I have been working on a grant proposal to create a course on "The Good Society." I want to build up from the small institutions to the large, focusing on the process of making well-ordered and virtuous lives, institutions, and societies. Yes, I know, there are many arguments to be had about what constitutes good. That is a somewhat interesting part of the making process.
My subject today, though, is the unexpected puzzle I ran in to in making up the core ladder of institutions came in the middle. At the starting point, we have families and religious institutions. At the end we have the economy and the state.
In the middle my first instinct was to put schools. This, I think, is the keystone of the arch of the liberal view of society. But I am following Tocqueville as my guide, and he would put something else at the keystone: voluntary associations. And that is what I am inclined to go with, a theoretical and empirical consideration of Tocqueville and Robert Putnam on the state of voluntary associations in civil society.
Which leaves me with a puzzle: how to think about schools? On the left, they are agents of the state or, more cynically, of the market. On the right, they are expressions of the family and the religious institution. I can't, at this moment, see what independent foundation schools rest on, what distinctive good they serve. And I say this as a teacher, married to an education reformer, with three kids in school.