In the gardens of Athens in the fourth century BC (planting the seeds of Western Civilization), in the plazas of Florence in the 16th century AD (ushering in the modern era), in the salons of Paris in the 18th century AD (informing and inspiring others in a small meeting room in Philadelphia), to a lesser extent in mid-19th century Concord, MA (informing and inspiring Gandhi and King and Mandela), the genius of a few unleashed new currents of the genius of the many, currents thick with reason and a stronger commitment to our shared humanity, changing the course of human history. It has been done before and it will be done again, whenever and wherever people choose to do it.
They did not gather in those times and places to discuss only how to win this or that election or to shift power from one party to another or to address the human endeavor one issue at a time. Rather, they gathered, with wonder and hope and passion, to explore and discover, to create and innovate, to raise reason and our shared humanity onto a pedestal and dedicate themselves to the enterprise of perfecting our consciousness and improving our existence.
In every time and place, including these ones of particular florescence, most of the people went about their business, engaged in the mundane challenges of life, fought the battles we all fight, both personal and collective. But the great paradigm shifts of history have happened when a coalescence of inspired minds reached deeper and broader than others around them, beyond the individual issues of the day, beyond the immediate urgencies and power struggles, and sought out the essence of our existence, to understand it, to celebrate it, and to change it for the better.
Imagine a gathering of great minds today that were not lost to the minutia of academe or the mud-pit of politics or the selfish pursuit of wealth and fame and power, but were free to devote themselves to the challenge of orchestrating a social transformation, a peaceful revolution occurring beneath the surface of events, a new threshold reached in the advance of creative reason in service to humanity.
Imagine gatherings of engaged citizens that, guided only by the broadly attractive narrative of reason in service to our shared humanity, of emulating our Founding Fathers and fulfilling the vision that they had for this nation, dedicated themselves to learning how to listen to one another and weigh competing arguments rather than regress ever deeper into blind ideological trench warfare. Imagine forming the nucleus of a movement that would extend the logic of methodical reason in service to our shared humanity ever more broadly, not just through direct participation, but through the promotion of the narrative that we are capable of doing so and that it is incumbent on us to do so.
What is stopping us from establishing such gatherings, and such a movement? What is stopping us from bringing together a small cadre of brilliant minds to implement ideas designed to cascade through the social fabric in transformative ways, and large populations of engaged citizens to stir and be stirred by the sea giving rise to those cresting waves of brilliance, together advancing the tide of imaginative reason in service to our shared humanity? Only the precise combination of vision, drive, sophistication and resources that would make it happen, not just in some stumbling and unsustainable or unproductive way, but as a living, breathing, current reality.
I’ve designed the nucleus of an idea, a social movement that is realistic as well as idealistic, a secular religion to promote the narrative and practice of disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity. As a person who learned how to dream as a child; who drifted and worked and lived around the world for several years as a young adult; who became a social scientist, author, teacher, lawyer, public policy consultant, candidate for office, and member of several nonprofit boards and advisory councils; who has done urban outreach work and community organizing; who has synthesized ideas from many disciplines, many great minds, and much experience, this is not a Quixotic quest that boasts much but can deliver little; it is a carefully considered strategic plan for moving the center of gravity of our zeitgeist in the direction of an ever-increasing reliance on imaginative reason in ever-increasing service to our shared humanity.
For a comprehensive (though somewhat dense) presentation of my proposal, please see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.
For a briefer and simpler presentation of the underlying philosophy of this proposed social movement, please see: The Ideology of Reason in Service to Humanity.
For an extremely bare-bones summary of the social movement idea itself, please see: A VERY Simplified Synopsis of “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill”.
For more elaboration of various aspects of this proposal and various musings about it, please see the essays hyperlinked to in the second box at: Catalogue of Selected Posts
(The following is a quote posted on Facebook and the exchange that followed it)
“We’re coming to a tipping point… there’s going to be a huge conversation; is government an instrument of good or is it every man for himself? Is there something bigger we want to reach for or is self-interest our basic resting pulse?” -Aaron Sorkin
DK: Each person in our great country gets to reach for something bigger or not.
SH: We are far too individualistic a society. First, our individual welfare depends heavily on how well developed are our institutions for cooperation and coordination of our efforts. Second, our liberty is a function of our unity and social cohesion, not of our disunity and social incoherence, because government isn’t the only potential agent for depriving one of one’s liberty (or life, or property, or happiness), and it’s absence ensures that other, more diffuse predators will plague everyone incessantly. Third, we are primarily expressions of a historically produced collective consciousness, thinking in languages and with concepts, operating through social institutions and utilizing technologies that we did not individually invent, but rather collectively developed over the course of generations. Our “individuality” is a unique confluence and marginal variation of both genetic and cognitive shared material. We are part of something bigger than us, and as big as it, for it flows through us and we flow through it. Government is not arbitrary; it is one valuable social institutional modality, evolved over millennia, to be refined and utilized in ever more useful and liberating ways.
DK: I grew up in a small MA community that still made decisions during annual town hall meetings. There was a strong sense of community and neighbors took care of neighbors. My grandfather was the town’s tax collector (thirty-five years) and he provided that service evenings and weekends from his home (his day job was being a shop foreman). It was very efficient as were many of the other town services, like fire and police (volunteers). Today in that same town many of these same services are full-time and the town has buildings to house them. Is there better service? Nope. But that’s small town America. My point is the closer the government is to the people the better. Our founders knew this and tried to set up a system that limited federal authority. It does allow more individualism, versus collective authority and remote control. In my opinion collectivism just doesn’t work very well (Russia). I don’t want you or anyone else bossing me around. I’ll take care of myself and do more than my fair share to help others who are in need. Only independence leads to self-actualization. As a former trust officer I saw this with trust babies. Money isn’t everything.
SH: If you’re saying that the disintegration of our communities has been horribly bad for America, and that we would be better off working toward recreating such communities again, I not only agree with you, but it is a topic I write on often, and in very specific ways. When I talk about my ideal social movement (which I do at length, in dozens of essays on my blog, Colorado Confluence), reconstructing a specific, modern form of local community is one of the three components I emphasize.
If your suggestion is that the growth in the federal governmental role in our lives is incompatible with this, or the cause of this, then I couldn’t disagree more. The primary causes of the disintegration of local community have been: 1) increased geographic mobility (and the economic incentives for it), 2) increased options for associating with people remotely (thus decreasing the need to associate with neighbors who are dissimilar to oneself), and 3) the same rise in hyper-individualism that is responsible for our diminished willingness to consider government a tool of collective action and collective welfare.
A sense of community may well have been at its height at precisely the same time that we were most willing to utilize and rely on Government as a tool for taking care of one another: During the Great Depression and the New Deal. This is because the two are more inherently compatible and mutually reinforcing than inherently incompatible and mutually inhibiting.
I agree: The closer government is to the people the better. But that’s not a geographic thing, but rather an emotional, attitudinal, and behavioral thing. First, let me point out why it’s wrong as a geographic assertion, and how our history has been, in one sense, the ongoing discovery of why it’s wrong as a geographic assertion.
At the founding of this county, many (not all) of the Founding Fathers were concerned about the potential tyranny of a more remote government, and took for granted that the more local government was more a thing of the people. In many ways, this was a very nationalistic notion, because they thought of their state as their nation (that’s how we came to change the meaning of the word “state” as we have), and they considered governments that weren’t their own true ”national” government to be imperialistic and foreign.
But our history has been one of successive increases of federal power either to increase the federal protection of individual liberty from more local government (e.g., the abolition of slavery and the 14th amendment, which catalyzed a gradual application of the Bill of Rights to state and local government as well as to federal government; the Civil Rights court federal court holdings, federal legislation, and federal enforcement), or to increase the federal role in facilitating individual liberty by increasing opportunities to thrive economically (e.g., the New Deal, the Great Society).
But a larger role for federal government does not have to be an emotionally or socially remote thing. I feel a personal connection to my two U.S. senators (one more than the other) and several of my state’s congressmen (as well as many in the state legislature and state government). In a different way (i.e., without the benefit of actual, personal interaction), I feel a personal connection to President Obama. And all of us who feel that we are in a shared national community feel that we are also in a shared local community. We tend to be more involved locally as well as nationally. I, for instance, made an effort once to reinvigorate my community, to get my neighbors more involved in our local schools and local businesses, to become more of a community. (Ironically, it is in the strongly Republican/Conservative/Libertarian enclaves such as where I live where local communities are weakest, and in the strongly Democratic neighborhoods where local communities are strongest, suggesting again that the correlation you identified is the inverse of reality.)
“Collectivism,” like “socialism” is an inherently overbroad term, and even more so in the way that it is used by modern conservatives. It is used to simultaneously refer to a set of failed totalitarian states, and to the entire corpus of modern developed predominantly capitalist but politically economic hybrid states that are the most successful economies in the history of the world. Every single modern developed nation, without exception, has the enormous administrative infrastructure that invokes those terms from conservatives, and every single one, without exception, had such an infrastructure in place PRIOR TO participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in the production of prosperity (pre-empting an insistence that it is an unhealthy and self-defeating by-product of such wealth). In reality, the political economic form that you insist doesn’t work is the only one that ever has, on the modern scale, and the one you insist is the best imaginable has never actually existed and can never actually work.
(Sure, before the New Deal we had a much smaller federal government, but we were already using it in multiple ways to address social problems, including child labor and anti-trust laws. It only resembled the conservative ideal when we lived in a historical period that did not support any other form, due to the state of the economy and of communications and travel.)
Our founders set up a system that had the potential to articulate with and evolve according to the realities of lived history. The Constitution is brilliantly short and highly general, except in the exact design of the governmental institutions, which remain as they were outlined, with some Constitutional modifications since (such as the elimination of slavery and of their infamous designation as 3/5 of a human being, and the direct election of U.S. senators). Our nation is not some stagnant edifice following nothing more than a blueprint which perfectly predicted and mandated every placement of every brick, but rather an organic articulation of our founding principles and documents with our lived history, creating something that is responsive to both simultaneously.
No, this isn’t the America envisioned by Jefferson and Madison. It is a bit more like the one envisioned by Hamilton and Adams, and, in some ways, not nearly as “collectivist” as the one envisioned by Franklin, who considered all private wealth beyond that necessary to sustain oneself and one’s family to belong “to the public, by whose laws it was created.” But, more importantly, it is the one that the articulation of foundational principles with lived history has created. None of us can read the minds of historical figures, or impute to them with confidence what they would think today, but for everyone who says that Jefferson would be revolted by modern America, I say that it may well be that he would be delighted by it, for the ideals he helped to codify gained fuller and deeper expression, through the unexpected mechanism of a stronger rather than weaker federal government, than he was able to imagine possible. (And it was Jefferson; after all, who insisted that our social institutions have to grow and change with the times, for to fail to do so is to force the man to wear the coat which fit him as a boy.)
Community, like a well-functioning and substantial federal government, is, to some extent, all about us as a community, as a people, limiting one another’s actions and pooling resources for mutual benefit. You may not want a government bossing you around, but I don’t want corporations poisoning my air and water because they can increase the profit margin by not “wasting” money on avoiding doing so. You may not want a government bossing you around, but I want a functioning market economy rather than the undermined and unstable one that occurs in the absence of sufficient governmental regulations to ensure that centralized market actors don’t game markets to their enormous profit and to the public’s enormous, often catastrophic, detriment.
Are there challenges to be met while doing so? Does the resolution of problems create new problems to be resolved? Absolutely. Does that mean that we should rely on the never-adequate system of private charity to confront deeply embedded and horribly unjust poverty and destitution, rather than confront it as a people, through our agency of collective action, our government? Absolutely not.
I. The Habits, Methodologies and Procedures Which Govern Our Existence
Political activism tends to focus on issues and candidates, advocating for particular positions on particular issues, which cluster into and are framed by competing ideologies, and campaigning for candidates who, by and large, represent those competing ideologies. This system is the product of an evolutionary process (discussed at more length in section II)), and is certainly more functional than many that have historically preceded it or exist elsewhere. But it is not a perfected system (no system is), and some portion of our advocacy efforts should be dedicated to the challenge of consciously refining it.
In some other facets of life, particularly scholarship and law, procedures and methodologies have evolved which increase the role of reason in human belief formation and decision-making. Scientific methodology is a discipline which reduces error and increases accuracy. It has proven to be an acceleratingly robust technique for exploring the nature of the world and universe around and within us. Legal procedure is a discipline which assesses the accuracy of alleged facts and applies complex decision-making rules to them. It has proven to be a more accurate tool for pursuing just outcomes than the less rationalized procedures which preceded it, such as “trial by ordeal” or the purely idiosyncratic judgment of rulers or magistrates.
One of the challenges facing humanity is to refine and extend such disciplines. Though our electoral system is an example of such continuing refinement and extension, the context of our electoral system still involves a competition of largely arbitrary and underexamined ideological convictions. The products of scientific and legal methodologies are brought in haphazardly, and with only marginal influence. Popular opinions are formed irrationally, and voting choices are manipulated by well-funded marketing techniques, turning politics into a competition of cynical strategies favoring concentrated capital interests, and leading to dysfunctional outcomes.
It is a well-known and well-evidenced conclusion of cognitive science that human beings are not, by and large, persuaded by logical arguments and reliable evidence as much as by emotionally appealing messages that resonate with their already internalized frames and narratives. Some people misinterpret this to conclude that it is impossible to increase the salience of reason in popular political decision-making. But history demonstrates the error of such a conclusion: Scientific methodology, legal procedure, and constitutional democratic forms of government have all developed and gained prominence in the modern era, despite human irrationality.
II. The Lathe On Which We Spin…
The explanation for this paradox can be found in John Maynard Keynes’ quip that people “will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” The archetype of this dynamic can be found in nature, in biological and ecological evolution, where creatures large and small, few of which are generally considered to be “rational,” evolve in highly rational ways, embodying strategies for reproductive success (and survival in order to facilitate it) that we, for all of our impressive human consciousness, can only mimic and emulate in our own intentional social institutions and technologies.
