It has often been observed that one cannot understand the modern world without understanding the First World War and all that it dismantled and introduced. Among other things, it ushered in what Walter Lippmann and others dubbed “The American Century”, but tragically, with a lot of help from an intellectual class that failed us miserably, it also introduced totalitarianisms of the like never before seen. As the last century came to a close, it became clear that, finally, the success of pluralism and liberalism (classically understood) means that there are limits to sovereignty, limits to what politicians and governments can do within their own borders to their own people. Much of the statism of the 20th century was dictated and justified by war and depression, but with the fall of Soviet Communism and the Berlin Wall, this collectivism was discredited once and for all. We’re now struggling to define the new paradigm of governance and the debate reaches into every area of public policy. “One size fits all”, top down, hierarchical governance is on the way out. Individual empowerment and responsibility are the waves of this century for health care, education, social security, the environment, and a host of functions formerly the exclusive purview of the state—it’s a matter of time. The question is, will our habits of personal governance accommodate the new paradigm?
In his new book, Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe writes that The Great Relearning will be the theme of 21st century America. After reversing most of the pipe dreams of the intellectuals of the previous century that involved the sweeping away of the old social and moral norms, he believes that the relearning will include a hangover from the arrogance and brass of the previous century. Let’s hope that this relearning also brings with it a restoration of personal virtue and self-governance, as well as some well-deserved humility from our intellectual class.
In the May 2000 issue, I noted that the Clinton administration had mistakenly pursued permanent most favored nation treatment for China without due regard for human rights abuses or Taiwan security concerns, and I highlighted the blunder of an approach defined by “strategic partnership” in thrall to the allure of the potential of a billion customers for our goods and services. It was to be expected that an incident such as the recent Hainan surveillance plane “accident” would be used by the Chinese to test the resolve of the new administration. On balance, considerable conservative commentary to the contrary, I believe President Bush acted decisively and in a measured way in dealing with the incident before it became a media “hostage” circus. This incident was instructive on several points. First, forget strategic partnership. China and the U. S. are competitors in almost every sense and adversaries on many fundamental issues. Second, as pure ideological communism has waned in China, its leaders have emphasized a virulent nationalism in order to continue their sway. As the Wall Street Journal has noted, the Chinese idea of sovereignty, which has been elevated to a sacred principle, is based on an outdated 19th century version that does not recognize multi-lateralism and emphasizes raw power. Third, the U. S. stands in the way of a major Chinese objective—military and economic hegemony in the Far East, including unification with Taiwan on their terms as well as control of the area’s shipping lanes.
Henry Kissinger has defined the two poles of American opinion on China policy as the “engagement/strategic partnership” crowd and the “adversarial/containment” crowd. I suppose I tend slightly to the latter, and I don’t think this would produce a Soviet Union-style Cold War replay. Although I support trade engagement, I don’t believe that our China policy can be dictated by a chamber of commerce approach that assumes that Jeffersonian democracy will necessarily follow from liberalized trade engagement. The keys are the rule of law and private property, which have historically been the determinants of the success of liberal democracy, and these, as Condoleeza Rice has noted, have a moral underpinning, which the Chinese don’t yet have. In fact, as I watched the Hainan incident unfold, I was reminded of Mortimer Adler’s admonition to be careful of equating Eastern and Western concepts of truth in moral philosophy. They don’t mesh because the Far Eastern view is that the derivation of the truths of religion, philosophy, mathematics, science, and technology are completely different. The principle of non-contradiction, self-evident in the West, is not accepted by many Far Eastern cultures. There is a lot of work to be done to bridge this cultural gap. Meanwhile, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “trust, but verify”.
President Bush has been unfairly maligned by the media and the Democrats for his “reversals” on carbon dioxide emissions and arsenic in drinking water. But part of his problem is his administration’s failure to confront the agenda of the radical environmental lobby with one voice in a principled way. He should start with the centerpiece of the environmental activist groups, the “precautionary principle”. This principle says “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically”. In other words, all new innovations are guilty until proven innocent. The “spirit” of the Kyoto Treaty, which Bush has said is “fine”, is soaked with this principle. The premise is flawed and we should say so!
Radical environmentalism is a religion. It is based on the pantheistic belief that God is manifest (immanent) in nature and humans are merely intruders in an otherwise sacred environment. Unfortunately, this version of paganism has been mainstreamed, even among some Christian denominations. Most environmental activist groups are now Deep Ecology sympathizers, believing that the human species is simply one of many, not ordained by God, consciousness, or intellect to a privileged status on earth. Fighting radical environmentalism and its flawed science on purely scientific and economic terms is not enough. Bad policy based on bad philosophy must be countered in philosophical terms, head on. One place to look for some grounding is the Cornwell Declaration, drafted by the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (www.stewards.net), summarized as follows:
- The 20th century brought unprecedented improvement in human health, nutrition, life expectancy, and environmental quality.
- We have an opportunity, and a moral obligation, to build on these advances, and share them with less fortunate people in America and developing nations.
- None of this would be possible, were it not for the religious, economic, and scientific traditions now under assault.
William Raspberry asks in an August 2000 editorial why more administrators of mediocre public schools aren’t learning from the practices of models and methodologies in their midst that are proving successful, particularly in very high “at-risk” environments. Good question. I wonder why best practices in reading instruction, in which I have been very active, are not more readily adopted by educators who are failing in their mission to teach children how to read. In my case, I’ve been heavily involved in attempting to convince several colleges of education of the clear superiority of Direct Instruction reading methods in high at-risk elementary school populations, where it is well demonstrated that even mediocre teachers can be successful with proper application of the process. The response has been frustrating at best, tragically slow at worst.
Colleges of education have been mired in the progressive education ideologies of John Dewey since the 1920’s. Some of these are fine for those children who come from an educationally and socially enriched family environment, but disastrous for the children who do not and for their teachers, many of whom are of marginal competence and need a more structured approach. In these environments, teachers must teach, not facilitate. Meanwhile, pedagogical change in teacher training remains on hold, while the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress report shows that two-thirds of the nation’s fourth graders lack proficiency in reading. And of all the factors contributing to these results, research shows that class size, ethnicity, location, and poverty levels all pale to triviality compared to teacher competence.
In all of the talk about accountability in education, I hear very little about holding our colleges of education accountable for these results. Contrast this with our top colleges of business, which are totally accountable to the employers (customers) who hire their product. The difference is incentives. In a monopoly industry in which a unionized workforce that controls entry and certification delivers the primary service, even well proven innovation doesn’t stand a chance.
This is why empowering parents with school choice and enlightened school administrators with alternative training and certification of teachers must externally drive education reform. The former is ultimately inevitable and the latter is a growing trend, as more schools grow weary of the often mediocre product of traditional teacher education.