Burke is about being thankful for whatever works, and conserving that in any effort toward improvement. Paine is about being outraged by whatever isn’t perfect, because scientific progress gives us no excuse for whatever doesn’t meet expectations.
It’s good to understand how different minds work, so we can find common ground and work together. But it might be true that one way of thinking leads to better outcomes (the one in which thinking and evidence are more valued than emotion and intention). So, in defense of the more-or-less Burkeian conservative mind, here is Part II.
There’s a tendency to think of “conservative” as boring, staid, unadventurous, and to think of “progressive”/liberal as trendy, “with it,” and up for revolution. Yet if you look at the ideas behind the American Revolution, what you see is the man-of-action effort to maintain the individual freedom Englishmen were supposed to have been guaranteed (see the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence), rather than lose them to the whim of a dictatorial monarch. They worked through all the institutional pathways first, but then they risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to separate from the Mother Country and live by the known principles of freedom in the New World.
You can see a similar sense of “revolution” in today’s public school debate. It might seem to go against expectation, but conservatives are much more open to alternatives to public school institutions. Maybe it’s because public schooling is a relatively new and not demonstrably successful (in fact often demonstrably less successful) system of educating the next generation. So you have people concerned about education, and finding better and best practices, open for experimentation—among “conservatives.”
And among conservatives you find both “conservative” and “fast action” personalities. There are those who patiently work for incremental changes—more local control, more school choice, vouchers for private school tuition. And you also find those with no faith in public schooling, who are willing to see radical reform—abolishment of public schooling, turning to all private schooling, homeschooling, combinations of classroom and online learning, and whatever a parent decides will work for their children. That “conservative” side, the “northern” hemisphere, accommodates both types of thinkers. (By personality, I’m typically more conservative, yet I was radically willing to pull my kids out of school and educate them myself for a decade, because kids only grow up once, and you can’t mess around and lose the opportunity.)
But in the public school debate, what we see is democrat/liberal/progressives absolutely bound to protect the status quo. Odd.
So the “progressive” experiment, which threw out the parent-run education system that had led to the great thinkers of our founding (and pretty much throughout the millennia), and replaced it with a “new” factory-style model with centralized one-size-fits-all control, hasn’t actually been an improvement. Yet there are “bitter clingers” who refuse to let go so the system can be improved. And those change resistors are the self-proclaimed “progressives.” Hmm.
There’s something about faith in science/knowledge and politics about the Spherical Model south (maybe a prideful refusal to acknowledge God’s hand in our lives), and sometimes Paine-type thinkers are led there. We know, from evidence, principle, and scripture, that tyranny, lower prosperity, and social decay lie in that southern hemisphere.
While I was exploring this idea of two types of minds, I reread the December Imprimis article, “A Rebirth of Liberty and Learning” by Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn. He begins with the assertion, “There is a proper way to educate and there is a proper way to govern, and they are both known.” His piece is about where we’ve gone wrong in governing and educating, and how to get redirected.
|Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College|
photo from Imprimis
What classical education seeks is ultimate good—and identifying how to live as a good person. There is an assumption that ultimate truth exists, and we should seek it. We are aided in this quest by building upon a core set of knowledge passed down through the ages, recognizable by its beauty—it’s ultimate goodness.
The “progressive” new way is to throw out the idea of educating for the purpose of building better human lives, and instead educating for career preparation—“students chiefly as factors of production.”
Dr. Arnn makes the comparison for us:
Although we all wish productive jobs for our children, as parents we know that they are not chiefly job seekers or factors of production. After all, how many of us, if we were given the choice of our children earning a lot of money and being bad, or struggling economically and being good, would choose the former?
Then he spends half a page quoting from a modern teachers guide for AP English, which says some nonsense about helping students “construct their own realities” that will somehow “help them live in a mad, mad world.”
Dr. Arnn summarizes:
Could the difference be more stark between the older and newer ways of education? Between leading students toward an understanding of the right way to live in a comprehensible world, and telling them they must shape their own values and make their own reality in a world gone mad? And by the way, think of the definition of “reality”; then think of making one’s own reality. Do you see that it destroys the meaning of the word to use it that way?
Then he show similar contrasts in ways of governing:
One way to see the difference is to see that laws in America used to be simple and beautiful. They were written with care, and citizens could read them quickly and understand their meaning. Of the four organic laws that founded America—the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Constitution of the United States—none of them was more than 4,500 words long.
Clear, understandable by those affected, based on long-held principles—those are the ways that tie in with ultimate good, truth, and beauty. That is the older way, yet it seems fresh and clear and connected to human dignity even centuries later. Then there’s the new, bureaucratic, central control way preferred by the “it’s old so let’s throw it out and do our own thing” seekers of progress. For instance,
…the Affordable Care Act, which when it was passed in 2010—and this does not include the countless rules and regulations it has generated over the past three years—ran to 363,086 words. This law—and in the true sense of the word it wasn’t a law at all, but something different—was not readable or comprehensible to any member of Congress who voted for it or to the citizens whose lives it was aimed at manipulating in a detailed and intrusive way. Could anything be uglier? And is it surprising, being governed in this way, that the richest nation in human history is going broke?
James Madison clearly declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” and then simply listed the God-given unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and he declares government’s purpose to defend these rights, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, he misconstrues that clarity this way:
Implicit in [the Constitution’s] structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course.
You can’t get from that point A to that point B; there is no such path. As Dr. Arnn put it, “How did Barack Obama come to believe something so foreign to America’s heritage as the idea that in the name of liberty we must reject absolute truths—which necessarily includes rejecting those truths I just quoted from the Declaration?”
Here’s what I think. There are known ways of living together as human beings that lead to the best (though still imperfect) outcomes. We can have freedom, prosperity, and civilization by living according to these known core principles. But we’d better teach these core principles far and wide, because, as truth and freedom seeker Ronald Reagan used to say,
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.