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Fixing Social Insecurity

Last year, Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission [1], was a bestseller and culture-marker in France. It’s endlessly insightful about religion and public life in our wealthy, worn-out Western nations (there’s even an episode in which the protagonist has a vision of the Virgin Mary, though she withdraws and he does not convert). But for present purposes, it’s worth contemplating another part of the story: Because of splits among liberals and conservatives, a “moderate” Muslim becomes president of France. He parcels out ministries (similar to our cabinet posts) to various other (non-Muslim) parties, a traditional French practice, giving them a stake in the government.

Only one ministry is reserved for his party: education. In short order, that turns France upside down. Given that schools and universities throughout the country are staffed with teachers and administrators who essentially believe in nothing, it’s not hard to change things, even big things, when someone who believes in something takes power. At Houellebecq’s fictional Sorbonne, for example, professors retire, are weeded or bought out, or seduced with large amounts of money from the Gulf States. The whole country, including the intellectual class, quickly acquires a Muslim vibe.

But let’s jump from that fiction to real-world America, 2017: a new president has now been sworn in and his cabinet is slowly being approved. But at what anthropologists call “liminal” moments like this – when we pass from one place to another – large issues show themselves with new clarity. The uncertainties – and anxieties – of this particular transition make understanding certain issues more urgent than ever.

Our national defenses now seem in better hands. The new Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, was the first (and most favorably) approved, with good reason. He was not only a good Marine commander. He’s a reader and thinker. Full disclosure: my family has personal reasons to thank him, though I’ll forego particulars. But ours is only one of many stories about his character – not least that he drove around the country after retiring to visit families of Marines who died under his command.

Our economy is relatively strong by current world standards, hard as that may be to credit. The people President Trump has appointed seem to understand sound economic principles, maybe even better than Trump himself. But while economic principles may be clear, circumstances are always changing. The best economist I ever knew once told me about a policy decision, “It’s right, all things being equal. But they never are.” We’ll soon see if the new economic team is as prudent and effective as the defense team seems to be.

But as these hearings were grinding on something kept nagging me. A Christian, like any other citizen, knows that a country’s material conditions – security and prosperity – are important, and can even affect non-material things. But a Christian also can never get very far from the Dominical saying – to the Devil, no less – that man does not live by bread (or physical security) alone.

Watching the grilling of Betsy DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education, reminded me of that saying – and Houellebecq’s novel. De Vos is a forceful advocate for school choice, which the educational establishment thinks is code language for racism and a stingy, mean-spirited effort to destroy public schools, though the establishment has already done a pretty fair job itself at the latter.

People talk a lot about failing inner-city schools, by which they mean that government-run schools are not imparting the skills needed to succeed in our economy. True enough; students need to learn how to keep body and soul together. It would help if state-run schools also acknowledged that most sane people think they’re more than bodies.

And there’s much more at stake. Schools – even in affluent areas – are also not teaching our constitutional, religious, and social traditions very well. For them, traditional America is unjust, bigoted, elitist. It was our high schools and universities that taught millions of Americans to speak the vulgar language of angry moral superiority that we witnessed in the “March for Women” the day after the Inauguration.

Unions, academic groups, our hapless media claim that those who want more local control and individual choice over schools really just want to lower taxes and abandon the poor. In fact, there’s an even bigger threat to their status quo. If Trump succeeds, as did Reagan, in making patriotism and religiosity vibrant parts of our public life again, it will be a great achievement in itself. But we know that cannot long last if our schools and universities keep pushing statist, secularist, politically correct lessons.

It was no surprise to me, then, that both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders refused to shake Betsy DeVos’ hand when she came in for her hearing. They know how much rides on her appointment. She’s a very wealthy woman; they tried to make it seem as if that very fact was disqualifying or something to be ashamed of. True, she’s never attended public schools – and why would she? Senators and congressmen who come to Washington rarely allow their kids to go to D.C. schools – with good reason.

Washington is fourth in per-student spending among major American cities. It’s 106th in terms of outcome. The system cannot even say how many employees or students it has. Unlike her critics, Betsy DeVos has put a lot of money – her own money – into improving education, not just talking about improving it.

But DeVos is being vilified because her department will shape the long-term future. Education is a long game and few have the patience to play it in our digital world. But don’t be misled. We need a stronger economy and military and national spirit. Yet they can be easily washed away again if we continue to allow students to spend a dozen years under the schoolmasters and PC regimes currently in place.

Changes at the top, as in Houellebecq’s fictional Muslim France, can produce changes everywhere. And the establishment knows it.

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as the St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies at Thomas More College. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.