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The Ayers Affair (VI): What About Petrilli's Memo?

I'll get to my May 15 comment on Flypaper and my May 16 expansion on edbizbuzz in response to Petrilli's May 12 "Memo to the AERA" in the next posting.

My Reaction

My initial reaction to the cross-blog exchange between Petrilli and eduwonkette was that it could reopen the culture wars’ education front in the territory of patriotism, that Petrilli had stepped across the rhetorical equivalent of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone and moved dangerously close to its 38th Parallel, and that eduwonkette had directed a measured warning to him of where this debate could lead.

I was absolutely stunned to read Petrilli’s post. I was not surprised to see such remarks in the blogosphere, and not necessarily from Mike Petrilli - although I had no idea of his experience or interest in national security or law.

I was very surprised to see such a statement from Fordham’s number two. Yes, Flypaper purports to be a forum for the views of its staff rather than the organization, but the Institute is not some vast bureaucracy with processes to vet the company line. Fordham's website lists a complement of fifteen – including support and administrative staff, interns and fellows. No one is clearing what Petrilli says before he ventures into the media. Flypaper is not Mike’s personal blog, but part of Fordham’s website, with Fordham’s logos, the larger site’s look and feel and the like. People are going to view what Petrilli says as something Fordham stands behind.

Maybe I’m hopelessly out of touch with the new media's rules, but in the position he enjoys, and accepting that Petrilli believes what he wrote, Fordham’s second in command has some responsibility to exercise restraint.

Why?

First, if for no other reason than to protect his small outfit’s credibility. Fordham is not some fly-by-night, “one man” policy shop funded by one foundation. It’s been around a while, and has built up a following among education conservatives, a certain credibility among Washington’s political centrists, and even the grudging respect of its adversaries. That reputation has value – especially the credibility with the middle. What took years to build can be wiped out in a minute.

Second, because the game is not worth the candle – AERA isn’t going to remove Ayers, so what precisely will Fordham gain?

Third, because as I will explain later, and as I explained about Ayers, once Petrilli started down the path he took, it was inevitable that others to his right would use the statement to keep going where he left off. And an escalation of this fight will do nothing but harm to the cause of education reform. Open warfare over patriotism can only help those - on the right and the left - who benefit more from fighting than working the education problem.

Finally, because if he made an equally incendiary statement about a substantive matter of education policy, Petrilli would not base it on a few news clippings, a couple of articles written by a colleague; one relevant quotation that the maker has since denied and qualified; and second-hand knowledge of the relevant facts and methodology.

Petrilli wouldn’t do that as Fordham’s Vice President for National Programs and Policy because he knows he’d look foolish, put Fordham in the same league as the Center for Education Reform, and undermine the credibility of whatever Fordham chose to say about education at its next press conference. He wouldn’t do it as a professional engaged in education policy research because professional ethics dictate otherwise.For both reasons he would want a very solid case based on Fordham's own detailed research.

Education, national security and law are three fields where people feel entirely free to voice their opinions without the benefit of professional study or practice. Professionals beg to disagree, and not only to restrain competition in their markets. People not only have a right to their opinions, they generally have a rational basis for their broad policy preferences.

But drop the same people into a discussion about real decisions in real cases in a specific policy area and they will quickly embarrass the experts they support. The distinctions, precedents and lines of reasoning that don’t matter to beliefs about the national direction suddenly matter a great deal. When experts in one field step into another without benefit of training or experience, they are no more capable than the average thinking person. Sol Stern did not cross that line. Since Petrilli’s statement, Fordham President Checker Finn has not added oil to the fire with additional remarks reiterating Petrilli’s challenge. Knowing what you don’t know is an important rule for all professionals.

This was where I was coming from when I wrote my response to Petrilli's memo.

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