Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Hard Way

The Fourth of July is always a popular time for folks to reflect on what this country stands for, and we come up with many fine lists both of the best and the worst. Today, I'd like to add my own item to the list.

America stands for doing things the hard way.

When it comes to running a country, the easiest way to do it is to put one guy in charge and let him tell everybody how to do everything. He can be picked by heredity or tradition or power or wealth; he can be installed by a committee of Important People, or by the roar of the crowd, or even a legitimate-ish election. But the important part-- the easy part-- is that once you have him installed, you just let him run everything. No debates. no discussions, no big arguments about What To Do Next-- just let your Grand High Potentatial Poohbah decide it all.

There's a Less Easy but Still Pretty Easy way of doing things, which is to use an absolute democracy. Every issue that comes up, you vote on. The answer chosen by the majority is the answer the whole country uses, and discussion of the issue is over. If you're in the minority, you just shut up, and stay shut up.

We certainly toyed with all of these. Early on many citizens wanted to just crown George Washington King of America and be done with it. The founding fathers wrote all sorts of rules that they didn't want to be held to (all people are created equal, but not really) and many envisioned a country ruled by the votes of the Right People.

But instead, we dedicated our country to doing things the hard way. We wrote down a bunch of foundational premises for running a country, and then we set up a mechanism by which, over time, those principles could be interpreted and extended to their natural conclusions, even if the majority of founders didn't agree with those conclusions. The constitution is the ultimate exercise in saying, "Look, I'm going to agree to these principles, and every time I try to weasel out of actually following them, I want you to bop me over the head and stop me."

Furthermore, we set up a system based on the principle of not shutting people up, sorting them somehow into classes ranging from Those Who Must Always Be Listened to all the way down to Those Who Must Always Be Ignored.

The Framers had seen the many ways in which the easy way could go wrong, and somehow, they found the means of sitting down together with fellow citizens with whom they deeply and profoundly disagreed. 

We have always been annoyed by our own system. We're irritated by the way it fosters unending debate on every little thing-- even things that we thought were already decided. And good Lord in heaven-- can't the people who are Dead Wrong just shut up and go away? We waste time, energy, and money on processes that are inefficient and inconsistent. There's hardly anything in this country that we don't do the hard way, loaded with argument and controversy and inefficiency and ambiguity.

On top of that, our peculiar brand of running a country ties all of our citizens together, so that people in one community have to worry about, be involved in, pay taxes to finance decisions in other communities. Gah! Can't we just take care of our own and let those Others go hang? Having to be all tied together is just hard!

And so we are always bedeviled by folks who want to get America to do things the easy way. And with the unleashing of Citizens United, many of our wealthy citizens are doing their best to move us to an easier system, a system where the people who are Better just go ahead and settle issues for the rest of us. Also, why shouldn't I be able to just close the doors on my gated community, pay for my own police and fire company, and just not have to give a cent to those Other People?

This pressure to start doing things the easy way is felt all across our country, but we are getting hit by it head on in education.

When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says we should just abolish school boards because letting voters get involved in school decisions is just inefficient and disruptive, he's searching for the easy way. When Bill Gates decides that all American students (well, all non-rich non-private school students) should meet the same standards, and those standards should be the ones laid out by this couple of guys he knows, he's looking for the easy way. When folks like the Waltons and Broads look for ways to break down the teaching profession so that we can have people in classrooms who just follow the instructions they're given, it's one more search for the easy way. When people across the spectrum agitate for a standardized test that can measure the complex learning achievements of every student in America, that's a search for the easy way. When charteristas think that simply unleashing the invisible hand of the market place will somehow create excellence in education (and, perhaps, help sort the Betters from the Lessers, while making some Betters a big pile of profit)-- that's a search for the easy answer, too.

There are two problems with the easy way.

