This post is drawn from an essay in the March, 2012 edition of Wisconsin Interest.
One hundred years ago, a progressive populist barnstormed the country, delivering fiery speeches and railing against the gold standard. Today another progressive populist barnstorms the country, delivering fiery speeches and railing against academic standards. Meet Alfie Kohn, the William Jennings Bryan of our age.
Kohn's arguments are half-crazy and half-true, which is what makes him so effective—and so maddening.
Like most demagogues, Kohn knows how to tap into his audience’s raw emotions—anger, feelings of powerlessness, and resentment of a ruling elite. In his case, he puts voice to what many educators already believe: That school reform is a corporate plot to turn young people into docile employees; that an obsession with standardized testing is crowding out any real intellectual engagement in our schools; and that teachers have no say over what happens inside their own classrooms.
These arguments are half-crazy and half-true, which is what makes Kohn so effective—and so maddening.
Where Kohn gets it right is in his observation that many American schools are “mindless, soul-killing” institutions, especially the schools serving our most disadvantaged communities. While this...