Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Gates Foundation and the Future of American Education

Diane Ravitch has an informative and thoughtful article in The Los Angeles Times about the good the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could do (or not) for American education now that they have such a huge endowment. With education one of the foundation’s top priorities, Ravitch examines what has been one of their guiding principles when it comes to "improving" it. It seems the foundation has focused on creating so-called "mini-schools" of 500 or fewer pupils when high schools are deemed overcrowded.

Read further into Ravitch’s article, however, and find out about the law of unintended consequences and rediscover the meaning or irony. Since one of the large purposes of Gates & Co. in creating these mini-schools was to improve math and science education, it is worthy to note that the results in many of places their formula has been tried are mixed at best. In many of these places, math and science electives have had to be cut. Students show improved English and graduation rates, but lower math scores than their peers at the bigger schools. For some students, that’s a good trade. For others, it could be devastating.

For my part, I will not argue for big schools or for small schools. I came from small schools and I’m choosing them for my own children--but I do realize that they have their limits. Some parents and students may find a large school more to their liking and better suited to their needs. I would not presume to tell Mr. Gates and his foundation how they ought to spend their money. But if I had that kind of money to spend for improving education in this country, I think I might refrain from presuming to tell school districts and parents whom I had never met what size of school best suited their children.

So many of these so-called "problems" in education could be solved by one simple thing: choice. If every parent had the same ability that I have to choose the kind of school he wants for his children, I think alot of this nonsense would work itself out in a way that suited the most people in the best possible way. Not every person will make the best choice (Lord knows the jury is still out for me and my kids!). But, in the end, won’t more of them be pursuing their own happiness and isn’t that what freedom really means?

Shouldn’t we trust parents and local school administrators more than we trust Bill Gates (or the Department of Education for that matter) with the education of our own kids? Bill Gates is a brilliant and generous man--but no genius (not Bill Gates, not a federal bureaucrat, not even my own mother) is brilliant enough to tell me what is best for my kids. Perhaps they can offer useful opinions, but I think I and my husband can decide what works best for us. At bottom, I think that presumption on the part of public schools and their administrators is the one thing that most drives me away from them. I resent having government experts telling me what to do with my kids. If I’m going to take that kind of condescension from somebody, I want to know that I am the one choosing them and I can fire them at a moment’s notice! I think that is the healthy attitude for all freedom loving Americans. But I also know that I am fortunate to be able to afford that freedom. But I don’t think one should have to be fortunate or think of freedom as a luxury. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that our public schools need less "help" from the experts and the do-gooders and more freedom and choices for the parents. When it comes to education I say, "Power to the People!" And especially, to the parents.

Discussions - 10 Comments

After I started thinking along the "denaturing" route it struck me in strange sucession that the article about Gerson...or essentially about a broad view of social justice...and Julie’s views about the need for choice in "public" education basically amounts to "denaturing" differences in Income inequality... naturally the rich can enjoy more choice in education. Naturally the rich can enjoy more choice in just about everything...As Karl Marx notes: Rich man and poor man alike are free to sleep on park benches...(I assume they are equally free to go to public schools)

Julie says: "If I’m going to take that kind of condescension from somebody, I want to know that I am the one choosing them and I can fire them at a moment’s notice! I think that is the healthy attitude for all freedom loving Americans. But I also know that I am fortunate to be able to afford that freedom. But I don’t think one should have to be fortunate or think of freedom as a luxury. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that our public schools need less "help" from the experts and the do-gooders and more freedom and choices for the parents. When it comes to education I say, "Power to the People!" And especially, to the parents."

So aren’t we all progressives now?

But maybe it is just the natural province of charitable organizations to pursue proggressive ends?

I am just asking... in any case it seems likely that the more income you have the more proggressive/charitable you become...

John: In re-reading my last post I realize that at first glance it sounds like something out of character for me. But it’s really not. It’s not that I think income needs redistribution or that we need to "denature" the differences resulting from unequal income distribution. I certainly do not.

I know the rich will always have more choices (in education and in everything else) and I don’t begrudge them that. The wonderful thing about nature is that a "better" education or a fancier school does not always produce better students or better souls . . . does it? The wonderful thing about freedom is that it gives the most latitude to those better students and better souls to achieve what they can in spite of their beginnings. I hope to have the same number of choices as the very rich myself someday and, I believe that given the proper determination, I can have them. But I also think that the poor or less wealthy do not, in so being, forfeit their rights to direct the moral and intellectual development of their children. I do not believe that it is right for so-called authorities and experts to impose their own standards and ideas about education on someone else’s children without the real consent of their parents--even if those experts believe they are doing it in the name of charity or justice.

