Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Great Sorting

America has always been a land of contradictory impulses. Religious freedom! But not for those guys. Liberty for all! Except for slaves. Democracy! In which only white guys vote. Come to our country! But not you lot.

Two of our biggest promises have always been in tension, because America has always been the land of the Great Leveling, where all humans are created equal, and the Great Sorting, in which the best among us can rise to the top. The tension between the Great Leveling and the Great Sorting has worked itself out in different ways throughout our history, but I think that cultural whiplash we're feeling these days is a symptom of having fairly swiftly shifted from the ascendency of one to a temporary triumph of the other.

This is about education, but it's not just about education. Education is part of a larger shift in the country, and if for no reason than to clear my own head, I'm going to try to lay out one model of what's going on.

The New Federal Premise

The Obama Era premise was something along the lines of the idea that if we could assemble a bunch of technology and programs and standards and systems, we could make America a more perfect place, with equity and employment as far as the eye can see. That was baloney for a variety of reasons that I've spent a few thousand posts enumerating, but it opened the door to a lot of other folks who saw an opportunity, and while the Systems Guys may have moved on, the people who snuck in the door with them have hunkered down and made themselves right at home. But our foundation for many years now has been a wholehearted adoption of the Great Leveling.

One of the mysteries of the Trump administration is what could possibly be the unifying principle that runs from the Super Jesus Wing of Pence and DeVos to the Racist Nationalist Wing of Bannon to the Corporate Shilling Wing of Kushner as well as tying all of this off to the Power Grabbing GOP Wing of Congress. And all of it somehow tied off to the Narcissistic Infant Wing occupying the White House.

Well, I think the unifying premise, the closest thing to a guiding principle, is this: in this country, some people matter, and some people don't, and we should stop worrying and caring and most especially spending money about those who don't. We have entered rather abruptly another era of the Great Sorting.

The whole some-people-don't-matter thing is not a new principle in DC, but we're more used to seeing it expressed in a paternalistic idea that the Betters have an obligation to look out for the Lessers. That is now out the window. If you want health care or a nice school, well, you should have thought of that before you decided to be poor or non-white or Muslim or out of power or without a penis or less-than-effusive in your praise of the Beloved Leader. Even among believers in the Great Sorting, there's considerable difference of opinion about who the winners and losers should be-- but there is still agreement that a Great Sorting is needed.

The Great Sorting

We've been acting for a few decades as if the animating principle of this country is to float all boats, an impulse to equalize all citizens, to level the playing field, to create national equity.

But we have not all been singing from the same page of the American hymnal. Some of us are pretty sure that equity is not a good thing, that it is in fact an unnatural thing, and that some people should be sitting lower or higher than others, that society has been suffering from a whole bunch of uppity Lessers who have been climbing over their Betters, insolently grinding their heels into Better faces.

It's not that these folks don't believe in the Great Ladder, the American ideal of social mobility. If you're born poor or black or brown or female, it should still be possible for you to move up in society-- as long as you're the Right Kind of Person.

But the Great Leveling that brought us equal-ish rights and gay marriage and a black President and women in high office and a general infiltration of government by all the wrong sorts of people. And so it's necessary to sort people back into their proper places. And there are several ways to go about that.

Hobbling Government

Government has become the primary avenue for putting power in the hands of the Wrong Sort of People. Worse, as an instrument of the Great Leveling, it has become a means by which money is stolen away from the Right Sort of People and given to other people who simply don't deserve it. So government must be broken. When a bear is gnawing your leg, you don't try to reason with it or train it to be a well-behaved bear-- you just shoot the damned thing. The doctrine of Starve the Beast is about shooting the bear. If that fatally injures it, that's okay. The People Who Matter will be fine, and the people who will not be fine are the ones that don't matter.

The Invisible Hand

To enable the Great Sorting, we must also unleash the invisible hand of the Free Market. The Free Market is nature (and God's) way of sorting the deserving form the undeserving. Those who flinch or try to undo the Hand's work are weak, and working against nature's laws.

Money and power are not the result of some sort of human-built system of cheating and self-serving. Money and power are nature's way of keeping score, and if you have a great deal of both, it is most likely that you deserve them because you are one of the Betters (though it is sign of our broken system that people who are clearly undeserving, like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, somehow end up rich, too).

