Tavis Smiley: Week in Review, Part IV

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HOWARD MEGDAL: This interview, while it suffered from many of the typical Tavis problems, is probably the strongest he’s done thus far in our review. Throughout, Smiley emphasizes the identity politics of Simmons- the first African American woman to be president of an Ivy League school- which has its strengths and minuses.

The fact that she holds such a position allows for a unique take on many identity politics-based issues of the day, and Simmons never disappoints- she doesn’t have a single answer that failed to make me think about what she said in a new way.

But that’s really the point: why limit the discussion here? Smiley had Simmons on for the full half-hour. There was so much in education to get to- and he simply didn’t bother.

And when the Tavisisms were out in full force, it was frustrating. Simmons spoke about the need for historically black colleges and universities in the larger educational construct- but rather than follow up on it, Smiley talked about how great a radio show he’d done a few weeks ago was. Simmons discusses the inherent problems with educating boys in this country- but Smiley doesn’t ask her what she’d do differently.

I do want to give him credit- asking about her experience during the Civil Rights Era in terms of her studying French was an unconventional way to get at her answer. It was his best moment of the week to date.

A one-dimensional, but worthwhile time with Simmons. But what a wasted opportunity. I want to know how she’d educate in the 21st century- a policy largely undefined across the political spectrum. Simmons has the ability to bring an important perspective to the public discourse- because of her mind, rather than simply her race or gender.

AKIE BERMISS: So Thursday may, in hindsight, be the high water mark for Mr. Smiley’s program.  I have to say, this is probably is as good as it gets.  When it really comes down to it, I’m not sure if Tavis has much more to push on when it comes to preparedness and interview-craft. And just in a nick of time too with the entire show going to a full-length interview with Dr. Ruth Simmons — the president of Brown University.

I guess I want to say that this was a good interview.  I certainly found Dr. Simmons fascinating and impressive.  She was poised and intellectual and, honestly, a great interviewee.  The sad note underlying all this was the knowledge, on my part, that for all the fascinating facets of her personailty and story and life’s work — Tavis could only, in his best form, scratch the paltry surface.  And so he did, with a vengeance.  He sucked every last bit of story out of her coming from extremely modest means in Texas with seven brothers and four sisters, and being African American, and being a woman, and being in charge of Brown.

He started with it, he came back to it mid-interview, and (with cunning canniness) he closed with it.  Classy moves, Smiley.

In the meantime, Simmons found all sorts of ways to circumvent the surfacery that was being perpetrated by answering questions with long tangential examinations of the possible directons those questions might have gone.  A true teacher, in that.  Unfortunately, our man Tavis seemed unaware that perhaps she was hinting at deeper, richer layers of discourse.  When she deftly avoided his attempted to colloquially claim that women are just smarter than men (a strange sort of irony in reverse-sexism,if you will, as she was explaining how she’d been a victim of lowered expectations and had to rise above it to achieve success), but then even MORE deftly insinuated that perhaps the nature of primary and secondary education as it is done in America is antithetical to the way that men are socialized — well, I was quite enthralled.  I would have liked to hear more.  I think anyone hearing that from so revered and accomplished an educator and administrator would have asked at least ONE follow-up question in a 24 minute interview.

Odd, that was when Tavis said something to the effect of, “That’s nice.  We’ve both said something controversial!  Now let’s get back to your compelling personal story.  I know we’ve mentioned it already, but could you say it again — with me listening this time?”

If anything, perhaps it put a few more people on to Simmons.  Its great to see her in action (up to this point, I’d only heard OF her and perhaps read a few things about her).  But as Howard said to me after seeing the show: I’d love to see her on Charlie Rose.

And if that don’t just say it all.

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