Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why the Department of Education Should be Abolished

Was ever a government department so unloved?

President Carter signed the necessary legislation in October 1979, and the Department of Education (ED) came into being the following year. Almost immediately, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan promised to abolish it. Once in office, however, Reagan didn't have the necessary Congressional support to disestablish it.

Further promises were made by Republicans, as late as 1996, to kill the department, but President George W. Bush's “No Child Left Behind Act” was a stunning volte face that has assured the continuation of the department, possibly forever.

Several articles set out why ED should be abolished including Devvy Kidd's “Department of Education Must be Abolished” ( “Elimination Lost: What happened to abolishing the Department of Education?” by Veronique de Rugy & Marie Gryphon (

While I agree that ED should be abolished, there is only one reason in the above articles that I agree with, and that is that there is no Constitutional authority for the Federal government to have anything to do with education.

For me, that's enough.

I do not subscribe to Miss Kidd's argument that ED will churn out little communists, nor do I agree that John Dewey's influence on American education was anywhere near as sinister as she maintains. His theories weren't perfect, few theories are, and Dewey did much to engage more children in learning, and these positive effects are still felt today.

I don't agree with Miss Kidd's statement that the United States had the best education system in the world until the creation of ED, either.

The one thing that makes ranting on any subject safe is that whatever you say about the United States is true for at least ten million people. SOME of our schools are among the best in the world; SOME are among the worst. One thing you can be sure of is that there will be great debate over which is which.

More reasons?

Okay, suppose you don't believe that just because there is no Constitutional provision for Federal involvement in education is enough to abolish ED, perhaps you would go for the creeping politicalization of education.

Once the Federal politicians get involved in education, they will meddle with every aspect of it that they possibly can. Experiences of countries that have “national curricula,” like France and UK, have politicians changing what goes on in schools so much that each round of new policies stimulates a slew of resignations and early retirements.

They mess with education because it's a “hot button” with the electorate, and it's easy to show that they've changed things. It's easier to fiddle around with education than it is to do anything about the transportation system, pensions, or global warming.

Left to continue, ED will result in the same things happening here.

Supposedly ED was established to “create programs to generate funds for education and enforcement of privacy and civil rights.” These sound like the jobs of the Treasury and Justice Departments to me.

In her stimulating book, The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby attacks the dumbing down of expectations in America. Among other things, she suggests we all go away and have a good read and think about Ralph Waldo Emerson's “The American Scholar,” in which that sage of Concord envisaged a new, uniquely American breed of thinking and scholarship.

However, like most liberals, Miss Jacoby cannot resist the temptation to meddle in everyone's life and argues in favor of a national curriculum, and this is a very bad idea.

1. A national curriculum begins as a “base line” to set out common information that all school children should receive, no matter where they are, what their background is, or what their personal educational needs are.

2. Once having established the “base line” there is the accountant's desire to know whether all that Federal funding is working, so national tests are instituted.

3. Once the national tests are instituted, you can bet that Federal funding will go to the more successful schools.

4. The less successful schools then begin teaching so that basic minimum of prescribed knowledge is transferred at the expense of everything else.

At that point, the ED, the President, and every Congressman who ever picked up a pencil claims the success and proposes that this great experiment be repeated. Before you know it, things start to look like the most prescriptive days in France when at 10.15 a.m. on a Tuesday, every child in each year group was on the same textbook page across the country.

Like that prospect? Then support the continuation of the Department of Education.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Authority, Democracy and the Individual

I think it has been the growth of mass media and later the worldwide web that has distorted our views of authority. The rise of talk shows that feature ordinary people, while entertaining, have serious downsides. I'll save the discussion of their voyeuristic nature for another time because the most corrosive effect of the mass media and the web is that it reinforces the mistaken idea that everyone's opinion is of equal value.

Saying that my opinion is more valuable than yours on the face of it sounds heretical. However, if I am an oncologist and you're a cancer sufferer, who are you going to listen to – me, or the guy who flips your burgers – or even your lawyer, for that matter?

Professional opinions can be too often not regarded with the respect they deserve. The corollary to this is that it's often wise to get a second professional opinion.

This is an issue that is at the heart of representative democracy.

The stewardship principle is one in which we, the voters, empower those we elect to make decisions on our behalf. To make decisions. Not be a mere channel for our opinions. Stewardship is based on the assumption that our representatives have a greater understand of the whole picture, are privy to more – and more accurate – information than we are, and will act for the greater good. Of course we want our views heard and possibly represented, but part of our responsibility as citizens is to understand that we are delegating responsibilities.

Ideally, a person is IN a position of authority because he is AN authority in a certain area like law, medicine, education, science, and so on. When those who are not authorities try to over-ride the decisions of those who are, the ice begins to get very thin. This is not to say that authorities should not be accountable, or even challenged about their world pictures and decisions; what is does mean is that they probably have better reasons for believing what they do than we do.

