Remembering Irving Kristol



By 09/21/2009

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So much that’s true—and important—has been written about the late Irving Kristol, I can add but a few recollections.

I first came to know Irving (and Bea) Kristol through Liz and Pat Moynihan in the late 1960’s when The Public Interest was new and I—besides being a graduate student, then a junior White House aide—was pleased to think of myself as a budding neo-con. Just about everyone I really admired in the academic/policy world in those days—the Kristols, Pat, Nat Glazer, Jim Wilson, Norman Podhoretz et al—fit more-or-less comfortably under that broad heading, which at the outset included more Democrats than Republicans.

I was a huge fan of The Public Interest (as well as Commentary) and while I didn’t manage to work my own way into its pages until 1978, I was proud to appear there some 13 times over the ensuing 26 years.

Irving had a slogan, variously recalled as “If you have a good idea, start a magazine” or “If there’s a problem you want to solve, start a magazine.” That’s more or less what Diane Ravitch and I did in the early 1980’s with “Network News & Views”, the house organ of the new Educational Excellence Network. While it wasn’t quite a magazine—more an edited compilation—it served much the same purpose for the small but growing cadre of U.S. educationists who (even before A Nation at Risk) recognized that quality and achievement were the foremost problems facing America and its schools.

We’ve maintained that tradition at Fordham, most recently with the weekly Gadfly and the 24/7 Flypaper.

Much the same impulse drove Paul Peterson and me, and a handful of others, to launch Education Next back in 2001. There was a problem—the existing education magazines were dull and establishmentarian, with none of them capturing the reformist spirit of the time—and our new journal has helped to fill that void. (Keeping up with the times, as Irving surely encouraged, has meant that EdNext, too, now has a lively website, blog, etc.)

I also benefited greatly from getting to know Irving’s able son Bill when we both worked for Bill Bennett at the Education Department in the late 1980’s and have happily stayed in touch since.

Irving’s own policy sensibility paralleled (and did much to shape) my own: there are real problems in every field (not just education) that would benefit from solutions but the problems must be clearly defined and the solutions must be reasonably certain to succeed—without baneful unintended consequences—before policymakers should embrace and expand them and devote large sums of taxpayers’ dollars to them. Not all problems lend themselves to governmental solutions, however. Culture matters as much as politics and policy and it, too, must be taken seriously—and protected and transmitted and sometimes, very gradually, altered, diffcult as that is to do. Every government venture benefits from rigorous monitoring and evaluating; if it needs mid-course corrections—or termination—that’s what responsible policymakers must do. Nor should they draw their insights, judgments and guidance only from “the experts”, many of whom have vested interests, immutable views and political biases; it’s just as important to appraise policies, programs and tradeoffs through the eyes of ordinary mortals, including those affected by them and those who pay for them. Since government alone cannot be expected to be an honest monitor of itself, and since a vibrant civil society is essential to a strong polity and culture, America needs a vigorous and truly independent private sector—including but not limited to private philanthropy and business—alongside its public sector.

Thank you, Irving, for that and so much more.




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