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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pat Tillman, truth, stories, and why our education system is the way it is

About the last thing I am likely to do in this space is to write about a movie. But, as it happened, I chanced upon a movie on TV in which I had no interest. Yet it had an impact on me anyway. The movie is “The Tillman Story” which would mean nothing to non-U.S. people and maybe very little to many in the U.S. as well. Pat Tillman was a U.S. football star who suddenly left the National Football League and his millions of dollars of salary to enlist to fight in Iraq after 2001.

The politicians in Washington loved this story since it justified the “all American hero fighting for his country” story that Bush and his cronies were trying to sell at the time. They played the story up in all the media. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan after some years and Bush and his buddies were busy touting the “our hero died for his country” line they love so much. The problem was that after some investigation on the part of Tillman’s family, it seems he wasn’t killed while fighting the enemy. Instead he was killed by U.S. troops who just seemed to be having fun shooting anything that moved one day.

The movie details how the family fought back and uncovered the cover up that the Army had created to obscure what really happened. The movie is unkind to the Army, but, as someone who has worked with the Army for a long time, I was skeptical that the Army would be that involved in telling such an elaborate lie. Eventually the movie points the finger at Donald Rumsfeld who appears to have been calling the shots and makes it clear that George W. Bush would have had to have been involved as well.

My first reaction was that it says something that they were allowed to make this movie at all. A repressive government doesn't let you make anti-government movies. The U.S. government may have many faults, but freedom of speech still exists here.

But then, my thoughts turned to the real subjects that always interest me which are stories, and the general stupidity of the American public.

The lengths to which Bush and friends went to tell the Tillman story that they wanted to tell and to cover up the real story are well documented in this film. Why? Why lie, cover up, misinform, hush people up, manipulate the media, and otherwise be hysterical about the fact that a soldier was killed by his own troops? This happens all the time. It is called the fog of war.

The answer is that stories matter. Politicians love to tell stories and the stories they tell often have little relation to the truth. They get away with this because stories are simple and easy to understand. The truth is often much more complex.

This points to one reason why politicians all seem to agree on testing and generally making our education system about memorization of facts (otherwise known as “official stories.”) What we want students to learn is what the true stories are. We want them to know the facts about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Pat Tillman. We really don't care if those facts are true. In all nations, the job of education is the telling of official government-approved stories about everything from history to economics to how to be a success and why to fight for your country. No one cares about the truth all that much. They just care about having good stories to tell.

We are all susceptible to a good story. (That is why we like to watch movies in the first place.) It is not just poorly educated who like simple stories. We all do. It is part of being human. But how do we learn to determine if a story is true?

We wouldn’t have known the truth about Pat Tillman if it hadn’t been for his family being smarter than your average family and really wanting to know what happened. They were capable of separating truth from fiction. But this is a skill which we are more or less explicitly taught not to do in our schools.

What can be done? Ask students to think instead of memorize? I have been saying that for years, but, no surprise, no government official is ever on my side on that one. They like being able to tell simple stories that remain unexamined by their listeners.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Parenting 101: every now and then you do something right

I have been in the UK for the last couple of weeks, now back in New York. While I was on the train going to Brighton, my daughter called with a business question. She was submitting a proposal and wanted to get the numbers right. When she needs advice she usually calls.

I mentioned this to my dinner companions that night and they reacted as if a grown child asking for advice, much less listening to it, was very weird.

Parents may not actually want their kids to be calling, but I do. So this is how I made that happen:

One day at Yale there was one of those pink while you were out slips that said my daughter had called. She was seven at the time and had never called before. I asked my secretary why she hadn't put the call through and she said I was busy with a graduate student at the time. I told my secretary that if I was busy with the President of U.S. and my daughter called, she was to put it through. My children always came first.

I then told my daughter that she was never to let anyone tell her that I was busy. She said she didn't want to disturb me and said she could disturb me any time she liked.

It was just a knee jerk reaction. I hadn't thought out what I wanted to say. My advice to parents is that you will get what you ask for from your children, so be sure when you ask. As for me, I have never regretted that initial reaction I had to that phone message.