Placekickers I

If life in America today is like the game of American football, we citizens – you and I, the rank and file – are sociopolitical placekickers.

Used to be that extra points and field goals were the subspecialty of one warrior or another; for example, George Blanda of the original Oakland Raiders was an active, then put-to-pasture quarterback. You’ve seen today’s version on television, wandering the sidelines during games, virtually ignored – sometimes shunned, in the name of gridiron superstition. Strangers in a strange land, mostly American now but descended from immigrant stock (i.e., “real” footballers) and the physical antonyms to their putative comrades-in-arms. Their role in the grand tableaux is significant; on many professional teams, one kicker or another holds the club scoring record. Back to Blanda, who still tops the East Bay privateers’ charts at 863 career points, with no touchdowns; places two, three, and four are also occupied by placekickers. (By contrast, Tim Brown is the fifth-leading scorer with 626 points and Raiders’ all-time rushing leader Marcus Allen is sixth with 588.) Nonetheless, it is tightly circumscribed, affecting the outcome in steady, incremental disproportion but totally divorced from theory, strategy, and tactics. They practice and play alone, called upon most often to add the cherry to the sundae or to salvage something from a failed assault – sometimes in crucial circumstances, where they risk responsibility for losing wars that are in essence draws when they’re called into combat. But still – mostly not there.

True Story #1: Not long ago, several of us were involved in a mixed-gender (Note: here in California, officially that means at least two) workplace conversation about politics. All of us earning our daily bread in government relations, I will admit here that the fact-to-opinion ratio was probably closer than in most water-cooler debates of the kind; certainly the accusation and volume levels were much lower than the televised punditry average. On the periphery, one of the younger bulls who up to that point had been a noncontributor was making a show of restlessness and imploding patience. Wise, inclusive elder I, I asked him if he had something to contribute.

“Sorry – didn’t take the course.”

True Story #2: Around midday on Monday, November 1, 2004 – the day before Election Theft No. Two – two of my younger, female (okay – much younger) coworkers were standing close enough to my office to overhear. One was second-generation Indian (East) with no occupational reason to be politically sophisticated, and the other was a cradle Republican with every reason – she was our legislative coordinator. (Her office was festooned with Dan Quayle posters – 2004, remember – the way most of her peers’ featured Calvin Klein underwear models; good ol’ horsey Marilyn was nowhere to be seen. Based on her photo with him as an adolescent volunteer, I guessed she was bedazzled innocently at a tender age; I refuse to indulge any speculation darker than that. I didn’t remember “Mr. Potatoe Head” having his picture taken that frequently without adult supervision, either, but I digress.) Anyway, they were comparing notes on whom to vote for and they agreed that Crawford’s village idiot deserved the nod because he was better-looking. I mean, John Kerry was just too ugly to be President. Once the horror receded, I entertained this image of a crack team of plastic surgeons all over Abraham Lincoln, vaingloriously trying to make him telegenic – at least for the 30-second spots.

True Story #3: Last week the Institute of Intercollegiate Studies released a contract study entitled The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions. Last Fall, the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy asked more than 14,000 randomly selected college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities across the country 60 multiple-choice questions in order to measure their knowledge in four subject areas: (1) American history; (2) government; (3) America and the world; and (4) the market economy. Key findings, and I quote:

FINDING 1: America’s colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America’s history and institutions.

  • Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen.
  • If the survey were administered as an exam in a college course, seniors would fail with an overall average score of 53.2 percent, or F on a traditional grading scale.
  • Though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000, and college students on average leave campus $19,300 in debt, they are no better off than when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.

FINDING 2: Prestige doesn’t pay off.

  • Colleges that rank high in the U.S. News and World Report 2006 ranking were ranked low in the ISI ranking of learning in these key fields. Specifically, a 1 percent increase in civic learning as measured in our survey corresponded to a decrease of 25 positions in the U.S. News ranking.
  • There is no relationship between the cost of attending a college and students’ acquired understanding of America’s history and key institutions. Students at relatively inexpensive colleges often learn more, on average, than their counterparts at expensive colleges.
  • At many colleges, including Brown, Georgetown, and Yale, seniors know less than freshmen about America’s history, government, foreign affairs, and economy. We characterize this phenomenon as “negative learning.” A majority of the 16 schools where senior scores were actually lower than freshman scores are considered to be among the most prestigious colleges in the United States.

FINDING 3: Students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach.

  • Student learning about America’s history and institutions decreases when fewer courses are taken in history, political science, government, and economics.
  • Schools where students took more courses in American history, political science, and economics outperformed those schools where fewer courses were completed.
  • Civic learning is significantly greater at schools that require students to take courses in American history, political science, and economics. Student knowledge in these key areas improves significantly at colleges that still value excellent teaching in the classroom.

FINDING 4: Greater civic learning goes hand-in-hand with more active citizenship.

  • Students who demonstrated greater learning of America’s history and institutions were more engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer community service, and political campaigns.”

MY FINDING 1: Re ISI’s Finding 4: No, duh.

MY FINDING 2: Applying the freshman-senior percentage spread, The University of California-Berkeley, the seat of the Free Speech Movement and Black cultural awareness, anti-Vietnam War hotbed, and my younger son’s alma mater, ranked 49th out of 50. (No snickering, you Stanford Cardinal – if a tree can snicker, that is; you were 43rd and you have an endowment.)

MY FINDING 3: Don’t be too hard on our “best and brightest;” it’s not their fault. They’ve already learned by high school that being sociopolitically aware and active isn’t a marketable skill; it won’t make you rich or famous – unless you’re a political consultant, and that doesn’t require any prior knowledge or experience in politics or government. So, why waste an opportunity to pad your GPA and get into an elite university with bragging rights, so you can avoid it altogether? Besides, to be a viable political candidate it’s almost mandatory to be a wealthy celebrity with no public service record already. Two out of three worked just fine for ol’ Dubyah and our Gubernator represents the trifecta. His prefabricated “Terminator” persona and his toothy Kennedy tag-along alone guarantee him instant access to fawning mainstream media, and what he’s spent in the last month on staged bill-signing ceremonies alone to get them there and crowd out his opponent could have built 10 elementary schools. ‘Course, juice from their wealthy and corporate friends don’t hurt, neither; your better parsers and prevaricators are insanely expensive these days.

NEXT WEEK: Whose ball is it, anyway?


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