First in His Class: Bill Clinton biography by David Maraniss [Book Review]

It was during the Democratic National Convention in September that I saw Bill Clinton work his magic.  He stole the show from President Obama that night; I’ve never seen a speaker connect with an audience like that.  For many my age, I think it was the first time we’d seen him demonstrate his political skill as adults.  Impressed as I was, I wanted to learn more.  So I picked up his biography by David Maraniss.  It covers Clinton’s life from his birth until the day he announces his candidacy for President.  The book was superb, and I’d highly recommend it.  Here are themes that stood out to me.


Bill Clinton was an extrovert.  I mean extrovert in the sense that he thrived on interaction with others; it’s what gave him life.  Where other politicians grew weary during long campaigns on the road, Clinton couldn’t get enough. Again and again one of Clinton’s acquaintances from his campaigns would confess to the power of his presence, that he was able to make people feel like they’d been friends forever.  This was one of his great gifts, and one that he used to his political advantage.  Clinton maintained extensive card files on everyone he met during his campaigns.  Over the course of his political career, this catalogue grew to include addresses, phone numbers, dates of last contact, donation amounts, and other facts for thousands of people.  It was both a compulsion and a calculated political move.

Curiosity about the people around him was one of his strongest traits, the main intersection of his gregarious, empathetic personality and his political ambition.


Clinton knew that politics was his calling.  From high school on, every decision he made was calculated to maximize his long term political viability.  In this respect, he was often calculating and hollow; a friend today might be sacrificed tomorrow if necessary.  The sense of purpose he demonstrated is exceptionally rare, I think.  Most of us take longer to figure out what we’re called to do, if we ever do.  It’s a fascinating thing to observe nonetheless–someone consumed with a single purpose.

Political skill

Time and again Clinton exhibited a masterful ability to negotiate difficult political scenarios.  The most telling example of this was his navigation of the draft.  Clinton received his draft notice towards the end of his first year at Oxford, where he was studying as a Rhodes Scholar.  He was adamantly against the war, but he always maintained a moderate disposition towards the anti-war movement.  Despite his convictions against the war, Clinton fundamentally believed in the system.

But his friends knew that he had invested too much time, hope, and ambition in his political future to abandon it by resisting. “Maintaining viability within the system was very important to him. Right from the start we all took his aspirations with real proper seriousness,”

He always believed that his best work would be from within the system, not from without.  His actions to avoid the draft, therefore, remained in line with his calling to lead a political life and lead from within the existing system.

There’s something our generation can learn from this.  So many of us are fed up with the political system as it is, and justifiably so.  We turn to business, or non-profits, or NGOs as we seek ways to make a difference.  In doing so, we leave a broken system unattended.  If the best among us abandon government, who then will lead?


Above all, Clinton was a conflicted person.  His life seemed full of contradictions.  Maraniss puts it best:

Then and always, these contradictions co-existed in Clinton—considerate and calculating, easygoing and ambitious, mediator and predator.

We have to consider Clinton in the context of his great ambition, his incredible political skill, and his very human weaknesses.  I think he recognized early where he wanted to go and where his skills might best be used.  After reading this book, I have little doubt that his intention to become President was rooted in a desire to do something good when he got there.  I’m inclined to respect that.

In a particularly memorable speech at the 1980 DNC, Clinton warned that the political and economic systems of his day were breaking down:

We have seen high inflation, high unemployment, large government deficits, the loss of our competitive edge. In response to these developments, a dangerous and growing number of people are simply opting out of our system. Another dangerous and growing number are opting for special interest and single interest group politics, which threatens to take every last drop of blood out of our political system.

Inflation notwithstanding, that sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it.

Why you should vote tomorrow, even if you live in California

Since recently becoming a citizen, how I follow politics has changed.  Not being able to vote allows you to examine the political debate in a detached way.  You can argue both sides, make abstractions, and never have to worry about making a choice.  It’s nice, actually.  From the sidelines, you can see more clearly the mad and infuriating genius of the American political system.

But as a citizen, the fantasy evaporates.  When we elect someone, we choose them over another.  We decide that one candidate is more deserving of an elected position than their opponent.  Making the choice can be difficult, particularly at a time when combative rhetoric and absurd amounts of money smother most real conversation about issues and principles.  There is much to be concerned with in how we elect our leaders, but our votes are important nonetheless.

