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Sarah Ruden

Education and the Media

The puppet regime.

I've taken to studying and writing about the works of the world's most prolific and popular social-science journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, because I'm trying to figure out why the phrase "There's a study …," which used to come out of my own mouth at every party, has now started to disturb me even when I hear it on my favorite news channel. But I want to keep stressing that I have nothing against Gladwell, who's a skillful writer and, as a proponent of social engineering, stands out only because of his diligence and enthusiasm.

Last time ["The Age Demanded an Image," July/August 2013], my leading example was Gladwell on dog training, but I care a lot more about the education of young people—and this is something I actually know about, if a number of years as a teaching assistant, instructor, and lecturer count, along with the authorship of several books used mainly in the classroom. But in fact, my own education, which I can remember from the age of four, tells me the most.

Adults expected and caused me to learn. On the awkward height of "grown-up chairs" at the kitchen table, and under the repeated threat from my grandmother (a retired rural schoolteacher) of not getting "big, fat As," my little sister and I drew our first word, LOOK. Once my letters were straight and round and legible, I was relieved to see "A" on my first "report card." Gretchen got one too. Later, while drilling the two of us in reading from a giant primer propped upright on the floor, Grandma didn't need to be so explicit. Her disgust was enough to bring me back on track. (Gretchen, the perpetual "Little Angel," had her "eyes front" and never goofed off the whole time.) A teacher's or parent's mere imagined contempt kept me studying through a Harvard doctoral program in classics and a Johns Hopkins MA in the Writing Seminars.

It doesn't seem fantastical now. After all, Susanna Wesley's dreaded judgment was her main instrument in teaching her nine surviving children (including one who was ...

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