The Prize: A Review

The Prize is the story of a group of rich men who pissed away nearly $200,000,000 by not following the business philosophy that made them rich in the first place.

“Investors bet on people, not business plans.”

The book chronicles the efforts made by the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker, to try to reform the city’s school system.  That system, once excellent, was destroyed by “poverty,” which came about due to the decline of manufacturing and race riots.  Having figured out to his satisfaction “what works,” namely getting rid of teacher unions and instituting businesslike accountability for the system, Booker sought out wealthy philanthropists like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and The Walton Family Foundation, the latter of whom having gotten its wealth by helping to wipe out Newark’s industrial base.   These men were eager to help, and they saw in Booker a man who could create a model of urban school renewal, which, in a way, he did.

The mayor and his backers hatched various plans in secret, wisely realizing that asking the people of Newark for their opinions was pointless.  From the very start, though, their efforts were doomed by this kind of cognitive dissonance.  All of their efforts were on behalf of the people of the city, who at the same could not be trusted to appreciate them or even want them.  They beat back the unions with the help of the governor, Chris Christie, they instituted accountability, they brought in a new superintendent, and the people of Newark promptly elected a new mayor who promised to undo everything the reformers had done.  While betting on Cory Booker was arguably wise, betting on the people of Newark was a colossal mistake.

The problem with Newark is not that it’s poor.  Countries around the world manage to educate children with far less effort and expense.  The problem is that the people of the city are fundamentally dysfunctional.  They lack even the most basic family structure and live in utter chaos. Crime is considered a normal part of life, both in the streets and among the governing class that loots the citizenry, such as it is.  What few people care about education are trapped among an overwhelming majority who do not.  As far as the Newark of Cory Booker was concerned, from top to bottom, the system existed for three reasons: to provided jobs and patronage, to feed and warehouse children, and to make a show of fulfilling its ostensible function of educating the masses.

If this sounds harsh, consider that everyone involved in the reforms began and ended with the same judgement, if only subconsciously.  In much the same way, however, that proponents of universal pre-k cite the fact that children in “poor” homes end up with a severely impoverished vocabulary as compared with their middle class peers, but cannot but respect the culture of the underclass, the reformers were forced to lie to themselves about the nature of the change that needed to be made, and their inability to make it.  The people of Newark didn’t want to be fixed; as far as they were concerned, they were fine the way they were, and though their utter indifference to the middle class values of Booker perplexed him, it needn’t have.  Telling someone that education is the key to a better future only matters to someone who wants one.  Most people are content to remain where they began, so long as their needs and wants are met, and that will remain the case in Newark so long as the state is willing to fund their dysfunction.

These same reforms were tried all over and failed all over for the same reason; they bet on the wrong people.  With stunted imaginations and little intelligence beyond a certain manipulative animal cunning, the people of America’s underclass communities have no use for a challenging school curriculum that is intended to prepare them for a future they cannot conceive of, beyond that fact that it would take them out of the comfort of their accustomed home.   The most humane thing the reformers could have done would have been to drive a bus to each school, inquire by way of general announcement who truly wanted to learn, and transport the willing to a private school set up with the millions they instead squandered.  Perhaps these children could have been trained as education consultants, so as to be ensconced in reforming districts with six-digit salaries, paid to generate slogans and spurious data.  It’s a growth industry.

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