The Idea of the TV Show

March 31, 1994|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Ideas have consequences. But the media do not do a very good job of covering ideas. Let me give you an example.

At 1:05 a.m. last Saturday, the ''Goals 2000'' congressional conference report was passed. It is landmark legislation in education, and President Clinton should be proud to sign the bill into law.

There were powerful ideas at work as the White House, Congress and the education establishment wrestled with the legislation for almost a year. The main argument -- supported solidly by Democrats and by some Republicans -- dealt with the concept of ''standards'' and ''outputs.'' The idea was that we were spending plenty on our schools, providing plenty of ''inputs,'' but our children were not learning much.

The proposed remedy was to establish content standards in subjects like math, English and history, then test the students, then put ''stakes'' on their performance. No more ''social promotion,'' no more ''social warehousing'' or phony grades or ersatz diplomas. No more free lunch.

But conservatives stressed that education is a state and local matter, and that even though the new standards would be ''voluntary,'' over time Washington bureaucrats would dictate a national curriculum. Conservatives don't like federalization, and they like it less when they believe that Clinton-appointed boards will tilt education further toward liberalism, yielding a politically correct corps of dunderheaded children. And that's not impossible.

Many liberals were concerned about ''stakes.'' They believed that minority and poor children would not do well on the tests, and end up further penalized in the great game of life. They also wanted to make sure that poor schools had the teachers and the equipment to give their kids an equal start. That is not an irrelevant thought.

These are serious ideas. My sense is that the final bill makes some accommodations to both liberal and conservative opposition, but ends up advancing the solid trinity of ''standards,'' ''tests'' and ''stakes,'' which is worth a try.

This is by no means the end of the matter, and it is a risky matter. Much will depend on who is appointed to certify the standards, how the Clinton team administers the new law in relation to the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and how G-2000 is related to the big money in the forthcoming Elementary and Secondary Education Act. For now, though, President Clinton deserves credit for a tough job well done.

I am happy to inform you of all this. But that is not the point. Did you hear about these ideas? On radio talk shows? On television discussion programs?

Not very much. What slender coverage there was concentrated on politics. Would it pass, would it fail? Would there be a filibuster?

Of course, the press needs room to cover Whitewater. But when the history of this time is written I will bet that G-2000 means more to America than Whitewater, despite its blazing media firestorm.

Ideas have consequences -- in our politics and then in our life. But too often they draw a blank screen on our television sets. So each week my television colleagues and I will try to produce a program that explores ideas in play. It is called ''Think Tank,'' and premieres Saturday (Channel 26, 6.30 p.m.).

The first program in the series is about crime. It doesn't deal much with the new crime bill, but with an idea that is animating the crime debate: ''Does Punishment Pay?''

Politicians and journalists will not be featured on the program; there is too much they can't say, and too much they don't know. So we stick with think-tankers, university professors and experts. Our panel on the first show consists of Judge Robert Bork, of the American Enterprise Institute; Professor Lani Guinier of the University of Pennsylvania; Professor Philip Heymann of Harvard, recently resigned from the Justice Department, and Professor John DiIulio of the Brookings Institution and Princeton University.

Soon, we'll be doing one about the ideas driving educational reform. I think our program is going to be novel, interesting and important. At least that's the idea.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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