Saturday, March 24, 2012

Political Hackery in the Classroom

[It’s been too long… New story first, then maybe some catch-up.]

When I was in 8th grade, I was Richard Nixon. That is, I played him, in a manner of speaking, for a Social Studies project. It was the fall of 1968, and Nixon was challenging incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the presidency. My class was divided in half, with half of us taking Nixon’s side and the other half Humphrey’s. Because the class actually was roughly evenly divided in political terms, we had at least some say in which side we ended up on: like most kids that age, my politics, such as they were, were those of my parents, and my folks were avid Republicans. (I often wonder… perhaps “doubt” would be a better word, whether they’d be so today were they still alive, given the fact that my Dad was a biologist, a conservationist, and in his 21st year as an employee of a state university, having received both his MS and PhD from other state universities. But that’s not the point, here.) So I was a Republican, too.

Anyway, everyone in the class was assigned to a particular policy issue: the Vietnam War, civil rights, tax policy, etc., with the whole project culminating on the day before Election Day with a debate between students playing the two presidential and vice presidential nominees, drawing on material collected by classmates. Then there was a straw poll taken on Election Day itself. What I remember most about the project was that I didn’t want to be Nixon—not because I didn’t like him or his policies, but because I wanted to be Spiro Agnew, whom I regarded as the weak link for the GOP ticket: I thought our side needed me more there. But I was persuaded to be Nixon… only to see the girl playing Ed Muskie mop the floor with our Agnew. We lost the straw poll, as we probably would have in any case, but the lessons were manifold:
If you really bother to find out about the issues, the chances are very good you’ll prefer one candidate’s position on Topic X and his opponent’s position on Topic Y.

The press must not be trusted implicitly to provide accurate and unbiased reportage.

Real candidates’ real positions are far more nuanced than the average person will ever comprehend. (Or be encouraged, by either side, to comprehend.)

Strategy matters.
And so on.

The point is, I wasn’t the only student in that class to learn a lot about the candidates, the issues, the campaigns, and the electoral process. That’s a good thing.

To say that these were not the lessons imparted this year by one Michael Denman at Liberty Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia, would be to err more on the side of understatement than of hyperbole. Mr. Denman divided his class into four groups, one for each of the remaining Republican candidates (well, the ones virtually anyone has voted for). The students’ assignment? Prepare for a “primary” debate? Delineate the candidates’ positions relative to each other and to President Obama’s? Predict the chances of each candidate to get the nomination or, failing that, to have a significant effect on the party’s platform? Nope, nope, and nope.

Give up? Why, to do opposition research on their candidate, determine his weaknesses, and find the name of a specific individual on the Obama re-election team to receive the gift-wrapped offerings of attack fodder, of course. OK, really?

This project is stupid in almost more ways than you can count. It is clearly partisan—no one was assigned to do similar research into Mr. Obama’s weaknesses, a point subsequently made to the apparently dim-witted Mr. Denman by his principal. According to a news report, “The principal advised the teacher that he should emphasize to his students that this assignment was meant to learn a process and not to endorse a particular candidate…. The teacher agreed with the principal’s direction.” One imagines Denman sitting starry-eyed in the principal’s office, blissfully unaware of the sheer idiocy of his assignment.

Of course, whichever way a particular teacher’s political leanings may go, there’s likely to be at least a few students who (or whose parents) disagree: this means the project is problematic not only in terms of professional ethics, but as political strategy as well. In other words, the one of the most things that I learned about in 8th grade—the fact that preaching to the choir is ineffective and indeed fraught with peril—was specifically and intentionally undercut by this 8th-grade teacher. Maybe if he hung a sign around his neck that read “don’t do what I just did,” it would have helped.

Finally, there’s the part about sending the collected materials on to the Obama campaign. This is just weird, even if we grant the assertions that the attack strategies weren’t really to be forwarded—students just needed to locate a prospective recipient. Seriously, the re-election process might not be going as well as it might—the idea that even a flawed President/candidate like Mr. Obama wouldn’t have long since wrapped up the 2012 election, bringing both Houses of Congress with him, when the GOP can’t do better than a quartet of buffoons the likes of Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul, ought to be troubling.

But even the President’s harshest critics can’t seriously think that his campaign’s opposition research program would be much enhanced by a couple dozen 8th-graders doing a class project, working on it a few hours a week for a month or two. Really, they have people whose job it is to do that work…people with degrees and stuff, even. Moreover, I find it difficult to believe that it takes two students to track down an Obama staffer but only two to write the opposition research strategy paper. And what, exactly, is a “weakness,” anyway? Inconsistent or wrong-headed policies? Positions that can be “spun” to appear horrific even if sensible? Nah, probably not—more likely, something about dogs on car roofs, ex-wives, or racist newsletters.

To be fair, the notion that this assignment was “like something out of East Germany during the Cold War,” as one anonymous [i.e., cowardly] “frustrated [i.e., partisan in the other direction] father” put it, is a bit foam-flecked. But worthy of consideration for a Curmie Award? Oh, yeah.

[Thanks to my netpal Jack Marshall. You can see his take on this story on his Ethics Alarms blog here.]

1 comment:

Jack Marshall said...

Absolutely a Curmie nominee! But I predict that the competeition this election year will be fierce!