In biological evolution, this occurs through genes, which reproduce, occasionally mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. In cultural evolution, this occurs through “memes” (cognitions), which reproduce (are communicated), frequently mutate (change in the process of communication by mixing with other memes to form new memes or being are refined or altered or misinterpreted by those to whom they are communicated), compete for reproductive success (compete with mutually exclusive beliefs, or compete with other technologies, or compete for limited cerebral capacity), and thus evolve. In both cases, packets of information reproduce, mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. (For more in-depth explorations of this evolutionary ecology of human social institutional and technological systems, see, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), plus several others in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).
Cultural evolution isn’t inherently benign. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically favor those memes most conducive to human happiness and welfare. More powerful weapons prevail over less powerful weapons; conquerors spread their memes more prolifically than pacifists; those who mine natural resources more rapidly (even if unsustainably rapidly) prevail more surely; aggressive, predatory societies overrun others that may be laden with beautiful and life affirming memes that simply don’t survive the brutality of our existence. One role for our conscious participation is to counterbalance these dysfunctional aspects of our underlying cultural evolutionary processes.
But neither is cultural evolution inherently malignant. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically disfavor those memes and paradigms most conducive to human happiness and welfare. A social entity characterized by strong internal cooperation will tend to prevail over a social entity characterized by weak internal cooperation. The robust production of prosperity tends to prevail over more sluggish economic systems. Broader and deeper systems of cooperation prevail over narrower and shallower systems of cooperation. Political and economic liberty, in which most or all people are robust participants in their own governance and in a production of wealth from which they benefit in proportion to the value of their contribution, tends to prevail over political and economic centralization, in which human energy and enterprise is less fully tapped and channeled.
This combined, almost paradoxical, evolutionarily favored status of both liberty and cooperation is precisely why the movement I am referring to is not just “the politics of reason,” but “the politics of reason and goodwill.” Decades ago, in an experiment by Robert Axelrod, competing computer programs using strategies of “cooperation” and “defection” in bilateral, repeated “prisoners’ dilemma” games (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems) demonstrated that the best strategy in a world in which cooperation yields collective benefits, but not cooperating is always better for the person who doesn’t cooperate, is first to cooperate (show goodwill), and then respond to the other in kind (continue to cooperate if they do, but not if they don’t). This is a mathematical demonstration of what we all intuitively know (or should know) to be true: Goodwill benefits us all.
That’s at least one reason why the evolutionary process I describe below, entering into the modern era, has produced notions of human rights and natural rights and individual rights, and notions of egalitarianism and fairness and mutual responsibility, that many of us treasure, and that all of us benefit from. The world is a better place not only when we are reasonable people, but also when we act with goodwill toward one another. And even if the distribution of individual reasonableness and goodwill is not something that is particularly tractable by organized efforts in social movements, the salience of reasonableness and goodwill might be (see below for an explanation of this distinction).
III. …And That We Ourselves Are Spinning.
Biological evolution is, in a sense, a passive process. The members of evolving species do not intentionally participate in the evolutionary process that creates them, identifying evolutionary goals and consciously pursuing them. They merely are more or less prolific reproducers, and so carry genes that are more or less well-represented in subsequent generations. But the human cultural echo of this evolutionary process plays out through our cognitions, which are the substance of our consciousness. It is the result of what we choose to believe, and the result of how successfully we advocate or promote or market our beliefs or innovations. We are active and conscious participants in our own cultural evolution.
The degree to which we consciously guide and channel this process in service to humanity is a function of how far-sighted we are in our goals, and how inclusive we are in our identifications. Genetic evolution occurs through the pursuit of very immediate, short-sighted goals: Surviving long enough to mate, mating, and ensuring in one way or another that some of your progeny survive to mate as well. Cultural evolution occurs through the pursuit of these as well (through the reproduction of memes that serve these goals), plus slightly less immediate and short-sighted goals, such as financial security or prosperity and satisfaction of various needs and desires, and conscious identification with genetically somewhat dissimilar others, such as co-members of a race, a tribe, a nation or a religious community. (Often, there is an element of marginal genetic similarity in these identifications, due to how they are historically produced.) Politics consists by and large of a struggle over how and if and how far to extend both our time horizon and our identification, and how ambitious or modest our collective goals should be.
This struggle occurs on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, framed by competing comprehensive ideologies. We tend to emphasize the particular battles, and “recognize” that it is futile to try to win an argument over “which” ideology is superior. (Even so, the most zealous among us –myself included, but in a modified way explained in this essay and others like it– engage ceaselessly in debates over the relative merits of competing ideologies.)
The tendency to “duke it out” on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis comes at the cost of shortening our time horizons and narrowing our identifications, because issues attract our attention in proportion to their urgency and immediacy, elections are immediate and urgent contests, identifications in these struggles focus on the coalition of factions advocating particular positions within it, and, most importantly, the logic of political competition drives the most politically active among us into an almost exclusive focus on political strategies and tactics. The last dynamic strongly favors appealing to our basest and least far-sighted and least-imaginative inclinations as a polity, because these are the easiest to appeal to, and the most successful fulcrums on which to ply our political efforts.
If our evolutionarily determined habit of focusing on immediate issues and immediate candidates in service to immediate concerns and immediate desires does not best serve the challenge of being more conscious and inclusive participants in our own cultural evolution; and if it is futile to try, instead, to move the struggle to the level of a national debate over which substantive comprehensive ideology to embrace; then what is the alternative?
The alternative is diverting some portion of our time and attention and resources from both the issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate political struggle, andthe futile substantive ideological debate that envelopes and undergirds it, to an effort to transcend both by developing and investing in methodologies which systematically favor reason and goodwill in our personal and popular political decision-making process. To accomplish this, we need to find a foundation on which to build such a methodology on which most people, across ideological lines, can agree to, and which appeals to most people’s underlying frames and narratives, as well as recognizes the limited degree to which most people are willing to invest time and energy in our political processes.
Extremists of all stripes will tend to reject any such foundation that is proposed, correctly certain that it would undermine their ideological convictions and goals. But, though extremists dominate message boards and public attention, most people are not extremists. Most people are relatively moderate and pragmatic people who just want to be able to participate marginally, without investing too much time and energy, in our self-governance in a way which is both gratifying and productive. Many, of course, don’t want to do more than vote, but even those form their political opinions and electoral choices by means of a diffuse engagement with others around them and with various media of communications.
The challenge is to find, rally, and motivate those who both are or wish to be highly politically engaged, and who are interested in exploring the possibility of doing fundamentally better than we are now in moving the state, nation, and world in the direction of ever-increasing salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of our public policies, and to mobilize these activists in the design and implementation of a movement which accomplishes that goal. Obviously, any success would be marginal, and the world would continue much as it has. But even just marginal success in such an endeavor could have truly revolutionary implications over the course of time.
