Public education, its plight, and what to do about it have been at or near the top of every list of public policy priorities at least since the 1983 publication of “A Nation At Risk”.
Since then, the private sector (businesses, chambers of commerce, philanthropists, foundations, etc.), to their great credit, have shown a remarkable inclination to get directly involved with schools and school governance at every level in the K-12 spectrum with a dizzying array of intervention and accountability measures. These same spheres of influence have also had a significant role in legislative initiatives directed at the “reform” of public education, resulting in a number of innovative structural changes, the charter and contract school movements being prominent examples. All of this effort has been productive in large measure and is certainly to be commended; however, it is not enough. In order to bridge the last chasm in school reform and reach all deserving children with quality education, fully competitive school choice will be necessary.
Let’s start with a basic premise about the school choice debate: No child should be left behind because of failure of the education distribution system to deliver the best possible opportunity. If we cannot deliver on this commitment, we are failing in our public education responsibility, and no historical attachment to a particular delivery system should prevent our making the necessary structural changes. This debate is about children and their lives and the future of our society, not about a system.
This does not mean we should abandon the public schools. To the contrary, public schools are the foundation of American democracy. In fact, the introduction of the dynamics of competition in the form of empowerment of parents, particularly low-income parents trapped in underperforming schools, to seek the best education for their children will be the salvation of American public education. It’s the civil rights movement of the 21st century.
Several years ago, Forbes Magazine published a special issue, a collection of articles with a theme approximating the title of this essay. One of the articles, by Peggy Noonan, made the observation that we are the first generation in world history that expects happiness. This struck me as profound, but also prompted my asking, “how do we define happiness?” After thinking about this question for some time, my conclusion is that the search for happiness is really a search for meaning in life, and that the character of a community is determined by what gives its people their sense of meaning. I was reminded of all this by a recent convocation sponsored by the Great Books Foundation, the subject of which was Alexis de Tocqueville’s essay in his 1835 book, Democracy in America, entitled “Why Americans Are Often So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity”. De Tocqueville’s essay is a masterpiece on the dynamics and frustrations of a fledgling democracy committed to equality in the context of freedom and “the constant strife between the desires inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them.” He was optimistic about America’s capacity to manage these trade-offs because of the pervasiveness of religion in America and the absence of a materialist philosophy. I wonder how he would react in a return visit?
One of the most moving treatments of the concept of meaning for me was by Dr. Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. Europe’s leading psychiatrist until his death several years ago, Frankl writes of his horrific experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz and his own search for meaning as a prerequisite for survival. From that experience, his essential conclusions about meaning are that the sort of person one becomes is not the result of external influence and that any person, even under the most adverse circumstances, can decide what shall become of himself. This last inner freedom cannot be lost and it is this spiritual freedom that makes life meaningful and purposeful. For Frankl, there is wisdom in these words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Last summer, the Federal Communications Commission released a report that was critical of the marketing practices of the entertainment industry, accusing it of, among other things, directly targeting younger children with violent TV shows, CD’s, and movies. This report sparked a flurry of activity among policy makers, including hearings conducted by the U.S. Senate and chaired by Sen. John McCain. Some of the testimony was enlightening, none more so than from the industry representatives, who universally challenged any attempt to curtail or suppress media content as censorship. Another aspect of the dialogue that struck me was the fact that it focused almost entirely on the incidence of the portrayal of various forms of violence in the popular media, when the real problem with the products of Hollywood, in my view, is the consistent message of moral relativism. What is important about the portrayal of human foibles and the human experience is the moral context within which they are presented. The presentation of violence and sex per se is not necessarily corrupting; portrayal of these phenomena gratuitously or in a morally relative manner can be. And it is this relativism that permeates the popular culture, most of which accepts the worldview that any external moral authority is illegitimate and any interference with the individual’s self-gratification is reactionary.
So the problem is much broader and deeper, and the issue of content must be addressed. Am I suggesting the “C” word? Possibly, at least for the most explicit and gratuitous forms of violence and sex now being offered in the mainstream. After all, we had censorship in this country for most of our existence as a nation, some of it formal, some informal (remember the Hayes Office?). Actually, I prefer Lynne Cheney’s approach. The focus should be on product content, not just marketing strategy, and we should exercise moral authority and leadership from our highest elected offices in lieu of regulation. Edmund Burke made a relevant point over 200 years ago: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without.”
By the time you read this, we will have a new President-elect and, regardless of the outcome, there are issues of enormous significance to be addressed by the new administration. Since the first term of FDR, we have been fond of discussing the priorities of a new President’s “first 100 days”. To induce some reader dialogue, I would like each of you to send me your top three priorities for the new President during his first 100 days in office. These may be legislative or executive, foreign or domestic. Send them by post or e-mail and I will highlight the responses in the January issue.
“Political commentator E. J. Dionne has written that Americans are fed up with politics and many among us just want politics to go away. A distaste for conflict is a distaste for politics. The great Frederick Douglass once remarked that you cannot have rain without occasional thunder and lightning. Yet that is what so many of us seem to want……Need I note that life doesn’t work like that and that no complex democratic politics can survive if we go underground with what we care about most deeply.”
- Jean Bethke Elshtain