Political training for our revolutionary second – regulation & freedom
Andy Smarick covers many areas in his Reforming Educational Authority essay, and therein lie both the strengths and the limits of his essay. With such a comprehensive approach, Smarick shows that education policy and reform are complex and multifaceted. In a federal system, reforms have to be carried out at different levels. On the other hand, because he paints such a wide canvas, Smarick sometimes fails to provide the level of analysis required to adequately explain the challenges in US education policy. Because of this, his discussion is sometimes more hortatory than analytical.
Government and election
However, by taking a global view of American education, Smarick can describe a system in which each level of education government plays its part. Smarick also tries to apply a principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching, which, incidentally, has also been officially adopted by the European Union. This offers a useful perspective, albeit a somewhat innocuous look at the dynamics and challenges of current educational reform.
Smarick rightly notes that the federal government has claimed state educational prerogatives and has messed things up; But he also admits that too often local school districts have been over their heads. He approves of a state-level power shift from school districts and appears confident of what state officials can achieve. Perhaps that is so, but meaningful reform will certainly differ from state to state. Even so, he’s right in his call to action by citizens: someone has to attend PTA meetings and public hearings of the State Board of Education and not wait for the next attack from Washington, DC
Back at the local level, Smarick laments inequality in school funding, noting that in the 1973 Rodriguez case, the Supreme Court rejected the refusal to recognize education as a constitutional right that deserves “tight scrutiny.” As a result, the court declined to support a challenge to school funding in Texas, which, like other states, is most dependent on property taxes. Accordingly, poor neighborhoods too often mean underfunded schools.
However, Smarick goes too far to condemn families of funds that prefer private education to public education or move to another area in order to achieve a better school. He claims, “It is unfair to allow a family of funds to use their wealth to move to the district of their choice or to pay for a private school while a low-income family has no options.” “Really?” What notion of justice supports this general claim? To be honest, this is more authoritarian than principled. Also, among the many simple assumptions in educational reform, it is believed that taking an excellent student out of the classroom decreases the quality of learning for those who stay. But that is not necessarily true. Teachers (myself included) often teach the brightest students: it’s more fun and teaching mediocre students can be a hassle. However, if some of the class stars pursue other options, the instructor will likely focus on those who need the most attention.
Smarick identifies three different movements that have sprung up in the last few decades of K-12 reform: “the accountability movement”, the “electoral movement” and the “resource movement”. This tripartite overview is useful, but – it’s just 2019.
At this point a “revolutionary movement” is at the door. The challenge arising from the “bright” revolt in American education, particularly history, government, business, and literature, has arrived. Smarick may want a gradual change, but the zealots don’t.
The revolutionary movement
The idea that education should be the engine of social and political change has been the hallmark of John Dewey’s progressivism for decades. One of the deleterious effects of advanced education has been its meaningless character; But as the saying goes, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” and now an ideology hostile to the American founding is rushing to fill the void. It is estimated that well over 4,000 schools have now adopted the “1619 Project” curricula, and the number is growing rapidly. According to the project, America was not founded on freedom, but on slavery, as the preservation of this terrible institution was the impetus for the colonization of North America. Because of this, the founding ideals of the United States were a ploy, and those who led the American Revolution were cheaters.
We cannot say that we were not warned: recall this familiar passage from the 1983 A Nation At Risk report:
If an unfriendly foreign power had tried to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we took the liberty of doing that. We have actually committed an act of thoughtless, one-sided disarmament in education.
While Smarick notes some improvement in education, he admits that all gains are not enough to offset the general decline in recent decades. A nation at risk was forgotten – or the reactions were so clumsy and poorly thought out that they accelerated its decline. Proponents of meaningful educational reform would do well to observe Smarick’s caution with regard to federal solutions. For example, attempts to set standards for history, science, reading, and math were co-opted and politicized to create the terrain for the devastating curriculum wars of the 1990s
Most importantly, Smarick emphasizes the role of the family and the need for reliable citizenship education. On these matters we could turn to Abraham Lincoln, who at the tender age of 28 anticipated our present circumstances in what is commonly referred to as the “Young Men Lyceum Speech”. A few weeks before the speech, a mob chained a black man to a tree and set him on fire. Lincoln uses the terrible incident as context for his speech, which he formally referred to as “The Maintenance of Our Political Institutions” on January 27, 1838 in Springfield, Illinois. So Lincoln does not speak contrary to our own in an environment ablaze with racist unrest.
