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Politically Speaking, It's Greasy Kid Stuff

'No child left behind' slogan is meaningless.

June 26, 2002|CRISPIN SARTWELL | Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"No child left behind": The first time I heard that phrase, I think, it was emerging from the mush-mouth of Elizabeth Dole. Before long, George W. Bush was using it in every speech. Al Gore picked up on it too, and soon all of our political cherubim were choiring in unison, strumming their golden harps and flitting hither and thither with a glaze of empty benevolence in their eyes.

And now, "No Child Left Behind" has literally become the Department of Education anthem.

Written by two producers for the department's propaganda wing, the Public Broadcasting Service, the song is being employed by Secretary of Education Rod Paige as he barnstorms blankly through the nation promoting the administration's education plan. Here is a sample:


We're here to thank our great


For signing this great bill,

That's right! Yeah,

Research shows we know the


It's time we showed the will!


The Education Department is considering having the song performed by children as Paige makes his way across the country and playing it when telephone callers to the department are on hold.

"No child left behind" is the very acme of American political rhetoric, a perfect encapsulation of who we are as a culture.

First of all, it is trivial: The reason people keep saying it incessantly is because no one could possibly disagree with the sentiment it expresses.

Second, it is false. No matter whose education plan is passed, many children will be left behind, and perhaps I may be excused for noticing that a lot of them will be black and poor.

No party has the will or the way to educate every child effectively; that's reality. For one thing, people are, thank God, in part responsible for their own education and the education of their children.

Third, in the mouths of the people who mutter it, "no child left behind" is meaningless. It is something that emerges when the brain ceases to function entirely, when the politician is thinking about something important (like a good alibi) and intends to let his mouth keep going without him.

Thus "no child left behind," in its epiphanic synthesis of banality, mendacity and vacuity, crystallizes in a single phrase who we are as a people: our deepest beliefs and our deepest public commitments.

The folks who wrote the tune are Christopher Cerf and Sarah Bruce Durkee, creators of the PBS series "Between the Lions." In hiring them, the White House missed a signal opportunity to get R&B singer R. Kelly on board as songwriter in chief. Facing 21 counts of child pornography, Kelly apparently specializes in children and in triteness and has recently issued his self-exculpatory anthem, "Heaven I Need a Hug." Kelly, whose ethics baste in the sewer while his rhetoric takes to the skies, is obviously presidential timber. His lyric "I believe I can fly" is trivial, false and empty: American politics in a nutshell.

Despite the missed opportunity, the PBS connection is perfectly appropriate.

Try to sit down and watch PBS kids' shows such as "Caillou" or "Dragon Tales": moral gruel served up by blank-eyed tokens. These shows go so far out of their way to avoid controversy that they entirely avoid content.

The poor, unsuspecting children who are submerged in this slop will grow up thinking that emptiness is truth, that vacuity is profundity and that Al Gore or Rod Paige has just said something.

They will grow up into a public life that is utterly piddling and totally disingenuous.

They will grow up, in short, to be Americans.

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