Malloy in Bethel

Governor Malloy appeared in Bethel to defend his educational reform proposals, and the going was not quite as rough as Mr. Malloy’s past appearances.

At Wilber Cross High School, the heckling, mostly from teachers, was blistering. Towards the end of the meeting in New Haven, union president David Cicarella conceded, according to one press report, “It doesn’t do any good hooting and hollering at the guy.” Teacher unions have not conceded much to Mr. Malloy concerning his proposals to remake education in Connecticut.

Rhetorical grapeshot was fired in Bethel, but Mr. Malloy easily deflected it, perhaps because Bethel Superintendent Kevin Smith had advised the crowd to be on their best behavior, but possibly, as I like to think, because Bethelites are unusually cordial.

My wife and I lived in Bethel – the name means “house of God” – for eight peaceful and fruitful years, not very far from the brilliant white church where P.T. Barnum’s father, Philo, and his mother, Irena, rest in peace beneath the sod. On the occasion of the unveiling of a fountain given by the then famous showman to his home town, Mr. Barnum said:

“Among all the varied scenes of an active and eventful life, crowded with strange incidents of struggle and excitement, of joy and sorrow, taking me often through foreign lands and bringing me face to face with the King in his palace and the peasant in his turf-covered hut, I have invariably cherished with most affectionate remembrance the place of my birth, the old village meeting house, without steeple or bell, where in its square family pew I sweltered in summer and shivered through my Sunday-school lessons in winter, and the old schoolhouse where the ferule, the birchen rod and rattan did active duty, and which deserved and received a liberal share.”

Mr. Barnum is a much underrated character. He first discovered then exploited and entertained the Middle Class. Mayor of Bridgeport and a legislator, Mr. Barnum was an able politician and as humorous and fetching a storyteller as Mark Twain:

“When I was but ten years old, newspapers came only once a week. The man who brought us the week’s papers came up from Norwalk, and drove through this section with newspapers for subscribers and pins and needles for customers. He was called Uncle Silliman. I can remember well his weekly visit through Bethel, and his queer cry. On coming to a house or village he would shout, ‘News! News! The Lord reigns!’ One time he passed our schoolhouse when a snowstorm was prevailing. He shouted: ‘News! News! The Lord reigns – and snows a little.’”

The crowd that listened on that day to the 71 year-old Barnum would have appreciated the subtle humor: The same “Uncle Silliman” who delivered the news supplied his customers with “pins and needles.” Newspapers during Barnum’s day were somewhat prickley, and the birched Bethelites who heard him were much less schooled and more educated than their modern counterparts in some of the underperforming urban schools Mr. Malloy is attempting to reform, apparently without the consent of unions.

Whether it was because the Lord reigned in Bethel or because the teachers of Mr. Barnum’s day made liberal use of birch rods, pretty much everyone who attended school in his home town could read the rare newspapers Mr. Silliman distributed. Mr. Barnum later exploited their literacy by drawing crowds of people into his Circus through ads; in addition to inventing the Middle Class, Mr. Barnum is also the father of modern advertising. It may shock newsreaders who have bought into the so-called “objective reporting” of journalists to learn that some the news stories covering Mr. Barnum’s educational lyceums were written by Mr. Barnum. It was not uncommon in those days for newspaper editors to accept for publication “stories” written by the subjects covered in the stories, their authorship disguised by false by-lines.

It is not at all surprising that Mr. Malloy has not been able to sell his reforms to unionized teachers. The reforms proposed by Mr. Malloy will, after all, change their world. And Mr. Malloy, somewhat like an overbearing teacher, is insisting that a no-excuse pedagogy should not fall back on the usual palliatives: We must eliminate poverty before we can educate urban students; the fault lies with broken families, drug addiction, gangs, disruptive students and other social pathologies, certainly not with dedicated teachers; give us smaller classes; we need longer school years; end standardized testing; give us more money — pass around the birch rods.

Mr. Barnum, whose unique talents perfectly fitted him for a modern world full of politics and showmanship, had much the easier time of it.