Lynne Cheney, Policy Assassin

They are stories of despair, heartrending and outrageous. A young boy with hopes of becoming a doctor is told by his school that "it would be more appropriate for him to be a gas station attendant or a truck driver." Another girl, an honor student, is instructed to consider a career in sanitation. Elsewhere, a young girl named Stacy is continually frustrated with math—she has never been taught to multiply. But she is fortunate compared to a student named Joey, who went off to college only to discover he scored at the remedial level—he, too, had never learned basic skills. And a woman in California, Mrs. McDaniel, tells her confused children to look for help in their math textbook—but there is no textbook. A common thread runs through this litany of woe. All of these poor souls lay the blame for their plight upon the doorstep of liberal pedagogy. And all of these stories have been brought to us by Lynne Cheney.

Cheney, the former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Presidents Reagan and Bush, has become the leading policy assassin for the right-wing cultural warriors. She is a prime example of a Washington type, the specialty polemicist. Conservative pundits have so proliferated inside the Beltway that they have been forced to subdivide the territory. Some of these conservatives concentrate on the evils of the United Nations, others on excessive environmental regulations. There are even pundits whose entire role is to agitate for capital gains tax cuts. Cheney has carved out a niche for herself in art and education. She hangs her shingle at the American Enterprise Institute, a gleaming marble-columned conservative think tank about a mile north of the White House. Her role, while important, is quite simple. She produces a steady supply of screeds for publications like the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, and, occasionally, the New York Times op-ed page. Her point is always the same: This or that nook of the culture has been conquered by fuzzy-minded, left-wing cultural relativists.

But Cheney's obsessions are not hers alone. Scratch slightly below the surface of her polemics and you find the basic work of political coalition building. Her stories of innocents betrayed by the academic establishment usually reflect the fears of the Christian right. She takes this raw material, applies a sheen of respectable intellectual neoconservatism, and connects it to a larger ideological and legislative purpose. So we have the predicaments of Stacy and Joey and poor Mrs. McDaniel, followed by Cheney somberly pointing the finger at the usual liberal villains.

The Real Zealot

Education reformers have long bemoaned the fact that American schools do very little to give noncollege-bound students necessary skills to enter the workforce. One small effort to change this was a bill signed by President Clinton in 1994 that provided modest federal support for something called school-to-work. Since school-to-work programs are designed and implemented by states and local school boards, it is difficult to generalize about them. But their basic purpose is to expand and improve vocational education so that it is no longer stigmatized as a holding pen for low achievers. This mainly entails modernizing vocational programs by better tailoring them to the needs of employers. School-to-work programs also aim to integrate vocational programs with academics, so that noncollege students would have an incentive to earn better grades. At its best—for instance, in Wisconsin—school-to-work has meant improved, high-standard vocational education. More frequently, its implementation has been shallow and its effects trivial.

Imperfect though it may be, this is a hard program to hate. Yet somehow it has turned into a lightning rod for Christian right activists, whose anxiety is not altogether coherent. Their motivation lies, in part, in their broad concern that schools exercise too much influence over students' lives by taking on new responsibilities and, hence, diminishing parental influence. More specifically, some Christian conservatives observe that school-to-work extends its programming beyond vocational students and therefore represents socialized workforce planning, a Soviet-style system wherein the government directs everyone into their predetermined occupation.

In a Times op-ed earlier this year, Cheney expressed this sentiment in a slightly more acceptable way. She repeated the complaints of two parents whose children were allegedly steered into careers in which they had no interest. (Actually, one of the stories was from a parent who had heard about this happening to someone else's child, making it a third-hand account.) Cheney also noted that Ira Magaziner, the hated central planner of the Clinton health plan, supported school-to-work. Beyond this, she offered nothing that could be called legitimate data.

Cheney has also targeted her vituperation at another education reform, whole math. Whole math is a modern method of teaching mathematics which, broadly speaking, gives relatively greater weight to the teaching of concepts and less to the teaching of facts. This runs head-on into the Christian conservative critique of education, which holds that schools have shortchanged the teaching of basic facts in order to inculcate liberal values in students. As Cheney tells it, whole math involves such silly things as students "inventing their own personal methods of long division." Whole math, she explains, allows students to use calculators rather than learning addition, subtraction, and the like. She reports hearing from a mother who saw a student use a calculator to figure 10 percent of 470. You can see how this fits with the larger conservative fixation with permissiveness and relativism.


Subscribe to The American Prospect


Yet the anecdotes Cheney uses to fill in her ideology have less to them than might appear at first glance. In fact, "whole math teaching" is not a phrase generally used by professional math educators; rather, it's a term coined by conservatives like Cheney who aim to tar modern math teaching strategies with a dubious-sounding label that sounds like "whole language" reading instruction, a form of teaching that is genuinely contentious.

Insofar as there is something that can be called whole math (or, with equal derision, "fuzzy math" or "new new math"), it is a strategy that replaces what one teacher has called the old "Yours Is Not To Reason Why, Just Invert And Multiply" method with instruction that breeds understanding. "Inventing personal methods of long division" might sound like some New Age method invented on hippie communes, but it is actually a more sophisticated way to think about the problem. Say you are trying to divide 60 by 5. You could start by figuring that 50 has 10 fives, so 60 would have 2 more. Or you could calculate that each 10 has two fives, and then multiply that by number of tens. And so on. All of this would probably teach you more than working out the problem on paper—and for that reason, what Cheney calls whole math is widely accepted by the mathematics education profession. Her calculator anecdote is meant to imply that kids are not actually using this kind of thinking; but plenty of students who didn't learn whole math use calculators for simple problems, too.

