Bye Bye Bobby Lee. Can a Stone Wall be Moved?

IMG_5638

After 133 years, a statue of Robert E. Lee came down in New Orleans last week. It made me wonder, again, about the portrait of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson that’s in our bedroom. I’ve been enormously intrigued by Jackson for years, and researched and wrote an historical novel about him (Cross Over The River; Lives of Stonewall Jackson, available on Amazon.com and iUniverse.com) years ago. Jackson, like Lee, fought valiantly to defend the South and its inhuman institution of slavery. Is he to be admired? Why do I have him hanging on my wall?

Herman Melville wrote a poem about Jackson when Stonewall was accidentally killed by his own troops at the battle of Chancellorsville:

The Man who fiercest charged in fight,
Whose sword and prayer were long –
Stonewall!
Even him who stoutly stood for Wrong,
How can we praise? Yet coming days
Shall not forget him with this song.

Dead is the Man whose Cause is dead,
Vainly he died and set his seal –
Stonewall!
Earnest in error, as we feel;
True to the thing he deemed was due,
True as John Brown or steel.

Relentlessly he routed us;
But we relent, for he is low –
Stonewall!
Justly his fame we outlaw; so
We drop a tear on the bold Virginian’s bier,
Because no wreath we owe.

Stoutly stood for wrong. Earnest in error. Melville called him true as John Brown, who fought against slavery in Kansas and Virginia. Each a zealot, each spilling blood both innocent and guilty in his cause. Can one do something admirable, moving, courageous, in a bad cause?

Of course, “bad cause” and “earnest in error” are tepid bits of language for something as abominable as human slavery. But Jackson fought successfully against desperate odds. His 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, when he defeated five armies with his much smaller force and caused Lincoln to pull back troops from Gen. George McClellan’s attack on Richmond, is still studied at West Point. While the Federal armies were getting everything in order, arranging supplies and getting all horses shod, Jackson would move like lightning with only part of his force only half equipped and sweep down on the Federal flanks and rear. At the height of his greatest victory he was killed by friendly fire. If he had not been shot then, it’s very possible we would be two countries, not one, today. Jackson would likely not have hesitated two months later at Gettysburg, as his replacement did, on the day the Confederates almost swept the Federals from the field. And the war might have ended then with a Union defeat. So he’s clearly a powerful and influential figure in history.

On my first visit to New Orleans I was in a cab swinging around a traffic circle, in the middle of which was a statue on a pedestal so tall I couldn’t make out whom the statue depicted. I asked my cab driver, a black woman, who was up there. “That’s Bobby Lee, baby,” she said, as if I was a hopeless rube. She said it with what I heard as pride. I was probably wrong.

I asked a black friend of mine when she came to my house if the portrait of Jackson bothered her. No, she said — I took her to mean she had more current racial battles to worry about.

When I first heard, years ago, of movements to remove Confederate statues, I thought it was a mistake to try to erase history. The first instance I recall was a push to remove a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate cavalry general, from Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Forrest was a ferocious, unconventional and successful fighter, like Jackson. After the war he was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. I understood that honoring him in public was at best a moral quagmire. But what about “Bobby Lee, baby”? Lee was a man of grace and honor and storied lineage. He married the daughter of George Washington’s stepson. His father was a colonel in the American Revolution and a governor of Virginia. After Appomattox, when many advocated that the remnants of the Confederate armies head for the hills and conduct guerrilla warfare, Lee told Confederate soldiers to lay down their arms, go home, and obey the law.

Should statues of Robert E. Lee be taken down? Or all the statues of Confederate line soldiers in countless courthouse squares across the South? Or Jackson’s statue at his grave in Lexington in the beautiful Shenandoah?

If I were Jewish, what would I think of finding a statue of Herman Goering in a public park?

I believe Donald Trump, with his denial of global warming and his rescinding of Obama’s environmental regulations, will share responsibility for hundreds of millions of deaths in his children’s and grandchildren’s generations as the seas warm and rise and weather worsens and crops and fish die off. I don’t ever want to encounter a statue to this barbarian.

Slavery is just a word to a well-off white guy like me. But in some of the museums in the South I’ve seen artifacts of slavery that are haunting, like an iron collar with six-inch spikes that clamped around a man’s neck and restricted his ability to do almost anything a human being should be able to do. I’ve lately heard two African American historians and writers explain whey they call their ancestors an “enslaved person” rather than a slave. No one is born a slave, they say. Slavery is something another person did to them. And continued, day after day, to do. Rounding up humans in Africa. Packing them in ships like cordwood, a large percentage of them dying on the passage. Beatings. Selling children away from their parents. Endless rape. Denying the right to read. Denying the right to be respected or even seen as human. Murder for sport. Terrible housing. Disease and death. There’s no way for me to imagine what existence was like as a slave. And the hypocrisy of the whites who said slavery was good for this “childlike race” is staggering.

