TT #21 – Subsidiarity

In the last article, Traditionalist Teacher decried the effects of the bureaucratic mind.  It is, however, easy to complain, far riskier to propose a solution.  However, TT would like to point out that there is an antidote to the bureaucratic mind.  It is called subsidiarity.

It is a sign of the virtually universal nature of bureaucracy that the term itself is virtually unknown.  However, it can and does work.  It is the basic idea behind the English Common Law and the functioning of the oldest and largest organization in the world, the Roman Catholic Church.

Subsidiarity is the idea that any problem should be solved at the lowest possible level.  Webster defines it as, “a principle in social organization: functions which subordinate or local organizations perform effectively belong more properly to them than to a dominant central organization.”[1]

Perhaps the most important advantage of subsidiarity is that the problem, whatever the problem may be, is best solved by someone who is intimately connected to it.  The decision maker is apt to be more careful, because he/she/they will have to live with the consequences of the decision.  The eventual decision is more likely to consider the emotional and physical well-being of those affected because the decision maker personally knows all or most of them.

Think, if you will, about the way that a functional family makes a decision – say about the location of this summer’s vacation.  The parameters of the decision – the timing of the vacation, the length of the vacation, the available financial resources, etc. – are well known to all of the affected parties.  Likewise, the desires of each member are well known to the others.  It is easy for each member to share information with other members.  The decision can be made over time, with small and (hopefully) pleasant conversations happening naturally and sporadically for months before the vacation actually takes place.  The result is a vacation that meet the needs and resources of the family and some of the desires of each of its members.  Each family makes a separate decision, and no one expects the decision to be identical to the decision made by some other family.

Let’s draw an absurd contrast to a vacation planned by a central bureaucracy.  Every family gets the same amount of time, say one week.  A series of government subsidized vacation centers are set up, each center focused around a different experience – theme parks, a cruise, golf, beaches, camping, big city art and theater, mountains, etc.  Each year, the family is assigned to a rotation of these experiences – this year is the beach, next year the city, year three in a golf resort, year four is the cruise, etc.  Every family is treated to an equal share of the available vacation resources, all managed by the Department of Recreation.  For the sake of efficiency, all those living in a particular residence district will go on vacation as a group.

Traditionalist Teacher hopes that the disadvantages of this scheme are obvious.  TT’s idea of a perfect vacation involves a lot of time for rest and reading.  This idea would be absolute tedium to someone who enjoys more active recreation.

Now, it could be argued that a vacation is pleasant but relatively trivial.  Education, the argument goes, is FAR too important to leave to so haphazard a process.

Traditionalist Teacher would like to pose the contrary argument – that education is far too important AND far too intimate to be dictated by someone who does not know the student, and the better they know the student – the better the decision would be.

Over the course of the Twentieth Century, American public education – like America itself – has grown increasingly centralized.  Partly that is due to the increased power of the bureaucracy, but it is also due to our impatience.  Americans tend to think in large terms.  We want the complete solution, the grand gesture.  We admire leaders who can, “kick butt and take names.”  We adore power.

So then, what would a school system based upon the concept of subsidiarity look like?

First, the school district would be as small as economically feasible.  The decisions about feasibility would be made by the people within that district, rather than by some federal or state authority.  The values of the school district would also be set by that community.  In the event that some family’s values are violated by their community’s schools, those students would be able to attend the schools of some nearby district.  Should that not work, the family would be allowed to use their share of the available educational resources to choose, and partially pay for, another educational setting for their children.

Within the boundaries of the community’s well-stated and well-understood values, the teacher would be given the primary ability to determine the educational processes within that classroom.  Methods of instruction and discipline would be set and enforced by the teacher.  These decisions would, presumably, be based upon the best interests of the students and the gifts and abilities of the individual teacher.  Whatever level of coordination between teachers might be necessary could be done informally at lunch, after school, or in any mutually agreeable setting.

The primary role of the principal would be to oversee the smooth running of the school and building, the provision and allotment of available resources, and other needs common to all of the teachers and students in the school.  Those duties would include the hiring of new teachers as necessary and determining the master schedule.  Occasionally, those responsibilities would include the ability to step in should it become obvious that a particular teacher is either unwilling or unable to function effectively.

The superintendent’s main job is to oversee matters that are of concern to all of the schools in the district.  These would include the allocation of available resources to the various schools, transportation of students, etc. as well as the hiring of principals.

Before we turn away from the professional staff of the schools, it should be emphasized that the teachers should be free to ask the advice of principals and, in turn, the principals should be able to ask for the advice of the superintendent.  However, that conversation should be instigated by the lower level employee.  If the supervisor has successfully completed the task of hiring subordinates, they should be trusted to make the decisions appropriate to their office. Only when it is obvious that those decisions are not being made, or are being made in ways that are ineffective, should the superior intrude into the realm of the subordinate.

That then brings us to the job of the school board.  In most localities, the school board is made up of people who are representative of their community, but are not professional educators.  They have two primary functions.  The first is to hire the superintendent.  The second is to act as a conduit to inform the superintendent of the nature of schooling that the community desires.  This function is crucial.  Through it the community determines the overall philosophy, priorities, and policies of the system – which, after all, they fund through their taxes and/or tuition.

In this way, the circle is complete.  The community gets the schools that it wants for its children and will support.  The students are taught by professionals who have their best interests at heart, and the power to act accordingly.  The administrators run effective schools, according to policies set by an informed group of board members selected by the community.

There is a role for the state, but it is minimal.  The state should set minimum standards for procuring a diploma.  It could also be argued that the state should supplement the resources available to schools that serve impoverished communities.  Within this framework, little state and no federal bureaucracy is necessary.

Traditionalist Teacher understands that this will be tough to sell to the bureaucrats that run modern education.  They are in highly entrenched and, to a greater or lesser extent, powerful positions.  They will not want to give them up.  Cadres of administrators, denizens of the state and federal departments of education, and the unions who claim to represent the teachers will all sound a chorus of despair should any such proposal even come close to implementation.

To that chorus there is only one real answer.  The community needs to remind the bureaucrats of the mess that we find ourselves enduring now.  The bureaucrats have given us schools that promise much, are very expensive, and deliver all too little.  We – the teachers with the support of the community – can indeed do a better job more efficiently and at a far lower cost.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subsidiarity

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3 comments on “TT #21 – Subsidiarity
  1. I’m now not positive where you’re getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend a while studying more or understanding more. Thank you for great info I was in search of this information for my mission.

  2. alat listrik says:

    Awesome write-up. I’m a normal visitor of your blog and appreciate you taking the time to maintain the nice site. I will be a regular visitor for a long time.

    • Ed says:

      Thank you very much. Please take part in the conversation by telling about your teaching experiences, and how they relate to the things that you find here.

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