Posted on | May 9, 2010 | 72 Comments
That’s the essential thrust of Mark Lilla’s lengthy essay in the New York Review of Books:
[W]e need to see [the Tea Party movement] as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.
Lilla cites an interesting example of what he means:
A million and a half students in the United States are now being taught by their parents at home, nearly double the number a decade ago, and representing about fifteen students for every public school in the country.11 There is nothing remarkable about wanting to escape unsafe schools and incompetent teachers, or to make sure your children are raised within your religious tradition. What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves.
Remarkable, perhaps, but not mistaken. What almost every beginning home-schooling parent quickly discovers — by accident — is how much that goes on in the modern public education system is simply wasted time. Mom at the kitchen table can generally accomplish more with three hours of direct instruction as a public elementary school does in an entire day.
What few critics (or even advocates) of home-schooling fail to grasp is the extent to which its popularity reflects the democratization of education. More Americans are college-educated than ever before. Why should a mother with an Ivy League MBA suppose that she is less capable of teaching her children arithmetic than a state-school graduate with a BS Ed.? (As a proud alumnus of Jacksonville State University, I don’t intend this as a put-down of state-school graduates.)
Studies indicate that home-schooling parents generally have higher-than-average levels of education, and might therefore presumably are qualified to judge the adequacy of the education provided by public schools. If these parents reject the public system as inferior to what they can provide their own children at home, why should Lilla presume them incompetent to make that decision?
Yet Lilla’s more general target is libertarianism:
We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. . . .
Now an angry group of Americans wants to be freer still—free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules . . .
An exaggeration, of course, but you sense the source of liberal Lilla’s frustration. What was the point of the Left’s “long march through the institutions” if, having captured those institutions, they can’t use them to tell everybody else what to do?
UPDATE II (Smitty): Insta-lanche!