Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 15, 2013

Obama’s “New Beginning” Lies in Ruin

People may recall that in Barack Obama’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, the president promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. Mr. Obama’s own background, his eagerness to apologize for America, and willingness to engage the Arab world would usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation.

Mr. Obama said, “We have the power to make the world we seek.” He added:

but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written. The Holy Koran tells us: “O mankind!  We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.” The Holy Bible tells us:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.

I thought about the president’s New Beginning the other day, glancing at the top three items in the “What’s News” section of the Wall Street Journal. And this is what I read:

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People may recall that in Barack Obama’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, the president promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. Mr. Obama’s own background, his eagerness to apologize for America, and willingness to engage the Arab world would usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation.

Mr. Obama said, “We have the power to make the world we seek.” He added:

but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written. The Holy Koran tells us: “O mankind!  We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.” The Holy Bible tells us:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.

I thought about the president’s New Beginning the other day, glancing at the top three items in the “What’s News” section of the Wall Street Journal. And this is what I read:

  • The U.S. is preparing plans for a possible Syrian collapse.
  • Egyptian President Morsi shuffled his government, strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood and sparking opposition complaints.
  • House Republicans plan to question State Department officials about the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

It looks to me as if Mr. Obama’s work here on earth seems to be falling rather short of what we might expect; and that the president’s New Beginning has made that part of the world less just, more violent, and more dangerous than the world he inherited.

It is disquieting to realize that in virtually every area, the gap between what Barack Obama promised and what his policies have produced is as cavernous as that of any president in modern times.

Barack Obama wanted to do the job of a president. It just turns out he wasn’t up to it.

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Obama is the Ultimate Ad Hominem President

At a fundraising event earlier this week in New York City, President Obama said this:

What’s blocking us right now is a sort of hyper-partisanship in Washington that I was, frankly, hoping to overcome in 2008. My thinking was when we beat them in 2012 that might break the fever, and it’s not quite broken yet. But I am persistent. And I am staying at it. And I genuinely believe there are Republicans out there who would like to work with us but they’re fearful of their base and they’re concerned about what Rush Limbaugh might say about them…

As a consequence we get the kind of gridlock that makes people cynical about government. My intentions over the next 3 ½ years are to govern. … If there are folks who are more interested in winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation then I want to make sure there are consequences to that.

Mr. Obama’s statement, a variation of what he’s said countless times in the past, is worth examining for what it reveals about him.

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At a fundraising event earlier this week in New York City, President Obama said this:

What’s blocking us right now is a sort of hyper-partisanship in Washington that I was, frankly, hoping to overcome in 2008. My thinking was when we beat them in 2012 that might break the fever, and it’s not quite broken yet. But I am persistent. And I am staying at it. And I genuinely believe there are Republicans out there who would like to work with us but they’re fearful of their base and they’re concerned about what Rush Limbaugh might say about them…

As a consequence we get the kind of gridlock that makes people cynical about government. My intentions over the next 3 ½ years are to govern. … If there are folks who are more interested in winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation then I want to make sure there are consequences to that.

Mr. Obama’s statement, a variation of what he’s said countless times in the past, is worth examining for what it reveals about him.

1. President Obama is once again engaging in what psychiatrists refer to as projection, in which people lay their worst attributes on others.

In this instance, the most hyper-partisan president in modern times is ascribing that trait to Congressional Republicans. What we’ve learned about Mr. Obama over the years is that he that while he is unusually inept at governing, he’s quite good at campaigning. He certainly enjoys it, having taken the concept of the Permanent Campaign beyond anything we’ve ever seen. It turns out it’s the only thing he does well—no human being in history has raised campaign cash quite like he has—and it’s all he seems interested in doing.

On some deep, subconscious level, though, Mr. Obama seems ashamed of the path he’s chosen. And so the president projects those traits he loathes in himself on to others. To give you a sense of how deep the malady runs, the president does more than merely project; he actually preaches against the very character flaws he himself cannot overcome.

2. The president can hardly go a day without impugning the motivations of his opponents. They never have honest differences with the president. Instead they are suffering from an illness (“fever”), cowardice (afraid of what Rush Limbaugh might say about them), and lack of patriotism (caring about elections rather than future generations). Mr. Obama is the ultimate ad hominem president.

3. The president spoke about cynicism toward government. But if the president is really concerned about this phenomenon, he might look at his own administration, which is dealing with multiplying scandals. I would submit that misleading the country in the aftermath of the deadly siege on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents, and seizing the phone records of journalists might well deepen the public’s cynicism toward government. And for the record, trust in the federal government has reached new lows during the Obama years. Might he have some responsibility for that?

