Ken Robinson:

Crying FIRE! in a Theater Full of Arsonists

By Educom Review Staff

Sequence: Volume 30, Number 1
Release Date: January/February 1995

A veteran of federal government service from 1969 until 1993, Kenneth G.
Robinson Jr. recently celebrated the 500th issue of Telecommunications
Policy Review (TPR), the provocative weekly newsletter single-handedly
written and published by the Washington communications attorney.
Covering everything from gardening to upkeep on Harley Davidsons, to
driving behavior on the streets of Washington, to baseball
prognostications (oh yes, and telecommunications policy!), Robinson's
iconoclastic views on politics, industry, and just about everything else
have earned him the loyal readership of Washington insiders. As one
subscriber puts it, Robinson specializes in "crying Fire! in a theater
full of arsonists."

Robinson's tenure in government spanned the terms of five presidents,
beginning in 1969 with a stint as legal counsel in the Antitrust
Division of the Justice Department. From there Robinson moved on to the
White House Office of Telecommunications Policy and later served as
senior policy adviser to Assistant Secretaries of Commerce for
Telecommunications and Information Henry Geller, Bernard J. Wunder Jr.,
David J. Markey, and Alfred C. Sikes. He moved with Sikes over to the
Federal Communications Commission in 1989, where he served as Chairman
Sikes's senior legal adviser. Since 1993 he has been describing himself
as "just another Washington communications lawyer."

Educom Review: So as a federal worker, how did you end up publishing a
newsletter like TPR?

Robinson: Well, if your name's not on it and you don't traffic in
government information and it's not done on their nickel, it's OK. It's
called the First Amendment, though I did retire it for the three-plus
years I was at the FCC, when I was supposedly in a quasi-judicial--
crypto might be the better word--position and there were enough other
things for people to complain about. But then I started it up again.
Now, it's not entirely done on my nickel--there's a subscription charge-
-but I doubt Cox Enterprises feels threatened.

ER: Telecommunications Policy Review seems to deal with everything in
the world, including not only education and communications but also
politics, media, gardening, and weekly movie reviews, right?

Robinson: Actually, I deal with less now than I did. But I do deal with
those. No effort is too hopeless, I guess, but that it cannot be pursued

ER: You don't see much hope?

Robinson: Well, I don't know. I was on the Temporary Commission on
Alternative Financing for Public Telecommunications back in the early
1980s when I was at the National Telecommunications and Information
Administration, and I guess I managed to convince myself something might
be done. Then, Barbara O'Connor at California State University--she was
also the chair of California's Commission on Educational Technology--
started telling me all the problems: how improvements were possible in
education using communications, but it was like "sucking peanut butter
through a straw." So, I probably changed my mind. Now, however, I'm back
where I was, more or less. That is, I'm not sure technology--
communications technology--is the silver bullet here--maybe bullet is a
bad analogy given what happens in schools now--but I don't know what
else can be done.

ER: Your newsletter recently said we needed to encourage more and better
educational programming. Say something about that.

Robinson: I was prompted by what Bill McCarter at Chicago's WTTW and
"Pete" (that's Ms. Lauren P.) Belvin in FCC Commissioner James Quello's
office have told me. What I argued was that we need to encourage local
"strategic alliances" and get local commercial stations to work with
public stations to start producing better shows instead of beating the
commercials over the head relentlessly, hoping something will happen.
This way, for instance, you'd end up with one source of very good
children's stuff in a city, instead of 11 or so. I think you also need
to focus on getting better shows into the home, not just into the
classroom, because, as I said, children and young people are watching TV
every day as much as they go to class.

ER: Why public TV? As a Republican appointee, aren't you worried about
insidious liberalism and all that?

Robinson: You're right, I was a Republican appointee, but I also worked
in the Carter Administration. One good thing about being a reactionary
Democrat is, you can deal with all these guys. And, yes, I do worry
about some of what you've jokingly called insidious liberalism. You've
got to be careful about that, though those who think public broadcasting
stations are liberal probably doesn't know what they're talking about.

No, the reasons you want to work with the publics are these: First,
you've got an enormous amount of money already invested. David Brugger,
the head of America's public television stations in Washington, pulled
the numbers for me, and it's around $22 billion since the 1960s. That's
a staggering investment in a field like television that's not all that
capital-intensive. So, you've got the infrastructure out there. Second,
you've got all these people. Now, I don't know anything about making TV
shows, and virtually nothing about teaching, though I guess I know more
about that, since I have two sisters who do it for a living. But these
guys and ladies, whatever it is they do, do a good job of packaging

And that's good. What you want to do, I think, if you're a teacher, is
instill the desire to learn. You don't just want to fill their little
heads with rote learning stuff. This isn't a juku, you know, even
assuming that'd work. And I think public TV does a pretty good job of
interesting children, of making them more curious. Go back, too, to what
I said: every time somebody tells me that talking heads on TV aren't a
substitute, I agree, but ask them about the alternatives.

ER: What about the New American Schools and other Department of
Education initiatives?

Robinson: That's fine. But soon after that was announced I went over to
Education and talked to Secretary Alexander's folks--I guess that was in
1991 or so--and I asked them when the first superschool was coming
online. They told me it'd be around 1996 and I told them that nobody in
the room would still be there then. Plus, what do you plan to do with
the intervening age cohorts? Write them off? I don't think you can, or
should, do that.

So, what you've got to do is come up with some sort of reasonable quick
fix. When you do that, I don't think you ought to delude yourself, or
anyone else, into thinking it's the sun and the moon. I worked for Henry
Geller and he always used to say that "everything is compared to what."
And Al Sikes, whom I worked for even longer--seven years or so--always
used to say that you don't want to make the perfect the enemy of the

So, when I look at the alternatives, I don't know a better way to do it
faster and cheaper. Plus, of course, there's the fact you've got to get
this stuff into the home. That's a point that Mary Gardiner Jones always
makes, that a lot of the education challenges, and others, are what she
politely calls lifestyle related.

