Editor’s note: This commentary is by Frank Bryan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont. It was first published in the Rutland Herald and Times Argus on Sunday, April 27, 2014 (before the end of the legislative session).
When Robert Naisbitt published (in 1982) his seminal treatment (entitled “Megatrends”) of the emerging characteristics of the “third wave” (what is now called “postindustrial society”), he advised that it is important “to be riding the horse of history in the direction the horse is going.”
Those who might be tempted to support the bill in the Legislature to consolidate school districts should be advised that this particular horse is galloping backwards straight into the bowels of the past: the second wave – the concentrated, dehumanizing, hierarchical structure and politics of urban-industrial society. The world on the other hand (and especially Vermont) is fully engaged in future: what some have called the “techno-politics” of a more humane, decentralized and (most importantly) democratic postindustrial world. I say “techno” politics to emphasize that the key to this future is the (still developing) possibilities of the computer and its creation of the “information” society.
I intend here no strict analysis of the technical faults of H.883, which have been (with devastating effect I might add) already critiqued on these pages. But it is important to understand that this bill is “conservative” in the behavioral sense – perpetuating a process that has long since crested and passed: the process of increasing centralism, hierarchy and (yes) inhumanity in politics and governance.
And make no mistake, this bill is a major blow against small town democracy.
This critique is especially important because Vermont is so deeply committed to the third wave. Indeed, when I read Naisbitt’s book over 30 years ago I noted in a margin (when he wrote “agricultural and informational societies are decentralized …”) “This is Vermont!” For even then we were a leader in information technology. In fact Vermont had (despite its bucolic reputation) been a leader in technology from the beginning. For my own part I once wrote that: “while Vermont contributed almost none of the bulk of the industrial revolution, it contributes an amazing amount of the brains, given its tiny population.”
If a picture is worth a thousand words, so can be a causal flow chart! (Honest.) I urge readers to take a moment to “follow the arrows in the accompanying diagram. Here I outline the specifics of the model.
In short, the bill to “streamline” the educational governance structure in Vermont is a giant step toward what political scientists often call “marketplace” politics which features organized groups “buying and selling” influence in a political marketplace. It is designed to be fair of course and your vote is your currency. Our centralized marketplace in Vermont is better than it is in most states. But one of the reasons for that is because it is supported by a couple of centuries of decentralized small town democracy. And make no mistake; this bill is a major blow against small town democracy.
As Vermont’s own John Dewey (who was one of America’s all-time leading political philosophers) once said: “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the small community.” And knowing Dewey, is there any doubt that he might have added; “and face-to-face democratic governance in local education is the soul of the small community”?
On a personal note, I’ve been studying and writing about democracy in Vermont for half a century. I can’t remember a more serious threat to it. Please. Defeat this bill.