IV. The Proposal
I have already outlined my proposal (which I call, alternatively, “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill,” or “Transcendental Politics,” or “Holistic Politics”) in several essays (see, e.g,. A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, and Transcendental Politics; plus dozens of others in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I’ll just summarize it very briefly here.
The social movement I envision is, by necessity, a non-partisan social movement which emphasizes the procedures by which we arrive at our beliefs, conclusions, policy positions, and electoral choices (which I’ll refer to from here on out as “political memes”), rather than the specific, substantial political memes themselves. It is a movement that is dedicated to not advocating for progressive or conservative ideologies or policies or candidates, but rather for a commitment to reason and goodwill and to the development of procedures and methodologies which systematically favor them.
This may seem to run up against the cognitive science reality that people are not primarily persuaded by reason in the formation of their political memes, and certainly the most fanatical and extreme will not be amenable to any suggestion to make any movement of any kind in any direction. But this movement does not depend on people in general changing their habit of political meme formation. Rather, it depends, first, on a dedicated group of people implementing the three components summarized below (and elaborated on at length in the other essays I linked to), and, secondly, on a significant number of people agreeing in principal only to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. That second requisite is not a change in how people form their cognitive landscapes, but rather an appeal to existing frames and narratives, since most Americans, I would argue, identify themselves as, and wish to be, reasonable people of goodwill.
It’s very important not to be excessively distracted by the highly visible and vocal minority who clearly are too committed to irrationality and belligerence to even contemplate making such a commitment. In the end, any social movement that aspires to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of public policy, while it might continue to try and hope to gradually convert some of them, has to focus more on simply marginalizing the most irrational and belligerent among us, and rendering them outnumbered and de-fanged by a movement that just leaves them behind (in terms of their political and cultural influence, not in terms of our shared commitment to their well-being and the facilitation of their productive participation in society).
This movement, which I’ll refer to here as “PRG” (short for “Politics of Reason and Goodwill”), requires two very difficult, interrelated steps for adherents (that is, activists working to advance this social movement) to commit to, in order to realize the social step forward that the movement aspires toward: 1) In the context of the movement (though not in political activities pursued outside of the movement), advocacy for specific substantive positions, specific ideological convictions, specific candidates, and, in general, specific substantive political memes, must be suspended. PRG advocates for a commitment to an ideal that transcends ideology and a procedure for realizing that ideal, sincerely and with assiduous integrity agreeing not to displace that ideal or that procedure with current substantive certainties held by any adherents. And, 2) The sincere humility to realize that a procedure which accomplishes this to any meaningful degree is preferable to such substantive certainties currently held, because our current substantive certainties may or may not be what reason and goodwill, assiduously adhered to, would actually have led to, and we should prefer what a disciplined process suggests is most in accord with reason and goodwill over what we more haphazardly assume is most in accord with reason and goodwill.
The core political meme of this movement, in fact, is the meme that we are better served by disciplines and processes which systematically favor reason and goodwill than by our current ideologies that assume they are most informed by reason and goodwill. And, just as those who have practiced and implicitly and explicitly advocated for scientific methodology, rule of law, and democratic and constitutional governmental processes have fought uphill battles to establish them as central features of our shared cognitive and institutional landscape, assisted by the evolutionarily favored utility of these disciplines, so too is this extension of that logic evolutionarily favored by its utility and implementable, over time, through our relentless and passionate advocacy and practice.
PRG consists of three components: 1) The creation of a comprehensive data base or web portal which makes easily accessible all arguments which purport to apply reason to evidence in service to human welfare, along with citations by which to verify the reliability or accuracy of the evidence utilized (see “Component 1″ of A Proposal for a more complete and extensive description); 2) The creation of an enterprise which disseminates the message, in emotionally appealing ways which communicate directly to existing frames and narratives, that we are better off, both individually and collectively, when we strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (see Component II of A Proposal and Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives for more complete and extensive descriptions), and 3) The establishment of a network of community organizations, which leverage existing community organizations (e.g., PTAs, HOAs, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, local churches and other religious institutions, park districts, etc.), to create a forum in which participants agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, to consider all points of view and arguments with an open mind, to be civil, and to improve the strength and solidarity of our local communities and of our nation (see Component III of A Proposal and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN) for a more complete and extensive description).
The supposition is not that most people would avail themselves of the internet portal or spend significantly more time comparing arguments and counterarguments surrounding various policy issues, or that most people would attend the community meetings or participate on the on-line network, or that most people would change their habits in any visible or significant way. That would not be realistic. Rather, the hope is that this would create a new center of gravity, a new source of legitimacy for the concept of making decisions on the basis of reason and goodwill, a new nucleus from which a marginal increase in the number of people who take marginal steps in the direction of thinking and acting in accord with this ideal can form a source of information and inspiration for the many who make no change in their lives whatsoever. Few of us are scientists, but most of us rely in one way or another on science.
Think tanks and policy institutes are in some respects the prototype for Component I, but always lost their popular legitimacy by failing to be popularly accessible and popularly comprised institutions. All are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having been co-opted by a particular ideology. But, in PRG, the think tank is all of us, the arguments considered are all of them. And it does not stand alone, like an ivory tower out of reach, but in the center of a community, where it can be utilized and discussed by those ordinary people inclined to do so. Even if very few ever avail themselves of those resources (the portal and the community organizations), others (moderate others who are not lost to an impenetrable fanaticism) will be more inclined to look to those who do as relatively reliable sources of information. And those who do avail themselves of these recourses will be those who, both by predisposition and by the effects of utilizing these resources, will tend to have more moderate, better informed, better reasoned, more humane positions on social and political issues.
History is comprised of innovations, both humble and bold. Many such innovations are social institutional, and some have had enormous and lasting effects on our cultural evolution. The invention of money, of legal systems, of our own Constitution and national system of government, are all examples. Some technological innovations dovetail with these, or form the basis of social institutional innovations of their own: The computer, the internet, social media, have developed in ways which have created new opportunities and new dimensions of possibilities yet to be fully explored. PRG, or something similar to it, would be precisely the way to leverage these developments, and explore these possibilities.
I sincerely and fervantly believe that a dedicated cadre of people working dilligently to design and implement this plan, or a plan similar to it, can and almost inevitably would have a dramatic effect, over time, in moving our state, nation, and world gradually but significantly in the direction of reason and goodwill, in the direction of being wiser, more foresighted, more cooperative, more life-affirming, and more humane. I hope all who read this will join me in this effort, and will share it widely in the hope that others join us as well.
Of all of the issues and challenges that face us as a society, our abysmal public education system is foremost among them. It’s not hard to identify the reasons for this failure: An archaic paradigm designed for another age and informed by a dehumanized assembly-line model that processes rather than inspires and mentors children; a ritualistic commitment to going through the motions rather than achieving excellent outcomes; a Kabuki Theater of faddish or merely time-wasting professional development and “sensitivity” trainings and purposeless faculty meetings; school improvement plans invested in and abandoned; an overwhelming administrative imperative of avoiding problems that constantly displaces any commitment to educational excellence; overpoliticized school district administrative and governance structures, focused more on ideological and power-consolidating maneuvering than on educating children; an anti-intellectual surrounding culture; a political zeitgeist emphasizing superficial and mechanistic “school reform” ideas which deepen rather than transcend the dysfunctional status quo and kick responsibility down the hierarchy toward those least able to address the structural problems involved; and the same political zeitgeist vilifying government (which school districts are) and starving them of much needed authentic public support. It’s a recipe for continuing and deepening failure.
