Thursday, January 22, 2015

Conservative Brake Shoes

Andy Smarick just rolled out Part VII in his series of thoughtful considerations of the role of conservatism in education reform. It has been a carefully crafted series as Smarick strikes a careful balance as Smarick surveys many sides of the public education debates then turns to the folks on his own side of the rhetorical ravine and says, gently and carefully, "Some of you guys really aren't any better than some of the yahoos over there."

In this installment, Smarick considers how conservatives (meaning, as he hinted in earlier installments, real conservatives) can be a benefit in revolution by serving as a set of brakes. Some conservatives in those times may seem like wet blankets, but when a fire is threatening to burn our of control, a wet blanket can be just the thing.

But when a group is of one opinion and convinced of the righteousness of its cause, virtues can distort into vices. Unified becomes monolithic; principled becomes doctrinaire; daring becomes rash; confident becomes unrepentant; progressive becomes unrestrained.

Accordingly, opponents can actually aid reformers. They can serve as a ballast helping to ground the reformer, serving as a moderating influence on his proclivity for excess. A reasonable opponent helps reveal the location of the middle and the fringe; her centripetal force pulls the reformer back from the latter.

It's an interesting extension of the idea-- opposition actually serves the cause of conservatism simply by slowing down the race to, well, anything.

Smarick spins this from the book The Founding Conservatives (which I have not read myself) that apparently argues that some of the quiet conservative figures of our own revolution were the necessary wet blankets that kept our revolution from descending into the crazy-pants bloodthirsty excess of the French revolution. He underlines the all-too-often ignored point that the Founding Fathers disagreed tremendously on a great many things. I wish more people remembered this piece of history-- anyone who talks about "what the framers intended" is historically illiterate. The only thing the framers absolutely agreed on was that certain other framers ought to smacked upside the head.

As usual in these pieces, Smarick makes sure his readers know he hasn't defected by being sure to indict the opponents of reformsterism for their own excesses. Those examples show how thinly drawn is the line he's trying to define.

For instance, he offers "You want to destroy public education" as one overstatement, and that is in my estimation just a hair over the line-- some reformsters may not want to destroy public education, or may use words like "transform" or "disrupt," but the end effect of the policies they pursue would, in fact, destroy public education. When one considers the attempt to hand the entire York, PA public school system over to a private for-profit charter operator, it's hard to see that as anything other than the destruction of a public school system.

But he moves on to mark the excesses of reformsters as well (it's probable that Condoleezza Rice is over the line when she claims that charter opponents are the true racists).

Ultimately, he argues that it's the conservatives who keep movements from spinning out of control by offering internal brakes.

Education reform is fantastic at articulating eternal principles, acting with urgency, and speaking in lofty rhetoric. But—as we consider huge federal programs, value-added algorithms, national standards and tests, and other “game changers”—it is worth considering whether we prize prudence, respect experience, or preserve time-tested institutions.

Smarick doesn't offer any names of people who exert such a conservative restraining effect upon the reformster movement. I can think of some reasons they may be hard to find on both sides.

Ben Franklin was one such example. Franklin did not become a radical overnight. He was for years a strong voice for unity with Britain and for retaining the traditional bonds that held the colonies tightly to the empire. Franklin, by many accounts, bowed under his final straw when on a diplomatic mission to Parliament, where he came to understand that there would be no compromise, no recognition of colonial rights.

Franklin could have been a voice for moderation and peace. He could have been an ally of the British. Instead, they made him into a radical enemy.

Likewise, I didn't start out as a hammerfingered blogger. Even a few years ago, I would not have envisioned myself routinely calling out the United States Secretary of Education. Now, I'm more radical than I ever was before. By some standards, I'm not particularly radical at all, and some days I'm actually pretty reasonable. But I didn't get here because of any new impulse within myself. I got here because the more I saw and read and listened to, the more I realized that there are people in this country using their power and money to remake public education, to use the force of law to require me to commit educational malpractice, to trample on the professional expertise and personal commitment of me and my fellow teachers, to put profits and power above the best interests of my students. Some are thoughtlessly destructive, some are maliciously destructive, and some sincerely believe that they are wielding a sledgehammer in a good cause. But the end result is much the same.

Franklin became radicalized because he faced men who believed their authority and power meant they did not have to bend, listen or care about what the lesser humans living in the colonies knew or felt or wanted.

There's an oft-overlooked irony at the heart of our country's revolution. The taxes that we so quickly grew to hate were not capricious or pointless-- not at first. The fighting of what we call the French and Indian War had run up a huge bill, and the British felt that since the bill had been run up protecting us, it was not unreasonable to try to collect from us some of the money that they had spent saving our colonial posteriors. You lend your brother-in-law your car for an emergency and he uses all your gas and dents your fender; it doesn't seem like such a stretch to ask him to help chip in.

But it all descended quickly into an assertion of power. The colonies would do as their betters told them to. They would behave. They would fall in line, or else Parliament would punish them harder until they finally broke and knelt before their rightful masters.

