It’s become obvious over the past couple of decades that American governance has fallen down the rabbit hole, but not into the cartoon universe of illogic envisioned by the Disney studio. The American rabbit hole is dark, and it is dangerous, and it is becoming more so by the day. American society is being riven and shredded, broken into battling pieces playing a game deadlier than the Red Queen’s chess ever conceived of being. The forces of ignorance, ideology, hatred, and lust for power have taken center stage and now drive policy.
In the short term, which may last decades, or be done relatively quickly, these forces and conflicts will work themselves out. The country may be better for that, or it may be worse, which may be the more likely result.
In the long term, the country requires fundamental change if it is to continue to exist as a free representative republic.
What follows is a possible path, an ideal, if you will, to be pursued.
The primary consideration, the one thing that underlies any sort of reform in the long term, is education. Education on at least two levels, the general education of the public, and the professional education of anyone aspiring to work in government in either the bureaucracy or in elective office or offices appointed by elected officials.
First, consider general education. Currently the mantra in general education from the early elementary grades through high school is testing. Standardized testing. The MCAS is an example of the sorts of high stakes testing the education bureaucracy wants to rely on to make decisions about education. High stakes testing has been developed for, I believe, the convenience of the bureaucrats, not for the education and edification of the students. Using a set of standardized numbers lets the bureaucrats make neat and clean decisions about educational policy without having to deal with the messiness of all those individual students.
Students are learning how to pass the tests, but it would appear they’re not learning much else that would be of value. Colleges routinely complain that entering students aren’t prepared to do college level work. They can’t write, can’t do numbers, can’t read effectively, can’t think critically.
On top of that, teachers are regularly excoriated by the political classes, parents, and ideologues of all stripes. The schools are underfunded. Teachers apparently often find themselves having to spend part of their salary buying supplies for the classroom. Books are often out of date, too often by decades, and their content is too often decided by people with political agendas immured in dogma and ignorance and blind ideology.
In a word, the public schools are failing their students and they are failing the country. Education should not be a political football, arranged and rearranged by whatever ideologues manage to get themselves elected locally and nationally.
For elementary and high school grades I propose a different path, a different standard.
First, high stakes standardized testing would be abolished. Children are individuals. They have differing abilities, capacities, and interests. They are not a mass of clones, nor a mass of equals, and should not be stuffed into a mass system.
What’s needed is a professional teaching corps of highly trained, highly motivated teachers. A teaching degree should be as difficult to attain as a doctorate, but not as expensive. The successful teacher should be relieved of any debt incurred.
Second, the communities must support their schools and their teachers. That means professional level salaries. That means no interference from politicians or from parents. That means increasing the tax base and the taxes to support modern schools and sufficient numbers of teachers to provide small class sizes. That means allowing teachers to use their own judgment and creativity in managing their classrooms. The Finnish model is an excellent example of effective modern education. That, or something as effective, should be instituted nationwide.
As for content, the usual reading, writing, and arithmetic, but taught in various manners to fit the individual students in any given classroom. But beyond that, there must be an emphasis on logic and critical thinking and scientific thinking, and these should start in the first grade and be rigorously pursued all the way through high school graduation and into college. Rather than hoping that students will absorb the principles through coursework in standard subjects, critical thinking skills must be taught in their own right. They are the absolute foundations of effective learning and education.
That is the general basis of general public education. Everyone in the country would be educated in such a system.
The second level to consider is how to educate the people who choose government service, either in the bureaucracy or through elective or appointive office. An effective education for these people is absolutely critical to the continued success, even the continued existence, of the nation.
Consider that the population of the United States is approaching four hundred million people, and that those people live in a complex world. There are no simplicities in the world anymore, not in politics, not in international relations, not in our relationship to our biological environment.
Governance involves fifty states, hundreds of cities, thousands of towns, vast infrastructure, complex financial arrangements, understanding complicated interrelationships among those elements and the environment, and understanding a variety of world cultures and our relationships and interactions with the rest of the world .
We can no longer afford to have simple-minded men and women operating from a narrow perspective governing the country. We can no longer afford to have ideologues, untutored in critical thinking, untutored in simple facts, running the nation. We must no longer allow just anyone who wants to run for office to run for office.
We need instead to create a highly educated political class. Not an exclusive class, not a privileged class, not an authoritarian class. Membership, if you will, would be open to anyone who can qualify, and one of the hallmarks would be that the government would provide serious aid and assistance to those who want to commit to public service.
Here’s a suggestion on how to accomplish this.
First off, implement the general education system proposed above.
