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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Art imitating life, Pew study and 'stunning ignorance'

Was West Wing a precursor to 2008 presidential race?
Hadn't thought about The West Wing show in a while, but Slate V has an interesting look at the inspiration for the dark horse candidacy of Congressman Matthew Santos (played by Jimmy Smits). "I do want to win. You know? But I can't do it by being just another cardboard cut out even if it is smart tactics," Santos tells Josh Lyman, who is trying to convince him to run.

Political consultant at the time, David Axelrod, who is running Obama's presidential campaign had lengthy conversations with the show's writers. He was running Obama's U.S. Senate campaign at the time of the show.

If you recall, the fictional contest between Santos and a sitting vice president leads to a brokered Democratic convention. I knew I liked those writers at The West Wing. They were so smart. Although Aaron Sorkin remains the greatest of them all.

Santos ended winning the presidency against a formidable and even appealing Republican candidate in Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda). And then he did something really different— he asked Vinick to serve in his administration.

Strap on your seatbelts because I'm all over the place today. This is a good sign for me—my brain is super-charged and that's just the place where this creative individual needs to operate.

Pew on religion in American life
I've been reading a lot about the Pew study on religion and public life. I can't say that I'm at all surprised by the results. As readers here know, I've had my own struggles with the Catholic church and I'm not exactly an active participant right now. But I like to think that my writing about people of faith is in some small way helping me to live out my faith.

I've been wondering if Catholicism will necessarily evolve—like Judaism has done over time—into different sects (conservative, reform, orthodox, etc.). Is this the type of evolution necessary for the church to survive? I'm not saying I know the answer, only that it's something about which I've been thinking.

Christopher Dickey writes today in WAPO's On Faith section that America is a society of choice. We were founded by choice and our focus is never on our history, but on our future. While we "have" or possess things (spouse, children, job, home), most of the rest of the world "belongs"—to families, place, history, culture and faith.
"You might not pray, you might not even believe, but who you feel you are is profoundly shaped by the sense of the past from which you came, and to which you belong. That may be a source of strength or frustration. It may be many things. But it is not a matter of choice."
Dickey, who is the Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor for Newsweek, goes on to write that the real clash of civilizations is between our notion of having and the rest of the world's sense of belonging.
"When Americans find their way into the middle of sectarian conflicts, like Lebanon's in the 1980s or Iraq's today, they often feel lost. We are about 'freedom.' They are about 'fundamentalism.' We're thinking about where we're going, they're obsessed with where they came from. (In the United States 'history' is actually an epithet, as in, 'You're history.')"
Which all leads me finally to this study reported in today's New York Times:

'Stunning ignorance'
In our push to teach to the reading and math portions of standardized tests, it seems that we are leaving a generation of 17-year-olds ignorant of history and literature.

"The survey results, released on Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of teenagers live in 'stunning ignorance' of history and literature, said the group that commissioned it, Common Core," reports the Times

From the report, available here as PDF.
"The problems that the above results pose for civic discourse are neither murky nor obscure. One need not search far to find attacks on anti-terrorism measures that draw upon imagery from 1984 or that use the term 'Orwellian.' Pundits, novelists, and journalists routinely wield references to Job or Oedipus in making points about the trials of a public figure or the complexities of familial relationships. High school graduates unacquainted with these terms are handicapped when it comes to engaging in public debates, perhaps recognizing the terms and phrases but lacking comprehension of the assumptions and associations that lend them meaning. Magazine and newspaper articles are not infrequently strewn with allusions to a fallen figure being branded with a 'scarlet letter' or to it being 'the best of times and the worst of times'—rhetorical nods that presume familiarity and help readers navigate the narrative. Those unfamiliar with terms and references that authors and editors presume to be common knowledge may find themselves struggling to make sense of seemingly prosaic accounts. What's worse is that these students lack the knowledge and wisdom that historical information provides and that artistic works contain.
This report contains yet more evidence that education reform, if it is to be truly successful, must be systemic and simultaneous.

Word of the day
picayune: something trivial

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