We can argue that eventually more conservative voices gathered enough power on both sides to cool things down. But that was not until after a decade in which no voices could provide enough ballast to offset the pressures that gave rise to radical moves all around.

The biggest issue that Smarick doesn't really address is that all sides in some disputes are not created equal. People on a particular side of an issue might not be evil, malicious, purposefully malignant monsters of ill intent-- but that doesn't mean they aren't wrong. The British Parliament may have had their reasons; they may not have intended to start or war or abuse their own brothers and sisters across the sea, and it may have been unfair to ascribe malicious intent to them-- but they were still wrong.

Conservative voices could have tempered their behavior, but would it really have mattered if they had been dead wrong in a more slow, well-considered, thoughtful manner?

Ultimately, I believe that many reformster programs and policies are dead wrong. I believe the current unregulated spread of money-sucking charters does not need to be modulated; it needs to be stopped cold. I believe that Common Core and the testing to which it is stapled are not policies that can be slowed down and carefully managed; they just need to stop. I believe the attempts to convert schools to a business-style model where a CEO can hire and fire and set pay at will are woefully wrong and destructive to education. I could go on; you get the idea.

It's generally a bad idea to slam the gas pedal down and drive hell bent for angry leather into the dark. But if you are headed straight for a cliff that beetles o'er its base into the sea, I'm not sure it makes a whole lot of difference if you drive more slowly.

Oddly enough, Smarick's piece dovetails nicely with Rick Hess's piece this week suggesting that real education debates are going to require much more than a circus-style desire to smack down the opponent.

Second, the measure of one's seriousness ought to be one's willingness to presume the goodwill of those who disagree, forego the insults and boilerplate, and seek principled points of agreement. This means not just citing evidence that one happens to like and dismissing studies that don't help one's cause. It means recognizing that big, complicated policy questions involve winners and losers, values, and unanticipated consequences; they are never simple questions of "what works" and are hardly ever going to be settled by a series of academic studies. It means acknowledging how incredibly complex these issues are, abandoning the search for pat answers, and recognizing that we're inevitably making fraught judgments about what policies are more likely to do more good for more children--and about which of tens of millions of youth deserve priority (and how much more of a priority they should be than their peers) when it comes to a given decision at a given point in time.  If we're being the least bit honest with ourselves and each other, we're inevitably going to disagree about a lot of this. And it seems to me that we need to see that as okay--and not as prima facie evidence of someone else's broken moral compass. 

As with Smarick's piece, I mostly agree-- but...

In this case, the but is that some participants in the education debates (circus division) have shown other evidence beyond their policy positions that their moral compass is, if not broke, at least tuned to something other than True North. My default position is to assume that other human beings are well-intentioned and can be taken seriously. Some folks wearing the Reformster team uniform have convinced me that they cannot and should not be taken seriously at all, like a uninspired debater who simply beats his shoe on the lectern and tells repeated and baldfaced lies.

No amount of conservative tempering is going to fix that. Nor can tempering and assumption of good will easily bridge the gaps created by completely different values. There are folks, for instance, who believe that orderly standardization of education across all fifty states is a thing that in and of itself has value and virtue. I don't agree. There are people who believe that free market competition makes everything better. I think they operate from a fundamental misunderstanding of How the World Works.

I'm not an ideologue, and if there's anything I've learned in fifty-seven years, it's that I am completely capable of being wrong. But at the same time, I know what I know, and everything I know about the field I've dedicated my professional life to tells me that the reformster agenda is fundamentally destructive to the things I value most. It is as if a physician insisted that she must inject Drano into my daughter's veins; her intentions don't matter all that much, because the Drano injection things is not happening as long as I'm capable of standing up to it, and I'm not sure what reasonable discussion will get us.

I share Hess and Smarick's sense that there is a gulf in the education debates that is keeping us from having discussions that need to be had and which have led people to say a lot of foolish things and often treat other human beings in less-than-exemplary manners. But I see a really huge gulf between the sides, and I don't see it being bridged in any substantial way.

I don't know. Maybe if the conservative brakes get thrown, we can have Hess's honest and difficult conversations. I'm not sure what that will get us.

Years ago, when I was the president of a striking union, while the strike was actually going on, I had regular breakfast meetings with the school board president (in total violation of our respective counsel's advice, so we just didn't tell them). We commiserated, including shaking our heads over the old saying that you can sometimes choose your enemies, but you don't always get to choose your friends, and God save you from some of those friends. We talked only a little about the contractual issues, and we never did a thing that really affected the ultimate shape of the contract. But I think it reminded us regularly that we were both real, live human beings, and probably led us to encourage our own allies to remember the same thing. Even if it didn't actually solve any of the real problems we were facing, it probably kept us all a little more decent and human in a difficult time. Maybe tha5t was enough.


  1. The problem (for Smarick et al) is that properly speaking, the moderates in the debate are people like Linda Darling-Hammond and Randi Weingarten. You, me and Diane Ravitch.