“Chesterton’s Fence” is a Category Error

At least, it often is in the hands of so-called “conservatives.”

If you’re even vaguely right-ish, you’ve heard this quoted dozens of times:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Problem is, nobody ever focuses on the bolded bit.  This is largely the Left’s fault, no doubt — they want to change so much, so fast, and their “solutions” are so reliably batshit insane, that we assume any given fence will be replaced by a huge federal Department of Fence Replacement, funded (under-funded, natch!) to the tune of seventy zillion dollars, complete with sixteen diversity outreach coordinators and all male employees required to make wee-wee in the little girls’ room.

But it’s not always so.  Sometimes the fence is an obstruction, and that’s true even when Moonbeam says it.  In that case — which, these days, is practically all cases — invoking “Chesterton’s Fence” is a category error.  It’s not about preserving the fence.  It’s about reconstructing the thought process that got the fence built in the first place.  What problem was the fence intended to solve?  And — the necessary, usually completely forgotten followup — is that problem still around?

Take education.  The Ed Biz takes a lot of abuse around here, and if you want to catapult each and every Ed bureaucrat into a swampful of gators, I’ll be first in line to pull the lever.  Buuuuut….. we really do need some kind of federal education standards.  In a globalized knowledge economy — which we all recognize ours is, for good or ill — it’s suicide to leave the Education of the American Worker to the localities.

Liberals are right about the disadvantages students from poor districts face.  Now, again, because Liberals’ “solution” to this problem is always something along the lines of “free iPads and aromatherapy for everyone,” we assume they’re full of crap about the problem, too.  But they’re not.  Something like national standardized testing is really the only way to guarantee “portability” — yes, the rich districts do it with iPads and aromatherapy, while the poor districts do it with one chalkboard and a stick, but both (in theory) train their kids to a minimum standard that can be accepted everywhere.

Now, before you start going off about “free market solutions,” please tell me: How does the market solve this?  How does it even identify the problem?  Even if employers could give prospective employees a comprehensive battery of IQ and general-knowledge tests — and we’ll all be ruled by superintelligent apes before that happens — it’s by no means clear how the losers ended up losing.  Where’s the failure in their education?  Elementary?  Junior high?  College?  And while we’re identifying the problem and retrofitting our ed system — again, assuming this is even possible, given that every locality would have to have the time, money, and will to do it — what happens to the entire generation of potential workers who will never find jobs?  If the NEA is workfare for otherwise unemployable Democrat ed majors, it’s cheaper than actual welfare for the entire generation of students they’re still somehow kinda sorta educating.

I’m not denying that the whole American educational system needs root-and-branch reform.  As I said, tossing every current ed bureaucrat to the gators would be a decent start.  But unless you’re prepared to change the way the entire global economy operates, climate activist-style, we’re stuck with some kind of nationalized education.  The fence is in the wrong place, guarding the wrong land, against a problem that doesn’t exist anymore.


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One thought on ““Chesterton’s Fence” is a Category Error

  1. KR

    Federalized standards? NO WAY. In the clouds, looking down, this may seem logical, but from the dirt, looking up, we know what happens when standardizers get the little sniffers under the tent — everything becomes politicized. You really have to take a peek at the verbal portion of the SAT, for example (the SATs are federalization of standards under the guise of the private sector). It’s ridiculous, but the standards for the SAT subject tests are even more obviously biased against traditional Western culture and ways of thinking.
    If we could choose the standardizers who determine the curriculum, standards, tests and the rest of that stuff, all would be well. But we don’t choose them. They’re unelected, Brussels-like bureaucrats who, frankly, hate you and your values.
    Why give them a chance? Education needs to be atomized, not federalized; individualized, not group-thinked. Reasoning backward from the so-called global economy to the educational system that supposedly prepares kids/adults for it is specious thinking. Let a differentiated educational system teach many worldviews and ways of thinking and being — some will do well in the future, others won’t. We can’t predict, anyway, what the future economy will look like, though we can take some educated guesses, which are often wrong, so why channel the educational system toward a moving goal.
    Set the little cretins free, I say!
    Let them be taught by people and ideologies that reflect what their parent’s want.
    Of course, this presupposed a generic Western culture, which we barely have. But, believe me, asking a bunch of educrats to sit around the table and come up with federalized standards is not going to advance Western ideas, values and religions (sans Islam).


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