“The spirit of enterprise, which characterizes the commercial part of America, has left no occasion of displaying itself unimproved.”
“In a state of disunion…that unequaled spirit of enterprise, which signalizes the genius of the American merchants and navigators, and which is in itself an inexhaustible mine of national wealth, would be stifled and lost, and poverty and disgrace would overspread a country which, with wisdom, might make herself the admiration and envy of the world.”
– Federalist 11
(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Jay, Rick Hess and Paul Peterson have all recently made really impressive scholarly contributions that all point to the same conclusion: “It’s not all about poor kids,” so it’s time to overcome “our achievement-gap mania” and get our “globally challenged” total population of kids – including the middle-class suburban white ones – “ready to compete.” Because it’s clear that they’re not, and it’s clear that they need to be, more than ever before.
This is a really encouraging development and a badly needed message for school reformers. There is no law of nature that says America will always be a flourishing and successful nation, and it will not in fact remain so unless we overcome our myopia and confront the mediocre performance of all our schools.
Raising the “floor” is important. But it’s much more important to get rid of the “ceiling” – the sense that in most schools we’re already good enough, the sense that we don’t need improvement. In fact, removing the ceiling will do more to raise the floor than any of our direct efforts to raise the floor.
Here’s my concern. As we move to confront the middle-class white suburbanites with the inadequacy of their schools, it’s important that the message not be “your school sucks and I can prove it.” Not that I hear Jay, Rick or Paul saying that; they’re not. But that will be the cariacature our enemies will deploy against us. We have to take proactive steps to preempt that tactic.
I think we can improve our message by grounding it in an affirmation of what’s best about America. America is an enterprise society; always has been. America was founded as the country that looked at Europe, clinging (bitterly) to the last remaining remnants of a thousand years of feudalism on the assumption that the basic ways of the world could never be changed, and said: “The old ways aren’t good enough. We can do better. We will plant our roots in the past, but our branches must grow upward.”
We can draw on that as we speak into suburban complacency. A tree that isn’t growing is dying; for nations as for forests, there is no comfortable plateau. Nations that seek comfortable plateaus, like those in Europe today, wither. Americans have never wanted a comfortable plateau; we want every generation to be more blessed than the last. However, the data in our schools show that our national future is clearly not being prepared for growth. But this is America. We don’t accept complacency. We don’t shrug our shoulders and accept decline. We know we can do better. And there are models of reform that can unlock our potential.
Grounding this new direction for school reform in the American culture as an enterprise society will keep us from descending into squabbling over whether we’re “anti-public schools” and keep everyone’s eye on the ball: the flourishing of our national future.