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New York Times columnist speaks to the Econ Club of Grand Rapids

February 8, 2010

Earlier today, New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. Amway Chief Executive Doug DeVos joined Brooks at the podium. The topic of the luncheon presentation was “Building the Case for Investments in Children.”

Brooks, a self-described political conservative, was once a liberal who even did a parody piece on the icon of US conservatives, William F. Buckley. Brooks has written two books and writes a regular column for the New York Times, as well as other Washington-based publications.

In a recent Times column Brooks derided Haitian culture as the root problem facing the ability of Haitians to rid themselves of poverty. Brooks believes that Haitians are “progress-resistant” in part, because they practice voodoo religion. Brooks also makes the sweeping claim that “we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty.” The columnist never articulates who “we” are, but towards the end of the column he advocates for aid programs abroad that embrace the philosophy of organizations such as Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools. I mention Brook’s comments on Haiti since it was relevant to the topic that he addressed with the Economic Club.

Brooks was brought to Grand Rapids to speak about the importance early childhood education. Everyone in attendance was given a folder with information about a local program called First Steps, which is co-chaired by Doug DeVos. First Steps of Kent County is an effort to provide some comprehensive planning to promote better opportunities for early childhood education and development.

Brooks spent the first part of his presentation telling jokes about Washington politicians, which seemed to get the crowd in a good mood. However, he spent around thirty minutes speaking about education in America. Brooks made the claim that the US became the richest nation in the world because it had the most educated country. Brooks did not support this statement with any sources, but he went on to say that in the past 30 years the US has squandered its commitment to education.

The New York Times columnist went on to say that now there are some examples of educational models that seem to understand what it takes to make kids successful. Here Brooks cites some of the same organizations he did in his article on Haiti, like the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Most of what Brooks talked about was how recent research has shed new light on how we understand child development. He mentioned new research on brain development, conscious and unconscious thinking amongst children, cognitive development, attachment theory and how children can learn while they are in the womb. All of this sounded interesting, but what was the point of sharing this information with members of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids?

Brooks spoke to why child development was important to the business community at the very end of his talk and during the Question and Answer period. He said that parents who are taking their kids everywhere from sports practice to piano lessons and other extra-curricular activities will have children that learn the importance of competition. “These kids will develop a healthy work ethic, whereas in working class environments, kids don’t learn to compete.” Brooks also said that these kids are likely to make more money when they grow up because of their exposure to competitiveness.

This idea fit well into some of the information that was in the packets provided to everyone in attendance. There was one document put together by the Committee for Economic Development, which was headlined, “The Economic Promise of Investing in High-Quality Preschool.” This document was based on a study by the Committee for Economic Development. The study said that, “In the future, ensuring US economic competitiveness and growth will require a highly educated and skilled workforce.” Thus it was made clear that today’s business leaders need to see that early childhood education is important to future US economic competitiveness and a worthwhile investment.

Now the purpose of the talk by David Brooks became much clearer. This clarity was affirmed by the first question from the audience, which asked about the effectiveness of the Choice program in Milwaukee and how the voucher system works better. This is the type of education that the DeVos’s have been supporting for years, particularly Dick & Betsy DeVos through the organization that Betsy chair’s, All Children Matter. All Children Matter has been promoting a privatized, voucher system of education.

The next questioner asked, “How do we get the unions to embrace this kind of educational model?” Brooks responded by saying that this is not likely to happen and that the unions are one of the main barriers to moving this type of education mode forward. Brooks also said that the political cycle and Washington politics is a significant barrier, because politicians would “rather talk about Wall Street and Afghanistan than talk about educating children.

All in all what Brooks had to say was some what of a mixed bag in terms of what needs to happen to improve education for children in this country. However, it seemed clear that those who organized the event were interested in focusing on a specific outcome of investing in early childhood education…… will it make the US economically competitive for the future.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2010 2:41 am

    School vouchers are unconstitutional if the school is parochial, a serious violation of the seperation of church and state.

    The arguement that vouchers provide competition and raise the bar for public education is ludicrous. The idiots peddling this idea try to point to the test scores which are higher than public schools in many cases. Private schools pick and choose their students and if someone begins to have academic or behavioral problems they kick them out and the child returns to a public school.

    The push for privitization of schools, the military, prisons, and most other government functions is freightening. There are those who argue that privitization saves the government money. Yes it does, because the private sector will pay its employees less. This is part of a larger plan to eliminate good paying government jobs and destroy the middle class .

  2. Y.B. Ordinary permalink
    February 9, 2010 1:29 pm

    The voucher system is simply a ploy to get poor people to pay, through their taxes, for rich kid’s private educations. Once again redistributing the wealth- upward.
    As to the quote in paragraph 8, it sounds as if Brooks has got his conservative talking points down pat, as usual. Apparently, those working class kids can’t learn anyway, so why should we even try to educate them. The Cons have been pushing for eliminating public education for decades now.
    Did Mr. Brooks happen to say how much teachers would be paid in his vision? I believe teachers should be paid in proportion to their value to society, so I’d put them somewhere in between bank branch managers and doctors, and probably above lawyers. They are responsible for the future of our nation, even according to Mr. Brooks. So bust the unions, and put 40 kids in every public classroom with a minimum wage worker with no health insurance? Sounds like a sure way to end public education once and for all (and those cursed taxes needed to support it).
    OK, to be fair, from your report it sounds like the audience were the ones who were against public education more than Mr. Brooks. But I find it hard to believe that his advocacy extends to anything more than another way for corporations and billionaires to raid the public treasury.

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    February 9, 2010 3:28 pm

    The Economic Club certainly is good at appealing to its right-wing base, isn’t it? This is exactly the type of speaker they seem to prefer: someone who seems on the surface to be speaking to a topic of general intellectual interest and who, in fact, is helping to bolster their agenda of shifting and keeping wealth sequestered at the top of the economic ladder.

    What’s equally troubling here is Brooks’ attitude about the working class and poor children. And am I right in understanding that no one challenged his statement that they “don’t learn how to compete” and therefore will never have a healthy work ethic?

    That is mind-boggling. Did he run over a few peasant children with his carriage when he left the event?

    There is no one social class that has a corner on intelligence, creativity, or determination. There is, however, a long history in this country of depriving many children of the resources and encouragement they need in favor of the few. And it sounds like a number of the members of the Economic Club would like to keep it that way.

  4. February 9, 2010 3:35 pm

    Kate, no one verbalized any objection to Brook’s comments. All of the questions that were asked did not challenge any of the points Brooks made in his talk, they just wanted to have him affirm their own thoughts on how to improve education in this country. I did forget to mention that Brooks also made a comment about how single parent homes were also a major cause of children not doing well in school, but like much of his presentation he did not cite a source to support such a claim.

  5. Joel Van Kuiken permalink
    February 10, 2010 2:14 pm

    Thanks for the synopsis of the event, Jeff. I didn’t realize Brooks would be there — I would have liked to ask some tougher questions, if I had attended. That said, I find Brooks to be level-headed, basically moderate (although what moderate actually means in 2010 is an arbitrary question), and open to dialog and discussion. I’m not a fan of “conservatism” but at least Brooks is unlike the current Republican tyrannical minority. Hopefully, they’ll bring Krugman next.

  6. May 21, 2011 3:40 am

    This has made my day. I wish all piotsngs were this good.

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