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Timothy Egan unleashed

The longtime Northwest journalist and author lets fly some arrows in a guest column in The New York Times.
Timothy Egan receiving the National Book Award. (New York Times)

Timothy Egan receiving the National Book Award. (New York Times) None

The good news is that Seattle-based Timothy Egan – the author (The Good Rain, The Worst Hard Time), recent former New York Times national writer, and former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter – has written a guest column for the Times. The bad news is that, for those of you too cheap to subscribe, his work is behind the firewall of Times Select, the subscription-locked special content that includes columnists like Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich. (If you have home delivery, it's free. Or you can sign up for a two-week trial here.) Today Egan has tough love for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, with billionaire Eli Broad, is devoting $60 million to educating the presidential candidates about education, which is to say getting them to think about education at all. Egan thinks this is a worthy but ineffective effort in its present form because the organization, Strong American Schools, "cannot support individual candidates or legislation, by the rules of their organization. Thus, the world's richest man has little leverage in a wide-open presidential campaign." As newspaper writers go, Egan's as good as they come. He's got a National Book Award under his belt and shared in a Pulitzer Prize. And he has some zingers in this column that speak to a range of topics, not just the Gates education campaign. Following the life of Bill Gates himself, Egan notes, "has been like watching Pete Townshend go from smashing his guitar with The Who to the aging master who just wants world peace and a complex string arrangement of Tommy. He was the high-voiced bully boy of Microsoft, snarling at people with less intellectual bandwidth, a Napoleon Dynamite with money – idiots!" The foundation, Egan writes, is capable of upstaging the U.S. State Department and White House, as when Chinese President Hu Jintao "was feted at a grand dinner in the Gates' home on Lake Washington. In the Capitol, Mr. Hu was snubbed by President Bush with a quickie lunch and a gaffe-prone reception complete with heckler – typical incompetence." The education campaign is challenged by the fact "three of the Republican candidates don't even believe in evolution. Don't know much about history, don't know much biology." Egan also manages to skewer the "timber industry hacks who now guide the Forest Service after a decade of Republican contributions" and "bankers who bought a new bankruptcy law that makes it harder for poor people to stay out of credit card hell." I am now pushing the envelope of the copyright law, but you get the idea. There's pent-up opinion in Egan's journalistic head, and it would be swell to read more. If you subscribe to Times Select, here are the links to Egan's guest column and his full portfolio as a Times writer.

Chuck Taylor is formerly editor of Crosscut. He has also worked for The Seattle Times and Seattle Weekly, and now blogs at Seattle Post-Times. You can reach him at chuck.taylor@newsdex.net.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Jun 2, 11:40 p.m. Inappropriate

A bit of uncessary testiness: The zingers were great - but ... - if we were following your remarks on a weekly basis I think we could engage in and celebrate the zingers - however, they come across in this piece as great clever writing, but weak at the knees for the points that need to be made.

tedbear

Posted Sun, Jun 3, 1:44 a.m. Inappropriate

And Mr. Egan believes that ...: ...having the candidates utter bromides about education will improve education in what way?

My view would be that the Gates Foundation is wasting its money in even trying to influence candidates, because influencing candidates is not what the Gates Foundation is about, and is actually a category error, just as is Mr. Egan's criticism. It's the old argument about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Education is the Titanic, politicians are deck chair rearrangers. The Foundation is about creating better ships, better routes for ships, and steering some particular ships around particular ice bergs. Deck chairs ain't its mission.

Mr. Egan's strident criticism seems to be that IF YOU REALLY WANT TO REARRANGE THE DECK CHAIRS PROPERLY, you'll listen to me -- idiots!
Mr. Egan's criticism WILL get noticed because of its insult of Mr. Gates (followed by later praise), which reveals a superficial understanding of Mr. Gates' nature and abilities. The comparison to Napoleon Dynamite is humorous, but off the mark. Gates is much more like Napoleon in that he is an exceptional and brilliant leader with faults that spring out of excesses in being both exceptional and brilliant. He is also not unlike the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, who chose to associate his name and fortune with philanthropy.

