Who Controls Our Institutions?

Jul 29th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

As I have summarized many times on Issues in Perspective, God has created three primary institutions—the family, the state and the church.  Each has stewardship responsibilities before Him and the functioning of each according to His standards provides stability and order.  To reject these standards is to foster disorder and dysfunction.  American society today is experiencing growing disorder and dysfunction.  It is therefore wise to investigate who controls and sets the respective agendas for these institutions.

R.R. Reno, editor of the journal First Things, has written a profoundly helpful article.  It has helped me to understand what has happened in American society over the last few decades.  Because it has impacted my thinking, I want to summarize the salient elements of his argument and then apply these elements to public education.  Reno begins with this observation:  “Our institutions are crumbling, leaving us vulnerable and aimless.  It’s this general decay of authority, not fervent ideological passions, that makes our public culture seem so dysfunctional . . . for the most part the West is frustrated, cynical, angry—and hysterical.  How have we come to this condition?”  Here is a summary Reno’s answer:

  • Drawing on the work of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he identifies two elements of modern society:  [1] The Party of Permanency, which seeks to uphold the established norms and institutions, and [2] the Party of Change, who criticize, mock and satirize the status quo.  He argues that the “body politic is kept in equilibrium by an ongoing tension between the Party of Permanence and the Party of Change.  The former checks the rashness and impatience of the latter, and the latter challenges the complacency and indifference of the former . . . That polarity likewise frames contemporary American politics.  Liberals see themselves as agents of change in economics, politics, and morals.  The moderates are reformist; the radicals are revolutionary.  Meanwhile, conservatives use their power as pillars of the status quo to provide a brake, limiting change and ensuring continuity.  For most of American history, something like Coleridge’s fruitful tension obtained  . . . In my lifetime, this system has broken down.”
  • Over the last two generations, “the Party of Permanency has lost control of the institutions that anchor society.  Those institutions have been taken over by the Party of Change.”  Two consequences have followed:
  1. “[A]s the Party of Change assumes control of foundational institutions, the anchoring realities of our lives become so flexible, porous, and open that they lose their authority.  The redefinition of marriage offers an obvious example.  A similar process has taken place in universities, museums, and certain religious communities . . . the upshot is a social environment of diminished institutions that are less capable of commanding assent and giving stability to our lives.  In short, we see the disintegration of social forms and the atomization of individuals.  Today, a young person is more likely to be formed within the fluid world of social media than by traditional institutions.”
  2. “The second consequence of the ascendancy of the Party of Change is more narrowly political . . . Driven to the margins of the open-society consensus, those who draw upon metaphysical truths no longer wield establishment power.  Media, universities, foundations, and other institutions denounce us as ‘fearful of change’ at best, and more often as ‘haters,’ ‘homophobes,’ and other moral monstrosities.”
  • “Censured and sidelined, what remains of the Party of Permanency begins to regard the status quo as hostile . . . The ‘negative world’ is one in which the Party of Change has colonized all the important institutions.  This development places those of us who believe in ‘permanent things’ outside the establishment . . . The almost total triumph of the Party of Change has given revolutionaries and their fellow travelers possession of powerful institutions.  They now use their institutional power to impose [their agenda] on every aspect of society, including private life, where pronouns are policed . . . The Party of Change acts like the old Party of Permanency, deploying its ample institutional power to suppress dissent and maintain the status quo . . . [This] generates today’s polarization and encourages nihilistic politics. . . . The Party of Change has become an ersatz Party of Permanency, a very powerful establishment invested in permanent revolution.”

Now, consider the institution of public education.  Public education has been a bedrock institution of American society since at least the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided for public education in the territory of the northwest obtained after the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution.  In the early centuries of public education, there was an agreed upon curriculum and there was a consensus on school discipline.  Behavioral codes were fairly uniform and the expectation was that teachers, administrators and parents all supported and reinforced these behavioral codes.  Daniel Buck, a public school teacher in America today, observes that “the old behavioral codes are going down, one by one—that’s what I’ve observed in the last few years.  School districts, including my own, rely less on suspensions and expulsions, replacing them with novel approaches such as ‘restorative justice.’”

Buck also summarizes the reasons for the deterioration of discipline in public schools.  He cites the conclusions of a poll taken for Illinois schools.  “The reduction in suspensions harmed school climate the pollsters said, only because teachers lacked sufficient training in alternatives to punitive discipline.  Bad behavior is always the communication of an unmet need or a flaw in the system.  This is the psychology that prevails among officials.  The idea school is so full of meaningful activity and communitarian vibes that no child will feel the urge to misbehave . . . Students misbehave because they are hungry, or frustrated by cultural conflicts of some kind.  Provide them with sufficient food and meaningful school work and misbehavior will disappear.”

Buck’s observations pierce the fabric of the idealism that pervades the current educational establishment in the public schools.  To use Reno’s phrase, education today buys into the Party of Change.  These revolutionaries are using their considerable power to stifle dissent and foster conformity to the following presuppositions:

  • “The ideal education, then, removes children from society, from social norms, from the control and direction of authorities, and allows them to follow their inborn goodness.”
  • “In modern debates about school discipline, the causes of physical fights or profane speech must lie outside the students themselves.  What have teachers done to provoke inattention?  If their lessons were more engaging, if their sensitivities were sharper, disruptions wouldn’t occur. If rebellion breaks out, it must mean that something in the school system is oppressive.  A child who throws a chair at a teacher . . . bespeaks an unaddressed wrong.”
  • Evil springs from unmet needs, not from human nature.  For example, “The Oakland guide to discipline, which promotes ‘moving from punitive to restorative practices,’ predicts that once restorative discipline has been instituted, teachers and administrators will never again need to call home or assign detention, for students will be so drawn to schoolwork that they’ll never shoot a spitball, toss a paper airplane, or insist that a teacher perform a four-letter-act upon himself.”

Buck is arguably pointed in his conclusion:  “When schools remove the structure that punishment enforces, the result will not be, as romantic theories predict, the utopian flourishing of the unbridled child.  Instead, we will have anarchy, the power of the stronger child over the weaker.”

The Party of Change, which now dominates public education, not only rejects what the Bible says about human behavior but also what an intellectually honest study of human history demonstrates—children are by nature sinners.  Children are capable of wickedness and cruelty.  Children are capable of doing monstrously evil things.  Children must be held accountable: Not by an idealistic scheme of “restorative justice,” but by a system of punitive justice.  Buck concludes that “schools fail when they lose sight of human nature . . . There is something rotten in the core of man.  When schools deny this, when they fail to punish cruelty, the apple is left putrefying on the teacher’s desk.”

See R.R. Reno “Permanent Revolution” in First Things (June/July 2023), pp. 65-66 and Daniel Buck “Don’t Spare the Rod, in ibid, p. 13.

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