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Phantom Maecenas

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook notes, with some amusement, that George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars franchise, sold his lucrative Lucasfilm enterprise last week to the Disney Company, which announced in turn that it intends to revive and extend the Star Wars saga. We leave it to the experts to judge whether this cinematic/economic event is a cultural landmark, or a sign that the Disney empire (like Lucasfilm) has finally run out of fresh ideas.

What attracted our attention was Lucas’s announcement that he will devote a substantial portion of his $4 billion windfall to philanthropy, for which he is being showered with praise, and which is described by Lucas in the usual string of phrases that often accompanies such gestures:

I am dedicating the majority of my wealth to improve education. It is the key to the survival of the human race. We have to plan for our collective future—and the first step begins with the social, emotional, and intellectual tools we provide to our children. As humans, our greatest tool for survival is our ability to think and adapt—as educators, storytellers, and communicators our responsibility is to continue to do so. 

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it would take a heart of stone to read George Lucas’s pronouncement without laughing. Not that The Scrapbook is cynical, to be sure. Far be it from us to imagine how Lucas’s accountants might have explained to him the advantages of creating this colossus of virtue before the end of the year, when Barack Obama’s tax hikes kick in.

No, from The Scrapbook’s standpoint, what strikes us is the sheer nonsense and futility of Lucas’s vision. Four billion dollars is a lot of money to most Weekly Standard readers—perhaps even to George Lucas—but the annual budget of the U.S. Department of Education, created by Jimmy Carter in 1979, is approximately $68 billion. Given the size of federal (not state and local) expenditures in the field, and the current condition of public education in America, it is difficult to imagine what the addition of 1/17th of the annual federal education budget—stretched out over who-knows-how-many years by the Lucas foundation—can hope to accomplish. Even when “the survival of the human race” depends on it.

Indeed, The Scrapbook is reminded of another philanthropist’s equally famous bequest. In 1993, the press baron (and longtime Republican contributor) Walter Annenberg announced that he would donate $500 million of his private fortune to reform public education, described in the press at the time as the “largest education gift in the nation’s history.” And like George Lucas, Walter Annenberg was extolled—“It could not have come at a better time,” said President Bill Clinton—for his generosity and selfless vision. 

A half-billion bucks was a lot of money two decades ago, and Annenberg’s gift was divided among three “education reform” think tanks: the New American Schools Development Corporation, the Education Commission of the States, and (our personal favorite) the National Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Quick! Here’s a quiz for Scrapbook readers: Can anyone identify anything—anything at all—that came of Annenberg’s bequest, and contributed to the present splendid condition of American public education? Anything, that is, beyond pronouncements similar to Lucas’s inspiring prose—“As humans, our greatest tool for survival is our ability to think and adapt .  .  . ”—and some very comfortable and congenial conferences (with dinner and speeches) at Brown’s renamed Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

No? Neither could we.

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