The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society

07 Oct

Kevin, a conservative friend, recommended Heather MacDonald’s Burden of Bad Ideas. Since he at least doesn’t like our current president (how refreshing to find a conservative who’ll step out of the flock on that one), so I thought why not.

MacDonald looks at and criticizes the influence of liberal beliefs on such areas as edu-cation, philanthropy, sex ed in schools, and foster care. In many areas I probably do agree with her. I can’t say that all liberal solutions are effective or sensible. Yet so often MacDonald uses hyperbole and ridicule to preach to her choir, that I found myself rolling my eyes. “Right, our schools are now ‘showering students with condoms.’” Such language might be considered clever by some, but a more accurate phrasing and the occasional concession that some “liberal” programs do work, would make me respect the author more and lead me to consider some of her criticisms.

There are several interesting chapters in this book. In “Behind the Neediest Cases” MacDonald describes how The New York Times’Neediest Cases, which first started in 1912 began by describing the lives of diligent working families who faced terrible hardship. They were good people whom fate dealt a bad hand. Examples include a young girl whose parents died and she had to keep the family together. She worked in a factory all day and took care of her siblings, who also carried their weight by say a paper route or some such job. Even those with TB seemed to have a job. Then after the introduction of welfare the paper grappled with justifying their campaign. They shifted their emphasis from people who suffered from bad luck to those beset with psychological troubles that made it hard for their families to make ends meet. This trend grew and by the 60’s the cases the Times presented accented victimhood. Drug use and irresponsible behavior were featured in almost all the cases. The people in the stories MacDonald cites never admit full or partial responsibility.

Another chapter that really hit home was on Education School. Yes, I lived through getting a degree in Education and MacDonald does hit the target and describe what I experience. For the most part nowadays education courses are fatuous and overemphasize sharing and “reflection.” They’re low on content and challenge. They water ideas down and if you question or disagree with a popularly held belief, expect to be excoriated. Many classes are taught by professors who don’t tolerate dissent. These schools do discourage the bright from entering the field. Yet maybe they should as once you’re in a school there’s a good chance you’ll be surrounded by vacuous minds. One will probably be the department head.

MacDonald goes to town on compassion gone amok in her chapter on welfare. She focuses on New York, which made the section more local. Surely, not every state has the same poorly conceived system, while there are problems everywhere. While I’m sure there are abuses, MacDonald cites no successes, only failures. Moreover, she offers no solutions.

Still I think there’s value in reading people who hold opposing views, even when some passages irk one. I think it’s essential. It is a shame that as a society we are so entrenched in the Red State/Blue State dichotomy that we can’t civilly and intelligently read or discuss public policy without resorting to sarcasm, insults and exaggeration. If we could, I think we’d see incredible cooperation and achievement as a society. That’s the path to progress. If the liberals could, like Garrison Keillor, admit that whole language doesn’t effectively teach children to read and write and if the conservatives could like [please submit an appropriate example as I can’t think of one] then perhaps more children could read, fewer Americans would need welfare and charity, fewer teens would get pregnant, more people would work full time, our taxes would be at a sensible rate and we could transform America to Scandinavia without the national debt.

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Posted by on October 7, 2011 in contemporary, non-fiction


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