John Wooden, Barack Obama & Why Smart People Are Stoopid

This week’s Frank Rich column may not be about education policy, but it might as well be.

Writing about the president’s handling of the BP oil spill, Rich believes Obama’s “most conspicuous flaw is his unshakeable confidence in the collective management brilliance of the best and the brightest he selected for his White House team — “his abiding faith in the judgment of experts,” as Joshua Green of The Atlantic has put it.

This is the primary issue I have with the leading voices of education reform today. I’ve heard Joel Klein suggest “we know how to do this” — referring to comprehensive education reform — when the truth is all we know how to do is move the needle on student test scores, not transform an apartheid education system that relies on one method of instruction for the poor, and another for the privileged. I’ve heard Michelle Rhee assert that “collaboration and consensus building are quite frankly overrated in my mind.” And I’ve grown weary of the myraid other voices who confidently participate in a groupthinkian rush to the illusory Altar of Certainty, long before we have in place the necessary metrics for a much more finely calibrated understanding of whether our schools are giving children what they really need — a balanced comprehensive education that teaches them to use their minds well over the long haul.

It seems fitting, then, that Rich’s piece would appear in a day the Times’ Sports page offered its paean to the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden, our country’s greatest-ever coach, an exceedingly humble man who always considered himself a teacher first — and a molder of men first, and basketball players second.

Coach Wooden was known for many memorable maxims, many of which — like “Be quick, but don’t hurry” — could helpfully guide our current reform efforts if heeded. But it’s another Woodenism I thought of as I finished Rich’s piece about Obama’s Best and Brightest: “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”

Categories: Leadership, Learning, Voice

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  1. Aileen Chaltain
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Keep up the good fight, Sam! You are doing noble work that affects the very foundation of how and what we can do with this marvelous country we live in. It’s the simple, straight forward thinkers like John Wooden who will get us all, individually and collectively, back on track. We just have to demonstrate the willingness to listen to and incorporate some of the personal disciplines that Wooden espouses; not an easy task in this crazy world we have created for ourselves.

    “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” I’m taping this up by my bedside, Sam!

    (BTW, I just picked up “A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring” for Grady. I’m sure you already have a copy but if you don’t have one, I’d like to send you a copy. I have a feeling the President, who can be a simple straight forward thinker *when he wants to be,* has a copy as well but maybe we should send him a copy just in case…

  2. Posted June 6, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I like this entry. I have to disagree with Michelle Rhea though, I think that we don’t understand how to unite the best and brightest yet to move forward. I think a lot of people can agree that there is a lot of potential, the question is how do we harvest that potential. And I do agree that it comes down to another Wooden quote, “Don’t let what you cannot do, interfere with what you can do.” We have to find our commonalities and drive it forward—

  3. Posted June 8, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Sam, I appreciate the way you’ve pulled apart the argument that ‘we know how to do this’ related to education reform. This kind of thinking often causes our leaders to rush into so called reforms that may be little more than rearranging the deck chairs, and avoid the hard work of identifying the authentic and complex work of teaching and learning.

    Thanks for continuing to bring a strong voice to this important issue!

  4. Posted June 8, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Rhee will learn about the value of consensus — all authoritarian leaders either do learn the lesson on wish they had.

    While it is true that there are problems experts don’t have easy answers for, it might help those who think they have all the answers to problems in education if they tried paying attention to those who actually know something about education instead of trying to import business or political solutions that don’t fit.

    Editorial staff from NY Times and producers from CNN should be among the first to rethink their present infatuation with solutions that show little promise.

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