What’s less obvious is how thoroughly within reach turning this around really is, how capable we are of transforming our public education system from one of the worst among developed nations to the very best in the world, bar none. We lack neither the human ingenuity nor material capital for doing so. Our children are in no way inherently less able to learn than the children of any other society. The challenge of inspiring and guiding and mentoring and educating our children from infancy through adulthood, and of thus liberating the genius of our populace to enable each to thrive individually and all to thrive collectively, is both the most critical and most tractable challenge we face as a society. (See Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons for some of my musings on education policy and education reform, and The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services for a discussion of the related issues involving the social institutional and social emotional context that are students are embedded in.)
Human consciousness is the spark of divinity we carry within us, that magical, marvelous wonder that allows us to explore the universe with our minds, both the macrocosms and microcosms, from the farthest galaxies and most distant times, to the tiny particles dancing into and out of existence and our own elusive inner-selves. It is a captive giant, whose freedom is both the ends and the means of all other human endeavors. It is a tool for our prosperity and spiritual fulfilment, and a source of profound joy in and of itself, the font of our stories, of our arts, of our humor, of our scholarship, of our appreciation and celebration of the world of which we are a part. It is the essence of being human. (See The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future for some discussions of the relationship between human consciousness and our social institutional and technological landscape.)
This is why I become so excited when I see those too few but so inspiring genuine attempts to realize our potential, to educate our children in the truest sense of the word, to commit ourselves not in some superficial or mechanistic way, but heart and soul, using all of our passion and talent as educators, all of the information and experience available, all of the tools that have been developed and ideas that are now emerging, thinking, imagining, innovating, designing, refining, implementing, improving, refining, modifying, constantly and tenaciously, making it happen.
West Generation Academy is just such a venture, led by a passionate and inspiring principal, imbued with vision and imagination and discipline and commitment, poised to make a dramatic difference both directly and indirectly in the lives of untold numbers of children, and of our society as a whole. Like a butterfly flapping its wings in the turbulent atmosphere, what reverberating ripples it will send out into the suchness are yet to be known. If the school achieves what it is so determined and so well equipped to achieve, it will be a force of nature, liberating the genius of children who will then have a reverberating impact of their own on the world around them, inspiring emulation that then produces new waves of reverberating, self-amplifying success.
The Generation School model is a complete revamping of the structure of schools, not an attempt to reform education by some shallow panacea that appeals to those who live in a linear and oversimplistic world, but rather restructuring the school itself, and its relationship to families and communities. It restructures the space in which education happens, the way in which education is delivered, the calendar and the schedule, the planning and implementation, all in response to the question “what works?” (See http://westgenerationacademy.dpsk12.org/ for discussion of specific design innovations, and for more information about West Generation Academy.)
But a good model is not enough by itself: Passionate, inspiring leadership is also required; a spirit and energy infused into the project, a zeal and joy and optimism and commitment to turning a vision into a reality. And, rallied by that leadership, recruited and mobilized by it, a team of individuals all similarly invigorated and committed is also necessary. Judging from the presentation I attended a couple of days ago, all of these elements are in place, or are being put into place, by Bob Villarreal at West Generation Academy. Whether the potential that I felt pulsating in that room comes to fruition or not is yet to be seen; but the fact that the potential exists seems to me to be an undeniable reality.
When good things are happening around us, when talented and dedicated people are striving to make a difference, it is incumbent on the rest of us to offer what support we can. We are all in this story together, and all should be striving to work together to write it well. If you live on the West side of Denver, or are just a highly engaged member of the larger community (as I am), consider finding your own place in this exciting and encouraging new endeavor, whether it is as a parent looking for the right school for your child, an excellent teacher looking for the right school in which to work, or a member of the community looking for local initiatives in which to invest your energy and resources. (One small way to show support would be to “like” West Generation Academy’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/West-Generation-Academy/191616214259731)
Too often, those of us who are most politically and publicly engaged look for what’s wrong with the world and bemoan it, driven by anger and frustration, discouraged and disgruntled. But our real power lies in looking for what’s right with the world and nurturing it, cultivating the best sparks of positive change, blowing on them until they blossom into a brilliant blaze. West Generation Academy seems to me to be a glowing ember of great promise. Let’s lend it our own breath, our own inspiration, and help to ignite it into a roaring fire of realized potentials and expanding opportunities.
As a global tumbleweed finally come to rest in South Jeffco, Colorado (Southwest Denver suburbs), I appreciate all the more the wonders of my new home, the place where my seven-year-old daughter was born and is growing up. Even in my nomadic days, I knew that I would one day relish seeing the same houses and same trees, same walls and same garden, same faces and same places, day after day, year after year, recognizing the marvelous in the mundane. I’ve always savored the familiarity of those favorite haunts I’ve settled into for longer stretches, or returned to frequently, and sought that familiarity even in the briefest of one-time visits, recognizing that a traveler who does not connect with the world he wanders only brushes across its surface, forever passing it by.
I recall several times, on my travels, being in the most exotic of third world villages, watching local eyes widen in wonder when I told them that I was from Chicago (“Al Capone!” most would immediately shout, having an iconic character that is synonymous for them with that far-off place veiled in legends of its own). The world is a vast and richly colorful story, our own lives and locales no less so than any other. Like beauty, how fascinating a place or slice of life is is a matter of perception, and there is considerable value in perceiving it more rather than less liberally.
But I am well aware of how often we forget to see the world through the eyes of a traveler, or of an extraterrestrial anthropologist, or of a primordial human being animating his or her surroundings with spirits of the imagination. What a loss not to be able to see in a wilderness river the singing nymphs dancing their way from mountain springs to surging sea, or in the mist-shrouded woods the mystical forces whispering to the human soul! So too the human narrative of which we are a part, so full of subtlety and complexity, of passions and aspirations, of strife and folly and occasional triumphs of great courage and generosity, is our own shared Odyssey, as we navigate between the Charybdises and Scyllas of our voyage together through history.
It is difficult for me to see the world in any other way, as some mundane drudgery or mere slog through life. The sound of a gentle breeze fluttering the new leaves of spring, or the ferocious wind howling like a hungry giant; the chirping of birds and laughter of children; even the murmur of passing cars or jet stream of passing airliners overhead; all constantly awaken my sense of wonder, my sense of joy to be a part of this marvelous, ultimately inexplicable existence of ours.
I try to teach my daughter to see the world in the same way, with games and stories and humor and shared curiosity. We can bring our own surroundings to life, by imagining the red-rock formations just over the Hogback along Coyote Song Trail in Ken Caryl’s South Valley Park as magical creatures petrified during an ancient epic adventure, sentinels who will remain at their posts until eons of wind and water wipe them away.