Theory and practice

Acknowledging the above gets very sticky on issues like home education. The presumption that a parent knows better than a school system what is best for a child is a very thorny one. There are rights and responsibilities on both sides, but the presumption of competence should be with the school systems (as the result – direct or indirect – of duly elected procedures).

The use of prisons and terms of sentence are another area where authoritative opinion and public acceptance are at loggerheads. Repeated studies, both here and around the world, show that by and large, prisons do not reform offenders. However, the public's sense of safety is so great that the need to simply remove offending individuals from circulation is enough to support the practice of locking up offenders for long periods.

Please don't misunderstand me: I am NOT saying we shouldn't send offenders to prison. I am saying that given the evidence that it seldom has a beneficial affect on the prisoner is reason to look at other methods that may.

Another example: Why, when in the face of the evidence and cost advantage, are so few births carried out by midwives?

“In the United States, physicians oversee 95 percent of all births. In Europe, where infant mortality rates are superior to ours, midwives attend 75 percent of births. In fact, in every single one of the nations where infant mortality rates are lower than ours, midwives are the principal birth attendants.” [ ]

I'll look at healthcare in another blog, but as a nation, are we becoming less rational?

These observations are far from perfect, but I'm looking for foundations here. One thing is clear: a stable nation has to be build on sound principles. Without a philosophical underpinning, institutions cannot be justified or sustained.

We had the amazing good fortune to have had men who understood this as our Founding Fathers. Compared to them, those found in Congress today are but a distant echo.

Too often now our institutions are run by those who know how to run organisations, be politicians, or manage people. Very few of the men who were at the head of the major banks were actually bankers: they were lawyers, marketing people, and other “bungee managers” who were dropped in to look at the bottom line, not to run a good company.

They were IN authority, but they were not authorities, and we are paying the price.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Be Not Afraid

I will agree with the neo-cons on one thing: it is a dangerous time for America.

That's about the extent of my agreement. It's not dangerous for the reasons they say most loudly, which is that unless we spend billions on defense – and the expense of our own citizenry – then we will all be murdered in our beds. They also say that any administration that is not theirs will hasten the day when we're all speaking Chinese, Korean, Russian, or even Spanish.

Otherwise intelligent and amusing men are working very hard to keep us in a state of fear. It was easier to do this when the Soviet Union was around, but now that they're gone, we are being led to believe that the sort of threat that Al Qaeda and other Middle Eastern terrorists are making is one that will destroy our country just as the good old USSR would have done.

The sad – and dangerous – thing is that so many people are willing to believe this nonsense.

The reason this fear-mongering has been possible is that terrorists were able to attack the continental United States.

It frightened us into approving and funding two distant wars.

It frightened us into accepting the abandonment of our principles of justice and establishing a wholly spurious new category of prisoner called “enemy combatant” that somehow wasn't a solider or spy in the conventional sense.

It frightened us into spending billions on setting up a new, completely unnecessary department called “Homeland Security.” I had always thought that was what the Department of Defense was supposed to do. If they don't do that any more, why wasn't their budget cut?

Okay, I'm sorry: I know the above has elevated the blood pressures of a lot of people reading this, but the fact is that scary as Al Qaeda is, they are not in the same league as Hitler or Uncle Joe Stalin.

What Al Qaeda did on September 11 was abhorrent. It was psychologically scarring and changed the way we felt about our own safety. In no way do I deny that. Nor does it reduce my sympathy and grief felt for those who died and their families.

However, there are two questions about 9/11 that have never been fully addressed:

1.Why were so many people asleep at the switch? Why wasn't the Secretary of Defense sacked? Why wasn't the head of the FBI shown the door? Why wasn't the head of the CIA kicked out? These are the agencies that failed. Possibly the Secretary of Transportation should have gone too along with the head of the FAA.

2.Why was there never a serious public examination of why even this small group hated America so much? Was none of it our fault? Okay, there are cases when a complete stranger walks up to someone and stabs them to death or shoots them, but even those cases have some background to the perpetrator.

The neo-cons would have you believe that you're not a real American – and certainly not a real Republican – if you want answers to those questions.

And that's what there is to be afraid of.

How not to be afraid

1.Be rational. Ask to see evidence and question the source of the evidence. As soon as people start blustering or making clever remarks about those who ask for evidence, or cast apersions on sound rational argument, you should smell a rat big time.

2.Demand higher standards from public officials. Make them deliver sensible results for a reasonable cost within a reasonable time. If they don't, find out why. Ask to speak to their supervisors, and their supervisors. Don't give up, it's your money they're spending.

Hint: politicians will reply to your letters but deliberately not answer the question you asked. Don't be satisfied. Write again. Write to the newspaper and tell them that so-and-so fails to answer questions.