Education is not charity, in my view. It is not a means to achieving social justice. The world would not be better if we were all more equal in regard to our wealth. But liberty is required for happiness and liberty demands that we be able to pursue our happiness as best we can and in accordance with our own natures. Broad public education is a necessary pre-condition to maintaining our political liberty, our prosperity, and our general happiness. In that we all have some role to play and also have some price to pay. I do not mind playing that role or paying that price. But I resent the pushy "know it alls" who think they were born booted and spurred on all of these questions and that the rest of us should be ridden to a lather that suits them. When it comes to education we should remember that there can be no justice to the rule of the experts without the consent of the ruled--in this case, the parents.

Well, the bigger irony is that the wealthiest man in the world made his fortune as a result of consumer choices freely made in the marketplace--yet he proposes to use that wealth to offer top-down, i.e. one size fits all, solutions as a substitute for consumer-driven choice in the marketplace.


Ms. Ponzi,

Your comments about educational freedom seem to be part of the larger problem of freedom in our modern world. You suggest that “what freedom really means” is “pursuing (one’s) own happiness.” You further state that, “Bill Gates is a brilliant and generous man--but no genius (not Bill Gates, not a federal bureaucrat, not even my own mother) is brilliant enough to tell me what is best for my kids.” (emphasis mine) I wonder what meaning words like best, happiness, brilliant, generous, and genius can have when they are used in the context of opinions like yours. If one of the highest ends of our society is freedom, as I believe you would agree, but that freedom is for each individual to be able to choose their own version of what is best or their own version of happiness, then there is no longer a standard by which we can judge what is best.
You may say that one of our society’s goals or ends is for everyone to be able to do as they please. But this “morality” can only stand if everyone else is allowed to do the same. You may make the qualification that everyone should be able to do as they please as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But where does that sort of view lead us but into a society where we cannot rightfully say that there is anything Wrong but inhibiting the freedom of others. We can no longer say that there are Good things for society like strong families or an unqualifiable respect for life. We cannot even say that there are things that are beautiful and things that are not. Marriage can no longer embrace the beauty of the natural relationship between a man and a woman. In fact, marriage could become more than just homosexual, but could also become a relationship between more than just two people. When I say, natural relationship, nature would no longer have any meaning at all. If we CAN do it, then that is all that is natural.
I grant that the problem of the loss of absolute standards of good and bad is just that, a problem. As such, I do not think that it can be summed up or solved as we are often prone to do in this all too modern world. By modern, I take as my division, between modern and ancient, the emergence of the thought of men such as Descartes, Newton, and especially in political science, Machiavelli. I do not, however, think that our country was founded on the principles of Machiavelli. I think the line from our Declaration stating that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” presupposes meanings for the terms rights, equality, and liberty that are in no way consonant with the ones I believe you are starting from. When they spoke of liberty, they were not speaking of the freedom to do as I choose. They were speaking of fundamental liberty, freedom from chains or tyrannical regimes. They were all clear on the need of the government to help instill in its constituents morality and good education. They would have scoffed at the idea that all citizens should be able to choose for themselves what a good education is. Such a project would mean the downfall of freedom and the ability of despotism to take hold. If you do not believe this, refer to the writings of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Washington, and other Founders on their thoughts about the education of a proper citizenry and the necessity of virtue for freedom to exist at all.
Let me note just two of the many places from which to understand the intent of our Founders. In The Federalist No. 51, James Madison says, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Men, obviously, are not angels nor the earthly equivalents of such perfect beings, regardless of our opinion as to the existence of such beings. Thus, we need government. Why do we need government? My second example, the Preamble of the Constitution can answer that question:

WE, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.

Can we “secure the Blessings of Liberty” and “promote the general Welfare” without an education in the proper virtues? I think not and do not think the writers of this document thought so either. If welfare is whatever we as individuals think it is, and virtue is in the same boat, there can be no United States at all. We will simply have a group of individuals who are looking out for their own private interests, living under the guise of unity. It is not even certain that they will not eventually decide that those personal interests require the subjection of their neighbor to such interests. This may seem severe and not what you had in mind, but when we question such presumptions as the ones I believe your opinions are based on, I think we are forced to entertain such possibilities as these.
In conclusion I pose to you these questions: Do you go so far as to say that truth is in this same boat, i.e. it is relative to what each person thinks? If so, is that statement itself, truth is relative, also relative? If you do not think that truth is relative, it certainly is not clear from your thoughts on the best education being relative to what the parents think is best. Further, is this the case for all “bests?” Is the best marriage whatever the members of that marriage think? Is the best government whatever the members of that government think is best? I could go on but I’ll let my fire subside a bit while you ponder these questions.


