A humor format keeps murdering sleep!


Too dumb to be self-governing: Years ago, we used to do a humor segment two mornings a week on WBAL-AM, Baltimore’s “good guy” news station.

Occasionally, we did a format called “The too dumb to be self-governing file.”

In those days, we thought of this as a joke. We remember only one such offering:

A gubernatorial candidate in Texas unveiled his ten-point education plan. When reporters counted its bullet points, they discovered that the ten-point education plan only had nine points.

That sort of thing can happen! Today, though, we’re often struck—indeed, overwhelmed—by the monumental, overpowering dumbness of the American discourse.

The dumbness of the discourse on Fox. The dumbness of the discourse from Rachel and Lawrence.

The dumbness of the leading books about our public schools. The dumbness of the editorial in yesterday’s New York Times.

Whoever wrote this editorial is a bit too dumb to be self-governing—or perhaps too determined to avoid discussing our basic realities. This is the way the editorial started, twin headlines included:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (12/11/13): Missing From Science Class/
Too Few Girls and Minorities Study Tech Subjects

A big reason America is falling behind other countries in science and math is that we have effectively written off a huge chunk of our population as uninterested in those fields or incapable of succeeding in them.

Women make up nearly half the work force but have just 26 percent of science, technology, engineering or math jobs, according to the Census Bureau. Blacks make up 11 percent of the workforce but just 6 percent of such jobs and Hispanics make up nearly 15 percent of the work force but hold 7 percent of those positions. There is no question that women and minorities have made progress in science and math in the last several decades, but their gains have been slow and halting. And in the fast-growing field of computer science, women’s representation has actually declined in the last 20 years, while minorities have made relatively small gains.

These jobs come with above-average pay and offer workers a wide choice of professions. Opening them to women and minorities would help reduce corrosive income inequality between whites and other groups, and would narrow the gender gap in wages...
We’ll assume the data are accurate. That said:

Have we “effectively written off a huge chunk of our population as uninterested in” science and math? Do we need to “open [jobs in science and math] to women and minorities” in some way?

It’s certainly possible! That said, the editorial offered no evidence that these fields are “closed” to blacks and Hispanics in some way. Why did the editorial frame the discussion that way?

To their semi-credit, the editorial board soon abandoned their euphemistic frameworks. They spent the bulk of the editorial discussing, or pretending to discuss, a painful fact of life in our country—on average, as populations, black and Hispanic students still do much less well in science and math, although the gaps are smaller than they used to be.

This topic has been in the news in the past two weeks. That said, the data shown below are painful to consider. Perhaps for that reason, organizations like the Times sometimes make it a point to talk as if they don’t exist, or to talk as if they don’t understand how troubling these data should be:
Average scores, math literacy, 2012 PISA
White students: 506
Black students: 421
Hispanic students: 455
Asian-American students: 549
Those are large score differences. (On the PISA, 39 points is said to correspond to one academic year. The PISA is taken by 15-year-old students.)

Here are the percentages of each group which scored at the highest level:
Percentages scoring at highest level, math literacy, 2012 PISA
White students: 8.8 percent
Black students: 1.0 percent
Hispanic students: 3.5 percent
Asian students: 16.1 percent
We’re not convinced of the PISA’s greatness. But the gaps are also large on the NAEP, our most reliable domestic test battery.

Do those data seem to correlate in some way with the percentages cited at the start of the editorial? To their semi-credit, the editors spend the rest of the editorial discussing the fact that black and Hispanic students do less well in science and math—on average; as populations—than their white and Asian peers.

That said, the editors talk a lot of standard, memorized piddle about the best ways to address this problem, which dates from our brutal American history. They betray little sense of the size of the problem they have decided to pretend to discuss.

We thought that editorial was rather strange—a bit of a flight from reality. In truth, its opening premises have little to do with the actual problem, which is large.

We show contempt for those struggling, deserving students when we tolerate the kind of piddle which has been coming this year from Ripley and Ravitch, authors of the current season’s two big education books.

Those books are full of distortions, deceptions, misstatements and all-around general crap. The truth, though, is that our elites, mainstream and liberal, don’t really care about these matters to any major degree.

Do you ever see these topics discussed on The One True Liberal Channel? Why is that?

Beyond that, one more point seems clear to us. As we honor the work of Ripley and Ravitch, we prove that we are secretly too dumb to be self-governing.

Truth to tell, no one cares much about any of this. Our elites care about making it out to the Hamptons early of a weekend. That obvious fact is abundantly clear in virtually everything the New York Times says and does.

Next week, we’ll be discussing certain aspects of those gaps. The editors recited a lot of conventional piddle in that editorial, as is the norm when journalistic elites pretend to discuss public schools.


  1. Inadequate preparation in science and math is one part of the problem. The other is the hazing that occurs when women and minorities do enter nontraditional professions. There have been several studies showing that women who have strong math and science backgrounds choose their occupations based on their perception of the obstacles ahead. At the high school level, it is very hard to be the only girl in a physics class. Even the teacher makes jokes and the teasing and other conduct of the male students is not monitored by anyone to keep girls from being bullied. This sporadic concern seems hypocritical at best when the actual experiences of women continue to have so many daily annoyances that it is simpler to just take a path of least resistance.

  2. Powerful post, Bob.

  3. I didn't think WBAL could find a more despicable local Rush clone than Ron Smith, but his replacement Derek Hunter is awful. And C4, who's on before him, lies and distorts soundbites daily.

  4. math is even more boring than educational achievement tests. if its still taught the same way, they need to flesh out the bare bones with real world examples, as much as thats possible to do.

    1. Perhaps you mean manipulatives or demos? Real world examples (word problems) are very hard for students. They cannot map the math onto the facts of the real world situation and universally hate such problems because they are hard for them.

    2. show examples of how the various aspects of mathematics have been and are being used to solve real world problems. as specific as possible, but at least give some general sense of how the area of math under study is or can be used. the simpler the example the better, but a complex one would be far better than leaving the student feeling hes stumbled into alice's wonderland.

  5. Diane Ravitch's latest book spends many many pages and has many many charts showing the black white gap over the years, and she give ample credit to the remarkable rise in black scores over the last 40 years.

    I do not know how Somerby can maintain that her book is full of "lies and distortions (as arguably Ripley's is)? Or that it in any way ignores the dilemma of black poverty and the cruel history of exploitation and segregation. The opposite is true. Anyone can check this on the Amazon reader edition of Reign of Error. Just type in NAEP.

    What is he talking about? And what weird motivation would he have for wanting to discredit Ravitch in this way?

    She is on his side (I would have thought) and is not going out to the Hampton's to party with wealthy celebrities and the self-described "A-list" (among whom are often the Clintons), as far as I know.