…or Sometimes as Tragedy and Farce

“History repeats itself: first as tragedy then as farce,” according to Karl Marx. Not to be outdone, Congress and the president have gone Karl one better by managing both at once.

The “America Competes Act,” signed into law today by President Bush, is pungently reminiscent of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, passed during the techno-existential crisis that followed the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.

The impact of the NDEA was slight. Adoption of new federally-sponsored curricula and teaching methods was slow and uneven, and the bureaucratic process through which the money was allocated did a predictably bad job of weeding out good scientific instruction programs from bad ones — so it isn’t clear that faster or broader adoption would have been desirable.

In addition to repeating that earlier mistake, the “America Competes Act” is also deeply ironic — its methods run precisely counter to its motivations. Spurred by the necessity of keeping up with foreign competitors in our global economy, Congress has decided to resort to central planning. What they have given us, in other words, is the “America Competes Via Central Planning Act.”

There is a painfully obvious, irony-free alternative: We can increase our global competitiveness in education by forcing all schools to compete for the privilege of serving each and every student. America, more than any other nation in history, has proven that market competition drives up quality and drives down costs across the entire economy. And yet, in the area of education, we remain unconsciously but inextricably wedded to a Marxist approach, despite overwhelming evidence of its inferiority.

It is as though Congress, like “international man of mystery” Austin Powers, has just awoken after sleeping in suspended animation since the 1960s, unaware of how the Cold War turned out.

Basil Expedition:  The Cold War is over!
Austin Powers:  Well!  Finally those capitalistic pigs will pay for their crimes, eh? Eh comrades? Eh?
Basil Expedition:  Austin… we won.
Austin Powers:  Oh, groovy, smashing!  Yay capitalism!

Uh, Congress? We won, and market forces work as well in education as in every other field.