Jackson and Lee fought to keep the right to keep people enslaved. How can that be admirable, no matter how resourceful and inspirational and successful they were against impossible odds?

Lee and Jackson said they fought because their country was invaded. They believed in the right of a state to secede from the Union it had voluntarily joined, and were appalled that other states would march murderous soldiers into theirs to force them to stay in the fold. They both owned slaves and said, correctly, that the Constitution guaranteed them the right to do so. They considered themselves patriots and opposed secession until it happened, then served to defend their native state.

Part of the answer to all this is unfolding in Charleston, South Carolina, the flashpoint of the Civil War. Like Washington, D.C., Charleston will open in 2019 an International African American Museum on the site of a wharf where perhaps 40% of the Africans enslaved and brought to America landed. The city’s mayor for four decades, Joseph Riley, is one of the people most responsible for the museum’s creation. He hopes the museum helps all Americans learn from the unvarnished truth of our country’s original sin by seeing the horrors of slavery and the heroism of those enslaved. Asked about taking down monuments to Confederates, he has said the answer isn’t less history, but more. Keep the old monuments but tell the whole story by adding new ones such as Charleston’s and D.C.’s museums and programs. That sounds like wisdom to me.

Otherwise, how many more statues will come down? In New Orleans, where Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis were just removed for display in some not-yet-determined, more-appropriate less-public place, a statue in Jackson Square of Andrew Jackson rises on rearing horseback. Our seventh president. Who conceived and carried out a policy of Indian removal that uprooted America’s indigenous civilizations and killed tens of thousands on many Trails of Tears. If Lee’s statue can’t stand — can Jackson’s? Must Jefferson be led away from his gorgeous stone gazebo on the Tidal Basin? Must Washington City be renamed?

So why do I have a portrait of Thomas Jackson on my wall? Stonewall wouldn’t have liked me, a reprobate pantheist. I probably wouldn’t have much liked him, a stern Old-Testament Presbyterian and a college teacher who delivered memorized lectures that allowed for no discussion. But as a father and husband he was tender and, flouting local custom, he taught a Sunday school class to black children. And his daring and decisiveness were breathtaking. The South was vastly outnumbered in everything — population, soldiers, ships, resources, railroad iron, manufacturing, guns, food, fuel, foundries. The only force they had stronger than the Union’s was their generals’ audacity. How quickly Jackson took the measure of his opponents, the chances he took, how he used the beautiful geography and topography of the great Valley of Virginia to hide his moving troops, all make him a fascinating man for me. Yet despite why he said he fought, the result of his fighting, if successful, would have been continued slavery. History is complex and unclear.

In Lexington, Virginia, where Lee served after the war as president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, there is a stable next to the president’s house. Lee died in 1870 in Lexington of pneumonia after a ride in the rain on his horse, Traveller, who had served Lee faithfully during the war. A year later Traveller died. The doors to Traveller’s stable are always kept slightly ajar, even today. In case the horse comes home.

One day, perhaps, America will come home. I can still hear George McGovern’s acceptance speech in 1972, late late at night, when the quixotic candidate ran against Richard Nixon in an America as divided as it is now, and almost as divided as it had been one hundred years before — “Come home, America,” was McGovern’s plea. Come home, together, despite conflicting views and values.

I’m fine with Robert E. Lee being taken off his pedestal in New Orleans. We don’t have to hold him up, but we can’t make believe he was never an American. We can’t delete Lee, or either Jackson, from history or from the tangled twisted improbable story of America that is still being told. As we all try to find home.

— Bruce Benidt

Chapter I: How Did I Get Here?

colllegeNote to readers:  What can I say?  A lot, apparently.  This started off as a simple post back in January, but it was a slow day on the work front and it was too damned cold to go outside if I could help it.  As a result, I found several hours later that I had run on for better than 3,600 words about how I was a lousy student in college and lived to tell the tale…and I hadn’t even gotten around to getting kicked out the second time or how it came to pass that I did get a college degree.  The first draft was such a hot mess that I let it sit for nearly a month before mustering the courage to come back to it. After looking at it again, I decided that the first part – 2,900 words – was not so much about how I screwed off in college (though there’s plenty of that) as they were a general recounting of how I’ve been “different” from way back. I could – probably should – have simply pitched the whole thing over the side, but since I’d wasted so long writing so much I decided to at least post the somewhat intelligible part as Chapter I of what may – or may not – be a series of posts about my youthful indiscretions (the ones I can cop to anyway).

