It’s not often that some of us can find common ground with the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, but his recent piece warning about “four big forces coursing through modern societies” struck a chord. On the other hand, while many might agree with him on some of the causal factors of massive societal change, Brooks and his fellow conservatives may in fact be enabling or even accelerating some of this change as a result of one of their public policy positions.
The column and commentary by Brooks arose from his analysis of a new book, Commonwealth and Covenant, where the author, Marcia Pally, writes about the tendency in modern life to both explore as well as be “situated” – i.e., having a sense of community.
Leave it to others to dissect the long-term impact of global migration, globalization, and the Internet to transform both individuals and those political entities called nation-states. But Brooks’ exploration of the fourth big force, individual choice, should make us want to further examine his identification of choice as one of the keys to social change and instability.
“All of these forces have liberated the individual … but they have been bad for national cohesion and the social fabric,” he observes. Nevertheless, he continues, “The emphasis on individual choice challenges community cohesion and settled social bonds.”
Brooks is concerned about a now weakened social fabric that, as a result of global migration, globalization and the Internet, might appeal to alienated youth and, as one example, make ISIS attractive for those who might opt for that fourth force – individual choice. He then asks his readers: “In a globalizing, diversifying world, how do we preserve individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity”?
Pally’s individualism, or “separability,” inevitably results in undesirable outcomes, including greed and control of scarce resources, but it is not clear if Brooks clearly discerns the consequences of this in our society caused by his party’s promotion of educational choice, and how such a policy further adds stress to scarce public resources while also impairing the process of community-building.
His question about how we preserve freedom serves to illustrate the certainty of unintended consequences for conservatives, viz., how can you promote the concept of choice, particularly educational choice, as a desired public policy outcome, while also warning about weakened community cohesion and a frayed, tattered, strained social fabric?
Can conservatives have it both ways? Nope.
If Brooks is correct when he says “We’re not going to roll back the four big forces coursing through modern societies,” why would he and his fellow Republicans nevertheless encourage further weakening community cohesion and place additional stress on our social fabric by developing a parallel system of “public” education through charters, let alone vouchers?
While it has been accepted for nearly two centuries that the common school serves as the very symbol of the community, that foundational belief of American democracy has been severely tested by the promotion of privately operated but publicly funded charter schools. Ironically, the mere presence of these structures and the harm they have caused in destabilizing public education might be mirrored in Brooks’ words, viz., the “…emphasis on individual choice challenges community cohesion and settled social bonds.”
The concerns that public education advocates have with charter schools are many, including issues with unelected, hand-picked governing boards; management by for-profit national chains; multiple exemptions from state laws; lack of transparency and accountability; widespread accounting and conflict-of-interest scandals; cherry-picking students; and funding taken from already cash-strapped public school districts. But if this litany of concerns wasn’t enough, the issue of the potential of charter schools to undermine community cohesion is emerging as yet another fundamental concern in an age when we have “big forces coursing through modern societies.”
In a previous Plunderbund essay, we examined how traditional public schools strive to build community cohesion by naming schools after local personages and national figures, while charter schools tend to go heavy on using the word academy or otherwise identifying with some brand of a regional or national chain. Should Brooks be concerned about the tendency of corporate culture to first promote its brand rather than identify with the community as a problem, inasmuch as he sees community cohesion as under stress? After all, charter school names are quite revealing in confirming this tendency.
The names given schools are a big deal, for they confirm what critics of charter schools have known for some time, viz., that the profit motive in running a business enterprise has a tendency to displace the educational mission as the primary focus of the school.
Add to that looms the growing issue regarding the transmission of our cultural heritage.
In that earlier essay, it was noted that the mission of public education is not only to prepare young people to be skilled, literate, and ethical citizens, but to also serve as the vehicle for transmitting our cultural heritage so that common values and beliefs are conveyed from one generation to the next.
Which bring us back to the purpose of public education. In an essay about the role of public education written more than a decade ago, Kenneth Conklin raised some concerns about education and culture.
“If an educational system is altered, its transmission of culture will be distorted,” Conklin wrote. “The easiest way to break apart a society long-term without using violence is to establish separate educational systems for the groups to be broken apart.”
Conklin provides some additional advice for us to consider: “A society’s culture can survive far longer than the lifespan of any of its members, because its educational system passes down the folkways and knowledge of one generation to subsequent generations. A culture changes over time, but has a recognizable continuity of basic values and behavioral patterns that distinguishes it from other cultures. That continuity is provided by the educational system.” [emphasis mine]
Legislators, especially Ohio House Education Committee Chair Andrew Brenner, who believes that public education is “socialism,” must know that public funds to support vouchers, which can go to religious schools that do not have to mirror our common values and community beliefs, along with public funds to support for-profit national charter chains that have no strong community connections, serve the purpose of destroying public education.
That is probably what Brenner wants, but in destroying the threat of “socialist” public education, Brennan and many Republicans are ensuring that the fourth force -individual choice – will inevitably destroy “community cohesion and settled social bonds.” Just like the mantra of having to destroy the village in order to save it, the pro-charter and pro-voucher crowd are acting to destroy the common values and beliefs that are part of the social fabric in order to save the human village from the threat of “socialist” public education.
So we are indebted to David Brooks for alerting us about the “four big forces coursing through modern societies,” and we should be even more concerned that our social (not socialist, Mr. Brenner) fabric and the transmission of our cultural heritage to future generations are threatened by corporate education structures that, unlike locally-governed public education, are all about branding and profit first.
The great Republican President Theodore Roosevelt said that “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” From what we are now learning – even from David Brooks – should allow us to believe that to create parallel systems of public education that in the end destroy our social fabric and community cohesion and damage the transmission of our cultural heritage is to create a system that surely will be the ultimate menace to society.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.