Sincerely,
J. Eliot Smith
Santa Fe, NM

My apologies...My comment should read as follows and not in one unbearable paragraph. Sorry.


Ms. Ponzi,

Your comments about educational freedom seem to be part of the larger problem of freedom in our modern world. You suggest that “what freedom really means” is “pursuing (one’s) own happiness.” You further state that, “Bill Gates is a brilliant and generous man--but no genius (not Bill Gates, not a federal bureaucrat, not even my own mother) is brilliant enough to tell me what is best for my kids.” (emphasis mine) I wonder what meaning words like best, happiness, brilliant, generous, and genius can have when they are used in the context of opinions like yours.


If one of the highest ends of our society is freedom, as I believe you would agree, but that freedom is for each individual to be able to choose their own version of what is best or their own version of happiness, then there is no longer a standard by which we can judge what is best. You may say that one of our society’s goals or ends is for everyone to be able to do as they please. But this “morality” can only stand if everyone else is allowed to do the same. You may make the qualification that everyone should be able to do as they please as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But where does that sort of view lead us but into a society where we cannot rightfully say that there is anything Wrong but inhibiting the freedom of others. We can no longer say that there are Good things for society like strong families or an unqualifiable respect for life. We cannot even say that there are things that are beautiful and things that are not. Marriage can no longer embrace the beauty of the natural relationship between a man and a woman. In fact, marriage could become more than just homosexual, but could also become a relationship between more than just two people. When I say, natural relationship, nature would no longer have any meaning at all. If we CAN do it, then that is all that is natural.


I grant that the problem of the loss of absolute standards of good and bad is just that, a problem. As such, I do not think that it can be summed up or solved as we are often prone to do in this all too modern world. By modern, I take as my division, between modern and ancient, the emergence of the thought of men such as Descartes, Newton, and especially in political science, Machiavelli. I do not, however, think that our country was founded on the principles of Machiavelli. I think the line from our Declaration stating that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” presupposes meanings for the terms rights, equality, and liberty that are in no way consonant with the ones I believe you are starting from. When they spoke of liberty, they were not speaking of the freedom to do as I choose. They were speaking of fundamental liberty, freedom from chains or tyrannical regimes. They were all clear on the need of the government to help instill in its constituents morality and good education. They would have scoffed at the idea that all citizens should be able to choose for themselves what a good education is. Such a project would mean the downfall of freedom and the ability of despotism to take hold. If you do not believe this, refer to the writings of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Washington, and other Founders on their thoughts about the education of a proper citizenry and the necessity of virtue for freedom to exist at all.


Let me note just two of the many places from which to understand the intent of our Founders. In The Federalist No. 51, James Madison says, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Men, obviously, are not angels nor the earthly equivalents of such perfect beings, regardless of our opinion as to the existence of such beings. Thus, we need government. Why do we need government? My second example, the Preamble of the Constitution can answer that question:


WE, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.


Can we “secure the Blessings of Liberty” and “promote the general Welfare” without an education in the proper virtues? I think not and do not think the writers of this document thought so either. If welfare is whatever we as individuals think it is, and virtue is in the same boat, there can be no United States at all. We will simply have a group of individuals who are looking out for their own private interests, living under the guise of unity. It is not even certain that they will not eventually decide that those personal interests require the subjection of their neighbor to such interests. This may seem severe and not what you had in mind, but when we question such presumptions as the ones I believe your opinions are based on, I think we are forced to entertain such possibilities as these.


In conclusion I pose to you these questions: Do you go so far as to say that truth is in this same boat, i.e. it is relative to what each person thinks? If so, is that statement itself, truth is relative, also relative? If you do not think that truth is relative, it certainly is not clear from your thoughts on the best education being relative to what the parents think is best. Further, is this the case for all “bests?” Is the best marriage whatever the members of that marriage think? Is the best government whatever the members of that government think is best? I could go on but I’ll let my fire subside a bit while you ponder these questions.


Sincerely,
J. Eliot Smith Santa Fe, NM

Dear Mr. Smith,

Thank you for your intelligent and thoughtful questions. Rest assured, I am no moral relativist. So there is much in what you say that I wholeheartedly embrace. I will get back to you in a day or so with more detailed answers, if you wish, but I’m travelling across the country now with two small children in tow--so this will have to suffice for the moment.

