It’s time to be more than just a critic

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One of the perils of working at a think tank, especially one like Fordham, which encourages provocative ideas and never shies away from a debate, is that it can be easy to anger or frustrate even your closest allies. That’s especially true in this polarized, fraught time we’re living in. I’m mindful of this dynamic and actively work to make the necessary policy arguments without being unnecessarily inflammatory. Alas, I’m not always successful.

In December, I received a thoughtful email from a friend and (often) ally regarding Fordham’s continued insistence that the alternative graduation requirements adopted last year amounted to a diploma giveaway and would hurt Ohio students in the long term. The person argued that our position was wrong and simply hadn’t kept up with conventional wisdom or the latest research. A productive email exchange filled with research citations, a litany of real-world examples, and a few logical inferences followed. At the end of the day, we still didn’t agree, but I was better as a result of the dialogue.

The holiday break gave me some time to think more about the interaction and one particular frustration expressed in this exchange. Namely, it’s one thing to oppose a policy proposal, but in situations where a resolution is needed, you also need to bring solutions to the table.[1]

That’s a great reminder of how easy it is to be a critic, an armchair quarterback that simply looks at others’ ideas and points out flaws or questions motives. Many of us are addicted to this particular sport, given the countless hours we spend watching talking heads on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC spouting sound bites designed for maximum political impact. Then there’s Twitter and Facebook, which allow each of us to be pundits and to receive praise from our like-minded friends and family, making us all feel both smart and insightful. Unfortunately, it often makes matters worse.

Don’t misunderstand me. I work at a think tank. There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion that puts you in disagreement with another person’s approach to resolving a problem. And yes, we at Fordham often express our viewpoints in a passionate way. However, we can’t just say “you’re wrong,” “that won’t work,” or (worse yet) resort to hyperbole and ad hominem attacks: “you’re trying to destroy America/Ohio/etc.” This approach, while it may generate press clippings, rarely solves problems.

As the New Year begins, I resolve to be more than a critic and will make every effort to be solution-oriented. Here are some principles that I’ll keep at the forefront of my work in the coming year:

  • Progress is made when we engage in a battle of ideas, so offer solutions whenever possible. In most cases, “no” isn’t a policy solution. Those of us that want to shape policy need to do the intellectual heavy lifting required to offer our own proposals.
  • Way too often, the arguments of the other side are discounted without even considering their merits. It’s critical to listen to both our critics and our friends. Learning comes from considering ideas that might reside outside of our own echo chamber.
  • Perhaps the greatest license to ignore the other side comes from the growing tendency to assume bad intentions on their part. A prime example: The school choice debate often devolves into suggestions that one side wants to privatize education in order to make big profits, and the other wants to protect a state-run monopoly in order to enhance union coffers. Neither caricature fairly captures the motivation of either position. In education, let’s start with an acknowledgement that everyone wants to improve outcomes for students. We may disagree on how to get there, but we largely want to go to the same place.
  • Finally, as a respected Fordham colleague often reminds folks, we need a much stronger dose of humility in our work. Improving outcomes for students is hard. This isn’t going to be achieved overnight, and there are no silver bullets. What works today could be contradicted by new data next week. We should always have an open mind and routinely question our assumptions.

If successful, the return on this resolution is likely to be more productive conversations, better relationships, an increased chance to learn something in the process, and most importantly, being far better positioned to actually make a difference.

As Theodore Roosevelt eloquently stated, “It is not the critic who counts. ... The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly ... who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

In the coming year, let’s take our ideas and enter the arena. See you there.

[1]Fordham did advocate last year for a number of policy solutions that would address graduation requirements for the class of 2018. Expect to see those ideas and maybe a couple of new ones later in January.

Chad L. Aldis
Chad L. Aldis is the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.