Second, the first two years of college would be exploratory for all students, giving them time to sample various disciplines and possibly come to a decision about their future. The country might also institute a required public service stint of two years as a mandatory prerequisite for entering college: it could encompass military service or community service of some sort. Two years of working in the community could well give most students a leg up on the maturity they need to make serious decisions about their education and their life. The current system of rushing from high school directly into college seems to end up with two years of college wasted.
But the meat of the matter for the politically inclined would be the professional coursework required.
To begin with, students will already have a solid grounding in logic, critical thinking, and scientific thinking, gained through general education. But they will continue to study in those areas as well as be expected to apply those principles to all their other courses.
And those other courses would be broad ranging. World history, American history, political philosophy, political science, at least one language (they should have picked up fluency in at least one during general education), general philosophy, science, economics, statistics, law and ethics. The latter is not a vision of lawyers in government, but people knowledgeable about the principles and history and applications of law in the United States. Along with law there must be study of the institutions of government, their history and evolution, and the details of their functioning. And serious study of ethics.
In addition, once a student makes a commitment to public service, or before he makes a final commitment, he must undergo rigid and thorough psychological testing, and, if deemed necessary, psychological or psychiatric counseling. The country has had more than enough of rigid, delusional, and blindly authoritarian people in office.
It should be noted that a political career would not gain a person any special perks or positions. He gets a salary and a pension, and his salary and pension must be in line with average or normal salary expectations of the citizenry.
Further, the question of money in politics must be resolved. Donations to politicians, to their organizations, to political parties, would no longer be legal. Campaign finance would be government funded, through taxes: if citizens are not willing to finance excellent governance, then they will have to settle for mediocre, or as the case is today, bad, governance.
Campaigns would be severely limited in time. For example, Presidential campaigns might be limited to three months prior to the election. Senatorial and House campaigns to relatively less time. Similar restrictions would apply to local and state elections.
Advertising on television and radio would be free. Radio and television corporations use broadcast frequencies that belong to the public. Corporations should not be charging money for fulfilling civic obligations.
Additionally, the revolving door between bureaucrats, politicians, and corporations must be permanently closed. No member of the government may leave the government and take a private sector job lobbying the government. For example, a member of the Senate Banking Committee could not leave government to work for a bank in any capacity that would require him to interact officially with the government. He might get a job as a bank officer, but contact with government on any issue affecting the bank would be forbidden. And there must be a period of time after he leaves government when he could not work in banking at all. Nor could he work for any other business which would require contact with government officials to further the corporation’s issues.
On the other side, the chairman of, say, Goldman Sachs could not serve the government in any capacity having to do with finance or banking. And for him to serve in government at all he must have completed the professional education and training required of all public servants, and never mind his work at Goldman Sachs.
Furthermore, the insidious and irrational legality stating that corporations are persons and have the rights of persons must be wiped off the books. That bit of delusional legalism devalues human beings and corrupts government. And it is patently false. Were corporations persons, then the tobacco companies would have been put to death decades ago. Corporations are legal entities, paper existences: they have no human rights.
Some will say that this program will create an elitist ruling class, that it makes it impossible for anyone who wants to run for Congress to do so, that it eliminates the common man from aspiring to public service.
To the contrary. Public service would still be open to anyone. There would be no bar to any citizen willing to undertake the education required – there would be scholarships and so forth readily available. If you are poor and want to go to college, you will be able to do so.
As for the common man, it is to be hoped that an enlightened and rigorous educational system will see to it that there are no common men, but that all are well educated.
There would be no elitist ruling class. Governance would come from educated men and women who would receive no special favors from society, and who would not be allowed to turn their government service to benefit themselves. No one would, in fact, be allowed to enrich themselves or their families through government service. You would get your government pay, which would be reasonable and in line with the pay of the populace at large, and that would be all. No speaking fees, no outside income, no deals, no special favors. You would pay for your own haircuts, your own health insurance and medical bills, your own parking tickets, and so on. If you are rich to begin with, you would forego your riches for as long as you serve in government: you must live on your government salary and derive no benefit from whatever fortune you may have earned or inherited, nor can you undertake any action in government that would increase your fortune.
Good governance requires committed, ethical, honest, highly educated people, and that’s just for starters. The United States does not have either good governance nor people in office who can provide good governance. American government, as currently existing, is corrupt, destructive to democracy, detrimental to the people governed, and internally violent. It is wasteful and inefficient. It falls all over itself as it seeks to undo its principled good and replace the good with the cruel and the exploitative. It is falling rapidly into that dark place where governance is done by the ignorant, the thoughtless, the delusional, the arrogant, and the greedy.
It’s time for change. Not hope: hope is not a plan. Change requires action. Change requires planning. Change requires intelligence and long-term commitment. And change must go deep into the structure of society. We need to start clawing our way back out of the rabbit hole and turn our backs on the Red Queens of ignorance and ideology.