3.Keep informed. Don't just read the magazines and newspapers that agree with you. Listen to news from sources you don't trust. Listen to the radio on the internet, not just from American stations but from Canada, the UK, Radio Moscow – anyone who is saying something about America even if it's a lie – because that is what the world is thinking about us. Understanding that is a big step towards setting things right.

4.Push for higher standards in education. The dumbing down is real and it is the result of those who should be in authority caving in to public pressure and fashion. Those people should be in their jobs because they know more about education than you do, otherwise what is the point of insisting they go to college and get advanced degrees?

5.Be honest with yourself when listening to new ideas. Kant said that you should only read the books that make you angry, the rest you could have written yourself. Be critical, but rationally critical.

6.Try to develop an historical perspective and see what is happening, here and abroad in some sort of context. (For some, the last Bush administration made a lot more sense if you thought of Roman emperors rather than previous American presidents).

7.Accept that there is no God-given right for America to survive; decide why it should, and then decide how you are going to help ensure that it does.

8.Don't buy the false dichotomy about being with us or against us. You're more complex than that, and so are the issues. Most of the issues today are so tough that the phrase “If you think there's a simple answer, then you don't understand the question” is true 99.5% of the time.

9.Don't let the threat of terrorists stop you from doing anything. (Okay, wandering through parts of Baghdad singing “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” may not be a great idea, but don't let it stop you doing sensible things.

10. Stop criticizing America, the President, the Republicans, the Democrats, Gays, Feminists, Muslims, Creationists and other groups and do something about what you don't like.

FDR was right, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. At present, it's clouding our judgement and impairing our decision-making.

Memorial Day

I was going through what family history I know earlier this year, and realized that a succession of fairly direct ancestors and relatives I knew had fought in many of this countries wars, or served in the military.

This goes back to an ancestor who came to the new world in the 1730s and fought in the United Indian Wars. His son fought in the Revolutionary War.

I haven't yet found anyone who was involved in the War of 1812, but two great grandfathers were at Gettysburg (unknown to each other). Both were on the Union side. A great great uncle was in the Navy in the 1870s an apparently distinguished himself, though only an ordinary “landsman.”

An uncle was wounded in World War I; both grandparents were in World War II and my father was a Vietnam era veteran, though he spent much of his time in Europe.

Not bad for an ordinary family.

I think this shows two things:

First, the debt we owe to those whose lives were on the line, willingly or unwillingly. Their service in some tiny way helped the cause of America.

Secondly, it shows the gratitude we should show for those who are now on the line for us. Forget politics. Forget the rights and wrongs for a minute. Forget the “my country right or wrong” rhetoric. Tens of thousands of ordinary men and women are doing things for us right now so that we can sleep safely.

We can – and should – argue the rights and wrongs of specific conflicts and policies in the appropriate arena, but today we should remember those men and women and acknowledge the hardships they may be facing.

God bless you all and thank you.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What is a progressive Republican?

Before beginning, I want to repeat what I said before, these are ideas to be debated, not final or complete principles. Yet, there should be enough here that others find the basis of a vision to support.

A Progressive Republican

  • believes in the defense of the nation, but will not betray Constitutional principles out of fear

  • believes in justice and the rule of law

  • acknowledges that there is a difference between freedom and unbridled self-interest

  • believes that with rights come responsibilities

  • believes in equality of opportunity, but not in the undue interference of the state in private lives

  • believes that all public servants, elected, appointed and hired, are ultimately accountable to the people

  • believes that free enterprise is the driving force of America's wealth, strength and vitality, but also that the involvement of the Federal government may be desirable and necessary in certain areas

  • believes in traditional family values while acknowledging liberty and justice for all

  • believes in rule by the majority and also in the rights of minorities

  • believes that education is a matter for individual states apart from ensuring that individual rights are protected and funding fairly administered

  • recognises the difference between a handout and supporting the less able and helping them to prosper.

Future posts will explore the above and add other issues.

What is a "progressive Republican"?

It used not to be regarded as an outrageous, even trecherous, concept. The "glory days" of the GOP were not when it let big business and special interests run unchecked, but when it combined basic American tradions with pragmatism about current issues while maintaining a greater vision that ordinary people could identify with.

I don't believe there was an extended period when this happened, but golden moments throughout American history when the sunlight broke through.

The next post will set out some ideas about what a progressive Republican might believe. The propositions are offered as a starting point for debate, not final principles handed down from on high. After all, who am I to do that?

At present, there is no intellectual foundation for Republicanism. The neo-cons continue to brow-beat everyone into believing that if you're not for them, you're against them. This is an anti-intellectual position and can only lead to continual defeat of Republican candidates if this image of our party continues to prevail.

We must not be afraid to criticize those who are setting themselves up as unelected party leaders, and make them understand that we don't have to buy their whole package to be "real" Republicans or "real" Americans.