The first is a moral problem. The easy way requires us to silence everyone who is not on the Right Page. If you lost the vote, if you're in the smaller group, if you're on the less powerful side, then you just need to shut up. The easy way seeks to stop all disagreement and discussion so that we can unite behind one clean, clear, elegant solution, and there is only one way to do that-- to silence everyone who doesn't agree.

Worse, and more morally repugnant, the easy way calls on us to ignore Those People entirely. It encourages us to think of them as Lessers, which somehow makes it okay to give them less-- less service, less support, less kindness, less consideration, because, hey, they're Less Than, and so they deserve to get less. We can abandon them because that's all they deserve. It is straight up immoral to treat other human beings as less valuable than our own tribe. And yet, that immoral behavior is always required by the easy way.

Which brings us to the second problem, the practical problem-- the easy way just doesn't work. Look back through history-- a nation or institution can sustain the easy way for a generation at most, but then things just fall apart. Turns out that silencing people thoroughly and forever is really, really hard. And it also turns out that engaging in immoral behavior over time comes with huge personal, institutional, and cultural costs.

Without the arguing and debating and voices that just won't shut up, you can't move forward. As a nation we have made many huge mistakes, but by and large we have been able to move forward and try to leave those mistakes behind, because the voices who could and would point out those mistakes were not silenced. The easy way lets you get stuck in a bad place.

By creating a government structure that doesn't support tyranny easily, we have made a commitment to doing things the hard way, and every time we have tried to weasel out of that commitment, it has cost us as a culture and a country.

So the current struggle in education against the forces who would like to reduce education to an easy solution is not just about education, but another version of our national struggle. There will always be people who want to silence others in the name of ease and efficiency, and they will always be wrong. To look at the rich, complex business that is the education of an entire nation's varied population of young people-- to look at that and think that there is an easy answer to How To Do It-- is to be both unAmerican and simply foolish.

Living in a pluralistic society is hard. Saying that human beings all have value and acting like you really mean it is hard. Dealing with people who don't see things the same way you do is hard. Educating the children of an entire nation is hard. That's all right. We're Americans, and 236 years ago, we made a commitment to doing things the hard way, because, in the end, it's the way that continues to lead us, slowly but surely, to a better version of ourselves as a culture. Don't let anybody con you into anything else.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I agree. Ours can be a maddening system where it allows openness and involvement by all citizens. But for good reason as this creates more opportunity and better is our strength. Thank you for your post. Happy Fourth of July.

    1. I think one key to the longevity of the US is to recognize that there are many decisions where all citizens need not be involved. The trick is getting the balance right.

    2. In fact fhat is the problem. While it is certainly true that we delegate decisions to elected representatives who in turn delegate to appointed bureaucrats, all decisions at all levels should be in accordance with principles and policies established through the democratic process. Any citizen that believes that any decision is something they need not be concerned/involved with is negligent. We owe it to ourselves and each other to increase our direct engagement whenever we believe or suspect any aspect of our governance is ill-advised.

      Your suggestion smacks of elitism.

    3. Bill,

      I think you misunderstand my point. I am arguing that where possible, we leave decisions up to the individual rather than making the decision collectively.

      An example in education would be to provide families with a variety of possible schools, perhaps a Montessori, a Waldorf, a language immersion, and a progressive school. Allow the family to choose which to attend, rather than having the community choose for the individual. Clearly this has to be balanced against the desirability of sharing the costs of these schools between all the members of the community, so different locations might well come up with different ways to balance the two. A small town might well decide that the gains from having a single school make it worth the compromises that will be made in determining how the school will approach education. A huge city like New York is much more likely to be able to have sufficiently many people interested in any particular approach to education that the community need not pick the style of education for each individual student.

    4. TE, I don't know what a "progressive" school is, but I'm so glad to learn about Waldorf schools. They make so much sense. I always liked the idea of Montessori schools, but Waldorf sound even better.

