10/23/09

Gerald Bracey, invited to his final mugging

"Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive."
--G. K. Chesterton

* * *

I don't usually do obituaries because

(1) I don't know the person who has just passed away
(2) It is usually in poor taste to speak honestly about the recently departed
(3) I do know the person who has just passed away, but still feel too close to them to write about them on a blog.

But I will make an exception in the case of Gerald Bracey!

In case you didn't know, he was an education researcher and public schools advocate. He was also highly sarcastic, acidic, a gentleman who was often uncouth and even childish.

A couple of random thoughts and memories:

* Just as I was getting into the education policy analysis world I thought about inviting Bracey to be a speaker on a panel. I asked a couple of prominent education researchers. The first three told me that they refused to be on a panel with Bracey. I could invite him, I was told, but it would be tough to get anyone who was prominent to talk with him.

* My first encounter with Bracey was at a Manhattan Institute panel discussion. The topic was DC education choice. I had read quite a bit about it and was versed in many specifics at that time. So, during Q&A, I went after Bracey. He later wrote about it, saying, "It was not the most hostile audience I have ever faced, even though you could almost see the heat rising from the bald head of Cato's Casey Lartigue as he railed at me during Q & A (even Brennan asked Lartigue if there was a question anywhere in his comments)."

It was the first time that anyone had referred to my head in a professional context.

* I learned to be skeptical of Bracey. I remember when we spoke at the same charter school conference a few years ago in Florida. During a break, Bracey told me that I was wrong, that he was actually a school choice supporter. I laughed at him for trying to put that BS past me. He then dared me to prove he wasn't. I listened to him, then realized the game he was running. He then fessed up that he was a PUBLIC school choice supporter, then mentioned that I was one of the few school choice supporters who pushed him on that instead of just dismissing him. He told me that I was a great listener. At times, it seemed that he was playing head games with people, testing to see if they were listening, thinking. He had a PhD in psychology, so he may have been.

He later wrote that he had been invited to a mugging. At that time, he described me as being "laid back." (He later dropped the "laid back" part in the official 14th edition of his rotten apple awards.)

I later asked him what he meant. He said that I seemed to be "super cool" despite my views on things. I completely agree with him about me being super cool. Parenthetically, that reminds me of a very liberal black woman at a minority writers seminar who told me, after we had spent a few days together learning how to write op-eds, that I seemed "normal" even though I worked at Cato.

* One of the few things I liked about Bracey: he was a listener. I always had the feeling that he was listening because he was looking for a flaw in your argument. Nevertheless, he rarely interrupted other people when they were talking. He was a Jekyll/Hyde--a gentleman who would disagree with you in a friendly way, then later eviscerate you in print.

* We mixed it up a few years ago in a discussion on his education discussion group. I remember getting a lot of off-list emails from his critics, some of them prominent, who were happy to see someone taking him on directly. I didn't mind his barbs, I knew they didn't help his point. The attacks always seemed childish. Again, the psychologist in him seemed to be determined to get into the heads of his opponents. I don't allow people to live rent-free in my head. I remember that he got really upset when I turned his style on himself by questioning his funding sources. I didn't really give a damn. It was one of the rare times that he really seemed to get upset. He ended the thread after that.

* I first met Bracey at a debate he had with Chris Whittle in Arizona. It was a crowd of mostly school choice supporters. Bracey, a defender of public schools, was the punching bag. I was amazed when the debate was over that no one talked to Bracey. I spent several minutes probing his facts and figures, much to his amazement.

* Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, Greg Toppo of USA Today, Andrew Rotherham of EduWonk and certainly others Bracey attacked over the years have noted Bracey's passing. Bracey spent a lot of his time focused on correcting the media. As I mentioned to a friend a few years ago, he is similar to Rush Limbaugh in that regard--he spends much of his time correcting and challenging what is written about in the media.

There's a Korean phrase 미운정고운정 that (is much deeper than I could understand, I'm sure) describes the feelings that even adversaries can have about one another. The best comparison I could come up with is two boxers who hug one another after they've been battling each other. There is both a good and bad feeling. The people that Bracey attacked over the years seemed to respect that he was genuine, even though he was uncouth. For all of his flaws and personality quirks, he did keep school choice advocates and education reformers on their toes. We could all be sure that at least one person had read our studies, reports and op-eds.

* I wasn't surprised two years ago when Bracey, who enjoyed debunking myths, wrote me a nice e-mail expressing regret about XM 169 pulling me off the airwaves after my radio co-host and I debunked the Memorandum 46 myth.

My favorite myth Bracey debunked: That American kids today are somehow less informed than kids in the past. He has mentioned it several times, most recently in a response to Bob Herbert of the New York Times. Of course, we still came to different conclusions about what that means for education policy today.

* A few days ago I was complaining to a friend about Bracey. I had come across some comments Bracey had made about education in South Korea. As usual, Bracey had to take a gratuitous shot by putting the worst possible spin on things. Last week I was scribbling some notes for a possible article about education in Korea. If I ever get around to it I will still mention Bracey.

CJL