Readers of a certain age may enjoy the result as a trip back to the 1970s and any parent of any child can now console him or herself with the words, “At least I’m not Austin’s parent.”  No matter what, that’s true.

I mostly look for ways to differentiate myself from David Brauer (and, I suspect, he from me), but I found a kindred spirit in his confessional about his failure to graduate college on schedule back in the 1970s.  In my case, it took 7 years, three institutions and the assistance of an entire village of friends, mentors and family to get one under-achieving slacker his undergraduate degree.  But for that assistance I suspect that I, too, would have been a long time going back to finish.  I’ve bored my family and friends many times by recounting my college career so why not you too.

Continue reading “Chapter I: How Did I Get Here?”

The False God of Business

Rick Scott, our corporate-criminal governor here in sunny Florida, has said he wants the state’s colleges and universities to run more like businesses. This is a disease that is spreading to public education around the country.

I think this view would make Thomas Jefferson retch. So would being in the same room with Rick Scott.

Scott wants to charge less tuition for majors that prepare kids for jobs the economy needs now — engineering, technology, health care. On the surface it’s an intriguing idea. But it reduces education to job training, to providing work-units for business moguls.
Rick-Scott fraud

If students have to pay more for a history degree than a biology degree, fewer will study history. Or English. Or philosophy. Or government. “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe,” Jefferson said. He believed that, as political storms blew the country from right to left and back again, an informed electorate would be the safeguard against extremism and tyranny. He believed American democracy would only work if citizens were educated and aware.

If we treat higher education as just job training, how will we develop an informed citizenry? How will people learn how to think critically, to separate political lies from the record of facts, to understand how our government and our world work?

There may not be a capital market for citizenship, but without citizenship this country will become just market segments for ad buyers.

Scott, as CEO of healthcare giant Columbia HCA, ran a company that defrauded the federal government (which means all of us, the taxpayers) by swindling Medicare, resulting in a $1.7 billion fine. Scott made out just fine though — when the HCA board dumped him because of the fraud, they gave him a $10 million severance package and $300 million in stock. No wonder he wants to run state government like he ran a business. And no wonder Mitt Romney, who made millions by, in many cases, leveraging companies into bankruptcy and stripping and shipping out jobs, thought business was a great model for government. Business is a fine game for the winners.

Didn’t a majority of American voters just spurn a businessman’s pitch to treat this country like a business? A majority of voters decided that business’s main goal of funneling profits to the tiny group of Romneyfolk who already have most of the wealth isn’t a good governing principle for the majority of us.

President Obama pointed out that, running a government, he has to think of all the people; those running a business have to think only of some.

Should the Grand Canyon or the Everglades be run more like a business? Should a sunset? The human body? A marriage? Diplomatic relations with another country? Poetry? Absolutely; poetry should be run more like business. And so should the wonder of a playful kitten. And one’s youth — that should surely be run more like a business.

Cretin. Philistine.

— Bruce Benidt

What Abstract Tax Policy Means At Street Level

I wrote this piece for the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report, and Dane Smith ran it in the Growth & Justice website as well. It talks about issues at stake in this election — although not much has really been said by either Romney or Obama about what tax policy will mean at street level.

A few weeks ago I stood before the New Port Richey (Florida) City Council and asked the members not to further cut a library budget that had already been eviscerated.

I held up an ancient book — “The Library Book” — which I wrote in 1984 to mark the centennial of the Minneapolis Public Library. In my research, I told the council members, I’d learned that a library is an economic engine for the community. That’s why wealthy people like T.B. Walker and James J. Hill, in the Twin Cities, and Andrew Carnegie, nationally, funded libraries. It’s enlightened self-interest: Libraries and public education help individuals grow and develop knowledge and skills, which in turn helps a community and its businesses grow.

We’ve lived two years now in Florida, a state with a historic aversion to taxes, and one of the few states without any income tax. In the time we’ve been here we’ve seen education cut, local bus service cut, libraries cut, almost all government services cut. All severely.

A state that has always been run by the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful is, every day, even more so. The Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s advanced further here than most places. Federal taxes have been cut, lowering federal funding to states. State taxes have been cut, lowering state funding to local governments. And local governments with shrinking budgets have to cut services or raise property taxes.

