Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews is the author, most recently, of The War Against Dummy Math. Before participating in a panel on whether math education matters, he revealed in the Zócalo green room that although he’s won accolades for his writing and reporting, his less-known claim to fame (which may have been the key to gaining his wife’s lasting affection) was winning the award for most improved body in his college dorm.
Where would we find you at 10 a.m. on a typical Saturday morning?
These days, I’d be at my kitchen table, looking at all the data on advanced placement and graduating seniors from the state of Florida, and figuring out which schools belong on my annual challenging high school list. Most Saturdays, however, we’re so unformed now that [my wife] Linda’s retired. If I’m not doing that, I’m shopping at Von’s or I’m going over to [my son, Zócalo California editor] Joe’s house, and maybe going to watch Joe turn his sons into baseball players.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Gene Patterson was a famous Southern editor and was briefly managing editor of the Washington Post. When I got hired, he said, “This is a mansion of many rooms, and you don’t have to spend all your time in the Metro room.” You could write for Style, you could write for Sports. Writing different things while you’re a journalist is a way to keep healthy. That’s why I started writing books, and when I was an unhappy business reporter in New York, I found a way to write a lot of education stories and keep myself sane.
What surprises you most about your life right now?
I never thought I was going to be an education reporter. In 1982, I walked into a classroom with Jaime Escalante in East L.A. because there had been a story in the Los Angeles Times about his calculus students cheating on the advanced placement exam. The more I talked to this guy—this fat, balding Bolivian immigrant with this accent—the more amazed I was. He had 18 kids taking and passing AP calculus at a school where 85 percent of the kids were low-income, they were almost all Mexican-Americans. That kind of school barely had any one kid taking an AP class. I hung around for five years. I realized that the great problem in American education was we had these enormous underserved and underutilized potential brains in inner cities, full of kids who were just as smart as the kids in the suburbs I grew up in. But we weren’t challenging them or giving them the extra time and encouragement they needed to learn. And I’ve essentially been writing that story the last 30 years.
What’s the last great book you read?
I’m reading Unbroken [by Laura Hillenbrand] now. I’m having a wonderful time with that. But the last great book I read was by Larry Cuban: Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice, which looks at everything we’re trying to do and change [in education] and all the hot trends, and points out the history—that it’s not going to go as far as we think. The way we teach kids is so rooted in habits of convenience—you can do anything, and people are still going to teach with lecture, homework, discussion.
What word or phrase do you use most often?
Terrific. I tend to enthuse about things. I like to look for great schools and great teachers. I don’t like to downgrade things, but to look for great stuff that needs to be praised. That’s why I like doing the list of high schools every year.
What’s your favorite plant or flower?
At the moment it’s the California poppy. We’ve got this new front yard in East Pasadena, and the first two buds just popped up.
You lived and worked in China. How do you keep your Mandarin from getting rusty here in L.A.?
Oh, it’s rusty. It’s creaky. It’s barnacle-covered. I can get around town, I can order a meal, but it’s really hard for me to keep it up.
What do you do to clear your mind?
I like watching really good sitcoms. My absolute favorite of all time, and I’ve been watching sitcoms for 50 years, is The Big Bang Theory. It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen on TV.
What do you eat for breakfast?
I used to not eat breakfast, but Linda signed us up for Gold’s Gym, and the trainer said I have to eat breakfast. So I either have Raisin Bran or Grape-Nuts, which I soak before I eat.
What’s your secret claim to fame?
My senior year in college, I won the John Y. Smith award for most improved body in my dorm at Harvard. I was dating Linda at the time, and I thought this was one of the things that attracted her to me—I was putting on all this muscle.