If you want excellent health care and great schools and a police force that treats you well and access to Nice Things, well, then, be a good person, the kind of person who doesn't deserve to be poor. That's how the world is supposed to work, by sorting out the deserving from the undeserving and rewarding them accordingly. If we just let the invisible hand work, everything will be okay-- and by "okay," we mean "people will get as much or as little as they deserve."


Another way to get power away from the corrupted-by-dreams-of-equity government and back into invisible hand  is by privatizing everything. Don't let government run anything that can be run by private companies. This works on several levels.

Privatization puts society's functions under the control of people who have proven their worth by becoming rich and powerful, so it's in tune with the Great Sorting. It also disempowers the government, which gives too much power to the wrong people.

Privatization also works because it directs the reward, the money and power, to the people who deserve it instead of into the black hole of government. And it circumvents democracy, which is a corrupted process because too many of the Wrong People get a vote, often at the direction of evil, unnatural groups like unions and the Democratic Party, whose whole purpose is to make themselves powerful by an unnatural redirection of power and money to people who don't deserve it. Proponents of the Great Sorting rarely say it out loud, but they are pretty sure that democracy is a failed system. But you can't be overtly anti-democracy in America, so we'll just have to settle for finding ways to take the vote away from people who don't deserve it and would use it incorrectly.

Two Americas

People keep pointing out that we have created two Americas-- one for the privileged, and one of for the poor-- to which proponents of the Great Sorting say, quietly, "Well, duh. Everything that's wrong with this country happened because you fools tried to mush the multiple Americas together. Everything worked so much better when everyone stayed in their own place, in their own part of town, on their own side of the tracks."

In Betters America, people can have whatever they can afford, from health care to houses to education. In fact, the battle over Obamacare is highly instructive, because it has stripped bare a model that is not just applied to insurance.

The idea behind the individual mandate is a larger version of the basic idea of insurance-- everyone pays into the pot, and that way there's enough money to cover whatever disasters come up for some people. But that looks pretty clearly like the residents of Betters America paying for the health care of Lessers America, and they don't much like that idea. But that idea is also how we do things like roads, postal delivery, and education. Everyone pays school taxes, and there's enough money in the pot so that even Lessers America can have nice schools. But the Great Sorting supports another idea-- you pay for your own stuff and you get what you can afford, because what you can afford is a pretty good measure of what you deserve, and what your Betters deserve is to not have their money stolen by the government to pay for services for people who haven't earned and don't deserve them.

It is no coincidence that a Big Wall is one of the potent political images of our time. The Great Sorting is all about separating people and separating the resources that go to them. Walls are going up all over this country.

Freedom Isn't

The Great Sorting comes with its own new definition of freedom. People need to be free to not be able to afford health care. People need to be free to not have job security or union protection. People need to be free to not have a decent school available and willing to take them. And I'm not really free to exercise my religion unless I can discriminate against people who I think deserve it.

All of these freedoms have to do with being free to operate according to the rules of the Great Sorting, which is that winners must win and losers must lose. It is a bizarre new meaning of freedom, but it is consistent. Lessers and losers must be free to get what they truly deserve, which is not much. And Betters must be free to avoid supporting a Leveling system that steals their money in order to violate the natural order of things.

The Education Implications

Viewed through the lens of privatization, lots of ed reform makes sense. Common Core was an attempt to privatize the standards behind public education, and as such served the purpose of helping privatize other portions as well. Test-driven accountability (tied originally to Common Core but now with a life of its own) is a way to privatize the measure of education quality.

And school choice is also about privatizing and sorting.

The tell is that nowhere among choice fans do we find anyone calling for districts to open more public schools within the district (which would, of course, create the system where choice was most easily exercised). Nor do we hear calls for public schools to offer greater varieties of programs. No, choice invariably means "offer more privately run, less regulated options."

"Government schools" are schools that have been ruined, excessively infected with the Great Leveling. "They give participation trophies, and grades have been inflated, and every special snowflake has to be given some feel-good medal," is a complaint that means "Schools don't even sort people into winners and losers any more." The Great Sorting demands winners and losers.