ER: So, what would you do?

Robinson: Simple. You tell the commercials that if they give money or
in-kind support to the local publics and out comes good children's or
educational programming, they all are off the FCC's hook. That's
contemplated in the 1991 Children's TV Act, incidentally; it's just that
nobody's taken that language very seriously.

ER: Why not just get money and channel it through the national

ROBINSON: Try that on Senator Dole. Though in fairness, I don't think
he's alone. A lot of people don't want PBS taking over here. So I'd
stick to local strategic alliances. And as a practical matter, remember,
PBS doesn't do a lot of programming anyway. It's the big production
stations--the WGBHs, WTTWs, WETAs, KCETs, and KQEDs--that do. They
really are the ones arranging for the shows. Plus, I don't think you
necessarily want a unified school or educational programming approach.
This isn't France, you know. Or Japan. Even if you wanted to force it,
you wouldn't get far anyway.

ER: Do you think the Clinton Administration, or the Hundt FCC, has any
interest in this area or in your ideas?

Robinson: Who knows? Some- times you hear strange things--about how the
Internet's going to do all these incredible things. There was even one
speech about how all the schools in the world had to be connected via
satellite. I told that to my sister who's teaching in Florida and whose
school's being overwhelmed with all the standard problems, plus the
crack babies. I don't think she sees being able to hook up with a school
in Kazakhstan as doing a lot. Sorry. I also am probably too cynical. You
know, about 10 years ago, politicians convinced themselves that talking
about schools and education would be good if they wanted to get the
white suburban vote--sort of like talking about the environment or
wilderness areas. But I don't know that they did a whole lot more than

On the other hand, FCC Chairman Hundt used to be a schoolteacher, at
least briefly. All things considered, although the National Information
Infrastructure [NII] project may well turn out to be a positive menace,
it is giving teachers and educators a place where they can talk with the
technology people, and that may be good.

ER: Why do you say the NII could turn out to be a menace?

Robinson: Frankly, I trust computer industry people about as much as I
do politicians. What those guys want to do is build a better "CompUSA."
They've figured out that they've gotten just about everyone they can to
go to computer stores, and that's still a minority of the population.
So, what they want now is to build a CompUSA in your living room: CD-
ROM, multimedia, and all that. That's all we need!

ER: And you think the computer industry folks are in charge?

Robinson: Do wild bears sleep in the woods? Of course they're running
that particular show! And the added problem is, you have to make things
easy, at least at the start. Nothing in the computer world is easy. It's
sort of the root canal approach to marketing: you have to suffer a bit
before there are any gains. And I know that today's children and young
people are very computer literate. I also know that, if anything,
computer intimidation increases with income level: inner-city parents,
for instance, all work with computers all the time. If you're a
secretary, you don't have a choice, unlike your suburbanite boss. On the
other hand, you have to come up with something that's a bit more user-

I'll also go back to what I said earlier. It's not simply a question of
inculcating knowledge--letting that 12-year-old in Brooklyn--the child
in "Fresh," for instance--access the Library of Congress. It's getting
the child interested in learning in the first place, and I think TV is
how you do that.

And let me also say this. One thing that bothers me about the NII
exercise--aside from the fact that by the time it ever gets around to
making recommendations, the train will long ago have moved on--is that
it just isn't paying enough attention to existing assets. What are they
thinking? That this country is rich enough that we can just write off
$22 billion and move on to some brave new electronic world? That might
be a nice story to tell small children, sort of like how babies are born
under gooseberry bushes. But if you're a grown-up, if you want to do
something positive quickly that makes a difference, you've got to play
the TV card. That, I think, is how you do it.

ER: Are you saying you'd abandon the NII effort?

Robinson: I wouldn't necessarily do that, though I sure wouldn't be
spinning it out as long as things have been going. I mean, how
complicated are these things? I always remind people that they wrote the
Magna Carta in six days, that it took only a bit over a month to write
the Declaration of Independence, and that Grant wrote the surrender
articles while he was talking with Lee. How in the world, with all these
smart, sophisticated people, could it possibly be taking--what is it--a
year at least?

One thing that's good about the NII effort is that it does get these
people together. That's one of the main problems, you know. The great
government departments and the issues they husband tend to be like ships
passing in the dark. HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services]
is going its way, Education is off on some kick, Transpor-tation is
doing its smart highway things, and the FCC might as well be in
Indianapolis for all the contact and regular dealing it has with the
rest of the government, Congress excepted.

And as far as "you people," the educators, well, correctly or no, it's
probably worse. Education tends to be a self-contained enterprise in
many regards, and that's too bad. Among other things, it engenders all
sorts of misapprehensions. How many people are there who seem to believe
that educators are afraid of technology, for instance, because it'll
destroy unionized teaching jobs? Well, I don't claim to be an expert,
but I haven't met any teachers--or teaching union leaders, for that
matter--who wanted to hold technology back in order to protect their
jobs. What they don't like is the idea that some school board made up of
successful tire merchants or insurance brokers, for instance, might fall
for the Star Wars Fallacy and assume that technology is the solution to
all problems, the universal panacea. But they sure would like to have
technology make their actual jobs easier.

One of the problems, of course, is that teachers don't deal regularly
with a lot of the technologists, much less my guys, the TV people. But
you get them all together in one place regularly and tell them they have
a deadline to produce something tangible--a deliverable--and you'd
probably get a lot. Because these are all resourceful folks.

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