John Legend and the Well-Meaning Corporatists

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose15 Comments

Davis Guggenheim, John Legend, Michelle Rhee
Davis Guggenheim, John Legend, Michelle Rhee

Davis Guggenheim, John Legend, Michelle Rhee

Last Wednesday, Huffington Post Education’s Twitter feed tweeted this out:

In the pithiest attempt at a response, I said “From what?”

After a more thorough read on all the school board races around the country, I noticed a disturbing trend of pundits funding their favorite candidates in influential districts. Places like Chicago, West Sacramento, and Los Angeles started getting funding from people like Michael Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee, and, yes, John Legend.

John Legend’s presence in this debate particularly disturbs me because of the allure and seduction of having a musician stand side-by-side with the very people who condemn poor children, colored or not, to an artless, factory-inspired sense of schooling. Bloomberg’s distaste for public servants and their unions is well documented, as is Michelle Rhee’s bobbing and weaving of cheating allegations, both masterfully playing mainstream media to look like vanguards and radicals. I expect as much from them.

John Legend is different, though. Since my last letter to him, he’s gone further past original thought and more into neo-liberal think tank mode. A line like “If we think demography is destiny, we will allow our school system to confirm that belief” sounds like a Washington lobbyist read up on Deepak Chopra and tried to apply his tweets to education reform.

To make matters worse, he probably still ends arguments with a mini-concert, just to keep the less informed seduced, uncritical, and grateful for his presence, even as he openly plots to destroy communities.

More importantly, the culture around his opinions makes me wonder why anyone would equate celebrity with expertise, but education seems to be the only arena where songwriters and billionaires have better leverage in what happens in the classroom than the actual practitioners and partners in our children’s education, namely teachers and parents. His two to three lines of reasoning, often in the form of “But I know a school that…,” hold too much weight in the improvement of our schools. The research rarely backs him up.

I’m not in the camp of folks that say “Only educators should have a voice in education,” but I am in the camp of “If you’re going to have an opinion, read up.”

Anyone who’s known me for a while might question how I can come for John Legend’s neck when Matt Damon was the feature face at the Save Our Schools March that included Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, Jonathan Kozol, and me. If you take a listen to Damon’s speech, however, two things come to the fore: he’s not telling anyone he’s the expert in education and he ends his speech by introducing his mother Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an actual educator.

John Legend, on the other hand, lends his face to countless programs, yet never relinquishes the expertise to someone who knows better than he. Instead, the magic comes from within him and his own ideas, really the corporate reform slate cleverly disguised in a black musician. He might in fact mean well, but he seems to have stayed the course, an often dangerous proposition for anyone who opines so openly on a field with all the wrong voices in charge.

The list of famous folk who prescribe to this reform slate doesn’t start or end with him, but he’s put himself in the spotlight. Sadly, John’s legend in education will show a man who supports kids using pencils to bubble in scan-ready sheets rather than notes for the keys to their own lives.

Jose, who is happy he has his own space to publish this in …

Comments 15

  1. He’s not the only one. I tried to have a “tweetersation” with Roland Martin about Michelle Rhee. Apparently, he took it personally when I told him he was an excellent journalist and should research what she really was about. Turns out he sits on the board. He ended with, “I don’t have time for your nonsense!” Really disappointing!

  2. “John’s legend in education will show a man who supports kids using pencils to bubble in scan-ready sheets rather than notes for the keys to their own lives.” And with that statement, the irony of a musician unwittingly contributing to a world where music education is being squeezed out of schools is made crystal clear.

  3. I do not disagree with you about the wrongheadedness of Legend’s perspective, but I think there’s a little contradiction going on here. Based on his jargony tweet, I think it’s pretty clear he’s been reading *something*, which deserves a little create. And to an outsider, why shouldn’t he think that Rhee knows what she’s doing? She has the kind of credentials that someone who is not privvy to the ins and outs of daily classroom practice would reasonably trust. Being outside looking in, without an insider mom, how would he know these “educators” would lead him astray? It is the national condition.

    Also, I’m a little confused by this line:
    “Education seems to be the only arena where songwriters and billionaires have better leverage in what happens in the classroom than the actual practitioners”
    Where else but in education would practitioners have a say on what happens in the classroom?

  4. Post

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Lisa, I rolled my eyes while reading your comment. I’ll disregard Martin for now.

    Bill, thank you as always.

    Laura, that’s the point, though. Just reading “something” versus actually reading the research and getting a read from all sides of the argument makes anyone more well-informed. If, after having read everything and considering the nuances, he still goes with Michelle Rhee, that’s fine. However, after hearing him talking extensively about education, it doesn’t sound like he’s read, seen, or understood much around him except anyone who shallowly espouses the same views he does, which is inappropriate for someone with that much influence.

    In that line, I suppose I was making a metaphor to other professions like the culinary arts, medicine, and a host of other serious professions. Hope that’s clear now.

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  6. Sometimes I think everyone is well-meaning. It’s like everyone I meet, for better or worse, thinks they’re doing the right thing. But that’s not really important–since we can’t look into people’s hearts, we can usually only judge them by their actions. I really find Legend contemptible. He jumps on the bandwagon, drinks the Kool-Aid, doesn’t bother to research what he’s saying and that’s no one’s fault but his own.

  7. Post

    NYCEd, you’re so much nicer than I am. I don’t think people like Eli Broad are that well-meaning. You’re right that we only have their actions, and that’s why it’s so easy to put them all in the same bowl.

  8. follow-up–
    from the wikipedia entry on legend ( original name stephens) :
    After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Stephens began working as a management consultant for the Boston Consulting Group.

  9. Boston Consulting Group is the corporation, paid millions, whose plan led to the closing of 23 schools last week in Philadelphia. BCG actually recommended closing up to 75, so we expect to be fighting more school closings next year.

    Finding out that Legend worked for BCG connects the dots for me. He should be ashamed of himself for what he is doing to students, especially those in Philadelphia.

  10. About Eli Broad, if you haven’t seen this article check it out. The corporate reformers have been working overtime to promote their agenda by stealth in the hopes that one day we wake up when its too late and find they’ve totally given public schools over to the corporate market place.

    “Who is Eli Broad and why is he trying to destroy public education.”

  11. @Tom: Wow! The Eli Broad article by Defend Public Education was enlightening! I’m a teacher in Sacramento, Michelle Rhee’s home. (Is everyone aware that she is here because she married our mayor, Kevin Johnson, former basketball star and charter school developer?) My question: Who is Defend Public Education? I want post the link but first I would like to know the source. The scenario laid out by this piece is exactly what is happening here in my district, run by Jonathan Raymond, our own Broad graduate!

    @Jose: Great blog!

  12. @Tom & Jose: I can no longer access the article at Defend Public Education. It says, “No access” Is this a conspiracy? Sorry to sound like an alarmist, but it just seems curious that this damning information is now blocked. If you have a copy of the article or another web address, can you forward it to me please? Thanks!

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