Monday, December 22, 2014

A Truce for Redrawing the LIne

Mike McShane is guest-blogging at Rick Hess's EdWeek spot, and today he calls for a truce between sides in the education wars, except that he doesn't really, which is okay because what he's saying is worth paying attention to.

McShane starts with the story of the 1914 Christmas truce on the western front of the Great European War. It's an even more apt opening than it first appears, but let me get back to that shortly. McShane is calling for a similar truce between the warring sides of the battle for US public education, and he makes his pitch by suggesting that there are some important things that unite us. McShane says that people are getting stuck with "caricatured views of their ideological opponents," which is fair, although as with any highly divisive issue, there are plenty of people who insist on behaving like caricatures. But if we look past the caricatures, we can find things that unite us. Well, two things, anyway. He lists them as mistakes he thinks folks are making.

Letting Means Obscure Ends

McShane says that in interviewing people from across the spectrum, he found that both sides see themselves as opposing a goal of monolithic, unresponsive school systems. Conservatives want to avoid a giant governmental bureaucratic monolith, while liberals want to avoid a giant corporate monolith. At the same time, neither actually has a desire to create a large, unresponsive, monolithic system.

The difference, McShane suggests, is what the two sides see as an antidote to the monolith-- liberals like democracy, and conservatives like the free market. But both want to break up the monolith and create a system more responsive to the needs of students and the values of a community.

McShane's not wrong, but he's not entirely correct either. The free market and democracy are distorted reflections of each other. The free market is a form of democracy in which a dollar is a vote-- and therefore some people get to have more votes than others. In a democracy, Bill Gates has as many votes as I do. In the free market, Bill Gates has a gazillion more votes than I do. And because people tend to believe strongly in and value their preferred system, we all tend to launch with, "First, we have to get the system working the way it's supposed to so that we can get started on schools." But not everybody is in a position to make that happen. Folks who won at the Free Market Game are uniquely equipped to advocate that same game be played by everyone.

But there is a commonality that both sides can share, and it's the meat of McShane's argument. It's also why his call for a truce isn't really a call for a truce at all.

Not Recognizing a Common Enemy

What McShane really does in his piece is argue for a redrawing of battle lines. It's not so much that we could have a cease-fire-- it's that we need to start fighting the right people.

When Secretary Duncan says that education can be bipartisan, he means that centrist Republicans can coalesce around an essentially center-left technocratic vision of how to operate schools. They want centralized standards, test-based school and teacher accountability, and limited "quality" choices for students.

The real fight, McShane suggests, is not liberals versus conservatives, or democracy versus the free market-- it's collectivism versus individuals. And on this point, I do not disagree with him. The last fifty years or so of American government has been about the development of a new hybrid form of centralism, in which DC collects a bunch of power and then hands it over to corporate interests.

Politicians like centralized power because that gives them more control, more ability to realize their personal visions of a better place. Corporate interests have always been pro-centralization; from Rockefeller through Gates, business leaders have loved an open market until they are winning, at which point they do their best to shut down all diversity and competition. And everybody has at least moments in which they dream of a system that is more efficient, less wasteful, less cantankerous, a nation of happy people united boldly behind one clear, singularly correct vision-- which is the governmental equivalent of a squad of unicorns dancing on silver clouds with hippogryphs. It can't possibly happen, but it's so pretty to imagine.

So instead of lining up the Left against the Right, McShane would like to line up the Forces of Freedom against the Courts of Centralized Collectivism. This is not so much a truce as a redirection of attack.

This Is Not Easy

Parsing the battle along those lines makes lots of sense, but there are problems.

For one, there are sympathizers on both sides. There are pro-public ed folks who don't like Common Core in particular, but who think centralized national standards in general would be just fine. And there are plenty of privatizers whose believe in the free market only to the extent that it lets them take control and get rich.

There are people who reject ed reform but accept many of its premises; for instance, those who say the current high-stakes testing must go, but of course there must be some mechanism by which a central government can monitor school progress. Some folks reject standardization, but agree that education must progress pretty much the same from state to state; you don't get that without some centralized control. And there are people who just sincerely hate the inefficiency and mess that come with democracy and pluralism.

Nor is history on McShane's side. The ed wars didn't erupt through some form of spontaneous combustion. Reformsters came out swinging, hard, by demonizing public school teachers and creating a system designed to create failure rather than help schools succeed. At the same time, people who actually rather hate public education have come out hard against ed reform policies. Democrats have shat upon their traditional allies in public education, but Republicans have not leapt into the breach to make new friends. It has become quite a challenge for teachers to tell friend and foe apart. McShane's desire to redraw the lines involves a field that is already marked by lines drawn with a feather in fields of wet mud.

My Proposal for Lines Drawing

So we can redraw lines many ways. Centralists versus  individualists. Corporate versus public. Urban versus rural. Efficiency versus robust flexibility. But I think there's another place to draw a line-- between the people who have money and power, and the people who don't.

The people with power and money have the means to impose their singular vision for education on everyone else. A classroom teacher or a thinky tank thoughtmeister are just two more people with opinions until they can get someone with power and money to listen to them. David Coleman was just a shmoe with a dream until he successfully bent Bill Gates' ear. Arne Duncan was just one more educational amateur who was sure he knew the Secret of Fixing Schools until he acquired the power to make everyone agree with him.

In other words, the world is filled with people who say, "Boy, if I ruled the world, this is what I'd make everybody do." Only the people who also have money and power are a problem. They will mostly want to have a centralized vision, and they place they envision as the center is the place where they're standing. Arne Duncan without a cushy government gig and Bill Gates without a personal fortune would just be two more guys on twitter scrambling for retweets and followers with the rest of us.

Where you find the threat of a centralized vision, you'll find somebody with money and/or power selling it, pushing it, enforcing it. And one technique of those with money and power for keeping the little people from storming the castle is to get the little people busy fighting each other.

The Great European War

Back in the day, I did plenty of reading and studying of what we now call WWI. One of the striking universal features of the war is that soldiers felt a stronger kinship with other soldiers than they did with the generals and politicians in cushy offices far from the front. Regardless of their nationality, these soldiers often expressed the idea that their biggest enemies were not the other soldiers in the other trenches, but the politicians, generals, and wealthy industrialists who had sent all the soldiers there to fight and die.

The rare truces that broke out at the front can be seen as moments in which the soldiers recognized their kinship, and also recognized that the real enemy was far away, comfortably ignorant of what was really going on at the front. The powerful were far away, making the decisions that would govern the war.

But of course all they did, for that day, was sing some carols and play some soccer. And by 1917, reports of such random truces were rare. They knew that while their real enemies were far away, they were also powerful and untouchable.

I look forward to the next installment of McShane's guest turn. I'm not sure what can be accomplished by a truce-- I think some truly unbridgeable differences in fundamental values stand in the way of significant alliances across these many lines that separate us. But I do believe that we can all benefit from the exercise of figuring out with whom we really agree and disagree, which in turn helps us clarify what we really want, all of which is infinitely preferable to knee-jerk reactions to the people we think we're supposed to align with (or not). And we can always listen. Don't stop paying attention to other things going on, but listen. It never hurts to listen.

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