Saturday, February 7, 2015

Scott Walker’s Real Anti-Intellectual Agenda

It’s still up for grabs as to who the Most Dangerous Governor in the Country is. Curmie’s current and immediate former states certainly provide contenders: Greg Abbott of Texas might just make us yearn for the halcyon days of Rick Perry. Kansas’s Sam Brownback is compiling an impressive résumé of utter incompetence, prevarication, and fellating rich folk. Elsewhere, Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin scores high on the hypocritometer, and Florida’s Rick Scott is probably in the lead in the coveted “Most Corrupt” category. Let’s put it this way: if John Kasich, Rick Snyder and Jan Brewer aren’t even finalists for the award, the competition is fierce.

But whereas all of the pretenders—Brownback, Scott and Snyder in particular—have particularly odious records in the area of education, Curmie plumps for Wisconsin’s Scott Walker as the quintessential combination of hubris, misplaced priorities and general inanity. His latest ploy—to tuck a re-write of the university system’s mission into the middle of a budget proposal running just short of 2000 pages.

Actually, yes.
What such a proposal is doing in a budget document at all is a matter for some skepticism, but Walker clearly isn’t a fan of universities that do what universities are meant to do: search for truth, serve the populace, that sort of thing. Of course, Walker doesn’t actually have a college degree (he dropped out of Marquette with a passable but below average academic record), so maybe he just doesn’t get it. Anyway, here are Walker’s proposed changes to the “Wisconsin Idea,” the foundational principles of the state university system. He proposed to excise what’s crossed out below and to insert what’s underlined; regular text indicates no change:
The mission of the system is to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing develop in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.
Apart from the elimination of the Oxford commas, thereby rendering the entire editing process extremely suspect in Curmie’s eyes before even getting to the subject matter, the amendments show that Walker and his minions believe that universities exist for the benefit of corporations, supplying cogs for today’s machines with no thought to tomorrow’s, much less to the possibility that life might be more fulfilling than mechanization.

More disturbing, of course, is what Walker saw fit to exclude from the universities’ mission—not merely to omit, mind you, but rather to excise from the existing text. That list includes extending knowledge beyond the campuses themselves, serving society (as opposed to employers per se), educating people, improving the human condition… oh, yeah, and caring about the truth. Certainly we can’t have any of that! (Given Governor Walker’s track record, a search for truth could indeed prove rather embarrassing.)

Curmie should note that the amendments in Section 1111 of the budget bill have been getting all the press, but the proposals in Section 1110 are just as terrible. (The entire budget can be found here; see pages 545-46 for the relevant sections.) Those changes—apparently made without any consultation with people who… you know… have the slightest comprehension of what universities do—include a change from recognizing the “public interest” of having a first-rate university system to merely acknowledging the “constitutional obligation” to do so, eliminates “undergraduate teaching as [the system’s] main priority,” and cuts the section on “graduate and research programs with emphasis on state and national needs.” It also eliminates the mandate to “[make] effective and efficient use of human and physical resources” and to “[function] cooperatively with other educational institutions and systems.”

Of course, the ploy was so ham-handed that people noticed PDQ, and Walker proceeded to throw some anonymous staffer under the proverbial bus… without punishment, of course. It was all a “drafting error,” you see. The explanation is that Walker wanted to add the bit about churning out appropriately competent drones for the state’s important, i.e., rich, people to underpay and underappreciate (perhaps not his exact words), and said something about “keeping it simple,” which he now alleges was misinterpreted by some (anonymous) underling (who, of course, won’t be disciplined).

Except that that’s a load of crap, and apparently literally everyone knows it. Walker is a notorious micromanager, so he knew exactly what was in that document. His condescension to faculty and apparent utter miscomprehension of what academics do provides a useful context for this kerfuffle. More importantly, it’s very clear that Walker’s top staff, if not the governor himself, knew exactly what was on page 546. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel dismantled Walker’s claims to ignorance. Even PolitiFact, which (despite right-wing wailing about liberal bias) will do about everything possible to keep from saying a GOP pol is lying (see, for example, their “Half True” ruling on an outright prevarication by Eric Cantor because, although it was obviously a lie, the statement might someday turn out to be true), trotted out their “Pants on Fire” rating for Walker’s protestations of ignorance. Finally, budget director Michael Heifetz fell on his sword.

So we’re left with only one question: what the hell was Walker thinking?

Look, the guy is an idiot in the sense that he pays no attention to facts that run counter to his ideology. He has less credibility than the average politician, and that’s saying rather a lot. But he’s got a fair amount of political acumen (being completely devoid of integrity helps in that regard), and—even as stupid as he is—he can’t really have believed either than no one would read the budget proposal or that there wouldn’t be profound objections from both university officials and legislators with an interest in higher education (alas, this latter designation now translates into “a few Democrats”).

