The Value of Messiness


I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power. - Thomas Jefferson

I had planned to write about life as a new Executive Committee member, the shock of the new and such, but I find my thoughts occupied by the "why" of Exec life more than the "how." Suffice it to say, instructions for writing a candidate's statement and running for office are available at the Senate website. YES, if elected, you may chair a committee, and perhaps serve on other committees and task forces, and visit shiny meeting tables in rooms scattered throughout our great state. You'll learn new acronyms, write papers, and your email will teem with unfamiliar names. In the end, you will add an entry to your Curriculum Vitae, and one may well ask, "Why bother?" To that, my personal answer is didactic and simple: the preservation of messiness.

You see, I believe in the messiness of liberty. Today, as never before, the test of liberty is, can it retain its essential messiness and endure against authoritative models of "good sense?" Consider, for example, the demands for accountability that are coming at us from all sides. Naturally, we should want our legislators and state programs to be good and efficient stewards of our tax dollars, but accountability can be coded for "Your government knows best." Consider, for example, such suggestions as improving educational quality as measured by improved scores on proficiency exams; differentiating funding between lower division and upper division course levels and disciplines; higher education vouchers; high fees, high aid; and cutting instructional costs through computer-based learning models that employ undergraduate mentors to educate increasing numbers of students. What these suggestions have in common are limited access, a narrowed curriculum, and a Fritz Lang vision of Metropolis, everything in its place.

The goals under consideration by state leaders may be arrived in the guise of fiscal frugality, but aggregating our state and its curriculum into a onesize-fits-all formula is impractical. How can a poor, rural district be treated equitably with a wealthy, homogeneous district? Besides, the correlation between proficiency exams and student success is mythic at best. We know that large scale testing in K-12 has created a sizable and expensive bureaucracy, given rise to a flotilla of subsidiary consultants, and resulted in curriculum that is as narrow as a Scantron bubble - but it has not benefited students or school districts. Where K-12 is a thirteen-year compulsory education system, California's Community College System is two years, non-compulsory, and fraught with census variations. Any attempt to aggregate and regulate the whole will likely result in a bureaucratic, Kafkaesque nightmare.

I believe, rather, that it is appropriate to defend local control, particularly where curriculum, governance, and funding decisions are concerned. Though the results may appear messy from a distance, I have greater faith in local boards and faculty than I do in formulaic decisions arrived at by remote committees and term-limited politicians. Surely, the tradition of American ingenuity can best be perpetuated by curricula born of liberty, infused with individuality, and dedicated to access for all. It's not the economy; it's the people, stupid.

So what has all of this to do with serving on the Executive Committee?

Recently, my students and I analyzed the "Gettysburg Address," and, as always, the meaning of "four score and seven years" came up. In Lincoln's day, I explained, elderly Revolutionary War veterans listened to his address, and the significance of "four score and seven years" is how young our democracy was at the time. Naturally, my students view America's founding and the Civil War as ancient history, so I attempted to bridge the span of years with the following anecdote.

When I was eight years old, a friend of my mother had an elderly father, "Pop," who occupied a bedroom in her household. Pop was 98 years old and was born in 1857. I remember listening to his stories of the old days. Pop actually remembered the Civil War and, as a young boy, he had listened to the tales of old Revolutionary War veterans. That's how recent our founding is. I knew someone who knew soldiers from the Revolutionary War. Today, according to census information, there are more than 10,000 Americans who are 100 years or older. Thus, I tell my students that the founding of the American experiment is a little more than two long life spans ago and that the dream of democracy is new and fragile within the world of human affairs.

Now, 140 years after Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," our systems of education remain vital to the continuance of a free united America. Like liberty itself, the promise of affordable education must be equally available to all citizens, regardless of income, color or creed. Our community college system seems to be the last vestige of the town square, the one place where Americans of all histories and persuasions can engage in the messy discussions necessary to prepare for a shared future in a pluralistic society. For me, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges is a great defender of America's finest dreams of and for itself, and that is why I, who rarely identify with any group, am proud to serve on the its Executive Committee.

I know that it is easy to become world-weary in these times of Patriot Acts and accountability about such an arcane and abused word as "liberty," and yet I subscribe to the idea that the debt owed by us the living remains payable in each generation. Liberty, warts and all, is still our birthright, and may yet be forfeit, not to foreign forces but by our own inattention to the unfinished work that has been, in Lincoln's words, "thus far nobly advanced."