A funny thing happened on the way to a meaningful dialogue between an ardent champion of traditional public schools and an ardent champion of school choice.
Mark Weber (aka Jersey Jazzman) recounts how he recently had an “extremely unsatisfying” twitter exchange with Dmitri Mehlhorn, which had less to do with substance than with the limitations of 140-character responses. Mehlhorn then suggested that they debate the value of charter schools – one of their primary points of disagreement – on Weber's blog. Weber agreed.
Essentially, Weber, the host, invited a guest into his home. This was a generous offer on Weber’s part and a potentially productive one, a great opportunity for two articulate and well-informed commentators to have a nuanced discussion about a controversial school improvement strategy.
Now, blogs aren’t stately abodes like the New Yorker magazine or the Atlantic or the best newspapers. They’re more like rustic cabins, free of frills and amenities: more provincial than metropolitan; more bunkbeds than top-of-the-line linens; more freeform than Strunk and White; more Coltrane than Handel.
So the rules are different. But Mehlhorn is still a guest in a home with many visitors and Weber is still his host. And I think that Weber violated one of the rules of courtesy when he prefaced Mehlhorn’s first (hopefully, not last) entry with this “bio”:
Dmitri Mehlhorn is a venture capitalist and school "reform" advocate. He was the COO of StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee's education "reform" lobbying group, and he maintains a regular presence in both traditional and social media as an advocate for charter school proliferation, the revocation of teacher tenure as it is currently constituted, and other similar "reform" policies.
Good hosts don’t set up guests for attack, but that’s exactly what Weber did. Before readers even read Mehlhorn’s discussion, they knew the drill: deride the visitor for union-unfriendly views and assumed distortions of student outcomes. Maybe they would have done so anyway, but Weber raised the odds of attack. At best that’s rude; at worst that’s hostile.
Imagine, instead, if Weber had prefaced Melhorn’s post with a more courteous and less loaded bio.
Here, for example, is Education Post’s preface to an essay by Audrey Hill, who shares Weber’s views on a number of subjects. (Full disclosure: I’m part of the Education Post network.)
Since Education Post publicly launched last September, we have had the privilege of getting to know people across the policy spectrum who are passionate about public education. Two in particular, Oklahoma teacher John Thompson and New York teacher Audrey Hill, are regular debaters in social media.Though we agree on little, we strive to be respectful. Following a debate on accountability, we invited them to outline an alternative to the current system of test-based accountability.
Audrey Hill is a seventh grade English teacher in New York state. She is a strong supporter of public education and a past recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Award.
This kind of introduction invites a far more nuanced discussion, even within the rustic confines of a blog. By inserting a biased prefaced, Weber missed an opportunity for a respectful and useful exchange.. He can yet redeem himself (Mehlhorn is still on board, based on his amicable and fact-based responses to each and every critic) but only if Weber treats his houseguest with a little more civility.