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Chapter 5



This talk, eventually one of the most popular arrows in my peripatetic speaker’s quiver, began life in a slightly altered form as an essay in The Maine Scholar.

THESE ARE SURREALISTIC TIMES. The scientific school establishment continues to float plans for further centralization in the form of national standards, a national curriculum, and improved national standardized testing. Magical promises are everywhere: machines are the answer; massive interventions are the answer; new forms of pre-schooling are the answer; baseball bats, bullhorns, and padlocks are the answer. In the face of a century and a half of searching for it unsuccessfully, nobody seems to doubt for a minute that there is an answer. One answer. The one right answer.

Perhaps you agree, perhaps not. But if some lingering doubt exists in your mind about the possibility of a central prescription ever touching the school disease, then come with me for a while back to Colonial New England where a different theory of institutions existed, a theory which might lead to the best kind of rethinking/ reform, where serious mistakes are self-limiting and, in historical terms, quickly foreclosed by natural market mechanisms. Come with me to the coasts of Colonial New England, to towns like Salem and Marblehead, Framingham and Dedham, Wellfleet and Provincetown. Consider a different perspective that grew out of the soil of a New World, a perspective that shocked other nations with the productivity of its genius.

This new system began with the first Puritan church at Salem, organized in 1629 by the so-called “Salem Procedure.” No “higher-up” was around to approve the selection of the church authorities, so the congregation took that responsibility upon themselves. With that simple act, they took power that had traditionally belonged to some certified expert and placed it in the hands of people who went to church. That was the sole criterion of governance: that a voter took going to church seriously and joined a congregation as evidence. It was an act of monumental localism. For the next two hundred years that simple shedding of traditional authority corroded the monopoly power of the state and church to broadcast uniform versions of the truth. Each separate congregation took a vigorous role in particularizing its own parish through debate of lay members, not through the centralization inherent in pronouncement by outside authority. Each separate congregation took on responsibility for solving its own problems — whether of education, economics, or doctrine — rather than submitting to the old authority of England or to the new aristocracy of expertise.


Last fall I spoke in the town of Dedham at a church built in 1638, only nine years after the Arbella brought the Nonconformists to Boston. The church I spoke in was Unitarian Universalist, but had originally been Congregational. White spire, strikingly plain, graceful lines — the simplicity and rightness of Congregational church architecture is absolutely unmistakable, remarkable, and uniform. You may or may not be aware that the style of worship that went with this style of architecture was the original and exclusive religion of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, from the Salem Procedure until 1834, over two hundred years of what seems on the surface to be a “one-right-way” religion. You were either a Congregationalist or you weren’t anything you dared speak of in public, at least without risk of being shunned, persecuted, or even burned at the stake. So far this sounds even worse than the school monopoly that ruins us, doesn’t it?

These Congregationalists were so jealously protective of their monopoly that one hundred and seventy years ago, when Lyman Beecher got word that Unitarians were on their way out from the bowels of hell, he rode through the streets just like Paul Revere warning, “The Unitarians are coming! The Unitarians are coming!” You’ll gather Parson Beecher wasn’t exactly thrilled with their advent. But an amazing thing happened over the next century. The Congregationalists slowly changed their minds without being forced to do so. By the end of the 1800s, the Unitarians were well-respected throughout New England.

Most people think of Colonial New England as embodying the greatest period of conformity this country has ever seen. But the nature of Congregationalism hides a very great irony: structurally, this way of life demands individuality, not regimentation. The service is almost free of liturgy, emphasizing local preaching about local issues. This virtually guarantees dissonance inside the congregation. The constant struggle for clarity by every church member acting as his or her own priest, his or her own expert, invariably leads to progress toward truth. Why do I say that? Well, what I’ve just described is the process that Aristotle and Karl Marx and Thomas Hobbes and any of a large number of creative thinkers have called “the dialectic.” The Congregational procedure was dialectical down to its roots, in a way acutely hostile to hierarchical thinking.

Central planners of any period despise the dialectic because it gets in the way of efficiently broadcasting “one right way” to do things. Half a century ago Bertrand Russell remarked that the United States was the only major country on earth that deliberately avoided teaching its children to think dialectically. He was talking about twentieth-century America, of course, the land of compulsory government schooling, not the New England of Congregational distinction. Did you wonder where “Yankees” got their lasting reputation for stubbornness, orneriness, and shrewd hair-splitting? Now you know. Roger Williams saw as clearly as any person of his time and recognized the inevitable connection between dissonance and quality of life. You can’t have one without the other.

