Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The KIPP Principal as Hipster

Ben Speicher:

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning you know I have a thing for chefs and for David Chang in particular. Besides being a bad-ass chef, Chang created the best new magazine in years when he started Lucky Peach this summer. It’s been an unexpected hit because as David Carr of the Times explains, it breaks all the rules of what we expect from magazines these days,
“It breaks many of the conventions not only of food journalism, but of magazine journalism in general as well. The glamorous star on the cover? It’s a chicken being lowered into a pot with its wrinkly backside depicted squirting out graphic eggs. The so-called front of the book — which in most magazines is filled with infographics and breezy snippets — is filled with a trippy, 9,000-word, rambling eat-a-logue through Japan by Mr. Meehan and Mr. Chang.”
But what makes it work is what Anthony Bourdain, of the TV show No Reservations and a writer for Lucky Peach says, “The guiding ethic was that the important movers in the project cared less about the business success than making something that is good and interesting.” And making something good and interesting means infusing every page with passion, curiosity, and personality. Lucky Peach could only have come from the David Chang, in the same way that No Reservations – one of the best shows on TV in any category and the best “travel show” – could only be created by Bourdain. Chang spends all of this time and energy starting a magazine from scratch and then makes the whole first issue about ramen – not the supermarket instant kind that everyone eats when they’re 19, but the Japanese specialty that few Americans ever experience. Nothing in the magazine is at all “practical”, even to someone who is a minor foodie like myself. For goodness sakes, there is a whole section comparing the ramen specialties of different regions of Japan and another with comic book illustrations featuring top ramen chefs, but I read every single page.

Why? For the same reason I love No Reservations, The Tony Kornheiser Radio Show, the band TV on the Radio, and David Fincher movies – there is a point of view. Not everyone is going to like Fincher’s Zodiac – a procedural where they never catch the bad guy and not everyone is interested in hearing Kornheiser rant about not being able to set up his new TV, but that’s sort of the point. When something, be it a magazine, band, or a movie, is designed to be popular with everyone, it’s going to be hard to be more than mediocre. See Time magazine, Rick Steves, and Nickleback for examples.

And I think this applies to schools too, especially in regards to hiring. When we’re recruiting teachers, I’m very open about the fact that working at KPEA is not for everyone. We have a style, a way of doing things, a point of view for how we teach and how we work together as adults. This style borrows from other KIPP schools, is informed by my travels as a Fisher Fellow, and has now been augmented by the personalities and experiences of our 16 amazing staff members. The end result is a culture that works for our school, but that is not going to be a good fit for everyone. And that’s ok!

The school may have a system -- and it may well be a good one -- but it isn't an idiosyncratic, rule-breaking, setting your own standards for success kind of system. It isn't about saying "We don't care about how other people define success." It is what they used to call in caps, The Organized System. As in "The Problems of Youth in the Organized System."

The Baffler (IS BACK!?!, wow, that's bigger news than the rest of this crap). The Baffler spent much of the 90's pointing out that a huge amount of cultural effort since the 60's had gone into rebranding business as transgressive and countercultural, in large part to negate the "organization man" critique. So this KIPP-ster hipster stuff is just another manifestation of that.

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