Some policy controversies are wearying. Not because they have worn their importance down over decades spent in the argumentative rock tumbler, of course. High-stakes issues tend actually to get more portentous, over time, as we sink greater and greater emotional and intellectual investments into them. But this very fact promotes an unfortunate style of argument that comes to dominate and dictate the substance. It’s a familiar story: for too long, we have ignored xxxx, which has now amounted to a national crisis in xxxx — one which can only be solved by immediate, decisive action, and if you still want to talk it over you’re either irresponsible, willfully stupid, or (most recently) a nihilist.
I’m bothered by the way in which this moral narrative has managed to swallow up the health care debate without actually accomplishing the kind of political change it demands. Still, I’m not terribly concerned that the intelligent versions of the opposing sides of this debate aren’t getting a fair hearing. It’s a testament to the importance of the health care debate that we, Stupak’s defectors aside, haven’t exhausted our own interest in the big issues at stake. There are other debates, however, where the side opposing the universalist view of problems and solutions seems to have lost the will to coherent opposition. In general, our ability to articulate the wisdom of rejecting policy universalism is waning. On some occasions this matters more than others. One case that’s too important to let slide, no matter how wearying it is to struggle against the universalist mantra, is education.
The universalist take on education has been whipped into the public consciousness for so long that many of us, if gently prompted, could mutter its talking points in our sleep. It has become a brooding omnipresence of conventional wisdom, a veritable creed. Its tenets are simple:
* The only education that really matters is in math and science.
* Math and science education really matters because globalization is irreversible and irreversibly accelerating.
* In a world globalizing like this, the only way to ensure a thriving economy is to beat other economies at filling jobs that require competence in math and science at the lower end and expertise at the higher end.
* America isn’t an economy like this.
* The only way to make America this kind of economy is from the top down.
* Only a universalist view of the problem lets us see that the only way to accomplish top-down change is through a universalist solution.
And so we get, in today’s New York Times, this editorial:
The countries that have left the United States behind in math and science education have one thing in common: They offer the same high education standards — often the same curriculum — from one end of the nation to the other. [...]
The standards, based on intensive research, reflect what students must know to succeed at college and to find good jobs in the 21st century. They are internationally benchmarked, which means that they emulate the expectations of high-performing school systems abroad.
This is not a call for a national curriculum. [...]
As recently as the early 1990s, national standards were viewed with suspicion in much of the country. Attitudes began to change as governors saw that poor schooling had crippled a significant part of the work force, turned state colleges into remedial institutions and disadvantaged the states in the global market.
The proposed standards were developed in a collaboration among 48 states and the District of Columbia, suggesting that national opinion, once bitterly divided on this question, has begun to coalesce.
It seems so difficult to get a hearing in opposition to this kind of pitch — who could dare be against greater success? — that I am tempted not to bother. But on the other hand, so few people are making a concerted effort to do so that there may be a point after all. What is particularly galling is that the universalist standards used to generate the supposed necessity of universalist, education-nationalizing solutions are applied with a rank inconsistency that rises past the level of whim to that of blatant selectivity. When a comparison between the US and some other country isn’t relevant to universalist projects, it’s discounted as nondata or statistically insignificant. But when a comparison is relevant, look out! We rank x places behind South Korea in Aptitude Y, as demonstrated conclusively by Study Z, we are scolded, without any sort of reference to why this fact, and not an infinitude of others, matters in the totality of the circumstances, and, worse, without any sort of explanation as to why our trailing ranking matters.
This problem is particularly embarrassing when it comes to India. At least with China, the claim that we must stop at nothing to compete at a comparative qualitative and quantitative disadvantage in math and science with the statist behemoth is silently reinforced by our fear of losing global hegemony to a power with interests and ideas in competition with our own. Why on earth would we want to put the screws to ourselves in this regard with India, a friendly English-speaking democracy? Because a nationwide push for standardized math and science performance will keep customer service call centers in America, where they belong?
It is hard not to slip into snark, because the tenets of the universalist creed on education are founded on such weak assumptions. The same basic errors in thinking you see among global-warming crisis-mongers reappear in giant form when it comes to globalization crisis-mongers. Fear of the future leads to a dramatically blinkered and filtered view of the present. The ‘major industrialized nations’ we are supposed to measure ourselves against face serious problems that are simply edited out of their appealing competitive profiles. The hugely idiosyncratic paths that have determined appealing features of those countries’ profiles are ignored or mentally suppressed. And the misfortunes that befall industrialized nations which obsess over scientific excellence at the expense of cultural and political competence at the level of the individual citizen are forgotten, if ever they were learned.
I cannot emphasize enough that none of this means that challenging global trends are not real, or that obtuse self-satisfaction is the answer. Conservatives have not done a good enough job of proving this out. But they are at a disadvantage: too few audiences, popular or elite, seem to have the time or the patience even to hear them out. Nonetheless: if the top-down, universalist view of a crisis of global warming is deeply misguided, a prudent consciousness of the unpredictable calamities that are likely to result from climate change more generally is a fine idea — and one that generates a completely different approach to policy, in style and substance. Similarly, the universalist view of our education problem distorts and masks its true character and extent. Our obsession with producing competent/low-skilled technocrats at the bottom of our workforce and expert/high-skilled technocrats at the top has caused us to deepen and accelerate the destruction of the local conditions that make possible, in a broad-based way, the general education into American culture and American citizenship that we really need to flourish, in this century or any other.
Can we have it more or less both ways — better math and science education and better education in the humanities, with one eye on international challenges and one eye on our domestic health? Certainly. But not if we give in to the universalist temptation. If ever there were a place to level the critique, advanced most recently around here by Ivan, that the ideology of technocracy relies upon commitments or convictions which themselves have no grounding in science and cannot be justified by instrumental reason, this would be it. The consequence of this sleight of hand is the impression that it cannot be a coincidence that technocratic ideologues wind up being the main beneficiaries, in prestige, power, and wealth, of the policies they push and the rhetoric of crisis they rely on.
The further impression is created that ideological technocracy will, paradoxically, never deliver us from the mode of crisis manifest in whichever particular panic has seized the day. By stipulating a permanent state of exception from which we can never truly escape, the only option available to us is a therapeutic one — technocracy as an endless coping mechanism. This therapeutic logic transcends merely political or partisan divisions of right and left. The real attack against the kind of ideological technocracy favored by the left is grounded in a deeper philosophical insight than even conservative political theory can provide. Critics of modernity are inclined to state the architectonic opposition as between philosophy and science. But the decisive issue, I am going to venture to suggest, is that at this level of abstraction it becomes more and more impossible to distinguish science as such from politics as such. Which again, for those readers with long memories, brings us back to Strauss’s closing words on Machiavelli, and, hopefully, another round of reflection from our Dr. Hancock.