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Blackboard Jungle (or Glenn Beck and the Semiotics of Educational Theatre)

Mark Axelrod – Professor of Comparative Literature,  Chapman University

Posted: February 28, 2011 04:54 PM

What’s always puzzled me about Glenn Beck’s “blackboard theatre” is that, well, Glenn Beck is anti-education. Of course, one cannot obtain his high school transcripts from Sehome High School from where he graduated in June, 1982 nor are there any college transcripts since he never actually matriculated. So, one can assume that his interest in higher education was negligible. This “drop out” mentality is also seen in Beck’s cohorts Palin, Limbaugh and Hannity, but it’s only Beck who uses the blackboard prop which in itself is ironic. Not only does it privilege Beck as the “professor” who, seemingly knows more than his students (a failing any “real” teacher would know by experience), but the theatre of the chalk board is interesting since I’m not sure it’s the board of choice these days. It’s a kind of semiotics of theatre which in its own way is a throwback to the educational methods of the “good old days” of yesterday where, apparently, Beck didn’t do very well as a student.

According to Wikipedia, “…in the aftermath of his mother’s death and subsequent suicide of his stepbrother, Beck said he used ‘Dr. Jack Daniel’s’ to cope. At 18, following his high school graduation, Beck relocated to Provo, Utah, and worked at radio station KAYK. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Beck has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”

Feeling he “didn’t fit in,” The only other allusion to any sort of academic training was in 1996 when Beck took a theology class at Yale University, with a written recommendation from an alum who was a listener at the time, Senator Joe Lieberman. The class was called “Early Christology”, but Beck dropped out of that as well, and that marked the extent of Beck’s post-secondary education.

So, one can see the irony here of having a high school graduate who, apparently, has an antipathy for higher education posing as the scholarly professor. This is doubly ironic when one considers Beck’s approach to education in general. For example, his antipathy towards the Department of Education is apparent as one can read in his The Plan, Day Three: Abolish the Department of Education on his April 15, 2010 show. His thesis, if you want to call it that, is based on the fact that since it’s such a relatively new department (1979) that it should be dismantled because it’s not working.

One of his guests, the Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards, said, “It’s a crazy system. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars on K-12 education now; the federal taxpayers have, over 40 years. And the test scores, as you showed, have been absolutely flat for 40 years. So, obviously, you know, all this money is not helping.”

That’s a valid argument if the facts support it, but no one on Beck’s show is concerned about the facts and what surround the facts. Beck’s reply to Edwards’ statement was “I have to tell you, I think we’re so screwed up — and, Stephen, maybe you can address this a little bit. I think we’re so screwed up, we built these palaces. They’re educational palaces. I mean, if you go to any nice town and the nicest buildings will be the schools. That’s not necessary….I mean, I got a good education. I went to a private school. You know, my dad worked at a bakery. We had to work it — you know, work it off to go to the school. We used — we never wasted, had to use both sides of the paper. I remember when I went to, I think, I think it was ninth grade, and it was the first time I had ever been in a public school. It was like — it was Vegas!”

What is striking about his statement is that whenever facts are presented, even specious ones, Beck seems to rely on a kind of “ad lib” discourse, a kind of discourse that is predicated on being uninformed. Not only that, but the fact he said he received a “good education” belies the facts themselves as evinced by the fact that, for whatever reason, he had no interest in pursuing a higher education.

It’s interesting that Beck would bring up the case of the “rubber rooms” when he says, “Let me show you something here in New York. We found something called ‘rubber rooms.’ These are rooms where teachers go, and they don’t teach. But they do get paid. There are now 675 teachers in eight rubber rooms set up through New York City alone… Last year, the city paid its rubber room teachers $40 million in salary — $40 million. They do nothing. They sit there and make money.”

What’s interesting about that comment is that his discourse seems to imply that that Fox News discovered those rubber rooms and was going to enlighten the rest of us about them. In fact, the New York Times reported on the rubber rooms on the same day, April 15, so it’s not out of the question to assume that Beck took the New York Times article and assumed it for himself with the help of the crack team of “journalists” at Fox. Clearly, what Beck was talking about has some merit in that the Times article indicated “Mayor Bloomberg and the “city’s teachers’ union have agreed to do away with ‘rubber rooms’ full of teachers accused of wrongdoing or incompetence and speed up hearings for them, reforming a disciplinary system that has made both City Hall and the teachers’ union subjects of ridicule.”

What doesn’t make sense is how Beck appropriated it for himself and, in a way, made himself appear as if he was a proponent for a better standard of education when the facts and the mockery of Beck University belie that. The triple irony here is that if one can’t make it at real university and one has the wherewithal to create one’s own then, why not do it. For example, whereas Harvard’s logo merely reads Veritas, Beck’s logo reads Tyrannis Seditio, Obsequium Deo (Rebellion to Tyrants, Obedience to God) which has nothing to do with truth or enlightenment or education since that’s not the academic point.

In addition to Beck’s bromide, the logo includes a profile of Washington, a buffalo, and a quill pen none of which in combination with the Latin makes any sense in terms of the semiotic significance of the logo. Perhaps, the laurel leaves have something to do with Greece, but if Beck new anything about the Greeks I’m sure he’d use another plant. As the blurb on his website indicates “Offered exclusively to Insider Extreme subscribers, Beck University is a unique academic experience bringing together experts in the fields of religion, American history and economics. Through captivating lectures and interactive online discussions, these experts will explore the concepts of Faith, Hope and Charity and show you how they influence America’s past, her present and most importantly her future.”

Education, indeed. Finally, the last of Beck’s academic ironies appears on his website which claims “Glenn Beck: The Fusion of Entertainment and Enlightenment”. It is a fitting tribute to a line Cervantes’ used in referring to Don Quixote, a novel which, one must assume, Beck has never read and never will. But in a fitting tribute to Beck, one can hear Cervantes imploring Beck, en la boca cerrada no entran las moscas.

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