      When I taught, I always tried to find the strategies that worked for the most students, plus incorporating different approaches to try to be sure I was reaching all learning styles. That's what we need to do in public schools, and Waldorf schools, with their emphasis on using methods appropriate to each of the three stages of child development, makes so much sense. I think it's fascinating that Silicon Valley parents in the tech industry seem to be all for Waldorf schools and their belief that young children absolutely have no need for electronics of any kind to learn.

      If public schools were Waldorf schools, you wouldn't need magnet or charter schools for the arts, because the arts are an important part, and in fact base, of the curriculum. You wouldn't need them for a focus on science, because science is an important base of the curriculum. You wouldn't need them for a focus on leadership and citizenship, because that is also an integral part of the curriculum.They also incorporate foreign language in elementary school. They have certain routines, which give structure, but there is no regimentation. Students stay with the same teacher for years, which creates a community and practically eliminates bullying. Because of following these stages of development, they don't focus at all on standardized tests, so in elementary school their students don't do well on standardized tests, but by high school they do super. And they love learning and learn critical thinking. What more could you ask for? And I can't see any reason they should be more expensive than traditional schools. Public schools should be Waldorf schools!.

    5. Rebecca,

      I agree that a Waldorf education would be very good for many students, but I don't think it is likely that public schools will embrace this idea in the near future. There will be too many parents in each school's catchment area that will object to this approach to education.

      There is hope, however, that Waldorf schools will become more comment. Here is a link to public Waldorf schools: . By creating schools that parents can choose for their students, there may be some hope that this approach to education will spread beyond the relatively rich who can afford private schools.

    6. I can't think of any students it wouldn't be good for. To me, this is what charter schools are for, to pilot innovative programs that can be replicated or incorporated into public schools. The only parents who have objected are the ones who have misinterpreted the Waldorf concept of "spirituality," kind of like the ones who think meditation is a religion, but probably no different from the ones who think creationism should be taught in school. Waldorf charters have been sued twice because of this but each time the judge has dismissed it, because teaching about different religions while not advocating any isn't against the first amendment and the content isn't any different from what's taught in a high school world history class or a college religion course. Anyway, that really isn't central to the methodology and would be easy to adapt or change for public schools, and you wouldn't have to call them Waldorf anyway.

    7. Rebecca,

      I think you would find that forcing all families who live in a catchment area into a Waldorf school is likely to result in significant opposition from some in the catchment area, even if you don't use the word Waldorf.

      The best hope for expanding Waldorf schools is to expand nontraditional public schools like charter and magnet schools. Once people get more familiar with Waldorf schools, I think there will be less opposition and a Waldorf education will be available to students who do not live in a household that is able to pay private school tuition.

      I hope you will be an advocate for Waldorf charter schools in the future.

    8. Why would parents be against a public school following the Waldorf model?

    9. Rebecca,

      On the whole parents are conservative about education. Waldorf schools have been around for a long time, yet they are all private, charter, or magnet schools. It will be a very long time before a school board orders all students in a catchment area to attend a Waldorf school.

    10. "Conservative" meaning "resistant to change"? I think you're underestimating parents. Unless you mean "opposite of liberal," in which case you'll need to be specific about what is "liberal" about Waldorf. All I see are methods and philosophy based on cognitive science.

    11. Rebecca,

      I do mean resistant to change. There is an empirical fact of the matter that no school district in the country has adopted it district wide in the nearly 100 years since the first Waldorf school was founded.

      There is no reason to disagree. I think a Waldorf education will become more accepted as the number of Waldorf charter schools increases. I am sure we are in agreement about that.

    12. I agree, The more charter schools using Waldorf, the more people will know about it. I had never heard of it. But something that's been around that long, has such good results, and makes so much sense ought to be widely available and become the new norm. I'm certainly going to be advocating using this philosophy and methodology to improve traditional schools.

    13. That would constitute true "reform".

  3. I love this. We really do believe in doing things the hard way. It's built into every class I teach. I'm not going to tell you how to do it, you are going to rediscover how to do it on your own.