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.