4. Mr. Obama professes deep concern “about the next generation.” Those words would be a bit more believable if he were not handing off to the next generation a crushing debt burden that will take generations to undo, if  it is ever undone. No president holds a candle to Mr. Obama when it comes to engaging in generational theft.

5. As for gridlock: This is actually inherent in our system of government. It’s called “checks and balances” and “separation of powers.” The president might want to consult this document for more. 

I understand Mr. Obama has complained many times that there are checks on his power, but I prefer the wisdom of James Madison to the ambitions of Barack Obama. And, oh, by the way: greater gridlock in Mr. Obama’s first two years in office would have prevented passage of the Affordable Care Act, which the presidential historian George Edwards has called “perhaps the least popular major domestic policy passed in the last century” and which Democratic Senator Max Baucus has warned is a “huge train wreck coming down.” It turns out that gridlock, if not always ideal, beats passing really bad legislation.

Just over a hundred days into his second term, the president finds himself weak, wounded, and on the defensive. Which means Mr. Obama will need to find new enemies to blame, new people to target, and new divisions to exploit.

This is what Hope and Change looks like five years in. 

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Laptop U?

Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.

The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.

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Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.

The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.

Yet Heller’s article, though it records the promises of MOOCs, also offers some reason for skepticism.

First, some MOOC enthusiasts do not seem to understand how education works. Heller observes that “comedians record their best performances for broadcast and posterity,” and asks “why shouldn’t college teachers do the same?” After all, “the basis of a reliable education, it would seem, is quality control, not circumstance.” But that isn’t true. Any teacher knows that circumstances matter: the characteristics of a particular generation of students, the qualities of the kinds of students one’s own college or university attracts, what is going on at the moment on campus or off, the chemistry of a particular group, and the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in it.

Good teaching calls not only for a grasp of general principles but attentiveness to the particulars. It requires prudence. A professor teaching 100,000 students, much less a recording of a professor teaching 100,000 students, is not in a position to exercise that virtue. Heller, who seems to be playing devil’s advocate early in the article, gestures at the importance of circumstance in teaching later in his piece, describing a face-to-face lecture he sits in on and the “strange transaction of watching someone who watches back, the eagerness to emanate support. Something magical and fragile was happening here, in the room.”

Magic is the wrong word, leaving the user vulnerable to Kevin Carey’s snark: “If the traditional college value-add boils down to intuiting the light in students’ eyes they’re in deep trouble.” But Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, is himself naïve if he scoffs at the idea that having a teacher or mentor who knows you is a “value-add.”

Second, MOOC enthusiasts sometimes exaggerate how innovative MOOCs are. For example, Heller reports on Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy’s reasons for thinking that “multiple-choice questions,” which are forced on him by the constraints of having to grade so many students, “are almost as good as essays.” One reason is that “The online testing mechanism explains the right response when students miss an answer. And it lets them see the reasoning behind the correct choice when they’re right.” That is what we in the education biz used to call “an answer key.”

One would not expect conservatives to be enthusiastic about MOOCs, which tend to involve more screen time and less reading, more multiple choice tests and fewer, if any essays, and more, not fewer, concessions to a student’s inability to pay attention for long periods of time. But some are excited about MOOCs because they promise, as Roger Kimball says, “to rip through the educational status quo, performing for that fetid redoubt a service similar to that performed by Hercules for Augeas, he of the largest and untidy stables.”

Colleges and universities, Kimball suggests, have largely been taken over by the left, and so there is no reason to mourn and some reason to celebrate the possibility that online learning will put many of them out of business. Thus a relative traditionalist like William Bennett is on Udacity’s advisory board, embracing Udacity in part because “traditional American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity and excellence.”

I am not a proponent of what Kevin Carey calls “MOOC denialism.” But it is a mistake to embrace MOOCs as readily as conservatives have thus far. For one thing, MOOC proponents have absolutely nothing to say about the purpose of education. MOOC companies simply offer menus from which students choose. Conservatives who have in the past allied themselves with proponents of liberal education should be skeptical that MOOCs will advance rather than further weaken liberal education. For another thing, if Thrun is even half right, we can expect the institutions that dominate the future of higher education to be the high-prestige places like Harvard, Berkeley, Wesleyan and others that have a national or international brand. It hardly seems likely that such institutions are going to help turn a false promise of diversity into a true one.

The hope that technological innovation will somehow enable conservatives to win a war they have been losing in the field of higher education is really a symptom of despair. If even a bit of a story like this one about Swarthmore is true, this despair is understandable (though Swarthmore is among the institutions least likely to suffer any damage from online competition). But without neglecting the possibility that MOOCs or some other version of online education may really make a decent education more widely and cheaply available, conservatives like Kimball should not act like spurned lovers, crying out that if they can’t have higher education, then nobody will. In cheering for a flood that will sweep away their enemies, they risk sweeping away what remains of liberal education and of intellectual diversity in the academy.

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