Obama Should Heed Tocqueville on Schools

Alexis de Tocqueville is famous for his portrait of 19th-century America and his philosophic insights on why the American society has flourished — and also where it might go wrong. It is worth the time to remind ourselves what some of Tocqueville’s insights were. Once we do, we can consider the Obama administration’s current nationalization of K-12 public-school curriculum, with Tocqueville’s insights in mind.

One of Tocqueville’s major insights was that Americans have benefited from popular participation in the large number of churches, charities, clubs, and voluntary associations in our country, as well as in state and local governments, which stand between the individual and the national government in Washington, D.C.

In essence, Tocqueville believed that the civic health of America depended on popular participation in entities like associations to create and maintain religious, private, or charter schools, as well as in local authorities like school districts with fully-empowered schools boards.

Such activity fosters civic virtue and “habits of the heart” and encourages everyday citizens to take on necessary social tasks that in pre-modern society lowly subjects were not allowed to undertake, but were instead the duty of the aristocracy.

When Tocqueville describes nineteenth-century American society he spoke, for example, of township school committees that were deeply rooted in their local communities. In those days, state control of local public education took the form of an annual report sent by the township committee to the state capital. There was no national control.

Large sums (much of it taxed from laborers and farmers) were spent by these school committees, and their efforts reflected, Tocqueville thought, a widespread American desire to provide basic schooling as a route to opportunity and advancement. He admired the fact that in self-activating America, one might easily chance upon farmers, who had not waited for official permission from above, but were putting aside their plows “to deliberate upon the project of a public school.”

At the same time, Tocqueville observed in European countries that activities like schooling that had formerly been part of the work of guilds, churches, municipalities, and the like were being taken over by the national government of those countries.

Tocqueville fears that if either Americans neglected their participation in associations or local governments or Europeans lost their intermediate entities to the national governments, the tendency would be toward a loss of a liberty and a surrender to a soft despotism.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes how in Europe “the prerogatives of the central power” were increasing every day and making the individual “weaker, more subordinate, and more precarious.”

Once, he says, there were “secondary powers” that represented local interests and administered local matters. Local judiciaries, local privileges, the freedoms of towns, provincial autonomy, local charities – all were gone or going. The national central government “no longer puts up with an intermediary between it and the citizens.”

Tocqueville says that, in Europe, education, like charity, “has become a national affair.” The national government receives or even takes “the child from the arms of his mother” and turns the child over to “the agents” of the national government.

In nineteen-century Europe, the national governments already were infusing sentiments in the young and supplying their ideas. “Uniformity reigns” in education, Tocqueville says. Intellectual diversity, like liberty, is disappearing. He fears that both Europe and America were moving toward “centralization” and “despotism.”

Tocqueville believes that in non-aristocratic societies (like America), there is strong potential for the national government to become immense and influential, standing above the citizens, not just as a mighty and coercive power, but also as a guardian and tutor.

Tocqueville maintains that religion (as a moral anchor) as well as involvement in local government (such as school districts) and voluntary organizations can help America counter the tendency toward tyranny.

Tocqueville says that Americans of all sorts are constantly forming associations — not only businesses, in which many are involved, but also associations “of a thousand other kinds” – to put on entertainment, to build churches, to send out books, or to found hospitals and schools.

Interestingly enough Roger Boesche, one of the world’s most eminent scholars specializing in Alexis de Tocqueville, was President Barack Obama’s favorite professor in college. President Obama studied political philosophy under a teacher who continually draws on Tocqueville’s insights.

Professor Boesche writes in one book (Theories of Tyranny) that the Tocqueville liked voluntary associations and local government for the same reason. They are venues where Americans can get together with their “enormous and constructive popular energy” to undertake projects and shape their own destinies. Tocqueville believed, according to Obama’s teacher Boesche, that “two the pillars that upheld democratic freedom” in America were associations and local government.

Tocqueville foresaw some of the influences that have transformed the national government from a constitutional republic into a welfare-state administered by a bureaucracy and a technocratic elite. Likewise, during the Progressive Era (from the 1890s to the First World War), Progressive politicians transformed municipalities and school districts to put bureaucracies and technocratic specialists in charge.

In the case of school districts, this was done through nonpartisan elections, district boundaries that did not match other jurisdictions, holding school elections at times other than that of the General Election, discouraging school boards from participating in curriculum issues, and granting extensive power to local superintendents (similar to that granted to city managers in the same era).

Some people still have a romantic, out-dated image of school districts and local boards. Today, they are not the school committees that Tocqueville saw, but rather, to a large degree, creatures of the Progressive Era. If we want to change that and re-invigorate school boards, we will have to restore avenues for popular participation of the sort Tocqueville sought. For example, Indiana recently put school elections in November, when more people vote. Another new promising avenue for popular participation is Parent Trigger, whereby parents can petition to turn a regular public school into a charter school.

President Obama’s favorite professor paraphrases Tocqueville on the perils of “centralization of information” in another book (The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville). In this book, Professor Boesche says that, according to Tocqueville, once centralization of information is “entrenched,” once a nation relies on a few sources for information, then “freedom of opinion” becomes “illusory.”

Under these centralized conditions, opinion does not develop freely, but is “hierarchically formed” “Centralized sources tend to give everyone the same opinion.” Tocqueville was thinking specifically of a nationalization of the newspaper industry, but his insight applies to education as well.

Yet for public schools, President Obama is doing precisely what Tocqueville warned against.

President Obama’s Department of Education in Washington, D.C., has been financing a national K-12 curriculum for English and mathematics. The new national curriculum is designed to complement a federally-funded national testing system that will test every public-school student in states across America.

Joseph Califano, President Jimmy Carter’s Health, Education and Welfare Secretary, articulated Tocqueville-style concerns about such centralization of schooling: “Any set of test questions that the federal government prescribed should surely be suspect as a first step toward a national curriculum. … [Carried to its full extent,] national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas.”

Unless President Obama’s Department of Education is stopped, its officials will dismantle what remains of state and local decision-making on classroom lessons and replace it with a new system of national tests and a national curriculum. This policy is Tocqueville’s nightmare: As in Europe, education “has become a national affair” and President Obama is imposing in America a one-size-fits-all centralization like that administered by the National Ministry of Education in France.

Political thought may have been Barack Obama’s favorite class in college, but he didn’t study Tocqueville closely enough.

-Bill Evers

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