And then consider Cheney's story about the whole math classroom that had no textbook. After Cheney reported this seemingly devastating fact in the Standard, the creators of the program wrote in reply that they did, in fact, publish a textbook. Cheney huffily retorted that the class in question was given a series of handouts which were bound into a book only later. "Why do whole math zealots," she sneered in her response, "try so hard (claiming to have 'textbooks,' for example) to make it appear as though what they're doing is not at all out of the ordinary?" Of course it was Cheney, not the whole math proponents, who lent such weight to the textbook issue—which raises the question of whether the whole-mathers are really the zealots in this debate.

Stretching the Truth

It is not that Cheney is completely wrong in all that she says. Rather, she has a tendency to hysteria and overstatement. In this she exemplifies the neoconservative complaint against the cultural excesses of the 1960s—a complaint that has a core of legitimacy, but which through excess and political manipulation has been reduced to a simplistic rant. That worldview, in all its superficiality, can be seen in Cheney's 1996 book, Telling the Truth. As the title implies, Cheney's theme is that the left has abandoned the standard of truth in favor of relativism. Having decided that all standards of merit and logic are political constructs, it has imposed its own ideological bias through totalitarian political correctness. The project of Cheney's book is to chronicle the extension of political correctness into nearly every facet of American life (mainly by repeating shopworn tales of pc horror).

It is true that a certain noxious brand of left-wing multiculturalism began to dominate elite academia in the 1980s. Many liberals have been slow to realize how deeply illiberal this phenomenon is. I wrote an article in this magazine making that point ["Backfire on Campus," TAP, Summer 1995], and it also happens that I first reported one of the pc outrage stories that Cheney recycles. Yet she seems constitutionally incapable of discerning limits or degrees of variation. She describes elementary school teachers denouncing Christopher Columbus and railing against American imperialism. "Instead of being encouraged to search for a complicated truth," Cheney writes, with an eerie lack of self-awareness, "students are increasingly presented with oversimplified versions of the American past that focus on the negative."

Cheney is making quite a leap here. In the ninth grade I had an English teacher whose right-wing revisionist views occasionally seeped into her classroom lectures. (We learned that Franco was a democrat, for instance.) One time she mentioned that Stalin broke the Nonaggression Pact with Hitler. When I protested that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, not the other way around, she replied that "It all depends on your point of view, and we know where your sympathies lie." Now, if I had at my disposal a well-funded think tank and a horde of research assistants, I could no doubt dredge up an impressive list of similar anecdotes. This would hardly prove that the public schools have been overrun by fascist sympathizers.

Cheney, though, seems to believe that we can generalize about the culture at large from a few anecdotes. She goes on at length about the teaching of witchcraft in schools—another obsession of the religious right—as if it were widespread. "Why is it permissible to have 'isolated instances' of witchcraft practiced in school," she asks, "when not a single instance of organized prayer is permitted?" She quotes a Defense Depart ment memorandum requiring special procedures to promote any nondisabled white male. While the memo does exist—she lifted it from a Washington Post story—Cheney never questions whether it fairly reflects the racial ethos of the Pentagon.

Proclaiming the ubiquity of political correctness allows the right to portray itself as an oppressed minority. The Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal, the American Spectator and the National Review, the Washington Times and Rush Limb augh and Fox News teem with conservative commentators, all proclaiming their bravery and loneliness. A whiff of self-pity pervades Cheney's book. She prefaces every chapter with an Orwell quote, and in describing one confrontation with leftist scholars she declares, "I was Goldstein," the state enemy from 1984. She quotes from an article bemoaning the fact that four MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants have gone to editorial board members of the left-wing journal Dissent, but none for those from such magazines such as the National Review and the American Enterprise. Cheney assumes this discrepancy can only be explained by bias, not by the fact that Dissent has more writers like Michael Walzer while the right-wing press has more writers like, well, Lynne Cheney, whose overarching belief seems to be that disregard for the truth is endemic to the political left. She draws a straight line from the postmodernists like Foucault, who denied the existence of objective reality, to moderate liberals like Al Gore—whose book, she informs her readers, "is about how the great thinkers of the Enlightenment have led us astray." It becomes very clear that any deviation from the Republican Party line is tantamount to Foucaultism. Cheney asserts that the theme of the 1992 Clinton campaign—that during the 1980s the rich gained but the poor and middle class did not—is not only false but is a repudiation of objectivity itself. She praises the Contract with America—not on ideological grounds, she assures us, but as "a good sign that politicians are paying attention to delivering on what they say."

The conservative tendency to conflate the views of liberal politicians with those of illiberal academic radicals offers clear political dividends. It marries the anxieties of the GOP's largest voting block—the Christian right—with those of its elite neoconservative intellectual wing. Yet it has had the curious effect of abetting the same movement it claims to oppose. To pretend that political correctness has had a comparable impact at Harvard and your local kindergarten and the Army obscures and belittles its deleterious effects. And it allows campus leftists to portray any opposition as a right-wing smear campaign. No doubt this bothers the right very little. But there are many people who regard the damage wrought by the cultural left as a sincere intellectual concern, not just a way to make a living.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement