Category Archives: Social Commentary

IPS stuck in culture of apathy, inefficiency

Waste, bureaucracy, confusion get in the way of teaching

By Andy Gammill

When the superintendent brought in auditors to look at the Indianapolis Public Schools bus operation in December, the department couldn’t say how many routes it runs each day. Auditors had to guess.

When the school district tried to dismiss 14 administrators this year, it missed a deadline to notify the employees and now must pay their full salaries for another year.

Although the district struggles to hire teachers and is chronically short-staffed, it has 10,000 job applications that have never been reviewed.

That confusion and lack of oversight represent what may be the biggest challenge to the state’s largest school district as it continues efforts to reform.

Over the past three years, Superintendent Eugene White has tackled classroom shortcomings such as weak teaching and poor discipline. Now he has started to remake the crippling bureaucracy behind practices that are often inefficient, sometimes illegal and occasionally dangerous to children.

Others before him have tried, only to be defeated by a culture steeped in an attitude of “this, too, shall pass.”

“I’ve heard it ever since 1971 that I’ve been in IPS: ‘Just wait it out,’ ” said Jane Ajabu, the district’s personnel director. “Unfortunately, the people in the district have adopted the attitude of: ‘It’s mediocre, it’s ineffective, that’s just how it is.’ ”

Changing that kind of culture can be one of the hardest things any leader does, said Richard Cosier, dean of Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management and a scholar on organizational change. Because people have grown comfortable doing things the old way, reform is extremely difficult.

Large urban school districts are notoriously inefficient, and at least one measure suggests IPS may be worse than other Indiana districts. Its bureaucracy has an unusually high proportion of licensed educators working outside classrooms.

For every 53 students, IPS has one licensed educator working in a nonteaching job. Across the state, only Gary Public Schools has as high a ratio of administrators to students. Other Marion County districts have 86 to 156 students per licensed educator in a job outside the classroom.

Having so many teachers working as administrators, counselors, curriculum specialists, instructional coaches or assistant principals swells the bureaucracy even as student enrollment steadily drops.

White has called for a review of the number of teachers on special assignment. He also has overhauled the district’s computer security operation and has started to improve the human resources department. Soon, he plans to announce an overhaul of the bus program and a new organizational structure.

“We just can’t go on this way,” he said.

Several School Board members acknowledged the problems but said that inefficiency and waste were limited to certain departments and specific errors, and not a districtwide problem.

“They’re isolated incidents,” board member Clarke C. Campbell said. “Certainly they’re serious and need to be dealt with. But when you isolate four or five incidents, then you’re ignoring thousands of other opportunities for mistakes that weren’t made.”

Yet examples of bureaucratic problems abound at IPS, where 79 percent of its 35,000 students are poor and 9 percent are still learning English. Many of the problems hamper the basic functions of a district, including the hiring of good teachers, encouraging parental participation and wisely using money and educational tools.

The catalog of gaffes and missed opportunities is long and numbing.
Costly mistakes

A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Education reprimanded IPS for using Title I money designed to add programs for poor children to reimburse itself for what it would have done anyway.

The district shifted 17 administrators, teaching coaches and permanent substitute teachers into classroom jobs to comply with the federal order. Had it continued to violate federal law, the district would have had to forfeit about $1.4 million.

In the past, the district routinely had problems administering money under that federal law, White said, and often had to return money.

In February, the district moved to dismiss 15 administrators, some for poor performance and some because of budget cuts. The School Board approved White’s recommendation.

But 14 of the people affected (one has resigned) will keep their full administrative pay for another year because IPS did not notify them in time to cancel the contracts under state law.

“No one’s happy,” IPS spokeswoman Mary Louise Bewley said, “but these things happen.”

Other administrative gaffes have cost the district money.

In August, the Indiana Department of Education asked IPS to repay $274,000 after it discovered that its nine middle schools had held classes for 177 of the required 180 days.

A senior administrator had approved the calendar, mistakenly believing that the district could hold training for teachers on those extra three days.

“Someone should have known,” Purdue University education Professor James Auter said at the time, “and someone should have provided the leadership.”
A hiring quagmire

Despite a desperate need for qualified teachers, IPS had created a human resources system that defeated its hiring quest at every turn.

If a resume, college transcript or letter of recommendation arrived at the district office bearing a different name or Social Security number from the one on the application, it was set aside in a pile.

If an applicant missed filling out a part of the online application, it just sat there.

Human resources representatives did not review the files or call people for more information.

“It’s not lost,” human resources director Ajabu recently told the School Board. “We just don’t know what to do with it.”

She estimates that a backlog of at least 10,000 applications sits unreviewed in the district’s electronic human resources system. Some were started by people who stopped before filling out an entire form because they decided not to apply.

Others, though, were from job candidates who thought they had filled out the file but had left some blanks.

The hiring process ensures that the most persistent — not necessarily the best — candidates get jobs.

Ajabu, who took over as personnel chief in 2005, works hard to hire the best employees. But in the end, she was undermined by a “dysfunctional” system, Superintendent White said.

“Compared to three years ago, we have really improved a great deal,” he said. “But there are still things to do.”

Hiring is only one failure in the district’s HR department.

Ajabu was floored a few months ago when she read the list of IPS employees receiving sick pay.

On it was a teacher who had been dismissed months earlier. She had a signed settlement saying IPS owed her no more money. Yet the district had cut $3,600 in checks in her name after that.

Ajabu also found five teachers on leave from daytime teaching jobs because of illness who then took evening jobs in the district. They were being paid for both.

“Those are the kinds of loopholes, things that the past practices had allowed to happen . . . those type of things have been — I can’t say they’ve all been cleared up,” White said. “They’re unacceptable, and the ones we’ve found have been cleared up.”
Renegade system

A review of the district’s transportation system, commissioned by White last year, portrays the transportation department as a renegade operation so disorganized that it fails to respond to the superintendent’s directives, cuts into classroom teaching and wastes taxpayer money. A private contractor runs about 70 percent of the district’s routes; IPS owns buses and hires drivers to do the rest.

“Transportation always has been a place that had a lot of confusion,” said School Board member Michael D. Brown, a former IPS bus driver. “I just don’t really know how it got that way.”

For instance, the district buys 84-passenger buses and hasn’t considered 77-passenger buses, auditors said, although the smaller buses are cheaper and easier to maintain. Auditors never saw more than 50 students on a bus.

White questioned, though, whether auditors might have seen buses for special programs that had fewer students and not seen others with more children on them.

And the cost of the whole transportation operation raises questions of its own.

IPS spends $1,500 per year to transport one student on its buses. Each bus route run by the contractor costs half of what it would cost IPS to do the job itself. And the district could buy IndyGo passes for 13,000 middle- and high-schoolers. Each pass would cost $330 per year, auditors said.

That would add up to at least $5.4 million in savings.

“The first-blush reaction is it’s a no-brainer,” said Mike Terry, vice president of IndyGo. “This is an opportunity for IndyGo to pick up and support the school system. It would benefit the whole community.”

The transportation department’s problems go beyond financial issues.

When White announced a program this school year to open 21 new alternative schools — a key part of his plan to improve discipline and academics — auditors said the transportation department either didn’t or couldn’t plan adequately for the task.

They noted that “a general lack of planning, coordination and attention to detail has inhibited the Transportation Department’s ability to expand service.”

“We have to change the system,” White said. “We’re doing a better job right now than we ever had. . . . There are just some dysfunctional practices they’ve gotten into.”
Schools stumble, too

The central office problems have echoes in schools, sometimes in the misuse of public funds, according to a 2007 audit by the state.

The audit found several problems at Arlington High School on the Northeastside. The school was cheating students with two separate fees. In one, students were charged a $10 locker deposit to pay for repairs if needed. Auditors said few students received refunds, and no money was used for locker repairs.

In another policy error, Arlington charged a flat fee for textbooks and then didn’t offer refunds to some students whose books cost less than the fee.

Perhaps most illustrative of the lax accounting at the school was a candy sale to raise money for cheerleading. The sale was called off because the candy was lost or, in some cases, destroyed, but a year later the school hadn’t paid vendors for the candy. And when auditors went looking for the paper trail of who oversaw the candy sale, they found nothing.

Apparently, the effort had never been officially approved.

White, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on management of school-level funds, has said the problems are fixed and won’t happen again. The state has not filed a follow-up audit, but White said he had seen an advance copy that shows almost no problems at schools.
Students lose out

For those who want to help students, the mistakes at IPS can be insurmountable — and heartbreaking.

Kathy Cannon, a teacher at Shortridge Middle School, had been bugging her principal to buy a “Smart Board,” a kind of 21st-century blackboard that doubles as a giant computer screen.

Shortridge couldn’t find money to buy one of the boards, which typically cost more than $1,300.

Meanwhile, new administrators taking over a magnet program found tens of thousands of dollars worth of science gear and computers in a storage room at another school. Some of the equipment had been there for years. Some of it apparently had never reached a classroom.

Among the equipment were several Smart Boards.

Cannon got her wish when the unused gear was parceled out to schools, hers among them.

She came out better than many, especially those from outside the district who try to help.

Inspired to help by a newspaper article last year, Far-Eastside resident Cris Giddens called Marshall Middle School to volunteer, but no one at the school followed through. She called the district office for days only to get a busy signal.

Eventually, an administrator gave her contacts at three other schools near her that she was assured would want help. She called principals at all three and didn’t get a single call back.

Now she volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana.

Someone there returned her call.

“A lot of the problems IPS is having are self-imposed in that they’re not responsive,” she said. “It’s hard to have sympathy for the problems they have when numerous attempts are made to help them.”

Call Star reporter Andy Gammill at (317) 444-6494.

Woman dies of Leptospirosis

Just received the following email from a friend:

This is Serious!

This incident happened recently in North Texas.

A woman went boating one Sunday taking with her some cans of coke which she put into the refrigerator of the boat. On Monday she was taken to the hospital and placed in the Intensive Care Unit. She died on Wednesday.

The autopsy concluded she died of Leptospirosis. This was traced to the can of coke she drank from, not using a glass. Tests showed that the can was infected by dried rat urine and hence the disease Leptospirosis.

Rat urine contains toxic and deathly substances. It is highly recommended to thoroughly wash the upper part of soda cans before drinking out of them. The cans are typically stocked in warehouses and transported straight to the shops without being cleaned.

A study at NYCU showed that the tops of soda cans are more contaminated than public toilets – full of germs and bacteria. So wash them with water before putting the m to the mouth to avoid any kind of fatal accident.

Please forward this message to all the people you care about.

And responded:

Yeah, I’ve died quite a few times from all those pops I drank when I was a kid and teenager and didn’t bother wiping off anything. Of course rat urine has gotten a lot stronger than it was back in the day.

I just get the shivers thinking about all the times I had my hands in my mouth after touching God knows what when I was a toddler. It is said, though, that God looks after babies and fools. Why do we pray over our food before we eat it?

Poor lady. Must have just been her time to go, huh? Maybe she could have saved herself if she would have read the information on the CDC site before she bought those cans of coke. Anyway its sad to think that she wasn’t alone. It seems other women have died under the same exact circumstances. Weird, huh?

Don’t take my word for it, check for yourself.

What does it mean when so many people get lured in and even propagate this kind of stuff?

Is it any different from the old woman who answers the door and lets herself get talked into signing on the dotted line for a second mortgage with astronomical interest rates? Any different from the college student who signs up for credit card after credit card without any kind of education about finances or debt? Any different that the Y2K scare? The Iraq war? Iran? Hmmm…

Blackstar Project: taking back the community

On Saturday, June 7, 2008, at 11:00 am C.S.T, seventy-five courageous, principled and hardworking men–ministers, former gang members, law officers, fire fighters, teachers, construction workers, business owners, social workers, retired elders, community members, and students–will bring this movement of Black men to the community where the mass arrest occurred. Men will come together to walk the streets, talk to the people and bring hope to a community that has not seen much hope.

They will knock on doors, visit youth in schools during the week, take youth to churches on Sundays, play basketball and baseball with young males, teach teenagers how to “hustle legit,” encourage young fathers to take care of their children and encourage young men who have had a brush with the law to finish school, secure gainful employment and remain law-abiding. These Black men will be role models for other Black men around the country to launch a similar Movement of Black Men, while standing up for their communities, their families and their children. Chicago’s Roseland, Woodlawn, Englewood and Uptown communities are also scheduled for this effort

Organizations collaborating to do the work that needs to be done to stop the violence among our youth in Chicago are ABBA Church of Renewed Faith, Afrikan American Council of Islamic Brotherhood, Black Souls Organization, Block Club University, Blyden Delany Academy (Milwaukee, WI), Center for Community Development Initiatives, Citizens for a Safer Community, Hip Hop Detox/L.E.A.R.N Charter School, Kidz Off The Block, P.E.A.C.E., Peoples Army, Ministry Network Coalition, No Limit Ministries, TEECH Foundation, Williams Youth Services, 100 Black Men of Chicago and The Black Star Project.

This effort has no funding. Although funding would help the Movement of Black Men with its overall mission, these organizations are not waiting for foundation or government money before they start their work. We are simply the laborers doing the work that is necessary in the vineyard of Chicago’s mean streets. We are not the police. We will not arrest anyone. Our communities don’t need more policing; they need more strong, positive Black men. And we will not try to be tougher or more macho than the men with whom we will speak in these communities. We want to work with them as we replace the violence and fear in Chicago communities with hope and promise.

Please join us. If men want to participate in this effort or if you want to bring the Movement of Black Men to your city, please email, call People Acting Responsibly Empowering Neighborhoods Together (PARENT) – 773.285.9600 or visit

Boondocks’ creator Aaron McGruder to BET: %@*$% ^ & !

Animated episodes that never aired, which take swipes at black cable network executives, will be included on next Tuesday’s DVD release.

By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The battle between “The Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder and Black Entertainment Television is about to get a lot more animated.

Two second-season episodes of the biting cartoon series that attack the black-themed network but were never aired — possibly because of corporate pressure — are slated for DVD release Tuesday. The pair of shows take aim at BET’s top executives and lampoon what it views as the cable network’s harmful negative imagery and stereotypes that work as a “destructive” force within African American culture.

The episodes amplify a familiar chord struck by McGruder, who has regularly targeted BET, first in his politically and culturally charged comic strip, published in more than 300 newspapers, and subsequently in the TV adaptation on Cartoon Network’s edgy late-night Adult Swim.

But these particular installments, which like many in the animated series feature violence, foul language and frequent use of the N-word, apparently went too far in mocking BET’s top brass. In “The Hunger Strike,” a main character refuses to eat until BET is off the air and its executives commit hara-kiri.

And in “The Uncle Ruckus Reality Show,” a foul-mouthed black man who hates African Americans gets a show on BET. The hot-button series centers on two young black boys, militant Huey Freeman and his gangsta-wannabe younger brother, Riley, who live in the suburbs with their grandfather.

When BET executives learned of the shows, they complained to Turner-owned Cartoon Networks and Sony Pictures Television, which produces “The Boondocks,” and urged that they be blocked from broadcast, according to sources close to the program who requested anonymity for fear of network reprisal.

Initially, Cartoon Network resisted, but when legal action was threatened, the episodes, written by McGruder and co-executive producer Rodney Barnes, were yanked, according to sources. Both McGruder and Barnes declined to comment.

Executives at Turner and Viacom-owned BET, however, deny there were any discussions about removing the programs between the two companies. Still, Turner officials would not explain why the two installments were eventually withheld.

Both episodes are highlighted by fierce satirical attacks on two top BET executives, portrayed in thinly disguised caricatures.

Chairman and Chief Executive Debra L. Lee, who succeeded the network’s founder, Robert Johnson, is shown as Debra Leevil, patterned after “Dr. Evil” in the “Austin Powers” films. Leevil declares in a staff meeting: “Our leader Bob Johnson had a dream, a dream that would accomplish what hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and malt liquor could not accomplish — the destruction of black people.”

And BET President of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin is depicted as Wedgie Rudlin, a culturally insensitive buffoon coasting on his Ivy League education. Hudlin, a former friend of McGruder, is ironically credited as an executive producer on the series, the end result of a professional partnership that ended bitterly over creative differences before the series premiered in 2005.

A BET spokesperson said that the network was aware of the episodes and did not, as a network that runs its own satirical content, begrudge those who made fun of its programming.

The DVD release features stinging commentary from McGruder and Barnes about the episodes, which are uncut. In the introduction, McGruder said he went after BET because network executives, in his view, failed to elevate the network’s standards — something Hudlin had pointedly promised to do when joining the network three years ago.

“I was looking for changes and improvements, and I didn’t see any,” McGruder said on the DVD. “I didn’t see them. So I said, OK, it’s fair game. It’s hard not to address it. It really was an important part of the strip.” Because of legal reasons, he adds, he cannot mention the real names of the people satirized in the episodes.

Barnes added: “You expect white television to present black people in a particular way. The anger comes from black television portraying us in a particular way. That brings out a different sense of frustration, and at the heart of these episodes is that frustration.”

Press hails Obama the ‘giant slayer’

(CNN) — History in the making was how many international newspapers viewed Barack Obama’s emergence as Democratic presidential candidate, with the focus on his status as the first ever African-American to win the ticket.

Newspapers described Obama as a “political giant slayer.”

Even before Hillary Clinton admitted defeat in the hard-fought contest, some publications were already dissecting her failed campaign, analyzing where it went wrong and what the future has in store for her political dynasty.

Tuesday’s win “confirms Obama’s reputation as a political giant-slayer, who after less than four years in the U.S. Senate brought down the couple credited with creating the Democrats’ most powerful political machine,” the Guardian newspaper wrote.

The Chinese Xinhua news agency marveled at how “one year ago, it was very hard to imagine that Obama, a young politician without a strong political base and little known to the public can defeat Hillary Clinton, the heir-apparent of the Democratic Party.”

The Times of London saw Obama’s victory as evidence that “the United States remains a land of opportunity.”

“This moment’s significance is its resounding proof of the truism about America as a land of opportunity: Mr Obama’s opportunity to graduate from Harvard and take Washington by storm,” it wrote.

It said his victory also demonstrates “the opportunity that the world’s most responsive democratic system gives its voters to be inspired by an unknown; the opportunity that outsiders now have to reassess the superpower that too many of them love to hate.

“Win or lose in November, he will have gone farther than anyone in history to bury the toxic enmity that fueled America’s civil war and has haunted it ever since.”
Don’t Miss

The Financial Times opened a post-mortem on Clinton’s campaign, indicating that her defeat was not about her shortcomings but about Obama’s political potency.

“Analysts will spend years poring over the reasons for Mrs Clinton’s failed bid and probably never reach consensus,” it wrote.

“But almost everyone, including some members of her own staff, would agree that the former first lady’s campaign looked old-fashioned next to that of Barack Obama.”

The Independent newspaper, however, placed the blame on “loyal husband” Bill Clinton who “more than anyone sabotaged his wife’s chances by airing too many outspoken opinions on the way.”

But the paper hinted the Clintons may still have another shot at the White House — although it could be a few years away.

“Hillary has been beaten. Bill has dishonored himself. And Chelsea? Chelsea need have no regrets. She may be the candidate that brings the family back to the campaign trail again. But that drama is for another decade.”

The French newspaper Le Monde also examined Bill Clinton’s role in Hillary’s failure. The former president was both her greatest asset and her worst, the paper said, delivering a blunt assessment of her campaign with an emphatic: “C’est fini.”

Obama Claims Nomination; First Black Candidate to Lead a Major Party Ticket


Senator Barack Obama claimed the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday night, prevailing through an epic battle with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in a primary campaign that inspired millions of voters from every corner of America to demand change in Washington.

A last-minute rush of Democratic superdelegates, as well as split results from the final primaries in Montana and South Dakota, pushed Mr. Obama over the threshold of 2,118 delegates needed to be nominated at the party’s convention in Denver in August. The victory for Mr. Obama, the son of a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother, broke racial barriers and represented a remarkable rise for a man who just four years ago served in the Illinois State Senate.

“You chose to listen not to your doubts or your fears, but to your greatest hopes and highest aspirations,” Mr. Obama told supporters at a rally in St. Paul. “Tonight, we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another — a journey that will bring a new and better day to America. Because of you, tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.”

Mrs. Clinton paid tribute to Mr. Obama, but she did not leave the race. “This has been a long campaign and I will be making no decisions tonight,” Mrs. Clinton told supporters in New York. She said she would be speaking with party officials about her next move.

In a combative speech, she again presented her case that she was the stronger candidate and argued that she had won the popular vote, a notion disputed by the Obama campaign.

“I want the 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected,” she said in New York to loud cheers.

But she paid homage to Mr. Obama’s accomplishments, saying, “It has been an honor to contest the primaries with him, just as it has been an honor to call him my friend.”

Mr. Obama’s victory moved the presidential campaign to a new phase as he tangled with Senator John McCain of Arizona in televised addresses Tuesday night over Mr. Obama’s assertion that Mr. McCain would continue President Bush’s policies. Mr. McCain vigorously rebuffed that criticism in a speech in Kenner, La., in which he distanced himself from the outgoing president while contrasting his own breadth of experience with Mr. Obama’s record.

“The American people didn’t get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Senator Obama,” Mr. McCain told supporters. Mr. Obama’s victory capped a marathon nominating contest that broke records on several fronts: the number of voters who participated, the amount of money raised and spent, and the sheer length of a grueling battle. The campaign, infused by tensions over race and sex, provided unexpected twists to the bitter end as Mr. Obama ultimately prevailed over Mrs. Clinton, who just a year ago appeared headed toward becoming the first woman to be nominated by a major party. The last two contests reflected the party’s continuing divisions, as Mrs. Clinton won the South Dakota primary and Mr. Obama won Montana.

The race drew to its final hours with a burst of announcements — delegate-by-delegate — of Democrats stepping forward to declare their support for Mr. Obama. The Democratic establishment, from former President Jimmy Carter to rank-and-file local officials who make up the ranks of the party’s superdelegates, rallied behind Mr. Obama as the day wore on.

When the day began, Mr. Obama needed 41 delegates to effectively claim the nomination. Just as the polls began to close in Montana and South Dakota, Mr. Obama secured the delegates he needed to end his duel with Mrs. Clinton, which wound through every state and territory in an unprecedented 57 contests over five months.

Every time a new endorsement was announced at the Obama headquarters in Chicago, campaign workers interrupted with a booming round of applause. They are members of Mr. Obama’s team — a political start up — that is responsible for defeating one of the most tried and tested operations in Democratic politics.

While the Democratic race may have ended, a new chapter began in the complicated tensions that have defined the relationship with Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton.

On a conference call with members of the New York Congressional delegation on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton was asked whether she would be open to joining a ticket with Mr. Obama. She replied that she would do whatever she could — including a vice presidential bid — to help Democrats win the White House.

In his speech on Tuesday evening, Mr. Obama paid respect to his rival.

“Our party and our country are better off because of her,” Mr. Obama said, “and I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Before she arrived at her rally on Tuesday in New York City, Mrs. Clinton and a few close advisers huddled at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., to discuss the timing of her departure from the race. In the afternoon conference call she conducted with fellow New York lawmakers, she asked their patience as she decides upon her next move.