When we left Minnesota, friends asked how we could go to a regressive, low-tax, low-service state. I said that weather was a huge factor for us, but also, sadly, that Minnesota was fast becoming a regressive anti-tax state like Florida anyway. But it is even worse here, and getting still worse.

My wife, Lisa, volunteers at the New Port Richey library. We live in Port Richey, just across the Pithlachascotee River, and New Port Richey’s library is the closest to us. With budget cuts all across Pasco County, the New Port Richey library is now the only one in the county open on Mondays. It’s packed. With all government services and staffing having been cut, many employees at city and county offices who can no longer serve their constituents tell them to go to the library for help. A library where the staff and hours have already been cut. Catch-22.

I told the council members that my wife sees, every day, people in the library going online to search for jobs. She sees, every day, people using the library to get access to better education. She sees, every day, people using library resources for essentials like filing insurance claims to repair houses damaged by recent floods. If you don’t know where you can turn when your home is damaged, you can’t keep your house up, which erodes the tax base. Maybe you lose your home, which erodes your ability to hold a job and raise your kids, which makes you less able to pay taxes and more likely to need services. It’s in the community’s interest, of course, that people have access to the information and services that can better their lives.

You think everyone has a computer and internet access these days? Come to Pasco County, where unemployment is above 12 percent and 15 percent of the people live in poverty. The library’s computers are precious to people trying to hold on and to people reaching for something better.

Libraries have always been portals to citizenship and participation in the economy. Businesses and careers are started in libraries. Responsible public servants and informed voters get their starts in libraries. As journalist Harrison Salisbury said of the Sumner branch of the Minneapolis Public Library in the neighborhood where he grew up among new immigrants in the early 20th century, “It was their university.”

That university is shrinking, closed on Mondays now, sorry. Shorter hours, less staff, sorry. A portal that’s closing. So sorry.

When the flagging Confederacy lowered its draft age to sweep teenagers into its shrinking armies, Robert E. Lee said, “We are eating the seed corn of our nation.” We’re eating that now. We’re wounding our present and killing our future. Libraries, schools, transportation, public safety, all are endangered by lack of funding. And we’re not even talking about things like ensuring the safety of food or workers or protecting the environment or stopping rapacious speculators from ruining the economy again. The Reagan revolutionaries think that stuff should be left up to local decisions too. Imagine the New Port Richey City Council taking on water and air quality protection or trying to keep mortgage lenders from bilking their citizens when council members can’t even patch the city’s roads or pay the cops.

My plea not to cut the library further was listened to politely by the council. But they face Sophie’s choice. The housing bubble crashed as hard here as anywhere in the country — one out of five houses in New Port Richey is vacant. The tax base is shattered, and middle- and low-income folks can’t afford an increase in the regressive property tax. And so there’s nowhere else to turn.

One brave resident stood up in the council chamber and said he’d be happy to pay higher taxes to keep his community healthy. That was one voice, here at the ragged edge of the Reagan Revolution, speaking truth to sagging power. But the majority, whipped up by short-sighted, self-serving politicians, apparently believes you can get something for nothing. That’s the scam in Florida, that’s the scam increasingly in Minnesota, that’s the scam in November’s election.

And if you still believe that scam — as we’ve said in Florida for a hundred years — I’ve got some swampland to sell you.

— Bruce Benidt

Politics and Substance Both Call For Dayton to Sign Teacher Seniority Reform Bill

I support teacher’s unions, but they are wrong to oppose reforming “last in, first out” (LIFO) teacher termination practices. Even great organizations sometimes are off-base, and Education Minnesota is wrong on this issue. The logic for changing this system is overwhelming, presented nicely here by an education reform organization called Students First.

The politics of the issue are as compelling as the logic. A statewide poll commissioned by Students First found that almost two-thirds (64%) of Minnesotants believe a measure of teacher performance should be the most important factor in deciding who to keep, while only 15% of voters say seniority should be the most important factor, as it currently is.

Looking at those numbers, it is clear that Education Minnesota is compelling DFL legislators to jump off a political cliff. Governor Dayton should save DFL legislators from themselves, and sign this bill. It’s the right thing to do, both substantively and politically.

As with most issues, I know that the devil is in the detail. I know that you have to do all you can to build a solid performance evaluation system to make the new system fair to teachers. I know that evaluating teachers is particularly tricky. But no performance evaluation system will ever be flawless, so waiting for a flawless system to be developed makes perfect the enemy of the good. Almost all large employers have performance evaluation systems in place, and there is no reason why school administrators can’t do the same, and continue to refine the system over time.

