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Don't Tell the Truth About Nightmarish Local Schools

Dear editor,

[Editor] Jay Honeycutt was right to apologize to the readers of the Cartersville Daily Tribune News.

He committed an unpardonable journalistic sin: he told the plain, unvarnished truth about a controversial topic – in this case, the hideous failure of the Bartow county school system. Further, he did it without mincing words.

This is enough to make me question his fitness as an editor.

Of course, Honeycutt was absolutely right. County schools are obviously inferior to the city schools – and to the majority of schools in the state and the nation -- by any reasonable standard. The figures are there for anyone to see. Go to the Georgia Council for School Performance’s web site: http://arcweb.gsu.edu/csp/Default.htm. Look up individual schools or the county system as a whole. It’s all there, as plain as day.

But, Jay, no one wants to hear this. People do not want to know the truth, about this or about pretty much anything else. The truth is often unpleasant or downright ugly, as it is in this case, and that just threatens folks and makes them uncomfortable. It agitates them. It disturbs their sleep (and most people are asleep most of the time, day or night).

Most people prefer pleasant lies and soothing platitudes to the truth. They want to be reassured, cooed and petted – to be told that their prejudices are correct and that all is right with their world. Concerning education, they want to believe their children are getting a top-notch, or at least acceptable, education in the county schools. The truth – that many county children are being cheated by below-par schools, that they may be stunted intellectually by the current system – makes them feel bad. So they pretend it’s not true; concoct preposterous defenses of an undefendable system; and demonize anyone who dares disturb their fantasy. Far easier to kill the messenger than to actually try to do anything about what is truly a gigantic and tragic problem.

Jay, if you want to keep your job, I suggest you start writing columns about less controversial subjects. Write some columns about how nice it is to go fishing. Say some good things about local sports teams. Praise the Chamber of Commerce to the skies. Talk about religion in vague, general terms (but don’t get into specifics about what “love thy neighbor” might actually mean in practice). Pretend the War on Drugs makes sense and can be won. Pretend there is some difference between Democrats and Republicans. Pretend the Bill of Rights is still in effect. Never say that professional wrestling is fake.

If you want a good model, examine the letter by Dr. John Phillips, Bartow County School System superintendent, that appeared opposite your apology.

Phillips is in charge of a school system inferior to most in the state and nation. But does he warn parents about that? Does he state the plain fact that his school system poses an actual threat to the mental development of many children of the county? No. First he disingenuously says that “Those who are experts in testing and measurement are the first to say that the SAT test is inappropriate as a single indicator of success.” This is a an absurdly deceptive statement, since you never said that SAT scores are the *only* indicators of success, simply that they are very important ones. But most people won’t understand that.

Having thus slid around the damning SAT scores, he then begins to spout vague, soothing nothings. He and all other county educrats are “committed to improving” the schools; of course, “the road to improvement must be a focused, sustained effort over time;” county bureaucrats are “currently developing a framework for the future direction of our school system;” “constructive criticism” – i.e., praise – of the schools is welcome, but telling the truth is “highly inappropriate and does not benefit anyone”; and so on. Blah, blah, blah… all very reassuring. He of course offers no solutions to parents whose children are right now, today, falling behind the rest of the state and the nation in those schools. (What are they supposed to do, Dr. Phillips – put their kids in deep freeze while you try to bring the school system up to snuff “over time?”)

What Phillips is saying essentially is “Go back to sleep, folks; everything is ok.”

And that’s exactly what the vast majority of them want to hear. As long as little Johnny is bringing home A’s and B’s, Mom and Dad will most likely be proud and happy. Few will ever know that he may be doing work several grade levels below what he might be capable of. Lost potential is hard to see.

Learn to rattle off that kind of nonsense yourself, Jay, and you’ll be a success as a columnist and editor. You might even get elected to office. As you get older, you’ll become a beloved local figure.

But forget this truth-telling stuff. Nobody wants to hear it. It will only make you enemies and get you into trouble.

And that’s the truth.


James W. Harris

(September 1999 -- unpublished; actually I don't think it was ever sent, due to some oversight on my part.)

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