As a teacher, too, in Denver and Jeffco and Littleton, I tried to inspire my students to see the world through wondering eyes. When we speak of public education policy and education reform, we need to remember how important this goal is, seeking to transcend the ritualism of education, the rote drilling and shallow aspirations so many consider to be its essence, and make it instead a celebration of life and an inspiration to the mind and soul. The mechanics of how to accomplish this are important, but they are more “organics” than “mechanics,” something that arises from an institution that we must have the wisdom to ensure remains much more than the sum of its parts.
When we reduce education to something less than that, to a mere factory of curriculum conveyer belts along which we shuttle our children, exposing them as much as possible to assembly line teachers performing automated functions, lost in the Kabuki Theater of professional development programs and faculty meetings and parent-teacher conferences and narrowly, mechanically, and generally dysfunctionally defined “accountability,” we reinforce and reproduce our loss of imagination and concommitant loss of the deeper intellectual talents that imagination alone can foster. For a sense of wonder provokes a hunger for knowledge and insight, one that grows only more ravenous the more it is satisfied.
Finally, as a politically engaged advocate for interacting with our social institutional landscape as conscious and compassionate participants in its endless formation and transformation, I am increasingly convinced that that same sense of wonder is what serves us best. Many dismiss politics as something squalid and base, some remote appendage to our shared existence that we have to hold our nose and reluctantly tolerate. But it can be a rich and delightful celebration of life, a vehicle for our imaginations and aspirations, a major keyboard accessing the “word processor” we vie to type our narratives into as we write our shared story together.
Here in Colorado, I discovered state and local politics for the first time, and have found it to be surprisingly intimate and accessible. While many seem to think of our government and its officers as some remote “other,” that is a matter of choice, for there are numerous opportunities to participate in it, to be a part of it, as responsible and motivated members of a popular sovereignty should be. Such participation should not just be a matter of making noise and clamoring for the respective conflicting false certainties we hold, but also listening and learning, becoming informed and developing increasing awareness of the nuances involved in governing ourselves wisely.
When Aristotle said that “man is a political animal,” he meant, in Greek (referring to the polis, the classical Greek form of the political state), that we thrive best by being active members of our community. We can do this by getting to know our city, county, and state representatives, by attending events and listening to speakers, by engaging both with those who think like us and those who don’t, and by embracing the multi-faceted wonder of our existence.
We humans have such an enormous capacity for creating either great beauty or great ugliness together, of realizing our potential in service to our expansive humanity or of surrendering it in service to our animalistic and destructive urges. Which we do in any given instance is less a function of whether our ideology is “the right one” or not, and more a function of whether we see the world through wondering eyes. Wisdom arises from wonder, and well-being arises from wisdom. Let’s all wonder our way into an ever-improving future.
In my zeal to penetrate the mysteries of our lives, I often forget the value of simplicity. So here is a step-by-step explanation of A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, in very simple and straightforward terms (if you find the idea interesting, it’s worth it to read the long version):
1) I’d argue that the main obstacle to the implementation of policies based on reason in service to goodwill in the U.S. is insufficient popular support. There are several reasons for this deficiency in popular support, including the prevalence of blind ideologies superceding any commitment to a process or methodology (similar to scientific methodology or legal procedure) which narrows debate down to the range defined by reason and goodwill. Therefore, one major challenge for those who want to increase the influence of reason motivated by goodwill in public discourse and political decision making is to promote a commitment to procedures or methodologies which systematically favor reason over irrationality, and clearly identify what values, goals, and interests are being served.
Certainly, increasing the breadth and depth of commitment to such methodologies increases popular support for the policies they generate and inform, and thus increases the extent to which we successfully implement them. So the question is: How do we increase the commitment to procedures and methodologies which favor reason and goodwill, and by doing so increase the popular support of well-reasoned and socially responsible policies in general?
2) When those of us committed to the promotion of reason and goodwill as the guiding principles in political decision-making limit ourselves to fighting it out on an issue-by-issue and candidate-by-candidate basis, we appear, in the eyes of most marginally engaged moderate Americans, to belong to the blindly ideological camp which supports the same issues or candidates, and to be just equal and opposite counterparts of those blind ideologues in the opposite camp. We need to establish a movement that does not assume a presupposed ideological bias (other than reason and goodwill), or primarily argue substantive policy, but rather one which advocates only the application of reason to evidence in service to goodwill. This is not something that anyone who aspires to be (or be seen as) a reasonable person of goodwill can simply reject out of hand.
3) A movement that can remove itself from the frame of “political ideology,” and into the frame of “alternative to political ideologies” gains an advantage. One movement has recently gained some of that advantage by framing itself as an alternative to existing political parties (the Tea Party Movement), but has done so not by framing itself in terms of a commitment to reason in service to goodwill, but rather in terms of a commitment to a zealously held political ideology (small government, individual liberty, etc.). That ideology is not a commitment to a process, to reason and goodwill, but rather to a fixed belief that, much like a broken clock that always points to the same hour, is occasionally right and frequently wrong. In other words, it is a fixed ideology that sometimes is most reasonable and best serves mutual goodwill, but frequently is not and does not. It is, in a sense, the opposite of what I am advocating.
4) I think that as many or more marginally engaged moderate Americans would be attracted to the more profound alternative that rallies around “reason and goodwill” or “kindness and reasonableness” as have been attracted to the Tea Party. I think lots of mostly silent Americans are sick of politics and hungry for “kindness” and “reasonableness.” They just don’t know where to find it. And they don’t trust existing political movements, because existing movements are still dominated by ideologues and focused on insufficiently examined or questioned substantive positions.
5) This movement has to distinguish itself from what’s already in place, so it can’t use the labels of existing political ideologies or movements. It must establish a new political vocabulary, talking about being reasonable people of goodwill, removed from those “other” ideologies shouting back and forth at each other.
6) One of the major obstacles to the establishment of reason in service to goodwill as a political movement is that it is very taxing on individuals to have to make sense of the complex and massive information relevant to public policy decision making. Thus a core challenge of the movement I am advocating is to provide a credible, comprehensive, user-friendly portal through which to access and evaluate relevant information and competing arguments. This would be an enormous on-going project, focused on maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio without promoting one conclusion or another. The goal would be to create a systematic, triangulated evaluation of all arguments, including competing evaluations of what interests are served or undermined by each policy idea. This is the first component of my proposed project (see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for more details).
7) This first component not only creates a single reliable source for relevant public policy information and analysis, it also legitimates the claim to the mantle of “reasonableness.” It is the first component of a movement dedicated to the compilation and diffusion of comprehensive systematic analysis, to cutting through the cacophony of arbitrary opinions and political marketing campaigns. It’s the effort to lay everything we know and think on the table, all the work that’s been done by people trying to organize and evaluate relevant information, from all across the ideological spectrum, to sort out the information from the disinformation.
