Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The State of the Golden State According to Jerry Brown

Colton Hall (Monterey), site of California's 1849 Constitutional Convention
Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown got up in front of our state legislators and proclaimed that the Golden State had “confounded our critics”.  In the sense that we haven’t yet self-destructed I suppose he’s right, but the Governor’s triumphalist address, the full extent of his muddled, opaque, and often contradictory thinking was on display.

Students on UC and CSU campuses should welcome Brown’s rhetorical refusal “to let the students become the default financiers of our colleges and universities”, and we should do whatever we can to see that he lives up to those words, and to see that other decision makers hear them.

Equally welcome was Brown’s invocation of the threat posed by climate change, to which, he argued, “California is extremely vulnerable because of our Mediterranean climate, long coastline and reliance on snowpack for so much of our water supply”. 

But when one moved beyond the more sweeping rhetoric, Brown ran into troubles.  Characteristically, he echoed his perennial call for embracing limitations.  “It is cruel”, the Governor argued, “to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them back when the funding disappears.  That is not progress; it is not even progressive.  It is illusion.  That stop and go, boom and bust, serves no one”.  Imbibed without the benefit of critical thought, the Governor’s words sound fine.  But they are actually rather disturbing.  His cynically-invoked fear of disappointing people is a recipe for stasis.  How, if we always declined to act on the basis that someday someone might change some of the things we create, would we ever create or achieve anything?  Is it never important to do the right thing? 

Brown’s premise (not unlike that of Prop 13 which continues to cripple our state) ignores the moving principle behind a democracy, which is that each generation of citizens is free, within broad constitutional guidelines which they may change too if they like, to chart their own way.  I fear that his invocation of “illusion” is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy to stymie those who would like to preside over a desperately-needed reinvestment in our public sphere. 

On some level, Brown would be at home with the slavering, barking Tea Party-ers.  He might have joined them in their collective whinge against the healthcare law—“it’s too big...it’s too complicated” (as though the provision of healthcare for millions of people within a system constrained by our moral limits is a simple matter that could be summed up in 500 words or less)—as when he cited the Ten Commandments as an example of commendable legislative brevity.  The Governor is right to suggest that we need to reform and in many respects simplify the management and funding of California’s schools.  But to pretend that there is some simple formula out there plays into the hands of the critics for whom wholesale evisceration is the ultimate ambition.

Brown is, of course, right to critique an education system which “requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers”.  It is indeed wrong that “a stark, single number” has the potential to “encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child”.  But to blame this on centralisation per se rather than on the method or character of that centralisation is the easy, incomplete, and inadequate way out.  After all, devolving authority en masse to schools or districts risks turning the state education system into something resembling our national education system: where in some states creationism is taught as a scientific theory; where the Civil War, Jim Crow, the rise of capitalism, and the internment of Japanese Americans are all re-written to conform to a “patriotic” version of our history; where, in short, students are short-changed because of the ideological ambitions of pre-modern fundamentalists.

It might instead be more productive to quote something a little more recent than the Ten Commandments.  Brown and his administration could do worse than to read David Lilienthal, a proponent of the decentralisation of centralised power, a process he described as the endeavour to “delegate, dilute, and withdraw federal power out of Washington and back into the regions and states and localities...”*  Note, he is not discussing the destruction of legitimate, centralised authority which is the only kind of authority with the perspective and the legitimacy to promote a universalistic view of the common good (i.e. equality).  Rather, Lilienthal endorsed the repositioning of that authority, precisely the kind of move which might aid in reforming California’s chaotic education structure. 

Putting power closer to the people, a favourite refrain of Washington-based Congressional representatives who are generally interested in doing anything but giving up their own power, doesn’t have to mean putting that power in the hands of lower-level authorities in a way that sounds nice but might lead to gross inequities in standards or access.  It could mean sending the executors of centralised authority to the localities so that they too are attuned to local conditions.  In a sense it would be to expand the mandate of centralised educational authority, but in a way calculated to democratise the execution of their authority and their consumption of information from smaller-scale units.

Brown, between quoting Yeats and Portola, proposed the principle of subsidiarity, which he described as “the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level”.  “Subsidiarity is offended”, he remarked, invoking a theory as though it was a “thing” (something he castigated others for doing in the case of education), “when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is to be measured”. 

Brown’s theorising ignores the fact that it is not always a matter of the ability of local authorities to perform tasks, but rather their ability or willingness to perform them in a way which reflects our society’s push for an equality more expansive and substantive than the hollow “equality of opportunity” which postulates that anyone born into twenty-first century American society who does not fall into an embarrassment of riches is somehow suffering from a character flaw.  The alternative to the micromanagement of curricula is not necessarily the wholesale devolution of power, although the caricature is one which suits Brown.

The era of limits does not, it seems, extend to politicians’ rhetoric.  Brown attempted soaring tones: “We—right here in California—have such a rendezvous with destiny”.  But to Brown, destiny is a dry, dusty auditor, more interested in checking dreams, bringing ambitions up short, and squelching desires than in enabling the dramatic, expansive, and progressive kind of California to which the Governor alluded in his historical remarks.


*David Lilienthal, TVA: Democracy on the March.  New York: Harper, 1953: xiv to xv.

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