MAN AND MANDARIN: The mandarin interviews the professor!


Part 3—And the bio from Hell: Last week, at the Daily Beast, Megan McArdle described a new class of Washington journalists. She compared them to the mandarin class which ran imperial China.

She said this new class was extremely ambitious—that its members have been that way since third grade. Beyond that, she complained about the limited backgrounds of these new mandarins. Again, we think it’s worth reviewing some of what she said:
MCARDLE (2/21/13): It's not like I came up on the mean streets of Camden, or come from a long line of dockworkers...My experience of working-class life consists of some relatives, a few summer jobs, a stint in the secretarial pool at a nonprofit, three years with a firm that had a substantial cable-installation practice, and one year in a construction trailer at Ground Zero. Most of my work experience is in writing stuff, and then talking about what I write. I'm hardly the Voice of the Proletariat. Or the Voice of Industry, for that matter.

And yet, this is apparently considerably more experience than many of my fellow journalists have, especially the younger ones. The road to a job as a public intellectual now increasingly runs through a few elite schools, often followed by a series of very-low-paid internships that have to be subsidized by well-heeled parents, or at least a free bedroom in a major city. The fact that I have a somewhat meandering work and school history, and didn't become a journalist until I was 30, gives me some insight (she said, modestly) that is hard to get if you’re on a laser-focused track that shoots you out of third grade and straight toward a career where you write and think for a living.
In her piece, McArdle marveled at “the focused ambition of the young journalists I meet today;” she also noted their lack of experience in the working-class world. Worst of all, she suggested that their focused ambition and privileged backgrounds may make them “prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority.”

Uh-oh! If McArdle’s suspicions turn out to be right, this new class of journalists may grow up to be the next generation of Sam-and-Cokies—burned-out clowns who pretend to be journalists while they actually pimp and promote the views of DC’s elites. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/13.

Will our new class of elite journalists turn out like Sam and Cokie? Despite McArdle’s dark suggestions, she does have a few nice things to say about this rising class. At several points, she lists their alleged merits, as at the start of this passage:
MCARDLE: As I say, the mandarins are in many senses deserving: they work very hard, and they are very smart. But there is one important thing they do not know, which is what it is like to be anyone except a mandarin. The first generation to come out of the postwar education revolution did; their parents frequently had quite banal jobs, possibly ones that left them with dirt under their fingernails after a day's work...

But the people entering journalism, or finance, or consulting, or any other "elite" profession, are increasingly the children of the children of those who rocketed to prosperity through the postwar education system. A window that opened is closing. The mandarins are pulling away from the rest of America.
Without any question, our young journalists are among the folk who are “pulling away from the rest of America.” Some of them are already making very large incomes, though they work hard not to mention that fact. The rest of them know they’ll cash in later on, as long as they don’t blow it.

All through human history, people in such positions have in fact been “prone to being conformist, obedient, good at echoing the opinions of authority.” Our new breed may well turn out that way, just as Sam and Cokie did. But this morning, we ask a simpler question:

Are they actually “very smart,” as McArdle says in that passage?

Are these young mandarins “very smart, very bright,” as she says at several points? In a sense, but not as such! As McArdle notes, they may be quite good at taking tests, one of the pathways by which they rise. They may have strong “verbal fluency.”

But do they understand the actual ways of the actual world? McArdle keeps suggesting that they do not—and such understanding is surely required if we want to see our elites producing “very smart” journalism.

In the broader, more valuable sense, are these young mandarins actually smart? Consider a recent interview session conducted by a very young mandarin—a young journalist who has what we’d call The Resumé from Focused Ambition Hell.

For starters, let’s be fair! Dylan Matthews may turn out to be the greatest journalist/policy writer in American history. But then again, he may turn out to be Sam and Cokie—and his work isn’t always “very smart,” even at this early juncture.

Over the weekend, Kevin Drum linked to an interview Matthews conducted with Thomas Kane, a Harvard education professor. The interview appeared at WonkBlog, the Washington Post's information ghetto—and it just wasn’t “very smart.” In fact, we’d say it wasn’t smart at all—but given Matthews’ tender years and his ginormous lack of experience, we can’t imagine why this session should have turned out better.

Does it make sense to ask someone like this to conduct interviews of this type?

The background: Working with the Gates Foundation, Kane recently completed a study designed to “develop metrics capable of determining which teachers are faring better than others, and to determine what factors help determine success.” (We’re quoting Matthews.) We still aren’t entirely sure what that means, in part because we tried to read Matthews’ air-filled, meandering interview.