Much recent scholarship has shown the towns of Massachusetts in the seventeenth century not to be uniform at all, but to be laboratories of local choice and style. Each had considerable flexibility to deviate from what might have been central governmental rule. The town of Dedham, where I spoke last fall, drew its original settlers from East Anglia in England, a place that favored private ownership and individual choice. The institutions of East Anglia quickly established themselves in the New World too. On the other hand, Sudbury, the town next to Dedham, had been populated by colonists of Saxon and Celtic background, who traditionally shared their work. Just as they had done in Britain they held open fields in common in America. In Colonial Massachusetts, then, there was creative tension between the common culture of the region and the local village culture. Like tension in music or poetry between a regular pattern and creative departures from it, this tension among the small towns and among the different congregations and inside each separate congregation produced an astonishing energy, a fertile and idiosyncratic peculiarity that characterized the particular genius that distinguished colonial Massachusetts.

Now I want us to examine something that seems embarrassing in New England civil life; and yet, paradoxically, I think it hides a secret of great power, which the social engineers who built and maintain our government monopoly schools are forced to overlook: Each town was able to exclude people it didn’t like! People were able to choose whom they wanted to work with, to sort themselves into a living curriculum that worked for them. The words of the first Dedham charter catch this feeling perfectly; the original settlers wanted to (and did) shut out “people whose dispositions do not suit us, whose society will be hurtful to us.” So in a funny way these early towns functioned like selective clubs or colleges, like MIT and Harvard do today, narrowing human differences down to a range that could be managed by them humanely. If you consider the tremendous stresses the dialectical process sets up anyway — where all people are their own priests, their own final masters — it’s hard to see how a congregational society can do otherwise. If you have to accept everyone, no matter how hostile they may be to your own personality, philosophy, or mission, then an operation would quickly become paralyzed by fatal disagreements. The common causes and purposes that mark human association at its best would then degrade into those few innocuous undertakings that have no political dimension, if such can be found.

It’s a subtle distinction: living dialectically as the New Englanders did produces spectacular accomplishments and brings out strong qualities of character and mind in individuals, but it isn’t possible to manage where the whole catalogue of human beings is thrown together haphazardly or forced together, as it is in government monopoly school life. To prevent chaos in these places, management must aim, by hook or by crook, to make everything — time, space, texts, and procedures — as uniform as possible. The Greeks had a story about a man who did just that; his name was Procustes. He cut or stretched travelers to fit his guest bed. The system worked perfectly, but it played havoc with the traveler.

These New Englanders invented a system where people who wanted to live and work together could do so. Yet the whole region seemed to prosper in wonderful ways: materially, intellectually, and socially. It was almost as if by taking care of your own business you succeeded in some magical fashion in taking care of pubic business too. The habits of self-reliance, self-respect, fearlessness, democracy, and local loyalty produced good citizens. Government monopoly schools use a different blueprint these days, of course. People are drawn willy-nilly out of large “catchment” areas and dumped together into compartments according to similar scores on standardized tests. There they are exhorted to perform and behave according to the specifications of strangers. Christopher Lasch writes in The True and Only Heaven:

The capacity for loyalty is stretched too thin when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the human race. It needs to attach itself to specific people and specific places, not to an abstract ideal of universal human rights. We love particular men and women, not humanity in general.

This catches a piece of what’s wrong with compulsory schools as large as New England towns, schools that don’t allow any choice of curricula, philosophy, or companions. Wendell Berry catches another piece of it in a letter to a magazine editor:

I don’t think “global thinking” is futile, I think it is impossible. You can’t think about what you don’t know and nobody knows this planet. Some people know a little about a few small parts of it … The people who think globally do so by abstractly and statistically reducing the globe to quantities. Political tyrants and industrial exploiters have done this most successfully. Their concepts and their greed are abstract and their abstractions lead with terrifying directness and simplicity to acts that are invariably destructive. If you want to do good and preserving acts you must think and act locally. The effort to do good acts gives the global game away. You can’t do a good act that is global … a good act, to be good, must be acceptable to what Alexander Pope called “the genius of the place.” This calls for local knowledge, local skills, and local love that virtually none of us has, and that none of us can get by thinking globally. We can get it only by a local fidelity that we would have to maintain through several lifetimes … I don’t wish to be loved by people who don’t know me; if I were a planet I would feel exactly the same way.

Local skills, local knowledge, local love, and local fidelity were what the forge of Congregationalism in New England produced best, but there was a negative side to this localism as well.

