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Monday, January 7, 2013

How is that conservative? Part One - School Vouchers

I am starting a new series of articles to analyze the content and tone of what passes for modern-day conservatism. I would contend that many of the issues pundits espouse have no basis in the actual definition of conservatism.

I suppose that if I am to argue about what is conservative and what is not, I should define the term itself. The Bing dictionary does a good job in its definition, which includes:

1. reluctance to accept change: unwillingness or slowness to accept change or new ideas

2. right-wing political viewpoint: a right-of-center political philosophy based on a tendency to support gradual rather than abrupt change and to preserve the status quo

3. desire to preserve current societal structure: an ideology that views the existing form of society as worthy of preservation

Now, I realize that the first part of this definition may irk some who call themselves conservative, but caution in enacting change is a positive characteristic and is (or ought to be) central to the conservative approach. We conservatives like to weigh our options carefully before jumping on any bandwagon. We tend to feel that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." When problems arise, we spend time analyzing all of the potential pros and cons of our approach, discover as many options as possible, and try our best not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We see public policy as a game of chess with very high stakes, and try to think as many moves ahead as possible. This is the legitimate conservative mindset.

However, many who claim to carry the mantle of conservatism act in a very unconservative way. They embrace sudden and wholesale disruptions in our social institutions. They worship at the altar of privatization to such a degree that it never occurs to them to weigh the benefits of having some public functions performed by public entities. To this end, we have outsourced even the uniforms of our military to foreign nations. Certainly conservatism includes the idea that the individual is responsible for his own outcomes, and thus a large, bloated government is undesirable. However, certain functions have been traditionally government-run for good reasons, and these traditions ought not be simply abandoned on a whim.

Public schooling is another area in which so-called conservatives seem to have abandoned conservatism in their approach. In seeking to use vouchers to replace public schools with private entities, pundits and politicians have failed to consider the benefits of common schools. To understand why common schools exists in the first place, a little history lesson is in order.

The first major advocate for common (public) schools was Thomas Jefferson, who wisely understood that a democracy populated by the uninformed would not last very long. Jefferson saw the common schools as a means to enhance patriotism and civic participation. Lessons would include basic math and literacy, but would focus most on the political and historical heritage that spawned the United States. Students would be taught to appreciate the freedoms they enjoy, to be responsible for their own welfare as well as that of the nation, and to cherish the values of hard work, religious liberty, and rugged individualism.

For Jefferson and the nation he led, common schools would promulgate common values and a common culture. Equality of opportunity was a given; all (male) children would have the opportunity to obtain at least a rudimentary academic education. However, those students who displayed more potential would be selected for greater opportunities.

The original concept of the high school was what we now see as the purpose of college. Select students would be sponsored and sent to high schools, perhaps three or four students out of each township. The most excellent high school students would be sponsored for the university (only a few of which existed in Jefferson's time, most of which specialized in theology or legal studies). This select group of citizens would become the future leaders of the nation.

Jefferson's model was followed fairly consistently during the 19th century. Beginning in the early 20th century, the level of educational opportunity was expanded for most students, culminating with the Civil Rights Acts. However, the primary role of common schools did not change. Schools were vehicles for mathematics, literacy, and citizenship, with other skills being taught as extras. For most of the 20th century, common schools were viewed as a central facet of community building. Immigrants learned to become Americans as they went to school with their native-born peers. The melting-pot ideal became reality in the nation's classrooms. Schools did not exist to create a class of future corporate employees, but to prepare future American citizens.

This is the heritage that so-called conservatives would throw away. Private school vouchers would segregate students into like-minded institutions that deny them the opportunity to engage in cultural dialogue, to meld into a common American culture. Muslim students would attend Muslim schools. Burmese students would eventually sort themselves into Burmese schools. Instead of learning how to be Americans, and what America really means, they would remain isolated both physically and culturally. Such an outcome would be dire for the nation's future. It would lead to an inevitable Balkanization, the loss of a united national culture.

Those who mindlessly insist that vouchers are the panacea for American education have failed to engage in the essential function of conservatism, which is to respect traditional ways of doing things enough to at least consider their benefits. The cult of school privatization is not conservative but radical in nature and tone. The fact that some who call themselves conservatives vehemently espouse an idea does not make the idea itself any more conservative.

A true conservative would consider the issue long enough to know that.

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