Lincoln first states that the founding generation had passed away and his main concern was how the American experiment could be preserved in their absence. The men of Lincoln’s generation are the “legal heirs” of the “fundamental blessings” left by the founding generation. These blessings include “a political edifice of freedom and equality,” and the responsibility of Lincoln’s cohort was to “pass on” that legacy to the next generation.
However, if threats to American heritage are to come, the “approach of danger” will not come from outside, but from within. He explains,
When is the approach to the danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must arise among us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction is our lot, we must be its writer and finisher ourselves. As a nation of the free, we must live through all time or die by suicide.
Lincoln describes an eerie mood like ours. He notes “the increasing disregard for the law that pervades the land” and “the growing tendency to substitute wild and furious passions for sober judgment”. Lincoln states that such an atmosphere is “terribly fearful” and identifies two large segments of the population, both of which are affected by “this mobocratic spirit.” There are those who are already violent because, having “viewed the government as their deadliest curse, they are celebrating an anniversary of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much as for its total annihilation. “Still others, who are law abiding by habit and lead humble, stable lives, lose confidence in their own government and may be ready for fundamental political change, however ill-advised it may be.
For the Americans, the past year offered too many examples of the “mobocratic spirit”. Instead of facing the danger, the usual reactions have been partial: disorder is judged not by its nature, but by its purpose and location. Perhaps the horrific depiction of “mobocracy” in the US Capitol should come as no surprise, as we may have already crossed a dangerous threshold as America’s social manners have resulted in something far less civil than what the nation has relied on. To better understand Lincoln’s warning, a reference to one of his sources, Federalist No. 55, is illuminating. This essay is in response to those who have argued that the proposed constitution does not allow a house large enough to be truly representative. In the course of the essay, Publius makes a remarkable statement, stating that their collective nature changes when a group of individuals reaches a certain size. He argues: “If every Athenian had been a Socrates, every Athenian congregation would still have been a mob.” This may not require a physical gathering – an excited online social media community seems enough.
Lincoln warns of those who will emerge in the future with little regard for the legacy of the founders: “At such a time and under such circumstances, men will be of sufficient talent and ambition,” he explains … Take the opportunity, beat this one Knock and overturn the beautiful fabric that has been freedom lovers’ greatest hope for half a century. This challenge will “test a people’s ability to rule themselves.”
Lincoln asks, “How should we strengthen ourselves against this?” How could our freedom and “our children’s freedom be preserved”? His answer is to promote two of the basic human skills: reason and passion. This is the job of education wherever we find it.
First, Lincoln advocates cultivating the intellect. He explains, “Reason, cold, calculating, dispassionate reason must all provide the materials for our future support and defense. – Have these materials molded on general intelligence, sound morals, and especially reverence for the Constitution and the laws. Second, he prescribes a curriculum designed to inspire a love of the land, a patriotic bond with the nation – no disdain for it. Although some may find Lincoln’s prose romantic, his advice is crucial:
Let the awe of the laws every American mother instincts on the lisping baby chattering on her lap – have it taught in schools, seminars, and colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books, and almanacs; – Have it preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls and enforced in court. . . While there will always be an emotional state like this. . . Rule across the country, every effort and every attempt to undermine our national freedom will be in vain.
These are the main tasks of education, beginning with and below the lowest levels of instruction, which necessarily begin with the family. As Smarick notes, given the pluralism of the fabric of the nation, this obligation can be pursued in a variety of situations. But we have to pursue them.