Yuval Levin, editor of the conservative journal National Affairs, has been called "one of the most insightful and original thinkers of our time." His new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, is an outstanding examination of America's polarized political landscape. Levin criticizes both Democrats and Republicans for policy visions rooted in an unhealthy nostalgia for mid-20th century America, and suggests a political way forward better suited to today's decentralized (we might even say "fractured") economy and culture.
You can read my full review of The Fractured Republic in the Bowling Green Daily News. Here I want to explore how Levin's analysis applies to education policy. The Fractured Republic helps illustrate how the prevailing features of American education are historical byproducts of the top-down consolidation of American institutions during the 20th century, and why such heavily bureaucratic structures no longer work very well in today's deconsolidated society. The Fractured Republic offers a strong argument for expanding parental choice in education and fostering innovation through a more decentralized and consumer-driven market of schooling options.
Levin argues the policy ideas of Democratic and Republican party leaders reflect a belief that America was once great, and could be again if we could just go back to the mid-to-late 20th century (and if their political opponents would just get on board). Democrats long for the post-World War II consensus that promoted unity between big businesses and a strong national government. Wages were high in those days, and so were regulations on businesses. The government's social safety net expanded rapidly. And that's what we need again today, argue Democrats.
Republicans, on the other hand, long for the cultural unity and social cohesion of mid-century America. A common set of values held us together as Americans back then, they believe, and helped us transcend our ethnic and political diversity and created a moral foundation that made the U.S. the world's undisputed economic and military superpower.
In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin offers rich historical and sociological data showing how the cohesion of the 20th century was the product of unique political and economic circumstances. The industrial revolution brought a consolidation of business and government power (and a level of wealth and well-being) that the world had never known. Americans embraced the idea that bigger was better and that large scale enterprises were necessary to accomplish our grand national goals. Education was no exception:
Mass production and factory organization were everywhere the models. Progressives wanted many existing institutions, from the postal service to the growing networks of local public schools, to mimic the structures and forms of modern industry: think of the modern public school with its regimentation, its bells breaking the day into uniform portions, and even its appearance and construction, modeled since the progressive era on urban factories.
The process by which America adopted a government-run, factory model of schooling is well documented in John Taylor Gatto's excellent book Weapons of Mass Instruction (read my two-part review here and here). As I've argued before, this model of schooling worked remarkably well for its designed purpose. Inevitably, though, the economic and political structures for which our education system was designed changed, even though our structures of schooling mostly have not.
In The Fractured Republic, Levin goes on to show how America's 20th century political consolidation was driven in part by the First World War, and how its status as sole economic superpower was secured by the Second World War, when the US emerged largely unscathed, unlike the rest of the developed world. As the global economy grew, however, America could no longer sustain its enormous government or highly consolidated industrial structure. Old industries collapsed as technology and global competition diminished economic opportunities for lower skilled workers while vastly expanding consumer choices.
But a more important kind of deconsolidation was taking place alongside the diffusion of America's economic hegemony. Culturally, America and the rest of the developing world was fracturing in response to the rising primacy of individualism. That wasn't entirely a bad thing. The emerging focus on the individual led to necessary and important developments like the Civil Rights movement and a general trend toward more social tolerance and appreciation for diversity. But it also led to a wholesale rejection of traditional sources of authority and many traditional social norms. In my own experience, today's public schools often function like hospitals trying to triage the damage caused by broken family structures or as battlegrounds for the latest skirmish in our never-ending culture wars (see the Cato Institute's Public Schooling Battle Map if you don't believe me).
And yet, government is especially ill-suited to addressing such problems in our current age of cultural deconsolidation and fracturing. We've rightly grown accustomed to a vast array of personalized consumer choices in every other realm of our lives. Technology in particular makes the global economy especially responsive to individual preferences and demands. As a result, new businesses emerge and then fade away in a constant ebb and flow that, while destructive in many ways, gives more people more choice and quality of life than ever before.
But state-run bureaucracies charged with delivering services to a vast number of people cannot possibly respond to the myriad personal needs and preferences of a diverse and socially fragmented population. This is why Levin calls for a renewal of the mediating institutions of society (like families, churches, locally-based businesses, non-profits, and civic groups) because such institutions are closer to the people they serve and more responsive to their needs. This is the principle of subsidiarity, and for "reform conservatives" like Levin, it means that we maintain our strong commitments to public goods like education, healthcare, and a social safety net, but we deliver those services through more decentralized means and in ways that empower individuals, especially the poor and working class, to better their lives.
While Levin mentions it several times throughout The Fractured Republic, I think education policy could have been featured more prominently as the best example of his thesis. Our structures of education are holdovers from an economy that no longer exists. They are not well designed to prepare all students for a virtuous and successful life in the global economy. They must, by design, tend toward a secularized and one-size-fits-all approach that cannot possibly address the unique learning needs and wants of every family. But we hold on to this structure anyway because schooling is a government-run monopoly for most families, and is therefore impervious to the kinds of pressures that cause innovation and consumer-driven change in every other industry. As Levin writes...
...[T]he truest models of sclerosis in our time are the public institutions that hail from the era of consolidation. These are the centralized, bureaucratized programs and agencies at all levels of government (from Medicare to state welfare agencies to large school districts, among many others) that persist in the model of midcentury technocracy. They have been able to resist evolutionary pressures to change because they truly do posses some monopolistic powers in their domain, and because the continuing hold of midcentury ideas on our political imagination has sustained them.
Progressives and conservatives battle over these institutions because they hold on to the idea that we need these government bureaucracies to provide unity and solve problems. But it doesn't have to be this way, and school choice offers a vivid example of how we can maintain our collective commitment to a common good like education while decentralizing the delivery of schooling and empowering families to make education decisions that best meet the needs of their children. There is a wide menu of school choice policies, from charter schools to scholarship tax credits to education savings accounts, but they all share a common idea: that the money we allocate for education spending should follow the child to the school of his or her choice (rather than go straight to a government provider from whom all but the affluent must receive an education).
Research suggests that, when well designed, school choice policies help increase parental satisfaction with their schools and promote higher levels of learning, both for students who attend schools of choice and those who do not, especially among students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And as Levin rightly argues, the most important policy focus for coming decades needs to be fostering opportunities for upward economic mobility.
The argument of critics that school choice "drains money from needy public schools" only holds water if we cling to the notion that education must necessarily be delivered through government-run schools. Many other countries enjoy an educational pluralism that reflects the idea of subsidiarity at the heart of Levin's argument and helps rebuild the mediating institutions that make local communities thrive and provide a sense of place and connection.
The arguments within The Fractured Republic should be applied to the widest range of policy issues, but education is one area that vividly illustrates Yuval Levin's point and offers specific real-world examples of how a decentralized approach to delivering public goods works for all families. I encourage educators, parents, and policy makers to read it closely.
- The New Era of Education has arrived
- Listen to my TeachThought podcast interview on school choice, innovation, and accountability
- Does school choice "drain money" from traditional public schools?
- Poll: Kentuckians strong support school choice
- Can "educational pluralism" end the schooling wars?
Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the perspectives of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).