« "slave trader ... patriot" | Main | a new survey of youth entertainment culture »

August 8, 2006

listening to Kansas

In today's New York Times, the author of What's the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank, decries the right-wing revolt against expertise:

To the faithful, theirs is a war against 'elites,' and, with striking regularity, that means a war against the professions. The anti-abortion movement, for example, dwells obsessively on the villainy of the medical establishment. The uproar over the liberal media, a popular delusion going on 40, is a veiled reaction to the professionalization of journalism. The war on judges, now enjoying a new vogue, is a response to an imagined 'grab for legislative power' (as one current Kansas campaign mailing puts it) by unelected representatives in the legal profession. And the attack on evolution, the most ill-conceived thrust of them all, is a direct shot at the authority of science and, by extension, at the education systen, the very foundation of professional expertise.

Frank finds all this very distressing, because he believes that the "populist" activists of Kansas are undermining their own self-interests by voting against professionals--thereby achieving "distinctly unpopulist results."

The question turns on whether professionals are actually worthy of trust and support. If Kansans are furious at "education insiders" and other experts, is that because they have been deluded by conservative rabble-raisers? Or could they have a point about professionals' arrogance?

Consider that Americans (parents and other non-professionals) play a dramatically reduced role in public education. In the 1970s, more than 40 percent said that they worked on community projects--which often involved education--but that percentage is now down to the 20s. PTA membership rose to 45 per 100 families in 1960, but then fell to less than half of that in the last twenty years. Under No Child Left Behind, very little about schools can be influenced or debated except evolution and sex ed: two hot-button issues that mobilize ideologues. The core curriculum, which is loaded with value-judgments that deserve public debate, has been decided by the people who write tests--pyschometricians and other experts far from Kansas (but close to Princeton, NJ). Meanwhile, the general atmosphere of schools seems commercialized, sexualized, and otherwise reflective of bad values.

Anyone who has tried to participate in educational issues, whether at the national level or in one's local school, knows that jargon, turf, and bureaucracy are the order of the day. This would be fine if school systems produced excellent results.

I have dwelled on the case of education, but it would not be difficult to develop similar arguments about professional journalism and medical care. (Anyone who has wrestled with the medical bureaucracy during a health emergency will recognize an arrogance, a status-consciousness, a worship of machines and chemicals, and a lack of concern for the whole patient that cannot be attributed to insurance issues alone.) I know it is more controversial, but I tend to believe that judges have overstepped their bounds as well, particularly in cases where they have made live public debates moot by handing down decisions not clearly based in the Constitution.

In short, I think Frank very acutely diagnoses a revolt against the professional elites. But suppressing the revolt will not make the problem go away. Professionals must change their behavior in order to merit public respect.

August 8, 2006 12:34 PM | category: populism | Comments


Site Meter