That’s my thesis, at least, but not everyone agrees.  NPR ran an article this week about the “Other Abstinence Movement” — non-voters.  Many of the reasons given by non-voters for their abstinence draw on religious or cultural motivations for not voting, such as a Native American not voting as an assertion of their tribal sovereignty, for example.  These I can understand, but they apply to only a small proportion of the ~ 45% of American’s who don’t vote.  Let’s take a look at some of the other reasons given in the article, which I hear all the time.

“I do not vote because I believe that at the end of the day, money is more powerful than a ballot.”

Without question, money has become an enormously powerful force in politics.  According to the NYTimes, the Obama campaign has raised $934m while the Romney campaign has raised $882m.  That’s almost $2b dollars spent on the presidential election alone.  The Center for Responsive Politics estimates another $4b will go towards other elections, bring the total to nearly $6b.  For some perspective, that’s enough to build about 1000 elementary schools; for more perspective, that’s only enough to pay off less than 1% of next years projected budget deficit.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote.  In fact, it implores you to vote.  Money may influence politicians, pay for TV adds, or lobby for special interests, but as long as people vote, as long as citizens do their best to choose the candidate they think will be the best president (or congressman, or city council member), we might still have our say.  Only when we stop voting has money won.

“A simple understanding of statistics shows that my vote does not matter.”

It’s easy to suggest that a vote doesn’t matter.  There are 300 million people in this country, so at that level, yes, one vote is unlikely to make a difference.  And that’s not to mention the electoral college, which does more to disenfranchise American voters than any voter suppression measures.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote.  If the 2000 election teaches us anything, it’s that elections can come down to individual votes.  Moreover, the broken electoral college system is thrown into sharp relief in close elections, especially when the popular vote and the electoral college don’t align.  In those cases, your Republican vote in California or your Democratic vote in Texas do matter, because they expose our system’s flaws.

Your vote matters, for your country and, most importantly, for you.  It takes the concern of ordinary citizens to make change.  High speeches and promises by politicians won’t do it, we have to get involved.  Voting is the first, most basic, and most important measure of involvement.  So go vote tomorrow, even if you live in California.  Go now and vote.

The Educator’s Dilemma: Three questions on technology and education

There are always people talking at Oxford.  You could make it your full time mission to hear all the interesting talks and still miss more than you catch.  I thought it would be valuable, both for myself and whomever finds time to read this, to share my impressions from these talks.  Views and opinions here will be my own, and don’t necessarily reflect the presenter’s point of view.

The following is my response to a lecture entitled “Personalization, Backpacks Full of Cash, and Rockstar Teachers: The Intersection of Technology, Free-Market Ideology, and Media Hype in U.S. Education Reform.”  It was presented at the Oxford Internet Institute by Justin Reich, Phd, Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Founder of EduTechTeacher.

The Educator’s Dilemma:  Three questions on technology and education

1) Is education delivered or emergent?

The education system in the United States is broken; there seems to be little argument here.  What people do argue about, however, is what to do about it.  We’re forced to ask fundamental questions about what education is and what it should be.  Should education aim to produced informed citizens?  Workers for the labor force?  Critical minds?  Can it do all three?  Should the education system produce anything, or is that a fundamental misconception in itself?

Reich briefly discussed two schools of thought in U.S. education policy, formed around two early education theorists, Edward Thorndike and John Dewey.  Thorndike believed in “education as the science of delivery”; Dewey conceived of “education as life” (Reich).  Thorndike’s vision won the day, and our education system today largely incorporates his conception of learning.  Young minds are empty containers to be filled with facts.

Dewey’s vision for education hasn’t been forgotten though.  Reich remarked that educators in the U.S. dream in Dewey and live in Thorndike.  As we are forced to reimagine education in the U.S., I think the question deserves another look, particularly as technology offers new ways of educating.  Do we believe that education is delivered?  That students are to be taught in an industrial, assembly-line manner?  Or do we believe that education emerges through experience and discovery?  How we collectively answer this question will inform our policy decisions.

2) Where does technology fit in?

There are countless passionate and intelligent people working to fix education; this is the one glimmer of hope for a broken system.  These teachers, administrators, policy-makers, activists, are increasingly joined by technologists and investors.  Technology is not a silver bullet.  iPads do not equal education reform.  But I think it’s unequivocally positive that some of the talent and capital of the technology sector are focusing on education.  The question is how can technology help?  Where does it fit in?

