Obama's speeches and policy announcements, looking for support.

Tough argues that both camps have missed the point: Obama's education plans are novel and interesting in that they largely involve institutions other than schools. Tough quotes a speech Obama gave last year:

If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community. And we have to focus on what actually works.
This is a realistic assessment, one I agree with - but not one easily reduced to the sort of bumper-sticker catchphrase that seems so important any more in American politics.

Next up is I'm So Totally, Digitally Close To You, by Clive Thompson. He explores the effect of what he calls "incessant online contact" on friendship and privacy. This is a topic that I've long found interesting and blogged about before. By and large, people who have come of age in the past 10 years or so are very familiar with this. Older people, except for the tech-savvy like me, who've used email for over 30 years, tend to know little about about it and generally don't get it. This sort of "radical transparency" is freeing to some, terrifying to others, and emerging as a new norm.

Thompson is followed by David Frum's The Vanishing Republican Voter. Frum, author of Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, argues that the growing income inequality in the U.S. is undermining the G.O.P. and must become a conservative issue. Frum seems to be calling for a return to the brand of "main street Republicanism" so colorfully described by Garrison Keillor in Homegrown Democrat (for a real treat, buy the audio book, read by Keillor).

Finally, Dexter Filkins gives us Right at the Edge, an insightful look at the complex relationships between Pakistan, the Taliban, Al Queda and the U.S. It's scary but compelling reading.

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