I’m glad Governor Dayton isn’t caving to Republicans on corporate property tax cuts, paid for by short-term accounting gimmicks. I’m glad Dayton is fighting Republicans to get a better bonding bill to repair the infrastructure, and put unemployed and underemployed Minnesotans to work. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Republicans are right on this issue.

– Loveland

Anoka Anti-Bullying Effort is Economic Development?

The War on Differentness
Today’s news reminds us that many parents, kids, and teachers in the Anoka County schools continue to oppose policies designed to prevent bullying of LGBT kids, and others. To them, such policies represent “politically correct (PC)” frivolity, or “promoting the gay agenda.”

But this isn’t just about politics or PC gotchas. There are a lot of other pretty solid reasons for supporting such initiatives. Common decency. Constitutional equality. The Golden Rule.

But since those arguments haven’t swayed opponents of anti-gay bullying initiatives yet, here’s another reason that might resonate on the right.

Jobs, jobs, jobs.

In the book “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” author Alexandra Robbins makes the case for Quirk Theory.

Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.

Quirk theory suggests that popularity in school is not a key to success and satisfaction in adulthood. Conventional notions of popularity are wrong. What if popularity is not the same thing as social success? What if students who are considered outsiders aren’t really socially inadequate at all? Being an outsider doesn’t necessarily indicate any sort of social failing. We do not view a tuba player as musically challenged if he cannot play the violin. He’s just a different kind of musician. A sprinter is still considered an athlete even if she can’t play basketball. She’s a different kind of athlete. Rather than view the cafeteria fringe as less socially successful than the popular crowd, we could simply accept that they are a different kind of social.

To support her theory, Robbins cites many examples of people who were “cafeteria fringe” in high school – “geeks, loners, punks, floaters, nerds, freaks, dorks, gamers, bandies, art kids, theater geeks, choir kids, Goths, weirdos, indies, scenes, emos, skaters, and various types of racial and other minorities” — but later were a resounding success in the adult world. J.K. Rowling. Bruce Springsteen. Steve Jobs. Tim Gunn. Bill Gates.

How many jobs and exports do you suppose those marginalized cafeteria fringers have created for the cafeteria core dwellers?

As for LGBT students, George Mason University Professor George Florida employs a “Bohemian-Gay Index” to find that the more “gay friendly” a city is, the more economically successful it tends to be.

So, maybe this anti-bullying business is about more than just fluffy PC-ness?

Schools can’t eliminate bullying, but they can do more. Robbins finds that teachers and administratrators aren’t nearly as neutral as they claim to be in the War on Differentness. They enforce social hierarchies by creating institutional mechanisms for celebrating athletics, cheerleading and a few select activities over all others. Teachers and administrators set the social cues by who they choose to befriend, praise or spend time with. And they too often turn blind eyes toward subtle and not-so-subtle cruelty.

So, Anoka anti-bullying champions, keep fighting the good fight. It’s the right thing to do. Besides, the jocks could use some more jobs right now.

– Loveland

Washington IS The Problem — But Not As Perry/Bachmann Claim

A week ago I was riding in a cab down Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C., with massive federal building after cliff-face edifice hulking on my right. Department of Transportation. Department of Agriculture. Federal Aviation Administration. Then my destination – Department of Health and Human Services, Hubert H. Humphrey building, where I had a communications client.

I could understand why people respond to the Bachmann/Perry complaint that
government is a bloated behemoth that feeds off the taxes grudgingly given up by good honest people making ten bucks an hour. Makes sense, superficially. You can see the size and feel the weight of government right before your eyes. From the air Washington is a little green space in the shape of a cross with beauty points of the Capitol, Mr. Lincoln, Citizen Jefferson, the White House and the founding General’s priapic monument all crowded in by thick hungry buildings full of bureaucrats.

But the real business of Washington is harder to see. Wealth and influence buying power. Lobbyists building bulwarks around the status quo. Money serving money. Influence preserving influence. And nowhere in this town, except in the labor union buildings, is the influence of good honest people making ten bucks an hour represented.

In the 1860s in this town you could easily see the troops and wagon tracks and wounded of sectional warfare. The tracks of class warfare are harder to see. They are indoors. In the charming boutique hotels and the sleek restaurants where a room and a meal cost an honest earner’s full week’s wages. They are tucked away in the manicured suburbs where people whose suits cost more than a soldier’s month’s pay lie in wait for any piece of legislation or regulation that might stop the siphoning of money from the middle class to the already rich. The class warfare Republicans warn about has, of course, been waged and won in this city by the rich and powerful since Ronald Reagan’s days. And except for a couple of Roosevelts, almost non-stop since the city’s founding.