And finally, one should not let go uncontested the notion that the apple pie that the Gates Foundation and Mr. Broad are cooking is somehow failing because Education has not yet been picked up as a campaign topic by the candidates. One is reminded that the election will occur in about 550 days. Repeated full page ads in locations where candidates are campaigning will eventually have an effect. That's the nature of advertising.

It may turn out that Mr. Gates wants to become a partisan like Mr. Soros. That is all well and good and permissible if that is his desire. On the other hand, the Gates Foundation is best kept out of partisan politics where its message and its its agenda are likely to become polarized, politicized, attacked, and distorted. Because of its good health-related work throughout the world, the Gates Foundation has enormous moral authority that it can apply to its education mission and agenda. Translating that authority into political capital is a lot like giving up the wheel of the Titanic for a shipload of deck chairs. Or to stretch Mr. Egan's analogy, it's like holding a bake sale when you could be teaching the world how to eat.
Stuka

Posted Sun, Jun 3, 7:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Egan book recommendations?: For those of us who haven't read any of Egan's books, what's a good book to start with?

Sean

Posted Sun, Jun 3, 10:54 a.m. Inappropriate

What Gates could do: To go counter to the current education buzz, I would suggest that the Gates family consider a radical retrenchment in education. The best use of their money would be to create schools that go all the way back to fundamental education. You start with excellent teachers; you populate the school with willing and eager students. (How much of our time, energy and money is wasted trying to convince students that they should want to learn?) Accept that unwilling students are a sociological problem that undermine education. Then in the schools you go right to basic skills. You put technology on the utter periphery of education. Instead, in English classes you have students, teachers and books. You have students who read Shakespeare in books, who discuss him and learn the language and the subject in books. In mathematics classes you work upwards from basic skills. That means times tables, long division, etc., and it means doing it with paper and pencils. In history, you learn from books who, what, where, when and why. The answer "I will find it out on the internet" no longer suffices. The students are there because they want to learn, not because they are brilliant, not because they are wealthy.

From that base, you will have a population of educated people able to go anywhere Mr. Gates would like to see it go in sophisticated or technological education. We do not have that base now, and none of this money thrown at schools is creating it, because the premise for an educated population is not accepted.

Only praise can go to Bill Gates for his good will and his good intentions, and maybe he is subtle enough to make a shift in focus. A few years ago, I went to a discussion/debate here between Mario Cuomo and Bill Bennett. The one thing they agreed on was that education could only be saved by small classes of good teachers and eager students. That insight is still true, but you would never know it from what you read these days. And the WASL and its companion evil consequences to education take us farther and farther from our goal.
Spike

Posted Sun, Jun 3, 11:27 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: gan book recommendations?: Ok, I'll play Nancy Pearl for a moment. I suggest starting with his first book, "The Good Rain," which is a wonderful look at the Northwest, past and present. He follows in the footsteps of a young Yale man, Theodore Winthrop, who explored the region on his own in the mid-19th century and wrote a book about his adventures, "Canoe and Saddle." I also like his book of essays about the West, "Lasso the Wind." His latest, the National Book Award winner "The Worst Hard Time" is a great piece of history that Egan makes incredibly relevant in the age of Katrina and global warming. It's the story of the people who survived the Dust Bowl, one of the great man-made eco-catastrophes ever. But Egan looks not only at how government policy and human behavior created the problem, but how they later repaired the damage.

Posted Sun, Jun 3, 12:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Read Egan free: Anyone with an SPL barcode can read ALL NYTimes content by following links on their website www.spl.org to the NYTimes database. Unlike Mr. Taylor, I don't consider non-subscribers to the Pay Version of the NYT website "cheap", but smart consumers, holding out for information to be free. The columnists behind the NYT$$firewall reportedly don't like it much, either. "Cheap", indeed!

Gary Dave

Posted Sun, Jun 3, 1:35 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: ead Egan free: I'm being facetious when I say "cheap," but the bottom line is good journalism costs money to create. When it comes to information, as with all other things, you get what you pay for.

That said, it's good to know about the SPL access to NYT premium content.

