Of Civil Wars and Forgotten Words

I met a couple of friends for a drink last week. Let's call them Thing One and Thing Two.

They had been feuding online and I thought our own little beer summit might calm the waters.

Thing One arrived first. She had several emails to answer on her BlackBerry and then her phone rang, so I sat there sipping my Dale's Pale Ale and staring into space as she conducted some business that apparently could not wait. Thing Two traipsed in 15 minutes late. He doesn't believe in smartphones because they keep people from being present in the moment. We hadn't seen each other in a while so we caught up while Thing One finished her call and then fired off more two quick emails.

"See that's the thing with you," Thing Two said as soon as Thing One holstered her brand-new BlackBerry Torch. "I mean, how rude to act like the people in front of you matter less than some people out there in the virtual world."

"I'm not the one who showed up 16 and a half minutes late," Thing One replied. "But who's counting?"

Not a good start, so I decided to play referee. "Look, we've all known each other for a long time. We've worked and played hard together, so it pains me to see the two of you at odds. Lets' review how this feud began and see if we can't work our way around to a mutual understanding and maybe even a mutual apology."

Thing One reached into her leather computer bag and pulled our three stapled packets. "Here is the entire comment thread going back three months," she said. "If you start at the beginning, I think you'll see that Thing Two fired the first salvo. He said my defense of national charter school chains amounted to a capitulation to corporatist interests and the not-so-subtle machinations of the billionaire boys club."

Thing Two snorted and took a swig of his happy hour Pabst Blue Ribbon (two for one at less than half the price of Thing One's Oban single malt). "That's a provable fact. What started the spat was when you replied that I and my 'fellow-travelers' would rather explain away success and blame the victims than admit that some of the 'corporatist' schools actually work. You called me a mush-brain, if I recall correctly."

"No, what I said was that you were engaging in mushy thinking," Thing One said, pointing to a passage marked with yellow highlighter. "And it is mushy to denigrate certain schools and at the same time invent lame excuses to explain away their success. It's more than mushy; it's cynical."

Thing Two started on his second PBR. "No, let me tell you what's cynical, friend. What's cynical is to devise a series of assessments that don't assess anything meaningful; assessments that lead to a perfectly predictable bell-curve distribution of performance, and then build an entire system of accountability, even of pedagogy, based on those fatally flawed assessments. And then to call the whole package 'reform'. Give me a break."

"That's a gross oversimplification and you know it," Thing One said, signaling for another scotch. You want cynical? How's this? You and your ilk critique high-performing charter schools with high-poverty populations for promoting segregation. Then you take an aggressive stand in favor of neighborhood schools, which by their nature in a segregated city are segregated as well. So what gives?"

"Your great-white-father-knows-best brand of school reform reeks of the kind of arrogant paternalism that has landed us in the soup time and again," Thing Two said. "Maybe some of your venture capitalist overlords should devote their vast wealth to helping dismantle the system that made them obscenely rich while more of their fellow citizens fell into abject poverty."

"Maybe you should stop using poverty as an excuse for lousy schools and look at the schools that are working," Thing One said. "Systems are broken, too many teachers are sub-par, everyone's hands are tied."

"Stop bashing teachers. That's all you guys ever do; blame everything on teachers."

"No, but some teachers are subpar, and their unions are a drag on progress."

"Talk about blaming the victim," Thing Two said.

"You're an apologist for the status quo," Thing One said with real anger in her voice.

"You're an apologist for an inherently unjust and inequitable society," Thing Two spat back.

"Union lackey."

"Corporate toady."

I had heard enough. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," I said. "Just out of curiosity, let me ask each of you some questions. First, who did you vote for in 2008?"

"Obama," they both said.

"Who are you voting for governor?"




"On 60, 61 and 101?"

"No, of course."

OK, so there is a lot of common ground here. Why are you engaging in a civil war?"

They looked a little sheepish, and shrugged.

"Oh, and one more question: What three words were completely absent from your dialogue just now?"

They were stumped.

"Kids. Students. Children."

I bought them another round. We drank in silence.