Let’s be honest: For the most part, Matthews tossed very fuzzy questions at Kane, and Kane’s replies wandered around a good bit. You can peruse the whole session here. But this was Matthews’ opening question for the high-ranking professor:

“Tell me a bit about how this study differs from the rest of the literature around standardized testing.”

That question is extremely open-ended—fuzzy, unfocused, air-filled. A journalist from a sixth-grade newspaper would have asked the same thing. It almost seems to demonstrate the deference to authority McArdle warned of, in that Matthews is simply asking Kane to ramble on.

And that’s exactly what Kane did; in response to that air-filled question, he rambled on for 439 words. Below, you see the way his answer began. Midway through this lengthy reply, do you have any idea what the highlighted statement means?

MATTHEWS (2/23/13): Tell me a bit about how this study differs from the rest of the literature around standardized testing.

KANE: So for 40 years, we have known that when similar students enter different teachers’ classrooms, they come out with very different achievement. For 40 years we have designed our education policies as though that weren’t true. Very few of those differences had anything to do with teachers’ paper credentials, yet that’s the only thing that state and local policies focused on. They only focused on paper credentials, and they didn’t systematically try to evaluate performance on the job for teachers.

The test scores, we knew, were just the most obvious manifestations of what is a difference in practice underneath, but nobody was systematically trying to find ways to measure those differences in practices. Quite the opposite. Most classroom observations were entirely perfunctory. Teachers, 98-plus percent of teachers, were given the same “satisfactory” rating, if their principal did an observation at all.

It was within that context that we said, “Let’s go out and try to identify some ways to identify effective teaching that help illuminate what’s going on with the difference in test scores.” We want to know that these are at least related to the magnitude of gains that teachers provide. So let’s do that in a way where we could develop measures that could be implemented widely...
According to Kane, his team of researchers wanted to “try to identify some ways to identify effective teaching that help illuminate what’s going on with the difference in test scores” (presumably, the difference in test scores produced by different teachers). He “wanted to know that these are at least related to the magnitude of gains that teachers provide.” (We don’t really know what “these” means.)

Do you have any idea what Kane is talking about at this point? Matthews asked an air-filled question, and he got an airy reply, just as Mother always warned us. In fairness to Kane, most people are less precise in extemporaneous speech than they are in their edited writing. But Matthews rarely asked the types of questions which made Kane get more precise.

To our ear, he rarely seemed to know what questions to ask. But then again, why should he?

This time last year, Matthews was still a college student—a senior at Harvard, where he seems to have been in charge of everything which moves. At the Washington Post, Matthews provides this passage as part of his bio. Given McArdle’s plausible warnings, we’d call this The Bio from Hell:
MATTHEWS: Until May 2012 I was an undergraduate at Harvard College, where I studied moral and political philosophy (though Harvard being itself, my degree is technically in “social studies“), wrote a regular column for The Crimson, served as president of Perspective Magazine, and was a DJ for the underground rock department as well as tech director for WHRB.
You’ll note the congratulatory aside about how special Harvard is. But there you see the “focused ambition” of McArdle’s new mandarin class, who start their assault on the world when they’re in third grade. Indeed, in this earlier profile, we learn the rest of the story:

“At 14, Matthews started his own blog, at 16 he was freelancing for Slate, at 18 he worked at The American Prospect...”

At 16, he was freelancing for Slate? Does anyone know why?

Matthews may turn out to be an exceptional journalist. Presumably, he has the IQ for the task—but does he have anything else? And might he have some of the climber instincts which may undercut future work?

Our view? In his interview with Kane, Matthews manifestly did not produce work which was “very smart.” But why would anyone think that such a young, inexperienced person should be conducting such interviews on such a specialized topic? And why in the world has the Washington Post created this strange game preserve, where a handful of young mandarins provide Post readers with information—or with the appearance of same?

What will Matthews turn out to be like? Will he proceed to do valuable work? Might he become the next Sam and Cokie? For reasons only the Post can explain, the whole world is his for the taking—just so long as he doesn’t blow it. That said, the history of the race is clear:

As in the case of Sam and Cokie, this access to major wealth and fame will often produce very bad results—outcomes which aren’t very smart.

Tomorrow: That profile of Matthews' boss


  1. This illustrates the battle between the technocrats and the people in the field who actually do the job. Kane says, "The test scores, we knew, were just the most obvious manifestations of what is a difference in practice underneath, but nobody was systematically trying to find ways to measure those differences in practices."

    I think Kane's word "systematically" means that efforts to improve weren't being made using formal statistical studies. However, I'm sure that individual efforts are to improve education are being made every day by teachers and administrators all over the country.