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The Merrow Report

One of John Merrow's first assignments as a reporter for National Public Radio was to cover a textbook burning in West Virginia. The experience wasn't quite what he'd expected. Merrow, a TC Trustee who will deliver the keynote address at the College's inaugural Academic Festival this Saturday, reflects on 35 years as the thinking person's education correspondent.
One of John Merrow’s first assignments as a reporter for National Public Radio was to cover a textbook burning in West Virginia. The experience wasn’t quite what he’d expected.
 
“The stereotype of West Virginia is of backwoods folks marrying their sisters, but these were earnest people who wanted to be listened to, and they deserved more than to be caricatured – you don’t hear anything when you caricature,” recounts the veteran journalist, who will deliver the keynote address at TC’s Academic Festival this coming Saturday. “But the liberal establishment was coming down on any effort to open the curriculum in any way. Over the years I think the liberals are as a big a part of the problem as anyone. They’ve been essentially humorless and smug.”
 
Those sentiments might seem odd coming from a man who has spent nearly his entire career reporting on education, including the past 13 years as head of company called Learning Matters, and who himself would almost certainly be described as a liberal by many who consider that a dirty word. But part of Merrow’s point is that liberal intolerance helped galvanize the radical right, giving it an issue that its leadership has exploited ever since.

Here, again, Merrow takes his own to task – in this instance, the media, who, he argues, have misunderstood and mis-portrayed the right’s religious leadership as badly as they did the leaders’ more innocent followers.

“The Intelligent Design people have an agenda for the rest of us, whereas the people I saw in West Virginia just wanted to be heard,” he says. “The Intelligent Design people are quite sophisticated in gaming the system -- they’ve learned the code words that make it a free speech issue -- and that’s the hallmark of the radical right. And it should be reported that way, instead of caricaturing them as ignorant Bible-thumping creationists. They’re like the Islamic extremists, who know what’s best for all of us. I rebel against that, wherever it comes from.”

That stance probably best describes the way Merrow operates, whether as a newsman, a member of Teachers College’s Board of Trustees, or in almost any situation where ideas are in play. A strapping, ruddy-faced man with imposing eyebrows and a shock of foamy white hair, Merrow radiates a kind of wholesome cheeriness – but he has a strong contrarian streak that leads him to question conventional wisdom, champion the overlooked viewpoint and, on occasion, step beyond impartial observation and into a more activist role. Witness Learning Matters’ “Listen Up! Youth Media Network,” which Merrow started a decade ago to train disadvantaged kids from all over the world to produce TV spots.

From the first, he says, “We told them, don’t just tell us school sucks, but when it’s good, tell us why, or else what you’re afraid of and how you handle the fear.”

A few years back, Merrow put together a group of Listen Up! films into an hour-long feature called “Beyond Borders,” about what made kids fearful and how they built security in their lives. The film, which won a prestigious Peabody Award, included works by kids from Afghanistan, Jordan, Colombia, Iran and elsewhere. Anxious to ensure viewing in the United States, Merrow got the Annenberg Foundation to put up money to fly each young producer, together with an adult mentor, to New York City for a screening at the Waldorf Astoria.

Published Tuesday, Apr. 21, 2009

The Merrow Report

One of John Merrow’s first assignments as a reporter for National Public Radio was to cover a textbook burning in West Virginia. The experience wasn’t quite what he’d expected.
 
“The stereotype of West Virginia is of backwoods folks marrying their sisters, but these were earnest people who wanted to be listened to, and they deserved more than to be caricatured – you don’t hear anything when you caricature,” recounts the veteran journalist, who will deliver the keynote address at TC’s Academic Festival this coming Saturday. “But the liberal establishment was coming down on any effort to open the curriculum in any way. Over the years I think the liberals are as a big a part of the problem as anyone. They’ve been essentially humorless and smug.”
 
Those sentiments might seem odd coming from a man who has spent nearly his entire career reporting on education, including the past 13 years as head of company called Learning Matters, and who himself would almost certainly be described as a liberal by many who consider that a dirty word. But part of Merrow’s point is that liberal intolerance helped galvanize the radical right, giving it an issue that its leadership has exploited ever since.

Here, again, Merrow takes his own to task – in this instance, the media, who, he argues, have misunderstood and mis-portrayed the right’s religious leadership as badly as they did the leaders’ more innocent followers.

“The Intelligent Design people have an agenda for the rest of us, whereas the people I saw in West Virginia just wanted to be heard,” he says. “The Intelligent Design people are quite sophisticated in gaming the system -- they’ve learned the code words that make it a free speech issue -- and that’s the hallmark of the radical right. And it should be reported that way, instead of caricaturing them as ignorant Bible-thumping creationists. They’re like the Islamic extremists, who know what’s best for all of us. I rebel against that, wherever it comes from.”

That stance probably best describes the way Merrow operates, whether as a newsman, a member of Teachers College’s Board of Trustees, or in almost any situation where ideas are in play. A strapping, ruddy-faced man with imposing eyebrows and a shock of foamy white hair, Merrow radiates a kind of wholesome cheeriness – but he has a strong contrarian streak that leads him to question conventional wisdom, champion the overlooked viewpoint and, on occasion, step beyond impartial observation and into a more activist role. Witness Learning Matters’ “Listen Up! Youth Media Network,” which Merrow started a decade ago to train disadvantaged kids from all over the world to produce TV spots.

From the first, he says, “We told them, don’t just tell us school sucks, but when it’s good, tell us why, or else what you’re afraid of and how you handle the fear.”

A few years back, Merrow put together a group of Listen Up! films into an hour-long feature called “Beyond Borders,” about what made kids fearful and how they built security in their lives. The film, which won a prestigious Peabody Award, included works by kids from Afghanistan, Jordan, Colombia, Iran and elsewhere. Anxious to ensure viewing in the United States, Merrow got the Annenberg Foundation to put up money to fly each young producer, together with an adult mentor, to New York City for a screening at the Waldorf Astoria.

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