Friday, June 24, 2011

Chinese History and Texas Education

Members of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) lately have been making direct appeals to the public to rally support for their vision for education in Texas. Recently, for example, I blogged about Thomas Ratliff's appeal to voters to contact their state representatives to ask them to quit making our schools try to do more with less. Ratliff argued for more local control: "In my opinion, the term 'Independent School District' is misleading at best. In fact, I would argue there's hardly anything 'independent' about them."

After the jump, David Bradley's turn.


David Bradley, in his own editorial in The Texas Tribune, complains about what those danged local school districts do when you give them too much independence.

"Local schools are being enticed to adopt unproven federal standards and testing in return for a few pieces of silver. Texans must continue to advocate for our state's rights to develop and maintain control over our own curriculum standards and assessments. We must resist the herd mentality of the national core curriculum movement."

Where the balance of power between federal, state, and local properly should be is an endless argument. But whereas Ratliff wants to devolve power to local school districts, Bradley has the harder argument to make that the balance should be in the middle, at the state level, where he happily happens to have a seat on the State Board of Education and his ideological soulmates control both the SBOE in particular and the state government in general. Bradley's appeal smacks too much of an argument of self interest over principle.

So, what does Chinese history have to tell us about all this? It teaches us to take a longer view, to set aside the daily headlines and pay attention to historic trends. I happen to be reading Francis Fukuyama's book, "The Origins of Political Order." There's a lot to consider in this book, but I'll mention only the point I was reminded of by David Bradley's complaint of federal influence on local schools. There's a chart in Fukuyama's book showing the increasing consolidation of power by the central state throughout Chinese history.

"There is clear evidence, however, that there was a tremendous reduction in the total number of political units in China, from approximately ten thousand at the beginning of the Xia Dynasty to twelve hundred at the onset of the Western Zhou, to seven at the time of the Warring States."

The consolidation in China didn't stop at seven states. With the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C., China was unified and has been so, more or less, ever since. The details in each case are different, but other areas of the world underwent or are undergoing similar consolidations. Look at maps of, say, Europe in 1000 A.D. or North America in pre-Columbian times, then look at maps of those continents today.

Why should we think the process of consolidation is over? Despite the short term ebbs and flows of history (e.g., the USSR breaking into constituent republics in the 1990s), the trend of history over the long term is one of consolidation. In the last two centuries, revolutions in transportation (steamships, airplanes, satellites) and communication (telegraph, telephone, television, Internet) ensure that, if anything, political consolidation will accelerate in the future. China may have led the way two thousand years ago, but everyone, everywhere continues down the same path today.

So, Thomas Ratliff can resist encroachments upon local school districts by Austin, and David Bradley can urge his fellow Texans to "resist the herd mentality of the national core curriculum movement" all he wants, but they are both fighting a historical trend that goes back as far as ancient China and shows no sign of losing strength.

Frankly, I'm not sure the trend is bad, in general. After all, Thomas Hobbes described what life was like before the march of political centralization and consolidation began. It was, he said, "nasty, brutish and short." As much as the world of state politics might be described the same way today, today it's just a figure of speech.

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1 comment:

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