The sin of this town is not bureaucracy that sucks the life out of average
citizens and striving business. The sin of this town is the perpetual
fortification of those who already have so much. The shock of it all is how
those with so much have motivated those with so little to build and maintain the earthworks that protect these best off. The shame is how the very rich and powerful are taking average taxpayers’ labor at an increasing discount and shrinking their share of the American dream.

In this teeming city Fagin is the powerful wealthy criminal picking the pockets of the workers while distracting them with passionate demonstrations crying out against gaysabortionsimmigrantssocialists. “Look, a family-freedom-hating Democrat,” the robber baron calls out at the Tea Party rally, his long claw fingers slipping the mark’s wallet out of his pocket.

I love this city. I was born here. Every time I’m here I am inspired by its
monuments to flawed humankind’s best yearnings.

What’s amazing is that somehow the framing vision of the intellectual artists
who started all this 230 years ago survives our superficial whims and passions, survives our irresponsible lazy lack of critical thinking and learning. This place has endured W’s ignorance and LBJ’s ego and Nixon’s paranoia and TR’s sense of empire and the smallness of Newt and the ineffectualness of everyone from Buchanan to Coolidge to Taft. We survive because occasionally we surprise the universe by sending here a tall thin man from Illinois, a rumpled mayor from Minneapolis. Occasionally we listen to the better angels of a patrician from Virginia, a class traitor from New York, a lieutenant from Hyannis, a preacher from Atlanta.

Washington is a monument to the people of this country, at our best, at our
worst. It is us. Fitting that the monument to Washington, the stubborn general who refused to let a fading dream die, has recently been shaken to its roots by an improbable earthquake. But it stands, still. O’er the land of the free, and the home of the too-easily gulled.

— Bruce Benidt
(Photo from Dan DC)

Grading Standardized Tests

Tests effective?
The news last week about Minnesota’s standardized reading scores reminded me how much I hate standardized tests. In my considered opinion, one-size-fits all standardized tests are the absolute worst tools I have seen for improving education.

Except for all the other options available to us.

Before explaining my Churchillian verdict on standardized tests, I should mention that I was a very poor standardized test taker back in the day. When I should have been answering questions, I tended to be thinking about why they asked the question…or why they used that particular wording…or what kind of deductive mind games they were trying to play…or what kind of test scores Charlie on Charlie’s Angels got in order to land that awesome job…or what is so special about #2 pencils for chrissake…or why the cute girl three rows over would never be interested in a guy like me, or why… And then when they announced there was one minute left before our life’s course would be charted by optical mark recognition equipment, I would guess “C” on the large portion of the test that I had not yet read.

Maybe that shows that I had an attention deficit disorder. Maybe it means I was analytical, creative, intellectually curious, hormonal, or moronic.

Psychoanalysis aside, this was not a winning strategy for me. It also wasn’t a winning strategy for the institutions who wanted an honest assessment of my likelihood of success. Because I turned out to be a “late bloomer,” someone who wasn’t predicted by the optical recognition scanner to succeed in academics or a white collar career, but did.

Given my personal experience, you would think that I’d want to ban standardized tests. I’m sorely tempted. But at the same time, I do think that K-12 schools need to be intentional and disciplined about teaching the foundational skills most of us need to succeed. I do want to keep kids away from teachers and schools who can’t or won’t teach those things. I do want to measure student performance in order to incent individual and institutional improvement, empower parents to vote with their feet, and target early help to kids who are falling behind.

And I can’t figure out how to achieve those things without standardized tests. Maybe those of you who got kickass standardized test scores can figure that out, but I can’t.
Continue reading “Grading Standardized Tests”

Ten Years After — The View Out My Screen Porch

“The longer I do this the less I know.”

small business help That was my wife, Lisa’s, former career-counseling partner, Colleen Convey, talking to people at a large Minneapolis company years ago about finding work that fits you, not fitting into work. Then Colleen gave them, humbly, what she’d learned in her decades of counseling, which her years and wisdom had shaped into something simple, clear and deep.

One of Colleen’s and Lisa’s measures of job fit is — when was the last occasion where you lost track of time because you were so engaged by what you were doing? If you can find work that connects with one of those experiences (no, Austin, you can’t make a living doing that) you’ll have work that fits and fulfills.