Reich made an important distinction between technology that transforms how we educate and technology that puts a shiny veneer on an old, failing model.  He’s right to suggest that improvements at the margin won’t be enough to make an impact.  However, another example Reich gives illustrates a problem that technology encounters in entrenched systems like education.

We point to Wikipedia as an example of the marvels of peer production.  It is just that, but we forget about the online encyclopedias that failed.  Why did Wikipedia succeed where others fail?  Reich suggests (based on a forthcoming paper by his colleagues), that Wikipedia succeeded because it developed an innovative process around an established product.  Other attempts failed because they made no process improvements or tried to develop an innovative product that was incompatible with users’ entrenched expectations about encyclopedias.  When people expect things to work a certain way, it’s hard to disrupt their habits with technology.  Education faces a similar barrier, where norms and expectations of how education should be conducted are so deeply ingrained, particularly in parents.  This could prove an obstacle for real technology-driven innovation in education.

One answer may exist in systems like Khan Academy, which preserves traditional teaching practices (like lectures and tests) but reimagines delivery methods (by enabling personalization of lessons).  Here again we encounter the delivery vs emergence debate, but as I’ll discuss later, I think there’s a middle ground.

3) How do we test and implement new technologies for education?

Product development requires an iterative process of release, review, and improvement.  Startups are told to build a “minimum viable product,” get it in the hands of real users, see what works and what doesn’t, and rebuild or pivot as necessary.  This model can be effective for building quality products quickly , and education would benefit from adopting it.  However, any iterative process anticipates and accepts failure.  While this failure may be celebrated in the context of product development, it becomes a problem in education.

When six online encyclopedias fail and one succeeds, we say the market functioned as it should.  We value Wikipedia and are generally no worse for the failure of the others.  In education, those failures affect the development of children.  Failure, a necessary component of developing a quality product, can’t be accepted and celebrated in the same way.  The response may be that the system fails certain children so badly and predictably, as indicated by zip code, race, socioeconomic status, etc, that we might as well try something else.  It seems unethical, though, to experiment with new practices on an already underserved population just because the status quo is so inadequate.

Where do we go from here?

First, passionate and intelligent people need to keep trying.  Technology won’t solve anything on it’s own, but introducing new people and ideas to the education debate can’t hurt.  In that spirit, I’d like to make a suggestion.

Let’s start with a perspective that views technology as a supplement, not a replacement to classroom interaction and teacher engagement.  For core curricula, particularly in math and science, a system like the Khan Academy can deliver lectures and assessments.  Teachers, therefore, are free to work more intensively with students that need it, either for remediation or advanced work.

The model then becomes a hybrid of the delivery and emergence philosophies.  Students receive instruction in a standardized form but are able to progress through the material at their own pace.  As we learn more about how students use the system, we can develop mechanisms for allowing them to chose topics that they find most engaging.  They learn by exploration as well as delivery.

For implementation, we direct a fraction of education budgets to funding small pilot programs.  The programs should be small and targeted particularly to those most in need of improved education programs.  However, the programs should be an option, something parents and children could opt-in to.  Funding should be available to ensure that economic factors don’t impede children from enrolling.  That would likely mean transportation assistance and potentially after school programs, as the pilot programs may be located at a greater distance from home than local schools.  By making the programs voluntary and free, we might mitigate as much as possible the complex ethical questions discussed earlier.

These are meant as humble suggestions.  I suspect that programs like this probably exist already, in some form or another, and that things are always more complicated than they appear from the outside.  But the more fresh perspectives we can bring to the education discussion, the better off I think we’ll all be.

I’d also like to point out a serious gap in using technology to educate in the humanities and arts.  Despite the dire need for scientists and engineers, to forsake english, history, theology, philosophy, music and all the wonders of the humanities would be a travesty.  We need people who can think, who can act as citizens of the world and approach questions of science and nature from an informed and ethical position.  These things cannot be achieved in math and science alone.

The most hopeful thing that Reich presented was a single number: 15,000.  There are about 15,000 school districts in the United States.  If we can supply these districts with the framework, technology, and funding to innovate as they see fit, we can make this work.  We have to.