Truth is not relative. There real, fixed, standards for the good, the true and the beautiful. I do not presume, however, to suggest that I know them--though I do try hard to aspire to some knowledge of them. Knowing and living up to those standards is the quintessential political problem. How best can that be achieved? Should we have philosopher kings as Plato suggests? Or, in the case of education, should we have government appointed "experts" to tell us Cretans what is what? Or should the guy with the most dough set the agenda in the schools? Who will pick these experts and what standards will they use to pick them? Or, as is most often the case, do they just pick themselves?

Because I have no confidence in philosopher kings or education bureaucrats and also because the notion of the Divine Right of Kings has been fairly shown to be ridiculous back in the eighteenth century, I think we must be satisfied with consent. That is the best we can hope for on this good earth. With the principle of the consent of the governed, more people will be able to know the good, true and beautiful things than would be possible in any other kind of regime because there will be fewer impediments in front of those with the ability to achieve that knowledge.

Many (perhaps most) will fall far short of these things. Many people will abuse and even forfeit their liberty while pursuing sorely mistaken conceptions about their personal happiness. One might look with pity upon such souls (and charity may have some rightful place here) but one should not despair over the big picture. No system will change these results. I embrace that jumble happily. If God had intended it to be any other way, he would not have given us free will. We could never appreciate the knowledge we have of the good, true and beautiful if that knowledge were handed down as if by instinct or hammered in by force. It would either be blasé and pathetic or frightening and terrible. In either instance, the good, true and beautiful things would lose all meaning as they became the source of soul-deadening rather than awakening. Lord knows that I do not delight in my mistakes, but (and I am sure that this is true for most people--at least the ones who are stubborn like me) I do learn more from those mistakes than I learn from most other methods of instruction!

So I am not saying that everyone should choose their own truth, live and let live, let it all hang out, or WHATEVER. But I am saying that within certain reasonable limits, and on the whole, parents are better judges of what their children need in education than anyone else can be. None of which is to say that parents should take over the running and administration of schools--but the purchasing power should be with them. They should be able to pick and choose among a variety of options.

Ms. Ponzi,




I just made a blog at unconcealed.blogspot.com because of the thoughts that your comments on education and freedom incited in me. These thoughts are part of larger problems I have been exploring since I ended my M.A. degree at St. John’s College and I think it is time to start getting them out there for comment.

Please go there to see them.

Mr. Smith: From what I can gather from your post, you seem to have a deep seated fear that some, or many, people will fail to choose the correct education for their children when given the choice. You may be right. If that is the case then the democracy you profess to support will fail. You are correct. On the other hand, if the people cannot--when given the choice--educate their children in a way that supports the broad principles of American democracy, then they do not deserve that democracy. I do not take as dim a view of the choices my fellow citizens may make when given the choice. But I find it to be a common mistake among many of my fellow travellers to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.

On the other hand, if we follow your prescriptions--or to be more precise (since none were really offered)--operate on your assumptions, then the kind of regime we’re creating is not a democracy at all and certainly not any version of American democracy. You can educate toward virtue, but when you try to impose virtue you end up with something quite different than you intended. This is not to say that local and state governments ought not to impose standards on schools. Under the right circumstances (e.g., visible consent of the people) these can be a good thing. But I remain skeptical about the usefulness of such standards. For one thing, they are often faddish and fleeting. For another, they are very often minimal. For yet another, they are easily politicized. Isn’t there something a little odd about forcing people to be free? Top down and across the board solutions to questions as intimate as one’s education don’t seem to be the best way to achieve either excellence or political happiness to me.

Ms. Ponzi,


I almost agree with your statement that, "if the people cannot--when given the choice--educate their children in a way that supports the broad principles of American democracy, then they do not deserve that democracy." I also think that the continual maintenance of a democracy is a very delicate matter. Ben Franklin acknowledged this fact in his closing speech of the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 17, 1787:




"I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other."




I do think that there is something odd about forcing people to be free. Forcing freedom does seem paradoxical. But doesn’t the release from ignorance require a kind of force. I mean we don’t gain knowledge all of a sudden. It requires quite a bit of self-discipline and rigor that I cannot say is anything but unpleasant at times. In this way, we have to be forced to gain knowledge, because left to ourselves it would be too unpleasant to bear. But what is knowledge but one of the greatest freedoms?

Mr. Smith,

You say: "But doesn’t the release from ignorance require a kind of force." Sure, it does. But that’s one reason we force children to go to school and not adults. But the question is not whether children should be forced to be educated. The question is, who should we trust to direct their education? I pick the parents. You seem to think there is a better solution. You have not persuaded me that there is one other than in a Platonic dialogue.

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