Ten years ago Colleen’s and Lisa’s advice and support helped me leave, with manageable fear and trembling, a global PR firm to start my own little business. April 1, 2001 I went on my own, an April fool. Ten years later, I still haven’t had to get a real job and I’m still losing track of time when engaged face-to-face with my clients. The longer I do this the less I know — but I’ve become pretty clear about what I do know.

Life is short, meetings are long, presentations are mostly dreadful, most interview subjects can’t spit out in plain English why anybody might care about or benefit from what they do — so anyone who can talk with clarity and passion and examples about stuff that matters to real people is an extraordinary and compelling communicator. After a dozen years as a journalist and a dozen in PR and decades of college teaching, I have focused on training people to be clear and compelling communicators. Not by giving them a formula, but by listening to them and watching them and dragging out, through all the layers of organizational and educational and professional detritus, their own personality and passion. I help people talk about stuff that excites them or moves them — and I get paid for it. For ten years now. Good gig

It’s scary, a little, being out on your own. Most independents I know, like me, worry that the phone will stop ringing. Colleen told me that the first year on your own you worry all the time about not getting work, the second year you think the first year was a fluke, and by the third year you think this might actually work. Ten years in, I’ve embraced worry as an old friend who just croaks in the corner. I miss a good health-care plan, I miss colleagues from the newspapers and colleges and Shandwick, but god I love making an independent living from something I’m good at, saying yes or no when I want to, and now in my dotage not pretending I know more than I do.

A huge thanks is due to the people who helped me develop the skills I’ve traded on for ten years — Dennis McGrath, Scott Meyer, Mary Jeffries, Dave Mona, Sara Gavin, Dave Kuhn, Betsy Buckley, Kari Bjorhus, Steve Conway, Mary Milla, Walt Parker and so many more from the Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin Shandwick years. And to Lisa, who encouraged me to jump with no net. And to mein guter freund Jorg Pierach, with whom I jumped in 2001 and who, like me, has withstood two economic collapses and who, unlike me, has built a gorgeous and successful agency of lively cool professionals — FastHorse. Jorg supported and supports me, with drinks and an office and unquenchable good spirit. And to Daniel Pitlik, who’s been at this for years longer than I have and is an example and mensch and sweet human being from whom I have stolen endless ideas and approaches. And to Tony Carideo, a careful and caring businessman/journalist with a philosopher’s heart and degree who’s held my hand the whole way — and whose basement is promised as Lisa’s and my retirement home.

And to my clients — who make me feel part of their teams — huge huge thanks. These are my colleagues and friends — good humans at Medtronic, Best Buy,Thomson Reuters, UPS, Amway, Cargill, Doug Kelley, GCI Atlanta the most frequent, but all of you people I light up when I see as I drag in my camera bag for another gig. The biographer Charles Neider had a formula for whom he chose as a subject for a book — could he take a cross-country train trip with that person and not want to jump the tracks mid-journey? All of my clients I’d climb on a train with — at the bar-car end of course. Some of my clients are former Shandwick colleagues who’ve moved on and kept my number, some former Shandwick clients, some former students, and all have referred me to others, which keeps me out of the bread lines.

In ten years my little business has moved its global headquarters from Eden Prairie to South Minneapolis and now to north of Tampa, where my office is a screen porch looking out on the egret fishing in the oyster bar pictured above. Huge thanks to my Minneapolis clients who keep calling on me even though I’m no longer just a half-hour away. Here near the Gulf of Mexico I’ve learned to distinguish the sharp beak-splash of a kingfisher diving into the tidal pond in our backyard from the flop-splash of fish jumping, and to recognize the twee-twee call of an osprey before I see its speckled wings and striped tail. These are important work skills, I think.

Technology has changed in my ten years. I travel now with three video cameras (plans A, B & C — you can’t waste executives’ time and look like a fool because of equipment failures or lost luggage), the most recent a flipcam. I used to drag to sessions a bag of VHS tapes of interview and speech examples until Sue Busch at Best Buy suggested with good humor that this was one step above cave paintings, so then I switched to examples on DVD. Now it’s YouTube and Ted.com — when a client at UPS a week or so ago said he liked a local preacher’s and Tom Friedman’s speaking styles, we instantly pulled them up on YouTube on my iPhone and analyzed what made them compelling. (Even more important — I’m about to watch the Twins opener on my iPad out on the porch — is this a great country or what?)

