It should go without saying but, by definition, true conservatives never should destroy; they conserve.
What do they conserve? They conserve the collective wisdom of tradition, of lessons hard learned, of time honored practices that have built and sustained healthy communities.
Since we are approaching Halloween it may be useful to invoke Edmond Burke’s creepy but powerful phrase that gets to the heart of conservative thought: true conservatives engage the “democracy of the dead,” the sacrifices and work of those who have given us what we have.
Conserving what has been made, then, allowed the dead a vote of sorts.
Like his best 20th century interlocutors, Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Burke knew that progress and change would happen. Of course, he knew he couldn't bring time to a stop (in his magisterial work, The Conservative Mind, Kirk reminds a conservative wryly that he or she can’t stop progress – but one can try). But because so much “progress” and change can be generated by often irrational human passions – anger, revenge, fear, etc. – they urged resistance to change, particularly radical change, because we could be inadvertently throwing away something carefully constructed in a fit of rage or some other non - productive political emotion.
Writing in what was still a predominantly agrarian world (aside from London) populated by small villages, Burke was especially tuned to the fact that every village could produce – not necessarily an idiot, as in “village idiot,” a figure that everyone agreed to tolerate no matter how disruptive they became – but a figure or group of figures who would be seized by some powerful emotions and try to enact changes to things that had worked perfectly well for generations. Like many of his time Burke had a deep distrust for such enthusiasts.
If you were trained in this kind of literature and history it is especially jarring to hear how the word “conservative” is used today, particularly in terms of public education in Michigan.
We have an ostensibly conservative Governor from an ostensibly conservative party who fashion themselves “fiscal conservatives” who want to enact the most radical change in public education since we left the one room schoolhouses behind.
Governor Snyder’s Oxford Group is contemplating changing a system that has worked well for large sections of the state so that he can target particularly troubled areas (Detroit, Flint, etc.). While I see the rationale for making some changes – it is impossible to argue that some districts are not severely challenged – I can’t for the life of me see the connection to “conservatism.”
Let me cite major parts of the Governor’s objectives that violate core principles of conservative thought.
First, he wants money to follow individual students rather than districts. This will gut districts and eliminate a long established tradition of local control by Districts. If, for example, you voted YES last May 8th thinking you were doing something positive for your children or the community you need to tune in here. The school we build may not remain under local control. It really is that simple.
Second, he believes the primary reason for public education is to provide “career readiness.” This would be news to Thomas Jefferson and others who, conceptually at least, created public education because they understood that a representative democracy (as opposed to a monarchical system) needs an educated populace to be good citizens. Public education was created for the purposes of citizenship – not the needs of any given industry (which as this region knows full well grow, grow old, and then die). Citizenship never dies. Structure K-12 education around a “career” and you create a system to serve a fad, a whim of the market.
Third, he wants to do this under the guise of fiscal conservatism or fiscal responsibility but neither he nor The Oxford Group has any sense whatsoever of how much a radical change in public education will cost.
What we are lacking at the moment, I would argue then, is a true conservative. Someone who knows that in the wild political cycles that followed an economic collapse and the decline of a major industry the worst kind of passions would take hold. Someone that can see that those horrible feelings of anger and frustrated are being turned against teachers and school districts if for no other reason than teachers and districts are accessible and vulnerable. They have to sit and listen to the wildest opinions of the populace simply because they are "public."
I know we won’t find a conservative if we march to Lansing. What we can do is ask for a response from our local representatives, our neighbors, the people who live with us who are supposed to advocate for our concerns. We can ask the people who call themselves conservative – what gives? I have a pretty good idea, for example, barring a Democratic surprise in Oakland County, MI, who will take over for Chuck Moss come Nov. 6. There was a time when pols could ignore parents like me saying that is a "school board" issue -- at the moment, however, with Lansing looking to seize control over every part of school Districts, micro-managing like no professional has ever seen before, they can't dodge the issue.