All of which means the strategy was deliberate. On the one hand, he threw a little more red meat to the howling wolves of ignorance—those who hope for it in others (people named Koch, for example) and those who manifest it in themselves (e.g., anyone not a millionaire who would vote for an ass like Scott Walker). More importantly, it is a Wag the Dog moment, deflecting attention away from the real centerpiece of Walker’s plans for higher education in his state: a $300,000,000 cut in state support in “exchange” for a level of autonomy which should have already existed. Walker’s is a dangerous game, sacrificing what few shreds of his own credibility may have remained, but, then again, he’s a dangerous man. (Anyone whose prospective Presidential bid is being so ardently pitched by Matt Drudge is by definition both potentially powerful and nuttier than squirrel turds.)

But people aren’t talking about how f*cking stupid it is to make cuts of that size to what used to be the state’s crown jewel, its university system. No, we’re talking about the arrogance of trying to get away with those changes to the mission statement. He never thought he’d get the mission statement revisions, but the more we talk about them, the less we examine the idiocy of the actual budget items in the budget package. Chances he’ll get away with it: given the partisanship and sloth of contemporary journalism and the short memories of too much of the citizenry, probably pretty good.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Turdgate.

Usually, when someone does something Curmie-worthy, we can at least understand what was going through their minds, even if the reasoning leaves something to be desired. The first two Curmies were won by teachers who couldn’t cope with the ongoing pressures of dealing with special needs kids—they got frustrated and snapped; the third went to a principal who thought her school needed to prepare itself for the possibility of an armed intruder similar to the one who had just shot up Sandy Hook Elementary; the most recent winner needs team players in the classroom and more funding from the powers-that-be. That’s how they’ll justify their actions, at least.

But every once in a while, we bump into a story where somebody’s actions just make no damned sense at all. Such a story Curmie has decided to call Turdgate, because, well… In the tiny town of Gustine, Texas, an hour and a half or so southwest of Fort Worth, there was a problem: apparently someone had been leaving feces on the school’s gym floor. So, of course, the principal and the girls basketball coach herded the 4th and 5th grade boys and girls into separate rooms and made them drop their pants.

Wait. WHAT???

Eliza Medina: Pretty Clearly the Best Qualified Person
In Gustine, Texas to Be Superintendent of Schools
Alas, ‘tis true. There are quibbles about how far the kids were asked to drop their pants—“just a little” according to the district superintendent Ken Baugh, “Like... to where your butt is” according to 11-year-old Eliza Medina, one of the students subjected to this humiliation, and the loudest voice in protest of the outrageousness of the administration’s actions— but no dispute over the fact of the poopquest. Curmie confesses he doesn’t see a lot of difference between a creepy and illegal search and a really creepy and illegal search, but acknowledges that others—those with the intellectual acumen of a broken doorknob, for example—might see a distinction in that difference.

OK… we can agree that leaving excrement on the gym floor is somewhat less than cool, and that the custodial staff shouldn’t have to, well, clean that shit up. But we can all agree, too, that phrases like “probable cause” have meaning in our society, and that these mental midgets certainly didn’t have it about the entire two dozen kids… not that an even marginally invasive search without the presence of a parent would be justified even the authorities were pretty sure who the culprit was.

There are, in fact, significant philosophical objections to making any kid anywhere drop his/her pants for any reason, let alone one as flimsy as a 4 or 5% chance of being the culprit in a case of hit and run pooping. But I’ll let others make that case further than I already have.

Let’s talk pragmatics. Even assuming invading the privacy of a couple dozen pre-adolescents in the fond hope of capturing the legendary Crap Vandal is somehow justifiable in legal and ethical terms, what is to be gained by an exercise that is inevitably as ineffective as it is silly. Seriously, what were they looking for? Baggies of fecal contraband? Stains? (Ew.) A conspicuous lack of stains? What? What might constitute the “anything” sought by the school administration? Curmie literally has no idea (and Curmie is a grammar Nazi, so “literally” is meant… um… literally).

Curmie has come to expect school administrators—a minority, perhaps, but far too many—to be arrogant, to extend their clutches well beyond their legitimate jurisdictions, to adopt a condescending attitude towards the mere mortals who dare to question their right to fart in the general direction of constitutional rights and indeed of ethical values in general. But this level of outright stupidity really did take me aback. Violating the law in a fit of pernicious do-gooding is one thing, doing so for no identifiable purpose is another.

But no matter from what direction we approach the school’s actions, they’re ridiculous, hubristic, unconstitutional, irrational, and downright creepy. Maria Medina (Eliza’s mom) gets it right: “If you can't do your job or you don't know what you're doing, you need to be fired. You shouldn't be here.” We can start with Principal Alan Luker and follow up with Superintendent Baugh. (The former is apparently “on leave” now.) And then we divert a river or two through the Augean stables that are the Gustine schools. There’s a lot of manure there to be cleaned up in a hurry, after all.