Representative Nydia M. Velásquez, Democrat of New York, asked Mrs. Clinton whether she would consider teaming up with Mr. Obama. “She said that if it’s offered, she would take it,” Ms. Velásquez said.

Mrs. Clinton said she would do “anything to make sure a Democrat would win,” according to several participants on the call. While her advisers played down the remark’s significance, the Democrats on the call said that by not demurring or saying she would simply think about it, they said they were left with the impression that it was an offer that she wanted to at least consider.

“If Senator Obama asked her to be the V.P., she certainly would accept that,” said Representative Carolyn McCarthy, Democrat of New York. “She has obviously given some thought to this.”

Neither Mr. Obama nor his associates commented on the speculation, and he made no reference to it in his speech on Tuesday evening in Minnesota, which was delivered at the same arena in which Mr. McCain is expected to accept the Republican nomination at the party’s convention in September.

“You can rest assured that when we finally win the battle for universal health care in this country, she will be central to that victory,” Mr. Obama said. “When we transform our energy policy and lift our children out of poverty, it will be because she worked to help make it happen.”

The competition between Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama has been sharpening for weeks, but the close of the Democratic primary formally raised the curtain to a five-month general election contest. The race, as their respective speeches foreshadowed on Tuesday evening, will unfold against a backdrop of an electorate that is restless about soaring gas prices, mortgage foreclosures and the Iraq war.

It is also a generational battle of personalities and contrasting styles. Mr. McCain staged an evening event in Louisiana, so he would be included in the evening’s television narrative that otherwise belonged to Democrats.

About two hours later, Mr. Obama responded in a speech before a thousands of supporters.

“There are many words to describe John McCain’s attempt to pass off his embrace of George Bush’s policies as bipartisan and new,” Mr. Obama said. “But change is not one of them.”

Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting.

Alpha Nerds

by David Brooks

In 1950, Dr. Seuss published a book called “If I Ran the Zoo,” which contained the sentence, “I’ll sail to Ka-Troo, and bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, a NERKLE, a NERD, and a SEERSUCKER, too!” According to the psychologist David Anderegg, that’s believed to be the first printed use of the word “nerd” in modern English.

The next year, Newsweek noticed that nerd was being used in Detroit as a substitute for “square.” But, as Anderegg writes in his book, “Nerds,” the term didn’t really blossom onto mass consciousness until The Fonz used it in “Happy Days,” in the mid- to late-’70s . And thus began what you might call the ascent of nerdism in modern America.

At first, a nerd was a geek with better grades. The word described a high-school or college outcast who was persecuted by the jocks, preps, frat boys and sorority sisters. Nerds had their own heroes (Stan Lee of comic book fame), their own vocations (Dungeons & Dragons), their own religion (supplied by George Lucas and “Star Wars”) and their own skill sets (tech support). But even as “Revenge of the Nerds” was gracing the nation’s movie screens, a different version of nerd-dom was percolating through popular culture. Elvis Costello and The Talking Heads’ David Byrne popularized a cool geek style that’s led to Moby, Weezer, Vampire Weekend and even self-styled “nerdcore” rock and geeksta rappers.

The future historians of the nerd ascendancy will likely note that the great empowerment phase began in the 1980s with the rise of Microsoft and the digital economy. Nerds began making large amounts of money and acquired economic credibility, the seedbed of social prestige. The information revolution produced a parade of highly confident nerd moguls – Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin and so on.

Among adults, the words “geek” and “nerd” exchanged status positions. A nerd was still socially tainted, but geekdom acquired its own cool counterculture. A geek possessed a certain passion for specialized knowledge, but also a high degree of cultural awareness and poise that a nerd lacked.

Geeks not only rebelled against jocks, but they distinguished themselves from alienated and self-pitying outsiders who wept with recognition when they read “Catcher in the Rye.” If Holden Caulfield was the sensitive loner from the age of nerd oppression, then Harry Potter was the magical leader in the age of geek empowerment.

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