A Question of Institutional Intellect

January 21st, 2014 · 1 Comment · economy, Education, journalism, labor, Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

Sometimes I feel like Pavlov’s dog.

Because editors at the Albuquerque Journal regularly substitute political for journalistic decisions, they’ve trained me to salivate at the prospect of identifying the paper’s barely disguised editorial agenda in the news columns.

And as you know, I find it and bark.

However, on looking away from the Journal, I find myself wondering if its terrible failure to serve readers may not stem from intellectual limitations.

Take, for example, its booster-like backing of UNM President Robert Frank’s efforts to make the university a better “economic engine” (his phrase) for the state, which V.B. Price recently considered in his online New Mexico Mercury (Provincial Matters, 1/13/14).

But I hear you saying, “Arthur, you’re wrong. That boosterism is pure politics. The Journal believes (like the One Percent, the laissez-faire crowd and Marxists) that economics comes first, before other values like patriotism, community, love and kindness.”

Yes, I see your point and I don’t disagree with anything you said. But isn’t there an intellectual failure behind that?

Let’s return to Prof. Price who sees possibilities in President Frank’s plans, but also worries:

“Will the humanities and those disciplines that lead to richer, fuller lives and competence in self-government and the workings of a free society, disciplines that foster questioning, skepticism, curiosity, independence, flexibility and a heightened social conscience be short-changed because they are not geared to generating ideas for the marketplace?”

It’s Price’s level of discourse that impresses me. The Journal rarely publishes pieces of that quality, on this subject or any other, excepting a few UpFront columns. Instead, the editors choose partisan screeds, mostly, and predictable, superficial essays.

The Journal’s woeful intellectual level is not the only limitation; a second related (but not identical) trait is narrowness of vision.

Read the Journal, editorials, Op Ed articles and news columns and you might conclude the nation’s problems lie in the failure of Democrats and Republicans to compromise!

As they say in the comics, Aaaargh! How narrow can you get?

Let me distinguish intelligent from intellectual. As I use them, intelligence refers to a capacity (or capacities), while intellectual means the positive use of those capacities to dig deeper, explore, explain, create art, perhaps transcend.

In this context, consider the Journal’s scornful opinion of a Santa Fe School Board resolution “that the schools replace government testing mandates and efforts to quantify educational improvement with ‘freedom’ and ‘joy’”.

The Friday, Jan. 3 editorial ran under this rubric:

“‘Feel good’ no substitute for student competence”

What struck me first was its supreme arrogance. Here is a newspaper that declines to edit its news and opinion (and even humor) columns for factual accuracy, yet has the gall to express a corporate opinion on education.

Putting the chutzpah aside, however, look at the argument’s intellectual weakness. Specifically, the editorial makes combatants of freedom and joy on one hand, and effective education on the other.

Really?

But I understand – for the editorial made clear what the Journal thinks schooling is for:

“A solid foundation in the classic reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic that allows them to move on to college or vocational training so they can qualify for jobs that demand ever more educational achievement.”

Not critical thinking. Not preparation for citizenship. Not humanistic values.

Funny, but two days later, the N.Y. Times reported on newly-elected Mayor Bill De Blasio’s choice for schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, about whom reporter Gina Bellafante wrote:

“Ms. Fariña is a progressive educator who speaks movingly about returning joy to the project of teaching. ‘We’ve lost the spirit that education is a calling,’ she told me.’

“Ultimately, Ms. Fariña’s biggest task may be to broker an ideological peace between those who believe that joy and rigor are compatible and those who don’t….”

A different take on joy, no?

Now you may argue this editorial reflected the Journal political agenda, which pretty much tracks the right-wing passion for more tests, scapegoating of teachers, privatization of schools and shaping kids for corporate ends.

Again, you are correct. Still, that may reflect a failure to understand, intellectually, how the New Individualism has corroded the American community of my youth and keeps eating at it.

Speaking of the Times, before we go, I never finish my Sunday newspaper without a gift, sometimes a rare piece of information but frequently a new idea or way of seeing the world.

That’s because the Times casts a wide net, publishing not just a variety of political viewpoints but also what historians, classicists, scientists of all stripes, psychologists and artists think.

In contrast, the Journal presents the same small-minded folks beating the same tiny drums.

One miniature mind, economics reporter Robert Samuelson, wrote what was for him an above-average column Saturday, Jan. 18. Yet it, too, supports my thesis.

Samuelson cites scholarly research that says higher minimum wages will cause little or no loss of jobs. Later, he notes the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace over the years. And he writes, “Businesses have been reluctant job creators. They curb hiring at the least pretext. They seem obsessed with cost control.”

All that is praiseworthy.

He concludes, however, “the notion that it [the minimum wage] can be boosted sharply without any job penalty may be a mirage.”

No surprise there. Would the Journal have published it if he’d concluded otherwise?

But it’s his intellectual failure that matters here.

On the way to his conclusion, Samuelson asks if employers would take “the minimum’s steep costs in stride” or cut hiring and automate further.

“And which matter more for low-income workers, added jobs or higher incomes?”

How could he ask either without realizing he’d omitted a key factor?

According to most economists, higher incomes for low-income workers would create demand. Because they have bills, they must spend immediately, which spending encourages businesses to hire, not fire.

Duh!

How did Samuelson forget that?

Here I can answer confidently. It’s not politics. He means well. Sadly, though, Samuelson’s lack of self-knowledge condemns him to superficiality.

Intelligent, that is, but not intellectual.

So that’s my argument, that the Journal’s journalistic malfeasance may result from an institutional lack of intellect rather than its passion for promoting its politics from A1 to the last page.

Of course, I could be barking up the wrong tree. Please tell me what you think.

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