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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Education, Equality and Sam's Club Socialists

There's a great deal that could be said about, and argued with, regarding the points made in Ross Douthat's short post on the Republican and Democratic coalitions today, and the long and reflective post Rod Dreher wrote about education yesterday, but I'll just focus as succinctly as I can (ha!) on a small place where they overlap. Here's Ross digesting some data that had been crunched over at the National Review:

[T]he GOP is now a working-class party (with class defined by education and culture more than income, just to be clear; there are plenty of skilled craftsmen who make more money than teachers and journalists and academics), and that it needs to start acting like one if it's going to rebuild its shattered majority.

And here's Rod, thinking through the possibilities of justice in a world where the "romanticism" of universal education and equality are dying away, to be replaced with, presumably, a world dominated by the meritocratic empowerment of the rootless and ambitious:

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with designing an educational system that recognizes plainly that all people are not equally gifted. As I've said before here, in the Netherlands, social attitudes are very egalitarian, but the Dutch see no value in pretending that everybody is equally intelligent, or intelligent in the same ways. They test kids and put them on one of three different tracks, depending on their capabilities. Kids who are not cut out for college-level work are not expected to do college-prep work in high school; rather, they prepare for vocational and trade work. Why is this bad? (N.B., the Dutch welfare-state economy redistributes material rewards in a more egalitarian manner, taking the edge off social differences)....

It is surely better to live in truth than dwell in the therapeutic fiction that all kids are capable of being above average in school, or that everyone should go to college. [Christopher] Lasch would no doubt disagree, but I don't believe that everyone in a given locality should go to the same schools, or sit in the same classrooms, if they aren't capable of doing the work. We need a system of education that's more based on the needs and capabilities of actual people....Let's agree that the idea of sending nuclear physicists out to work in the soybean fields is insane, and, in turn, that keeping a boy who has the potential to be a nuclear physicist down on the farm out of a sense of tradition is also pretty unjust. Let's also agree that an educational system that denies real and substantial differences between human beings is a sham....And finally, let's agree--well, you may not agree, but this is what I think--that the meritocratic system and its assumptions are great destroyers of institutions and customs that we need for human thriving.

How can these positions be reconciled? Through taxes? Quota systems doling out special privileges based on class, race or other criteria? Agreeing to live with a certain amount of injustice and inefficiency for the sake of helping those less genetically gifted save face (and which forces the genetically gifted to realize that their advances depend largely on unearned merit, via the genetic lottery)? Paying higher salaries to men and women who earn their living with their strong backs and nimble fingers? (Didn't unions do that, once upon a time, before we turned on them?) If socialism is not only unjust, but a foolish way to organize one's society and economy, does that imply that pure capitalist meritocracy is the most just, smartest way to organize one's society and economy? And if not, where is the compromise to be struck?

As I said, much that could be--and should be!--argued with here. Rod is, I think, a little too easily swayed by the kind of meritocratic (and libertarian) individualism which dresses itself up with I.Q. testing data or school test scores and presents itself as an old-fashioned conservative "realism" dumping cold water on supposedly irresponsible liberal efforts to "deny" nature or the family--the kind of conservative strategy Charles Murray has specialized in for years--but at least he's smart enough to recognize the underlying philosophy, and be wary of its dangers. Lasch--who had extremely harsh things to say about our therapeutic culture--was not a fan of the ideal of universal public schooling because he subscribed to a dreamy "educational romanticism" which Murray easily mocks; rather, he embraced it because he believed in "equality" as a political--a classically republican, a populist and communitarian--ideal necessary for American democracy to work. We need to be able to learn how to share power, to share sovereignty, within our localities and within this nation, if true self-government is going to succeed, and schooling is an essential part of that. Obviously, this doesn't mean equal in the sense of "equally intelligent, or intelligent in the same ways"; it means equality in much more limited, much more specific and concrete, and therefore (I think, anyway) much more practical and valuable sense. It means recognizing that education is, first and foremost, a kind of socialization, and therefore pertinent to citizenship (there's a reason why Brown vs. Board of Education was arguably the most essential step in the development of civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s). Our problem--ok, ok, one of our many problems--is that education for a great many people in our late-modern, late-capitalist world has become overwhelmingly tied not to citizenship, not to building affection or social trust or even basic vocational capabilities, but to enabling the middle and upper-classes to pass along tickets to the perpetuation of their class, their cultural and educational niche. Which is what brings us around to Ross's (debatable, but still worth considering) point: that today's "conservative" party--whatever that means--is a party that increasingly draws a fair number of its voters from those who either have not, or at least have not fully, taken advantage of this particular meritocratic privilege encoded in our society. Which means that, if "conservatism" (again, however defined) is going to find a political home in America's (ridiculous, but that's an argument for another day) two-party system, then the Republicans need to find some way to reach out to those (obviously, overwhelmingly white) voters who--for reasons of family or religion or genetic failure or meritocratic competition or personal choice--have dissented from or failed to ascend to some of those privileged places society. (Obviously, we're not simply talking about money here; we're talking about the particular slots reserved for the "new class", the "mandarins", the "symbolic analysts", the professionals (and bloggers?) that dominate the culture in our media-saturated world...though given the way families pass along advantages to their children, relative monetary success is pretty much a given here as well.)

So, let's cut to the chase: we have an social and economic environment in America today which is undermining the ideal of public education, one of the great egalitarian social inventions of twentieth century, in part because that invention has often foolishly embraced a notion of "equality" that can be easily derided and attacked, and therefore it has come to be seen by many as an institution that either doesn't work, doesn't actually serve or respect the real talents and real needs of the people who support it with their taxes, or both. What is to be done? In the short run, perhaps dozens of different things, some no doubt more or less effective or economical or plausible than others. In the long run, as I see it, only one thing matters: helping people realize that "conservative" interests--by which I mean, most simply, those interests grounded in the limits and rhythms of community and tradition and family and locality, those interests which point out (whether they realize it or not) that real social justice and equality involves getting over or beyond or past class, rather than the liberal dream of lifting all people up to the same one--are not at all well-served by Murray's "libertarian realism," however nicely tough-minded it may sound. Rather they are served by...well, I suspect by at least some of the sort of things Ross and Riehan Salam have been working out for years, some of the things which Rod says you can see in Amsterdam, and which I've observed about Sweden. Things that many conservatives would denounce as "socialist," though that's what they are--legislation involving child and health-leave policies, health care access, different forms of trade and job protection, empowered unions, family-friendly salaries, and more. These are all things that might prevent economic and cultural differences from hardening into social and political ones, thus making it more likely that better, more respectful, more local, but still essentially egalitarian projects like public schools might someday be treated as more than a passing (or dying) fad by the American people.

The likelihood that the Republican party will start drawing out from the inchoate and disorganized self-identifying conservative population of America a bunch Sam's Club socialists is about as likely as my hopes that the Democratic party will suddenly turn into a home for a bunch of populist Christian democratic "left conservatives," I know. But hey, a man can dream.

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