Education has been impervious to privatization for too long, and too much money has been left on the table, tied up in regulations and cemented to the Great Leveling by people like evil unions and Democrats, and those strings need to be cut so that the invisible hand can be free to sort the market into winners and losers-- both the vendors and the consumers. This is not a business proposition-- it is a moral imperative. Choice fans used to try to sell choice by talking about educational benefits, but nowadays they simply argue choice for its own sake.

Parents should be free to choose an education for their child in the same way they are free to choose a car for their family-- free to choose from whatever choices the market and their own resources allow them. More importantly (but less vocally argued), vendors should be free to compete for whatever part of the market they think will be most rewarding. The ones who make the best choices will be rewarded by money-- points-- that attest to their Betterness. Any regulation interferes with a full, natural Great Sorting.

Super Choice and Super Sorting

The choice market has moved beyond simply arguing for privately operated schools. The real forward thinkers see an end to school entirely. Here's your education voucher; maybe a nice plastic debit card, or some sort of edu-credits. Now you can log onto an amazon-like education vending site and select the courses and activities that you want for your child, who can then log on and let the artificial intelligence guide your child through modules on the way to a calculus achievement badge or a basket weaving certification.

This kind of cyber-driven software based education not only provides basic "personalized" or "competency based" education, but because it constantly collects and stores data, it is a fantastic tool for the Great Sorting. We will know how to categorize your child literally before you know it.

Teachers will not really be needed, and those that are employed here and there will more accurately understand their place as Lessers. Teaching will be simple content delivery, a job for a few years and not a lifelong career.

Private schools and higher-quality education will still exist, but only for people who have proven they deserve such things by being able to afford them. And as we are increasingly sorted and separated, there will be increasingly less demand that any of us have to pay for the education (or health care or safety) of Those People. Underfunded public school and a two-year community college are good enough for Those People, and they will both reflect and re-inforce the sorting.

Sorting the Sorters

As Americans, we are all at least a tiny bit mixed. We believe, mostly, that a human being is worth less just because of her parents. We believe, mostly, that people who are lazy and unwilling to get off their ass don't deserve to have everyone else pay their way through life. But it's how much of one or the other that makes a difference. I suspect that this model is also a way to describe the great cultural divide we currently face-- each group sees their vision as a morally correct one, and so Those Guys Over There are not just wrong, but bad.

And it's also worth noting that I have grossly oversimplified things here, that there are good and decent people who support some of the features of the Great Sorting for good and sincere reasons. Working through those details would make this post roughly the length of a book, and it's already too long.

It comes back to the notion that some people matter, and some people don't. The notion that there are winners and losers and trying to interfere with that sorting goes against nature. It's the worldview that makes it okay to mock and abuse people for thinking it's wrong for American babies to die just because their parents are poor. It's the worldview that says, "I've got mine Jack," and I have no obligation to help you, because if you deserved help, you wouldn't need help.

There are lots of mini-arguments to be had about many features of the Great Sorting, but I just wanted to see if I could spin out a coherent big picture view of what's happening. We can argue about the right and wrong of all this another day.


  1. You are so on point...and it depresses me beyond words. Thank you for laying this out.

  2. Brilliant. Thank you for this important analysis.

  3. Maybe the concept of public education as it was once understood has outlived itself. Maybe the concept cannot withstand the assault of technology and the prevailing ideology that education is meant to make someone emplyable.

    Maybe it cannot survive the sharks and snakes who see a huge, guaranteed supply of customers for bogus tests and curricula.

    Maybe the number of smart snd committed people is too small to overpower the masses of apathetic people.

    Maybe fighting the same battles in the same way is not smart. Maybe it is time to look at who we are now and not reinvent the wheel but rather invent a model that is not a wheel. We don't need the wheel.

    Learn from the past, use common sense about human nature but don't assume that people are on the same page. Hoping everyone will be on the same page is an exercise in futility in this day and age.

    We need a revolution...if it isn't strategized by leaders, it will happen organically. Perhaps this is exactly what the beginning stages look like. Just sayin'.

    1. I try to be optimistic. I look at the cyclical nature of history, hope that the spiral is progressing upwards, and try to take a long view and be patient but committed. Initiatives like Teacher Powered Schools and community schools give me hope. I do think there's a growing rebellion of people for people and against being numbers. Vive la RĂ©sistance!