The Clare Spark Blog

October 9, 2011

Vox populi, vox Big Brother: Terry Moe’s new book

In a prior blog ( I quoted from Federalist #22, written by Alexander Hamilton. The last paragraph is especially striking:  [Hamilton:] The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.” [Hamilton’s emphasis. p. 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]

[My comment on the prior blog:] “…what inspires me is the “elitist” Hamilton’s final remark affirming popular sovereignty (see Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, for commentary on what he calls a “hackneyed” expression. I look at Wood’s book here: Throughout The Federalist we find the same commitment to reason, specifically to concrete analysis of the material challenges that faced the new nation. Though they are often labeled as elitists by those who identify with the debtor class, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison did not appeal to “tradition” that had ever favored King and Church as the fountainhead of “legitimate authority.” Even though the men who argued for the Constitution were sharply at odds over some policies, they agreed that the American republican experiment was unprecedented, and the most enlightened in human history. Measures for educational reform, insofar as they construct a better curriculum, cannot ignore the fundamental rationalism and materialism of the Founders. “Live free or die,” is not merely the motto of New Hampshire; it is the very essence of American exceptionalism.” [end prior comment]

Now comes Terry M. Moe’s recent book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011). The author is a Stanford U. political scientist and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, who offers an institutional analysis of teachers unions, identifying them as the single most powerful special interest in the country affecting education, one that has successfully blocked efforts at education reform of the kind that would put the interests of students ahead of jobs for teachers. But the book ends on a hopeful note: not just globalization that has highlighted the deficiencies of American public education will turn the tide, but the internet will, over time, destroy the heretofore unbeatable teachers unions, through an unprecedented decentralization of power, accountability and choice for learners.

Here is where I find Moe’s utopia short-sighted, though of course I am on his side. Because he is an analyst of institutional structures and political power, and also, between the lines, a self-described progressive (he subtly aligns himself with the achievements of the New Deal, p.345), he is unable to identify the damage done to American children and their [progressive] educators over the last 120 years or so. For unlike the Founders, modern educators, fed by populism, statism, and ethnic or racial politics, have been anti-materialist and anti-rational; my website has been preoccupied with documenting this flight from science and from critical thought throughout the populist and progressive movements.

Terry Moe does not tackle either the curriculum that is everywhere contested, nor the fragmentation of vox populi, nor the nonstop partisan propaganda issuing from a multiplicity of groups, each vying to control what their children learn about past and present, almost invariably identifying the enemy as “narcissistic.” Big Brother is alive and well, and not just on the social democratic left that Orwell was worried about. Moe addresses a constituency that is dangerously polarized: the inevitable outcome of irrationalist political/social movements that do not always say directly what they really want.

Nevertheless, authoritarianism, whether it comes from the Left, Right, or “moderate middle”, is threatened by the proliferation of computers and the increasing possibility of self-education;* Moe is right about that. But before the much anticipated revolution in learning can be realized, students will have to learn to read and decode, i.e., comprehend,what they are seeing, whether words or images, or admired personalities, including their parents, teachers, and other idols.

*Larry Sand reminds me: “The change that Moe and most other online learning enthusiasts envision is one of ‘blended learning.’ In this model, students still attend school but  learn from online teachers and then have back-up from a live in person teacher.” He is correct, so the online research, properly conducted, does make it possible to become more self-directed and informed about competing historical narratives for all controversial events and partisan interpretations, including the words we use every day. See


  1. One (anyone) seems to argue from interest, and perhaps more so ideality. Should we think that a union is altogether a bad idea. It sounds it. Should we think that teachers unions in particular are bad versus other labor unions? If we imagine “worker protections” necessary (are they/), what are these specifically and then are there “protections” that are really only specious politics? Does a union tell a teacher how to teach or suggest curriculum? I’m fairly certain this is not the case but the state and federal government do. Indiana, for example, has chosen a certification process that negates all value we might give to actual teacher “training” (there ought to be deep training for this, right?).

    Arguing about teachers unions I think means that one should first lay out the “heaven” of education (as Auden suggests a reviewer ought to do prior to staking aesthetic/moral claims) before making claims about a value or detriment in that field. Does Mill do this in On Liberty? I don’t recall. He does suggest that if one can pay for education one ought to do this without interference; he also claims the state ought to provide education where parents fail in this duty; he then suggests if citizens pay for state-run education then there should be a quality control element for basic learning to indicate the money is being responsibly spent.

    What is the responsibility to educate and what are the goals (you say read and decode above in a list that promotes “ruining the sacred truths”–and amen to that)? Do Unions hinder that process? How does the proliferation of available (unfiltered?) “data” effectuate that process?

    I suppose, as I find this blog immensely interesting and stimulating and so full of “the ways of the world” of intellectual “clubbing” voices (Moby Dick, The Quarter Deck), I want (and am prepared to be disappointed) a very clear statement on some best practices. Not “right answers” but suggestions that lead to understanding. Something like the section on Balance from a previous post (“Moderate Men Falling Down”). Or perhaps that’s here somewhere and I haven’t come across it yet.

    I do like the thought of Orwell’s Big Brother being a Social Democrat…who are the Winston Smiths who will “wake up” and take up “pen and paper” in this online utopia?

    Comment by Douglas Storm — July 18, 2014 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

  2. […] of an education that prepared her to criticize proposed social policies and their advocates. (See What is also lost is the ongoing debate about markets: their wealth-creating potential, or […]

    Pingback by “Multiculturalism”: cui bono? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 10, 2011 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  3. A brief response….I agree with you. Although I’ve only read 3 chapters of Moe’s book thus far. I am still trying to compose my ideas on unions and it was helpful.But there are so many reasons for the ails of education and I blame the government and status quo for shaping education in the way they have.

    Comment by tresedu — October 9, 2011 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: