Who’s the bigger data fool?
Robert McNamara or Arne Duncan?
That famous photo was not taken, as most people think, of the US Embassy. Rather, that is an apartment building where CIA employees were housed. It is a photo of the evacuation of these employees by “Air America” during the fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam war in April of 1975. It is probably the most iconic image of the whole war; it certainly sums it up the best.
The end came as a great surprise, and well, disappointment, too, to Robert McNamara. He was John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense. McNamara was one of the “best and brightest,” as described in David Halberstam’s book of that name. By the time of the photo, though, the United States had left the South Vietnamese to their own devices. Even McNamara had probably figured it out by then.
McNamara was an executive (Chairman for a brief time) at Ford Motor Company before becoming Defense Secretary. By all accounts, he was brilliant, a real numbers guy. If it moves, measure it, Bob would say. By every metric, from kill ratios on down, we were winning the war. In fact, we used to get the kill ratio numbers on the news every night: US 1,032, VietCong 9, just like Yankees 5, Red Sox 3.
I was in Washington in the summer of 1967, and I knew somebody who worked in McNamara’s office. I got a tour of the place, and there were walls and walls of file cabinets, some with red tags hanging from the drawer handles showing that a classified file was checked out to so and so. There were lots of people bustling about, looking important, and seeming to be in charge of all those numbers. It was very impressive.
If only we had known then what we know now. The Tet offensive occurred the following January; it was a brutal shock to Americans who thought we were winning, that victory was just around the corner. I mean, the statistics proved it!
Then in February of 1968, Walter Cronkite told the nation, at the end of a broadcast of the CBS News, and after having been to Vietnam after Tet, that the war could not be won, that it was, as anyone not looking at just numbers could tell, a stalemate. It was a shocking, courageous, and prescient thing to do.
We know what happened after that. Richard Nixon campaigned on his secret plan to win the war, and he narrowly beat the sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was dealt a miserable hand. Nixon didn’t win the war, obviously, just the election.
Which is a long windup to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. But the parallel between Duncan and McNamara is uncanny and eerie. Supremely confident men, both of them, sure that they are or were in command of the situation because, well, how could the numbers lie? Confident, but oblivious.
McNamara put his confidence in numbers while Vietnam crumbled around him, and Duncan has confidence in numbers while the US public education system, the backbone of any democracy, crumbles around him.
The other guy that Duncan reminds me of is Baghdad Bob. Bob and Bob and Arne. But it is hard to believe that even the Bobs would be capable of this:
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan went this week to Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world, and talked to education officials there about the great value in collecting data to improve schools.
The Washington Post Answer Sheet continues:
Duncan, the AP also reported, visited a school where children sleep on the street (which is not unusual in a country where 80 percent of the population live in dire poverty), and saw a class packed with more than 100 seventh graders. Most of the schools in Haiti don’t have toilets, and many are without running water.
Nothing a little data collection wouldn’t fix, Arne says! Maybe they could collect the student/toilet ratio.
Do you remember when Bill Gates, another big fan of education “reform,” said that Africa’s problem was that it didn’t have enough personal computers? Then he went there, and was struck by an epiphany? Most places didn’t have electricity. But Bill was right: there were damn few personal computers.
There will come a day when we’re freed from the tyranny of boobs like Arne Duncan, too, whose principal job qualification seems to be that he can shoot hoops with the president.
Work for that day, my friends; it cannot come soon enough.
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