Posted Sun, Jun 3, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

WORST TIRESOME BOOK: Don't start with Worst Hard Time. It is a clumsy, repetitive
knock-off of Bad Land by Jonathan Raban.
kieth

Posted Sun, Jun 3, 11:54 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: gan book recommendations?: Many thanks, Nancy, I mean Knute.

Sean

Posted Mon, Jun 4, 10:30 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: What Gates could do: How about endowing King County with a private University to rival Stanford or Harvard?

Consider a site directly across Lake Washington from the UW, where Microsoft itself has its roots.

-Douglas Tooley
Tacoma, WA

Posted Mon, Jun 4, 10:54 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: ead Egan free: What the NYT should do is make the select content free after a week or two so that the pieces still make their way into public discourse.

I used to regularly read Dowd, Kristof, and Krugman during the run-up to the Iraq war however after the "firewall" went up I just stopped reading them.

Their columnists' insight is rendered less relevant by blocking access to many readers, and they would be better served by making that content available for free--even if at a later date.

If the beancounters still want to try to make money by charging readers directly, then charge for "early" access and then release the content back to the public.

This way they still remain relevant as a source of commentary in the public debate while charging for "timely" access if that's your model.

As it stands now, I just turn to other sources!
cwesley

Posted Mon, Jun 4, 11:50 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: What Gates could do: Well, that is what Rockefeller did when he founded the University of Chicago, which was such a successful philanthropical gesture that the University is even better than Stanford or Harvard.

I would like to see the concept at the high school level. It would not even be that costly. Just buy/rent some of the abandoned schools around the Sound, put the money in salaries, support the teaching staff and fill the buildings with eager students. Put all the peripheral stuff, which is so central to education guru thinking, truly on the periphery.
Spike

Posted Mon, Jun 4, 2:36 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: ead Egan free: Chuck:

The problem is that bad journalism costs money to create, too, and the NY Times charges plenty for bad journalism (the bumbling Brooks, the execrable Tierney, the clueless Kristof, the superficial Dowd, and the abominable flat-earth Friedman).

Why would any thinking person subsidize a financial model that rewards such incompetence?
ivan

Posted Mon, Jun 4, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: ead Egan free: Presumably Times Select revenue is not isolated to the op-ed staff, but as far as deciding whether it's worth paying for, I see you point.

Posted Mon, Jun 4, 11:41 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: What Gates could do: I can only assume neither of you have kids, because if you did, you'd know that King County already has dozens of highly selective, abundantly endowed schools that cater to elite, gifted, and "eager" students. In fact, some of them have already received piles of money from Gates.

Ever hear of Lakeside? Bush? Seattle Prep? University Prep? Seattle Arts Academy? The Northwest School? Seattle Country Day? Lake Washington Girls School? Evergreen? University Child Development School? Bertschi? Overlake? Lowell?

And sorry, but nobody believes the University of Chicago has more prestige than Harvard or Stanford.
Sean

Posted Mon, Jun 4, 11:47 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: WORST TIRESOME BOOK: Thanks for the tip, and for reminding me of another book I need to read. I loved Raban's Hunting Mr. Heartbreak.

Sean

Posted Tue, Jun 5, 12:32 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: What Gates could do: I can only assume, Sean, that you didn't read my post with any care. What I was proposing was nothing like any of those nice elite schools. I do know education, and they don't need to be reduplicated.

I can also only assume that you know little about higher education. I was not commenting on the PR wings of Harvard or Stanford. I was talking about quality of education. Neither of them is an Iowa teacher's college, but Chicago does not need to defer to either of them. Actually, the point was simple; Rockefeller created through his generosity a world class university.
Spike

Posted Wed, Jun 6, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: What Gates could do: Nor did he read mine.

Must be a UW Graduate! :-)

Seriously though, competition to be the best would lift the UW's standards much better than continuing to spoil them with donations. A similar problem would exist with irresponsible funding of secondary education as well.

Oh, and University of Chicago was the alma matter of Rob McKenna, probably a better lawyer than at least most of the Stanford and Harvard grads.

FWIW it was Lakeside sponsored events that first brought me to Seattle on a somewhat regular basis, and I dated a Salem, OR Bush descendant, no idea if there's any relation to the Seattle family.

-Douglas Tooley
Tacoma, WA

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