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Why is it I had such a
hard time reading John Cloud’s “Tour of Duty” (5/17), about Close Up, a 25-year-old civic education program for high-school students?
Maybe it’s because I grew increasingly upset with his stereotyping of kids like “Jessica…an articulate liberal from Wisconsin milk country whose accent makes the characters in Fargo sound ordinary” or Rebecca, who “asks pointed questions” “from behind large corrective lenses” as “we, of course, make fun of her.” We?
Or is it the labeling of folks protesting in Lafayette Square as “nutcases who hang out in the park,” Cloud’s dismissal of an on-site experience for the students?
Could it be his denigration of one Close Up program instructor as “a lovable geek who uses the word ‘chill’ too often” or his assertion that “most students in my group think he’s a dweeb.” Took a survey did you, Cloud?
Perhaps it’s the writer’s enchantment with his own insider’s knowledge of Washington, so profound that he sums up Alice Rivlin’s speech to students with, “I can’t for the life of me remember what she talked about,” assuming the kids, too, got nothing from her insights.
But why am I getting so irritated? Retired from teaching journalism and civic education courses in D.C. public schools and from taking students for 12 years on Close Up, I now work as a teacher coordinator for the organization. I know the strong work of the organization both from the viewpoint of teacher and now employee.
The overall picture painted by Cloud of the program is not only insulting, it’s spurious. Little or no mention of the Walking Workshops—individually designed by program instructors (PIs)—which integrate an examination of an issue of concern to the kids with on-site visits. Or the in-hotel topicals, again PI-prepared, teaching 20 students how to exchange divergent points of view candidly, seriously, yet challenging a position, not a person. No reporting of the lively barrage of student questioners following a Domestic Issues seminar between government professionals representing liberal vs. conservative viewpoints. And so many other experiences—unseen, unimportant, unreported in the article.
Perhaps if the article was even clever I could endure reading Cloud’s polemic. But clever he is not. His cynical approach to kids, government officials, civic educators, and Close Up’s commitment to a participatory study of the democratic process shouts from the pages.
Yet despite Cloud, the 25-year-old dedication of teachers and students to the program will continue, based not on the reporter’s sardonic week but on the participants’ valued experiences on Close Up.