Defend institutions

OK, you want to know why I’m running for school board? I’m not lacking things to do with my time. I am not bored. My day job in academic book publishing is endlessly fascinating and demanding, and numerous prospective authors (I am chagrined to admit) could tell you that all my evenings and weekends could be well spent catching up with them.

This picture tells you why I am running for school board. This is the opening page of the second chapter in Nora King’s graphic rendering of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. “Choose an institution you care about,” says Timothy Snyder, and step up to protect it.

“Institutions” is a broad word. It refers to cultural structures that have been established and maintained for a purpose. It means things that make for stability. A court is an institution. So is an entire court system. A system of government is an institution. A prescribed practice like trial by jury is an institution. Freedom of speech is an institution. A particular newspaper can be an institution, but so can the press as a whole or the media as a whole. Just about anything in the world around us that we can look at, and then look back later and find that it’s still there, still serving a useful purpose, is an institution. Family is an institution. Marriage is an institution. The Catholic Church is an institution, as is the United Reformed Church. The little church down on the corner is an institution. Or the mosque, or the synagogue.

When institutions erode or fall, civilizations collapse. But while institutions are respected and are strong, civilization thrives.

Fads, trends, and flashes in the pan are not institutions. The freedom to organize a movement is an institution, but current social and political movements are not (yet, anyway) institutions. Individuals are not institutions. Even if they become celebrities, they are not institutions. The governorship of the state of Michigan is an institution, but no individual governor is an institution. Individuals come and go. Institutions endure. When we mistake an individual for an institution, we are in danger of weakening our institutions. When large numbers of people no longer respect institutions—giving their highest loyalty instead to a fad, or to some individual hero—the institutions will crumble and vanish. When institutions erode or fall, civilizations collapse. But while institutions are respected and are strong, civilization thrives.

This is not a partisan idea. You could say that it is conservative or conserving idea, because institutions come to us from the past and help us hang on to all that is of value from the past. You could say that it is liberal or liberating idea, because institutions provide structures for cooperation, collaboration, and compromise without loss of identity. Partisans participate in institutions. Some particular institutions (a particular newspaper, a particular nonprofit organization) can be left-leaning or right-leaning or Christian or secular. But the idea of an institution is not partisan, and the overarching institutions that encompass the particular institutions (the rule of law, or the press, or education) are not partisan. They are pro-civilization and anti-chaos.

Since I am running for public office—for school board trustee—you might ask what label I claim. Democrat? Republican? Libertarian? Progressive? Conservative? Left? Right? Moderate? Christian? Reformed? Catholic? Muslim? Jew? Mormon? Secularist? Etc. Some of them apply to me, others don’t. I have complicated relationships with some of these labels. You could guess, or we could talk about it, or you could look me up and try to figure it out. I have nothing to hide. But . . .

But here is what matters: I am an institutionalist. I believe in institutions. In order. In civilization. I am an enemy of chaos, of disruption, of disorder. I believe in truth, not lies. In logic over raw emotionality. In straightforward persuasion, not slander and insults and taunts. I believe in deliberation, not insurrection. I believe that a healthy society is made up of people of many differing points of view who agree to care about each other, even love each other, and to work through their differences to reach accommodations that give everyone what they need, and as much as possible, to give everyone the things they really want. The structures that enable us to do these things are institutions.

I believe in institutions not because everything from the past was perfect and we never need to change, but because with changing circumstances we will most certainly always be needing to adapt and change, and institutions are the vehicles, with steering wheels and accelerator pedals and brakes, that can get us down the road and over the mountain. If we wreck our institutions, we will land in a ditch.

Timothy Snyder says: Choose an institution and defend it. Very well, then. In this year of our Lord 2022, after thought and prayer and conversation with family and friends, I choose the public schools. In general, but especially in a particular place: here, in the Caledonia district in Kent County in West Michigan. Caledonia High School is an institution. Emmons Lake Elementary school is an institution. The board of education is an institution. The monthly public meeting of the school board is an institution. The office of the superintendent is an institution. The role of the teacher is an institution—the most important institution of them all.

In my understanding, a trustee of the board of education is responsible for upholding these institutions, for ensuring that they function in an orderly fashion, according to agreed-upon good process. I am ready to do that. It is not the proper role of a school board trustee to come in with a cultural agenda, or with the idea of taking over. Exercise oversight? Yes. Take over the roles of the teachers or the administrators, the parents, the students? No. Impose a political agenda? Definitely not.

Do we not all agree that students must be protected from random people walking in with a gun? They also must be protected from people walking in with an agenda.

Here is my agenda for the schools: I want the schools to be the schools. I want the teachers to teach. I want the students to learn. They must have a protected space within which to do that. Do we not all agree that they must be protected from random people walking in with a gun? They also must be protected from people walking in with an agenda. True, each of us is liable to think that “an agenda” is something that someone else has. This is why we have institutionalized processes for making judgments about who should be hired to teach and about what textbooks to use. We have established processes for those things, ways of making good decisions. The school board oversees the overseers of the processes. The school board is there to guarantee that the processes work. School board members are not there to jump in as lone rangers to take over the processes. They are people the community trusts to safeguard the processes. They are to be institutionalists.

I have learned that I cannot accomplish anything with Facebook posts other than sort my “friends” into two categories. I must do something more useful than that. I believe I can be useful on the school board. This could cost me many hours over the course of the next six years. I am willing to give you those hours. I am long overdue to serve my country. I won prizes for patriotic speeches in high school. But I never stepped up. I never served in the military or in government. At age 30 I had one unexpected, startling opportunity to take a job as a high school geometry teacher in a big-city high school, and I fumbled it. Now I am ready to report for duty, at age 64. I will serve to age 70, God willing.

Postscript, 11/13/2022: I lost the election. I will still do what I can to support our public schools. See my CCS Facebook page.

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