Have I changed in ten years? I’m more willing to say no to work I’m not good at, don’t like or don’t know enough to do. Journalism training and natural arrogance have always made me comfortable challenging people, but now I’m even more willing to look at an executive and say, with I hope a blend of compassion and two-by-four, that people will rush for the exits if you talk like that. And I’m more sure I can help the person be more engaging and compelling — partly because the bar is so low in most organizations. I worry a little about not staying current, and I never pretend to be a social media guru, leaving that to Jorg and blogbuddies Mike Keliher and Jon Austin. But the core of communication, I think, is still clarity and passion and zip, no matter the medium.

Personally I remain a manic blend of daily childish optimism and long-term black-hole pessimism, but here in Florida surrounded by birdmusic and the breathing tides and clouds of the Gulf I wallow less in the daily examples of entropy. Once you know the principle that trains crash, Thoreau wrote, you don’t need to know every instance of a train crashing. So I put down the paper or the hand-held and watch a heron alight with delicate wingbeats on the cedar tree across the channel.

Enough. Thanks to all who’ve been part of this journey. And please keep calling — I need the work. And the time face-to-face with clients still flies by.

— Bruce Benidt

On, Wisconsin! And Indiana … and Ohio.

One of the more reliable truisms is that “the zealots will always overreach”. It’s the question of “when” that gets funky. But pretty obviously the crowd that rode into office on a wave of inchoate, anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-government rage last November is getting slapped upside the head with something they did not expect. It goes without saying that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.

As Wisconsin’s well-coordinated populist uprising spreads around the country the prospects that it’ll stop Tea Party-style revolutionaries in their tracks is not good. They do have the votes, which makes a near-term victory likely, but also Pyrrhic over a longer run of time. Like the 2012 election cycle, for example. I suspect Scott Walker and his crowd probably can figure a way to lure the AWOL Democrats back into Madison — most likely by employing the most tried-and-true gimmick of careerist ideologues … kicking the can down the road. Watch Walker shift the hot-button collective bargaining issue on to Wisconsin’s next budget bill. (Remember, this fight, like the national GOP in DC,  is over gutting the current budget). That “other budget”  has to be fought out by the end of the session this spring. Walker might be able to make the drum-banging protesters go away for a few weeks by playing faux-reasonable and leaving the emotional stuff for … six weeks from now.

But with the maelstrom they’ve created with their ham-fisted maneuvers to date, the national attention that has poured in on them, and the re-vitalized connection of the unions to the Democrats and the Democrats’ organizational machinery, there’s no way for Walker et al to sell one of their classic revisionist histories of what’s going on. Way too many people are paying attention, and just as facts have a liberal bias, a lot of focused attention on the details and the direct, “reality-based” effects of ideological jargon is never a good thing for anti-government zealots. Also, as regards the can-kicking strategy, several observers have noted that (much) better spring weather, in May as Wisconsin’s legislative session is supposed to end, only makes it more likely that more protesters will show up to get in the fun.

So did Walker and his team, with their Koch Brothers support, not see this coming? I mean, their message was “cut spending”. They repeated it ad nauseam, like those raspy audio greeting cards. Everybody knew, right? So what did they miss?

What they “missed” is that since their winning message has no specifics, no details and therefore no honest discussion of the consequences of gutting middle class programs by fiat, there was no way they could have made an informed calculation of the public response. Hell, the public really didn’t know what Walker/every other rote Tea Party-pandering conservative was talking about, other than of course that they were going to wave a sceptre and cut taxes, stop spending, reduce the deficit and provide jobs, jobs, jobs. (Third Rule of Conservative Campaigning: Once you’ve got ’em mad as hell, don’t confuse ’em with details.) Now that the public is getting the cold water wake up to what these guys are really all about, and is getting a 24/7 education in how exactly collective bargaining works, the appeal of the usual conservative bumper sticker logic is, shall we say, somewhat muted. Reality, damn it it’s a pisser.

What is also delicious, in terms of the Tea Party-ites blundering into a situation with a very high-profile scrutiny of their motivations and behind-the-scenes players is the now near universal understanding of the Wisconsin … Indiana … Ohio … Colorado  … Michigan … fight as a thoroughly political brawl, largely unrelated to the righteous claims of fiscal propriety. One analyst quite correctly explained the conflict as the Republicans over-playing their hand in a blitzkrieg attack on the primary sources of Democratic campaign funding … a scenario that could only be counter-balanced if liberals somehow made a similar assault on conservatives’ mega-church constituency, which for them is an equally reliable source of cash and organizing power. The one difference being that there are actual laws on the book — you know, in the Constitution — guaranteeing one while prohibiting the other.

But as we know, the reality of the Constitution is another one of those things the new-conservatives routinely over-talk and wildly under-think.