The religious discrimination of early New England was a way of ensuring enough local harmony that a community of people who suited each other could arise bearing a common vision. Here is a scene from three hundred years ago in the town of Dedham, Massachusetts, which could have been witnessed from the very church where I spoke: three Quaker women are stripped to the waist and whipped the length of town, tied to the tail of a cart. It would be an understatement to say that such treatment underlined the fact that the Quaker disposition was not one of those suited to Dedham. But then, for that matter, neither was the Presbyterian disposition. John Milton himself had written that the “new Presbyter is but old Priest writ large,” and so all Presbyterians were driven off to the wilds of New Jersey where they founded Princeton. Of course, it was equally bad for your health to be a Catholic in Dedham, or to be a Leveller, a Digger, or a Hutterite. In this detestable fashion Dedham was able to enjoy 234 years of religious purity before its Congregational monopoly was broken.

Well, what does this all mean? Just this: the negative side of local choice is very easy to see and even very easy to predict. We see it illustrated in the example of Colonial Dedham. But the whole matter is a good deal more complicated than assigning a bad grade to religious discrimination or to any other type of social choice that prescribes and limits a particular kind of human association. For instance, where could we begin to look for an explanation of how these people grew gradually more tolerant and came to accept all forms of religion? They even changed their conservative ways to the point where Massachusetts gained a national reputation as the most liberal state in the Union. That’s quite a flip-flop to account for in the absence of compulsion, intimidation, or potent enabling legislation, isn’t it. How did Dedham and the rest of those towns teach themselves to reform without experts making them do it and without central intervention? Remember, they only allowed the practitioners of one religion to vote. But they changed! And nobody forced them to do it! Something mysterious inside the structure of Congregationalism worked to have them abandon some of the exclusivity that adherence to Biblical elite dogma had taught them.

I am certain that “something” was nearly unconditional local choice. And it was self-correcting! Because the town churches did not team up to present an institutional orthodoxy that made each town just like another — as government monopoly schools do today — error in one church could be countered by its correction in another. As long as people had the choice to vote with their feet, the free market punished severe errors by leaving a congregation empty, just as it could reward a good place by filling it up. And even if enough rotten people were found to make a rotten town or rotten congregation, as long as there was no machinery in place for that one idea to compel all others to bow down before it, the human damage it could cause was strictly limited. Only when situations exist out of which a central orthodoxy can arise, like a pyramid, is there a real danger that some central poison can poison us all.


Yes, the negative aspects of local choice are easy to spot, and the overwhelming argument in its favor — that without it the genius of democracy cannot exist — is hard to see. Because there is plenty of local tyranny as well, the temptation is to cede power to a central authority in the name of fairness, to manage some best way for all from central headquarters. That’s what a national curriculum is supposed to be for schools, a rational, fair way to legislate bad schooling out of existence. A national curriculum would never have allowed Dedham or Sudbury or Framingham or Wellfleet to develop as they did; that would have been dangerous, unpredictable, divisive — no, they would have been regulated centrally, as our schools are today, even without a national curriculum and national standards.

And here comes the dialectic. The experience of our centrally planned century has not been very good for most people. According to some, the planet itself is in jeopardy. And things legislated out of existence, like alcohol and drug abuse or racism, don’t seem to go away as religious exclusivity went away naturally in New England under a regime of local choice; instead, law appears to give bad habits an injection of virulent new life. Think of the great progressive victories won in the courts because social engineers were unable to build popular consensus, or were unwilling to wait: affirmative action, desegregation, restrictions on graphic sexual imagery available at the local newsstand, various women’s rights issues, and so on. Are these victories for the groups the courts sought to protect, or do these victories hold the same value they would have, had they been won through change in the social consensus? By most parameters the plight of Black Americans, for example, now seems to be worse than it was in 1960. Furthermore, a mean-spiritedness seems to exist everywhere, including in our schools, that pours contempt and neglect on further efforts to give the descendants of slavery a hand. The predicament of women is a little trickier to see, but if sharply accelerated rates of suicide, heart disease, emotional illness, sterility, and other pathological conditions are an indicator, the admission of women en masse to the unisex workplace is not an unmixed blessing. Further, some disturbing evidence exists that the income of working couples in 1990 has only slightly more purchasing power than the income of the average working man did in 1910. In effect, two laborers are now being purchased for the price of one — an outcome Adam Smith or David Ricardo might have predicted. And an unseen social cost of all of this has been the destruction of family life, the loss of home as sanctuary or haven, and the bewilderment of children who, since infancy, have been raised by strangers.

Does central legal intimidation produce the social results it promises? Not so long ago narcotics were legal in the United States; while they were always a pernicious nuisance, they never became an epidemic before legislation prohibiting their use came into existence. Is it possible that compelling people to do something guarantees that they will do it poorly, with a bad will, or indifferently, unless you are willing, as the Army is, to suspend most human rights and use any degree of intimidation necessary?

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