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The Weekly Standard.

Bad Ideas Matter Most
Heather Mac Donald's account of how intellectuals have damaged America
October 30, 2000

By Peter Savodnik; Peter Savodnik is a staff writer at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Heather Mac Donald's The Burden of Bad Ideas—a collection of the brilliantly researched magazine essays she has produced in recent years—accomplishes two important objects: It establishes the connection between theory and practice in some of America's most respected institutions, and it makes clear that the theory in question, the central "bad idea" from which all the other bad ideas come, is basically good, old-fashioned leftism. It may have died in the Soviet politburo, but it lives on in America's colleges, policy think tanks, science foundations, and arts organizations.

The Burden of Bad Ideas opens with an investigation of the great philanthropies. Until the late 1960s, Mac Donald observes, these foundations—Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Mott, Mellon—devoted their resources primarily to founding universities, hospitals, libraries, museums, and concert halls. The message they conveyed was clear: The more fortunate would help the less fortunate by extending previously out-of-reach opportunities to them. "Opportunities" is the key word. The tycoons who founded these phil-anthropies understood the difference between giving people a chance and giving them a handout. "One man or woman who succeeds in living comfortably by begging," Andrew Carnegie claimed, "is more dangerous to society, and a greater obstacle to the progress of humanity, than a score of wordy Socialists."

But in the early 1960s, things suddenly changed. Starting with the Ford Foundation's "Gray Areas" project, created by Harvard social theorist Paul Ylvisaker, the large foundations embarked on a more radical program: Instead of making room for more people to take part in the American experiment, the philanthropies sought to change the experiment itself. No longer should the less privileged seek mobility and success. They should instead seek to bring down the "power structure," as Mobilization for Youth, a federally funded juvenile delinquency agency, recommended. They should seek "advocacy" and "empowerment" by way of "community action" and "collaboratives" to overthrow the racist, sexist, and classist edifice upon which America had been founded.

As Mac Donald's essays move from topic to topic, she discovers the same pattern across America's elite institutions. The Ivy League universities, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the New York State Regents, the New York Times, and the Smithsonian prove no better (and, in some cases, much worse) than the once-great philanthropies.

The reigning orthodoxy of progressivism at these institutions turns out to be that tired, old revolutionary theme of transforming traditional values and the existing political-economic-cultural regime. This 1960s radicalism, cloaked in establishment garb, has fueled any number of disastrous programs, initiatives, and "advocacy organizations"—each of which has succeeded only in sowing new divisions in the already frayed social fabric.

In a particularly pointed essay on education schools, "Why Johnny's Teacher Can't Teach," Mac Donald takes aim at the ideas pouring out from Columbia's Teachers College: "critical-thinking skills," "community-building," "brainstorming," "student-centered learning," and the rejection of "content-based" curricula. As Mac Donald points out, "For all the ed school talk of freedom from the past, teacher education in this century has been more unchanging than Miss Havisham. . . . Since the 1920s they have not had a single new idea; they have merely gussied up old concepts in new rhetoric, most recently in the jargon of minority empowerment."

The subjects covered in The Burden of Bad Ideas are, you would have thought, prime material for hungry reporters looking for exposes to write, but nonetheless Heather Mac Donald has been almost alone in covering them. In her introduction, she says that she had an advantage over other journalists, since she "came to writing about urban problems and social policy an innocent, without a preconceived theory about the neighborhoods that have dominated domestic policy debate for almost half a century now." This is a tad disingenuous: Mac Donald wrote most of the twelve essays in her book for City Journal, which is published by the right-leaning Manhattan Institute; certainly her editors at City Journal didn't send her out onto the streets of New York hoping she would find just anything.

But what they were hoping she'd find, she did. The hugely wasteful social-engineering experiments of the 1960s and 1970s and on to the year 2000 have wrought, and continue to wreak, widespread havoc on the people least able to defend themselves against the well-funded programs of America's radical establishment.

©2000 The Weekly Standard

Visit the The Burden of Bad Ideas website



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