The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pencils Down

Moon Walk, True Compass, Test Pilot . . . or All of the Above?

They say deaths always happen in threes. That seemed to be the case this week. As I considered the trio of passages, I found each one raised its own set of questions for me.

On Monday, it was not a new death but rather a clarification about a previous one. The Los Angeles County coroner ruled the death of pop star Michael Jackson as a homicide rather than an accident. Forensic tests found a mixture of the powerful anesthetic propofol and several other sedatives combined to cause Jackson’s death. This puts more doubts than ever before on Doctor Conrad Murray, hired by Jackson as a personal physician shortly before his death.

Murray feely admits using propofol nightly, administered by intravenous drip, for six weeks to treat Jackson’s insomnia. He claimed to have begun reducing the dose only a few days before Jackson died, fearing the singer was becoming addicted to the powerful drug.

His strategy was successful for a day or two but on June 25, nothing seemed to work. A Valium tablet and multiple injections of lorazepam and midazolam still left Jackson awake and agitated. Finally, Murray gave Jackson propofol and the singer fell asleep. Murray claimed in the time he took him to go to the bathroom, Jackson stopped breathing.

A finding of homicide only means “the hands of another” person caused Jackson’s death; it does not automatically imply a crime was committed. Nevertheless, Murray remains the target of a manslaughter probe by the Los Angeles police. Did Murray really kill Jackson or merely assist him in what was, in many ways, the singer’s lifelong journey as an adult to escape the tormenting demons of his childhood by any means necessary?

Working against Murray are his many lies and evasions with authorities. On the other hand, he apparently tried to wean Jackson off a dangerous drug and administered it on the fatal day only when other, less potent drugs proved ineffective. Murray told detectives that Jackson had repeatedly demanded/begged for propofol as the only thing that would let him sleep. He even jokingly referred to the white liquid drug as his “milk.”

It would be true to form for Jackson to equate a dangerous anesthetic typically used only in hospitals with a warm glass of milk. In his 1988 autobiography, Moon Walk, Jackson described a childhood ruined by his own stardom as well as abuse suffered at the hands of his authoritative father. Jackson’s attempts to unmake/remake his past were often so extreme, such as his frequent surgeries, as to be detrimental to his reputation and health.

Murray was a doctor, sworn to his Hippocratic Oath, but he was also Jackson’s paid employee. At what point did “do no harm” cross over from granting his patient’s/boss’s requests for relief to refusing them in his best interest, especially when that patient’s view of reality might be considerably warped?

The second death, a new one this time, came to us Wednesday morning with the news of Senator Ted Kennedy’s passing. Kennedy and Jackson are strangely alike in combining great achievement in their chosen professions with poor choices and scandals in their personal lives. No matter exactly what happened that night, no matter how much time passes, Kennedy will never completely escape history’s condemnation for Chappaquiddick and rightly so.

Yet his accomplishments in the Senate deserve genuine respect, even if all do not necessarily agree with their ends. A long-time champion of the poor, working class, underprivileged, and – more recently – the uninsured, Kennedy’s son claims he “authored more pieces of major legislation than any other United States Senator” and this could well be true. His government legacy includes health insurance for children of the working poor, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, Meals on Wheels, abortion clinic access, family leave, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Medicare prescription drug benefits.

Kennedy’s forthcoming autobiography, to be published this fall, is called True Compass, doubtless a reference to his love for sailing. Already nicknamed “the Lion of the Senate,” President Obama went one step further in eulogizing Kennedy. “An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time.”

The greatest? Really?

Unquestionably, Kennedy won greatest respect toward the end of his political career. It has been common practice for many progressives to scoff at long-serving Senators, often Southerners, such as Robert Byrd of West Virginia and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, seeing them as antediluvian roadblocks to advancement that have outlived their usefulness.

First elected to the Senate in 1962, Kennedy is now junior only to Byrd and Thurmond as the third longest serving Senator in U.S. history. If others serving so long is no good for the South or nation as a whole, what was it about a New England locale that made Kennedy’s unassailable representation of Massachusetts for nearly forty-seven years not only acceptable but also commendable?

It is arguable that Kennedy’s achievements over his extended career versus these other Senators is the bright line distinguishing him from them and this logic has merit. Nonetheless, it does undercut the old saw “He/she has been there too long” as a valid criticism for others. Is the thing for which Kennedy is most celebrated the thing for which he ought to be most condemned? If not, does this make Kennedy the ultimate argument against term limits at any level of government?

The third death fell between Jackson and Kennedy, occurring on Tuesday and belonging to a man whose fame is less celebrated and ubiquitous. Kennedy’s obituary noted that Harvard expelled a young Ted in 1951 for cheating. Kennedy arranged for a classmate to take a freshman Spanish exam for him. He should have gone to see Stanley Kaplan instead.

Kaplan was a career educator who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and second in his class from New York City College. He dreamt of going to medical school but the fact he was Jewish and had attended a public college proved insurmountable obstacles for him in 1939. This experience made him an early admirer of standardized tests. Kaplan was sure such a test would have demonstrated to the medical schools that spurned him that he was actually superior to many students from prestigious, moneyed private universities.

As standardized tests became common and more important in determining admissions, the stress associated with taking them became overpowering for many students. Kaplan saw an opportunity and began teaching test preparation – a combination of tips on what subject matter to stress as well as general test-taking strategies.

In his 2001 autobiography, Test Pilot – How I Broke Testing Barriers for Millions of Students and Caused a Sonic Boom in the Business of Education, Kaplan described his early fights with the College Boards, who insisted that coaching and other preparation services would have no significant impact on student scores. They insisted Kaplan was merely preying on student anxieties. In 1979, the Federal Trade Commission finally ruled affirmatively that Kaplan’s services did improve scores.

One of the biggest criticisms in education today is an over-reliance on standardized tests. The first exhibit brought forth is usually the No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on testing to prove school compliance and improvement. Complaints abound that teachers are reduced to “teaching the test” instead of teaching subjects. Kaplan would doubtless argue his preparation services help struggling schools in this “unfair” environment.

The point of standardized testing is to prove acquisition and mastery over a wide body of knowledge. Limited test preparation is common sense but extensive training, particularly in terms of what subject matter to stress, seems to undercut the very thing such tests are attempting to draw out.

Could Kaplan really have proved his superior aptitude for the medical profession with standardized testing if all those lazy private school boys he was competing against had gotten top-notch instruction about how to get around/fake the same general acumen he legitimately possessed? Test preparation courses/materials cost money and the parents of Ivy Leaguers are more able to pay it than immigrant parents, such as Kaplan’s own, could ever dream. Does egalitarianism in test taking, which Kaplan definitely did enable, promote or hurt egalitarianism in educational opportunity?

My final thought about Kaplan is this – When they inter him at the cemetery and gravediggers begin throwing dirt into his final resting place, I only hope they fill in the space provided completely . . . I suspect that would have been important to him.

We spend our lives attempting to answer questions – some big, some small, some straightforward, some difficult. Sometimes our lives have a way of raising new questions, such as with these three. Eventually, however, the time will come for all of us when, like them, the test will be over and it is time to put our pencils down. When looking to squeeze in that final answer, my advice would be that “All of the Above” is as good a guess as any.

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