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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: David Gelernter

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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The future is both dark—the problem isn’t debt but dependency—and bright, because the real achievement of the Internet will be a return to the one-room schoolhouse.

Public debt will be brought under control—a clear majority wants it; but once America crosses the tax-dependency threshold, the future swallows hard and gets heart palpitations. The total number of Americans who live off tax revenues is hard to figure out: government workers and their families, teachers, staff at government contractors, the military and so on. It’s not dishonorable to be a tax client, but disinterested voting is tricky for such people, and it requires much civic virtue—which isn’t always available.

Remember, Wisconsin ought to be a theme of every conservative campaign next year: the danger is not that tax clients will become a majority but that they will increasingly make common cause, gain arrogance and swagger, and become a danger to democracy.

In Wisconsin, voters elected a Republican governor to get control of a large state budget deficit and a huge unfunded state-worker pension liability. The governor suggested, among other far-right ideas, that state workers should pay into their own pension funds. Mobilizing union and establishment support from across the country, Wisconsin’s privileged minority of state workers (who earn more, on average, than do ordinary citizens) did its best to commit armed robbery against the population. Democratic state legislators actually walked out on democracy—ran away and hid. The Detroit Symphony, which also happened to be on strike, sent commando squads to entertain Wisconsin state workers with solidarity anthems and inspirational chamber music. Well-funded recall attempts against several Republicans were fended off with difficulty, like shark attacks. The Democrats are lucky they failed, or they might have faced actual public wrath.

Enlarging the tax client state-within-a-state is increasingly dangerous to the republic.

On the other hand, sometime within a decade or so, a new and refreshing type of building will rise somewhere in suburbia: a one-room schoolhouse with seats for 30-odd students, computers and headphones for each, some printers, a desk and flag in front and a playground outside.

The 30 students who attend this “school” are of assorted ages; each is enrolled in a separate set of online courses chosen by his parents. The children could learn at home, but spending time at school is good for them, their parents, and the community. The adult sitting up front doesn’t need an education degree or any other degree. She only needs to be known in the neighborhood as sensible, reliable, and good with children. She calls the school to order, takes attendance, leads the Pledge, announces recess, and handles any child-type emergencies. These new micro-schools are so cheap, we can build as many as we like.

It goes without saying that American public schools, and most colleges and universities, are now on the long, slow ride to the gallows. Their high costs, obvious political agenda, and gross incompetence mean that eradication is their only conceivable fate. Online schooling is a far-from-perfect alternative, but it’s the one we have. To balance its obvious disadvantages, it has enormous potential for good—beyond the decent education it provides. If we are imaginative about this new kind of public institution, these little red Internet schoolhouses, much good may yet emerge from the wreckage of American public schools.

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David Gelernter is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale) and a forthcoming book about the American Cultural Revolution.



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