I haven’t yet got my hands on the much-discussed new book by Yuval Levin, one of the most thoughtful conservative public intellectuals and writers of our time (also editor of National Affairs and head of “social, cultural and constitutional studies” at the American Enterprise Institute). But A Time To Build holds messages for educators and ed reformers, as is evident from the author’s column in the Sunday New York Times, his presentation at the American Enterprise Institute, and Barton Swaim’s excellent review in the Wall Street Journal
Levin explains why Americans have lost confidence in their institutions and what must be done to rekindle that confidence if we’re to “revive the American dream.” His analysis of the problem goes far beyond the conventional view that the loss of confidence that’s evident on so many fronts was the inevitable result of institutions failing to deliver, turning greedy and deceiving, and collapsing. “What stands out about our era in particular,” he writes, “is a…tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.” In his view, well-functioning institutions mold those who work in them and for them, making those people more trustworthy for a society that needs more trust, even as those being molded cause the institutions themselves to be more effective in the work they do. Once that work is subordinated to the fame or prosperity of individuals, however, confidence in the institution falters and the dream dims.
You don’t have to look far to find innumerable examples of this, whether in government or the media, in corporations or labor unions, in Hollywood and big-time sports for sure, but even in museums and some religious groups. Instead of going about their essential work, carrying out their missions, and engaging their members in wholehearted commitment to their missions, almost every one of them has evolved into a platform upon which individuals and their causes, their groups, and their “identities” can attract attention, gain celebrity, win influence, advance themselves, and perhaps get rich along the way.
Levin looks for exceptions—institutions that have retained their integrity and stuck to their knitting—but doesn’t find many. “The military,” he says, “is the most conspicuous exception and also the most unabashedly formative of our national institutions—molding men and women who clearly take a standard of behavior and responsibility seriously. And that can help us see what we might do to help alleviate the social crisis we confront.”
Which got me thinking about schools. What are these ubiquitous institutions “molding” nowadays? And what about their leaders and staff? To what extent are they, in Levin’s words, “letting the distinct integrities and purposes of those institutions shape [them], rather than just using them as stages from which to be seen and heard”?
There are bright spots in the K–12 realm: individual schools—district, charter, private—that are about incubating young people into adults “who clearly take a standard of behavior and responsibility seriously” and who are also literate and numerate. In these schools—I’ve visited awesome examples and you can read about more with the help of Hunter and Olson—team members are indeed shaped by and contribute to the “integrities and purposes” of the institutions to which they’re committed, not posturing and gesturing to make themselves more prominent. I’ve seen the same dynamic at work in small charter networks and school systems—generally the kind that serve as functional communities of which the schools are pillars, not only because they educate kids, but also because they employ one’s neighbors and often serve as community centers in their own right.
When you look at sprawling districts and big CMOs, however, the picture often changes. And when you look at state and national education leaders and their organizations, it changes even more. Identity politics, ideology, partisanship, and self-promotion rear their unlovely heads, and the institutions themselves begin to behave in ways that erode rather than building confidence. What else could one conclude from the shenanigans roiling the New York City school system under Messrs. de Blasio and Carranza? What else is one to think about the noisy turns toward “social justice” and woke-ness that we see in once-revered reformist outfits like KIPP and TFA? Or the identity politics—and craven board-level cowardice—that led to Steven Wilson’s recent ouster at Ascend? Is that sort of thing meant to foster confidence in the institutions themselves and in those who lead them? For that matter, organizations that strive to develop such leaders for the education realm often succumb to similar tendencies.
Neglect of the central mission of institutions, replaced by self-interest (and celebrity), can also be glimpsed in the wave of angry teacher strikes that have disrupted a host of cities and states in recent years. Nobody can argue against the right of loyal members of an institution to seek more generous compensation, but what does it say when they force that institution to cease functioning so as to add to their own pocketbooks—and, often, the celebrity of their leaders?
A happy counter-example popped up these past few weeks in response to John White’s announcement that he’s stepping down as Louisiana’s state superintendent. The many accolades that have showered upon him and his work were linked to his dogged and creative efforts to turn the public schools of the Bayou State into viable and effective institutions. It seems we’re still able to recognize and applaud institution builders. (Could it be because they’re now so rare?)
Current nationwide efforts to advance social-emotional learning and civics education are a mixed bag. On the plus side, they’re animated by a desire for schools to be places where children learn to “take a standard of behavior and responsibility seriously.” Yet they can slide into empty self-esteem, protest politics, and groupthink of the kind that suppresses true dialogue, disagreement, and the quest for compromise. They also provide high-visibility platforms for individuals who crave that sort of prominence.
Educators, ed reformers, and leaders of education-related organizations would do well to take Levin’s admonitions seriously:
All of us have roles to play in some institutions we care about, be they familiar or communal, educational or professional, civic, political, cultural, or economic. Rebuilding trust in those institutions will require the people within them—that is, each of us—to be more trustworthy…. As a practical matter, this can mean forcing ourselves, in little moments of decision, to ask the great unasked question of our time: “Given my role in this institution, how should I behave?” That’s what people who take an institution they’ve involved with seriously would ask. “As a president or a member of Congress, a teacher or a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor, a pastor or a member, a parent or a neighbor, what should I do here?”
The people you most respect these days probably ask that kind of question before they make important judgments. The people who drive you crazy, who you think are part of the problem, are most likely those who clearly fail to ask it when they should…. And asking such questions is one thing we all can do to take on the complicated social crisis we are living through and begin to rebuild the bonds of trust essential for a free society.
And now to read the book…