In the Arena

Meanwhile, Across Town

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An interesting weekend in Washington. Two conventions claiming 11,000 attendees each. One, the CPAC convention was heavily reported in the press–including by me, below; the other was the annual Teach For America alumni conference, where I moderated a panel after I’d spent three days listening to the Republican presidential candidates at CPAC. Both crowds were pretty young, but they could not have been more different. The CPAC crowd was full of grievances–America was falling apart, into a European-style socialism, the tax burden “crushing” entrepreneurs. The TFA crowd was full of questions–how do you educate more kids and teach them better, how do you deal with the stultifying education bureaucracies, how do you take the rigor and excellence that marks TFA into the broader society? If the most important question at CPAC was the one that Ron Paul asked of his young supporters–if we offer you 10% tax rates for the rest of your life, would you agree to ask nothing of the government?–the TFA alumni would answer Paul’s question with another question: What would a plan like that do for us as a society? And another question: Do you really believe that this is the most important question you can ask of citizens in a democracy? And another: Does the level of taxation have anything to do with the pursuit of happiness? Were people less happy in the 1950s and 1960s, when the marginal rates could reach as high as 70%–or in the 1990s, when the top rate was six points higher than it is today?

The panel I moderated was about Teach For All, the recent effort to expand the Teach For America principles of service and excellence to other countries. There were 900 people in the audience. There were representatives from China, India, Britain, Bulgaria, Germany, Malaysia and Australia on the dais with me–Teach For All is planting roots in approximately 40 countries around the world. These were spectacular people, smart and positive and enthusiastic. And the work they are doing is crucial: the young people of Egypt may have Facebook and Twitter, but they don’t have an educational system that teaches critical thinking; Egypt’s schools, like most in the middle east, employ rote-learning almost exclusively. It will be near-impossible to sustain a democratic revolution absent an education system that teaches people how to think for themselves.

This is the second time I’ve moderated a panel at the Teach for America conference–and both times I’ve come away exhilarated. Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder, has not only sent tens of thousands of college graduates to teach in America’s poorest schools–where 60% of them remain after their two-year obligation ends–she’s also built a movement that is political in only one crucial aspect: its adherents believe that what they do for their country is more important than what their country does for them. They understand, implicitly, that their own personal freedoms can only be exercised, in a satisfying way, within the context of a society that pays some mind to the common good. This may seem an old-fashioned principle in the flood-tide of self-indulgence that overwhelms our country, but it is an essential one.