Walter Russell Mead has some interesting things to say about Indiana’s recent rejection of the Common Core federal education standards. He approves of the move not so much because of any defect in the standard but from a sense that a one size fits all program for a nation as large and diverse as the United States is not desirable. Here are his reasons.
First of all, families should have as much freedom as possible to shape their children’s education. And the closer to the grassroots level educational decision-making resides, the more likely it is that parents can help shape important decisions about their kids’ education.
Secondly, it’s clear that our educational system is in the midst of a period of change, as it needs to be. Society is changing, the economy is changing, yet our educational system is still a product of the Industrial Age. It’s designed to produce people who are good at following directions, coping with boredom, and sitting still for long periods of time. Coming up with a new model suited for the 21st century is going to take time and experimentation. Letting cities and states (to say nothing of individual schools, whether public, charter, or private) try out new approaches is the best way to do this. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
More broadly, as the U.S. continues to grow, we need to work much harder to keep important decisions at state and local levels for the sake of national unity and the health of democratic society. The individual American has almost no influence over decisions at the federal level, but at state and local levels grassroots coalitions and social and civic organizations can make a real difference. America is based on the idea that ordinary people should be responsible for their own lives; a mass society dilutes that necessary freedom and authority. Our democratic society will wither away if Washington tries to make all our important decisions for us. Centralization of power also tends to exaggerate and heighten political polarization. Let Texas live as it pleases, and let Vermont be Vermont. America will be happier and more peaceful when smaller units of government make more of the really consequential decisions.
This last argument is one to keep in mind. We think of ourselves as a democracy, the sort of country in which the people rather than a king or dictator rules. Yet, how democratic can a country with a population of over 300 million actually be if all the major decisions are made by a centralized government in a distant capital? One person out of 300 million simply has no voice. Pundits and professional worriers always complain when fewer than half the electorate actually votes in any national election, but why should they? One person voting in any national election, presidential , senatorial or congressional really isn’t going to make a difference. As centralized government over a country as large as the United States can’t really be very democratic at all, despite the number of elections that are held. By necessity, any such government must tend to be despotic just in order to get things done. Three hundred million people are never going to come to any consensus on any issue. For this reason,we would be a whole lot better if most of the decisions that affect people’s lives were made at the state and local level, where an individual could make a difference.
I also think that a lot of the so-called culture wars over social issues would be a lot less intense and divisive if we got away from the idea that the federal government should impose one solution over the whole country. Take same-sex marriage. Why not let California legalize it while Iowa could ban it? That way people in both places could be happy.The same could apply to abortion, gun control, and many other issues. If you don’t like the way an issue is handled in your state, well, it is easier to change policies at the state level and you could always move.
Of course, the progressives hate the very idea of the federal government yielding any of its power. It is a lot harder to make fundamental changes when you have to deal with 50 states than with one federal government. They always profess to love diversity, except in matters where diversity really counts.