8) In order to claim the mantle of “goodwill,” this movement must be divorced from politics as we currently conceptualize it, focused entirely on cultivating cooperation. It’s purpose is to improve the quality of our lives, to recognize and facilitate our interdependence as members of a society, and to help one another to live the healthiest, freest, most secure, most satisfying, most enjoyable lives we can. This movement is addressed to those who are tired of ”politics,” but who want to make our communities stronger, and work toward shouting at one another less and listening to one another more, working together as reasonable people of goodwill in a shared society. That’s the third component of my proposal: Organizing in our communities to improve the quality of our lives locally in our neighborhoods and communities, and to create a foundation and context for civil discourse about city-and-countywide, statewide, national, and global issues (again, see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for more details).
9) The challenge of building a bridge from this locally generated “goodwill” to support of well-reasoned public policies that are motivated by such goodwill involves redefining government as much as possible, in as many minds as possible, from some external thing imposed on us (what it was, to an already diminishing extent, prior to the American Revolution 230 years ago), to an imperfect and problematic agent of our collective will (the meaning of the popular sovereignty that we established as a result of that war). We do that by connecting the community-building work to the public policies we support that are mere logical extensions of it, using all media of communication to reinforce this idea, the notion of belonging to a society, of being interdependent, of existing in a systemic social reality in which public policies affect the amount and distribution of opportunities, the robustness and justness and sustainability of the framework of our coexistence. That’s the second component of my proposal (again, see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for more details). I call it “meta-messaging,” reinforcing the single, underlying message of being reasonable people of goodwill, at all levels of social organization.
One way to think of this second component is as an institutionalization of Marley’s Ghost and the Three Spirits from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Just as these uninvited counselors tapped into Ebenezer Scrooge’s own frames and narratives, and found within his formative past, his incomplete present, and his foreboding future the key to his own redemption, we must seek to activate the compassion and humanity that lies dormant or obstructed in many of those who blindly oppose compassionate and humane public policies. If our efforts succeed in moving one thousandth of our modern day Scrooges one thousandth of the distance toward reason and goodwill that their fictional archetype traveled, it would be a significant contribution to our ability to improve our social institutional landscape.
10) It’s important that the policies implicitly advocated by this movement be well-reasoned public policies motivated by goodwill, drawing on the first component, to legitimately avoid the argument that certain policies may be motivated by goodwill, but have effects that, on balance, detract from rather than contribute to others’ welfare. The response is that adherence to the politics of reason and goodwill eschews reliance on blind assumptions, but rather is committed to ensuring that our choices of action are the best informed ones possible, taking all knowledge and arguments into account.
11) I say “the policies implicitly advocated by this movement” because it is about changing attitudes and moving the zeitgeist, not about direct political advocacy. The Politics of Reason and Goodwill is about advocacy of Reason and Goodwill, and letting the politics follow from that. Members or fellow-travelers will of course be involved in other activities, advocating for the policies and candidates to which reason and goodwill have led them in good faith, sometimes in disagreement with one another. That’s fine; this movement isn’t to control choices, but to nourish the mind and the heart in the belief that minds and hearts so nourished will, on average, make more reasonable choices, better guided by mutual goodwill.
It’s a fairly simple idea that becomes complicated only when it is fully fleshed out. It’s very ambitious, focused on the long-run rather than the short-run, and on marginally, gradually shifting the underlying foundation of political discourse rather than winning a little ground momentarily in an endless tug-o-war. It is a project aspiring to the overarching framework I’ve described, but comprised of numerous more modest goals, such as creating networks of community organizations dedicated to doing good works locally (such as tutoring and mentoring kids) and fostering robust, thoughtful, civil discourse (see Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)).
This proposal is essentially the answer to the question “if we were a rational society, striving to govern ourselves as intelligently and compassionately and pragmatically as possible, how would we go about it?” It is not a panacea. It will not any time in the foreseeable future change human nature, or erase human bigotries, or eliminate blind ideological rancor. It would represent one, small, marginal effort to do better, and, if phenomenally successful, would move the center of gravity of public discourse in this nation a tiny bit in the direction of reason and goodwill, over a very long time. But even such tiny changes can have enormous effects.
Please join me in trying to implement this idea, to find an organizational home for it, or independent financial backing. Again, any help in moving this project forward would be greatly appreciated!
Given Douglas County’s move toward school vouchers (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16803779), now is a good time to cut through the rhetoric, the ideology, and the assumptions, and examine the idea thoroughly and fairly.
The logic behind school vouchers is that by providing parents with the ability to take the tax revenue allotted to their child(ren) to whatever public or private school they choose, competition for students will ensue, and the quality of education in all schools will improve (or some will simply “go out of business,” to be replaced by those that have a more successful business model, better competing for the revenue that follows students to the schools of their choice). The argument against school vouchers revolves around the notion that they undermine our commitment to public education.
On the plus side, school vouchers empower parents and students to make their own choices regarding what school they feel best serves their educational needs. They incorporate market forces and competitive pressures into our national struggle to improve our abysmally poorly performing public education system. They do not, inherently, reduce the public investment in education, but rather merely contract out for educational services to the private sector.
On the negative side, school voucher programs are likely to create a permanent underclass of the poorest performing students left isolated in the most underfunded schools. They undermine communities most in need of the benefits of strong community solidarity, by creating a vehicle for abandoning what is often the central cohesive force in our modern communities: The local school. They undermine our commitment to education as “the great equalizer” by, ironically, assigning to each student an equal share of the tax revenue dedicated to public education, thus disenabling increased spending on those with greater needs. And they do absolutely nothing to address the problems of education where they reside, in our homes and communities, in our norms and ideologies, in our cultural anti-intellectualism and preference for mindless distractions over disciplined engagement with the world.
Since private schools are able to accept or reject applicants at will, and acceptance of vouchers will be made on the basis of their school mission and their profit-motive, the students most in need of the most attention will tend to be declined, while the students who are easiest to teach and need the least investment of resources will be preferred. This means that those children most in need of improved educational services will be least able to get them, and, in fact, will see resources that have been dedicated to them siphoned off by the flight of the higher-performing students from their local schools. This is a recipe for abandoning and defunding those children most in need of our attention and resources. It is a retreat from a commitment to equality of opportunity, and toward the reincarnated “social Darwinist” tendencies of the modern far right in America.
Student success is predicated most on their family and community environments; those children who have parents or community members who frequently engage them in intellectually stimulating conversations and model for them the disciplines and attitudes most conducive to success of all kinds will almost inevitably achieve academic success. Our primary focus on educational reform should be on cultivating more of that social support infrastructure outside the schools and school hours, not on dismantling that social support infrastructure even more. Academic failure in America has more to do with the advance of extreme individualism, and the decline of communities, than it does with any defects in the schools themselves. Giving those students already rich in the ingredients for the success increased opportunities at the expense of those poorest in those ingredients will certainly benefit some people, but it will hurt those who are most vulnerable, and will hurt us collectively as a society (by breeding a more entrenched substratum of despair, and all of the social ills that ensue from it).
The projected market-disciplining benefits of vouchers are at best dubious. “Market success” does not, in fact, automatically mean “higher quality”. All it means is that people tended to choose that particular good or service over its competitors. The higher the information costs (i.e., difficulties and obstacles to consumer-assessment of quality), the lesser the degree to which competition improves quality. Parents and students can indeed look at how past graduates of a school have fared, and make assessments on that basis, but those outcomes are based as much or more on the quality of the students that were admitted to the school as on the quality of education they received at the school.
Higher quality students moving from poor performing schools to these more selective schools may indeed on average experience improved individual performance, but not because of any improvement in the quality of educational services delivered; rather, as a result of isolating and removing low performing students from the equation. We have to ask ourselves who and what we are as a people: Are we committed to the continuing march of extreme individualism, the resurrection of “social Darwinism,” or are we committed to being a people who works together to increase opportunities for all? If the former, vouchers are the way to go. If the latter, we need to go in the exact opposite direction: A greater commitment to improving the services offered to families to assist them in better supporting their children’s education, and to communities to help move them in the direction of better facilitators of better educational performance and better citizenship in general.
Profound lessons come from unexpected quarters. The military, throughout history, has always been a paradoxical social institution, the nexus of the most profound social solidarity but the vehicle of our most violent conflicts; the organization of our basest nature, but the cultivator of our noblest attributes; the realm of brutal action, but the narrative of transcendental philosophies (especially in Eastern philosophies and religions). Therefore, it is appropriate that the most poignant piece of writing I’ve encountered in recent times was an op-ed in today’s Denver Post, describing the ordeal of informing a fallen soldier’s family of the loss of their loved one (http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_16653516).
While the author, Captain Michael Odgers, subtly imports some of the ideological glorification of war that sacrifice facilitates, it is only on the margins of his beautifully written and deeply felt piece. The thrust of the narrative is one of compassion, of feeling the pain of others and taking it on as your own, of knowing that their suffering is our shared burden. I’ve written often that this should form the cornerstone of our national ideology (see, e.g., Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers). How ironic that the most eloquent expression of the argument should come from the institution that is arguably most biased against it in other spheres of life.
Is the parent’s, the spouse”s, the child’s pain at the loss of their son or daughter, their husband or wife, their mother or father, any less when it occurs in other contexts? Is the compassion that Captain Odgers describes any less appropriate, any less essential, any less necessary to the definition of what it means to be a society?
Not all deaths, even in service to country, occur on the battlefield. Not only do police officers and fire fighters and other rescue workers die in the line of duty, but so do social workers, construction workers, miners, and others making their various contributions to our collective welfare.
But does, or should, our compassion require a down-payment? Must those who have suffered a loss be able to invoke some special claim before they merit our organized and institutionalized moral (and perhaps material) support? Leaving aside the fiscal issues of what we can and can’t afford for the moment, would it be so bad to be a society that cares so much for each and every member that we mobilize such instruments of compassion as Captain Odgers and Chaplain Andy whenever they experience such a loss, or whenver they experience such a need?
I do not deny that we live in a world of limited resources, and that all of our social policies have to be subjected to the cold reality of thorough cost-benefit analyses. But when we engage in those analyses, doesn’t it behoove us to include on the “benefits” side of the ledger the value of institutionalizing assistance for one another when we are in need? We can argue the subtleties within that context, the concerns about “perverse incentives” for instance, but there should be no doubt that what Captain Odgers and Chaplain Andy represent, the institutionalized but absolutely sincere compassion expressed on behalf of a larger society, is a good thing, and it would be just as good a thing in the broader context of a nation (or world) of mutually interdependent and caring human beings, expressing as much goodwill for one another as we possibly can, and making that a cornerstone of who and what we are.
Amidst all of this heavy discourse (and particularly in the wake of Grand Synthesis I), it’s nice to step back now and then and remember what it’s all in service to.
I’ve always walked my seven-year-old daughter to school and back home again, whenever my schedule has allowed. This year, I’ve been able to do both almost every day. We usually run into a group of six neighborhood kids (mostly second and third graders) at the park across which we walk to get to the elementary school. Together with my daughter, I dubbed them “the seven dwarfs,” which makes me, by default, Snow Whitehair. Sometimes we create running jokes together, such as singing our theme songs for both going to school (“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to school we go. We learn all day and get no pay; hi-ho hi-ho hi-ho”) and returning home (“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s home from school we go. We learn all day, and then we play, hi-ho hi-ho hi-ho”). They love to tell me about the things that are important to them, and I love to hear about it.
My daughter and I have an amazing relationship, full of laughter and stories and spontaneous games. When people talk about how difficult teenagers are (as a former high school teacher, I know both the degree to which this is true, and the degree to which it is highly variable, and more dependent on how adults handle it than some realize), I think about that relationship, and feel confident that, despite the inevitable challenges ahead, we have created a bond together that won’t simply be whisked away by the onslaught of adolescence. I worry about my daughter’s safety, but not about her future choices, because I already see in her a deep well of personal responsibility and goodwill to others that is only going to grow richer and deeper.
And that’s what this blog is really all about. Beneath the jargon and soaring rhetoric and complex analyses is a simple commitment to my daughter, and the other six dwarfs, and the other millions of children in the country and billions in the world. I’m less concerned about my welfare today than about theirs tomorrow, and less concerned about abstract values fluttering in the wind of patriotic rhetoric than about the human spirit that those values and that rhetoric are meant to serve, but often commit violence against instead.
When I see people defend the contributing factors to devastating violence and suffering with blithe disregard for the devastation and suffering itself, or react to news of violence with the hatred that only feeds it and increases it while simultaneously obstructing efforts to do what it takes to actually diminish it, I feel a deep, painful frustration that is visceral rather than academic, that is informed by the smiles and happy voices of “the six dwarfs” who accompany me and my daughter to and from school, that knows that the greatest tragedy of our existence is our own resistance to improving it, together.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know all of the questions. There are legitimate areas of debate, and legitimate ranges of uncertainty about what works and what doesn’t, about unintended consequences and unidentified risks, about what degree of decentralization of decision-making, what balances along the spectrum of individual liberty through increasing levels and degrees of social coordination, best serve humanity, all things considered. But the degree to which we bury these legitimate debates beneath mountains of arbitrary assumptions, inflexible ideologies, unexamined platitudes, and truly abhorrent rationalizations for complacent indifference to the suffering of others, form together an on-going tragedy far more consequential than hurricanes, floods, terrorist attacks, and all other natural and man-made disasters combined.
Whatever we believe, whichever way we lean ideologically, we need to strive first and foremost to all agree to be, to the best of our ability, reasonable people of goodwill doing the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That should be our mantra –everyone’s mantra– everyone who wants to have some basis for self-respect. We need to shed our false certainties, unbind ourselves from our imprisoning platitudes, liberate ourselves from the rhetoric of division and enmity, and strive, with full recognition of the difficult reality within which operate, to work toward an improved quality of life for all people, all things considered.
That shouldn’t be a controversial notion.