Monday, April 13, 2009

An Opportunity Agenda

When our forefathers confronted revolutionary times, they created a system of governance that began with individuals rights and responsibilities. They structured government around individual worth and dignity. They distrusted the easy use of power and designed systems to assure appropriate checks and balances.

In our revolutionary times, the concepts that inspired our forefathers are still valid. What makes conservatives different from liberals is our belief in fundamental, long held principles as opposed to change to meet every new circumstance. But conservative principles have to be applied to modern problems in ways that assure political appeal. And so the first part of a vision for 21st Century conservative thought should be the creation of an opportunity agenda.

Opportunity agendas are not new. The poetry of the Declaration of Independence calls describes opportunity as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is that kind of broad agenda that can guide us today.

Opportunity can be an economic philosophy. Individuals empowered by the information tools of this era can accomplish remarkable things. They have more data at their fingertips than ever before in human history. That knowledge base can lead them to discoveries that create wealth, tangible and intangible. But creativity is stiffled by regulation, taxation and litigation. So fundamental to economic growth is a reliance on individual performance without burdening the individual with structural
impediments that reduce his or her ability to perform.

But economic opportunity also must be encouraged with strategies that prepare the individual to compete. Good education is a prerequisite. The present education system is failing us. It was designed for an economy which no longer exists. It prepared students to work on assembly lines or in large integrated bureaucracies. The idea of individual empowerment is lost in such an environment and the lowest common denominator rather than excellence becomes the norm. Witness what has happened in our urban schools to get an idea of the problem we have. But we could structure education differently with individual achievement and excellence as its goal.

Education in the 21st Century should stress individualized instruction and lifetime learning. Individualized instruction would be aided by the same information tools that will be instrumental in productive work in each person's future. But most important those tools would permit education to become exciting by channeling the educational programs to fit each student's personal interest. The boy who loves baseball or the girl who loves outer space could both be acccomodated with learning programs inside the same classroom. And the teacher, instead of being a communicator of information, would become a manager of information and would use the discoveries of each of the students to benefit the entire class. A very different environment than what we have now.

Add to individualized instruction, lifetime learning. Because no one can be expected to work his or her entire life in the same job during this century, we must establish a basis for constant relearning and development of new skills. The community education infrastructures should be used twenty-four/seven for all ages inside the community. Not only will such an education pattern improve community vitality, but it will make the financing mechanisms for education far more acceptable.

While opportunity is very much economic in its orientation, opportunity also extends to social and cultural issues. Respect for life, respect for individual differences, the exercise of individual responsibility, and the willingness to engage in civic activities meant to improve the broader community are also pieces of an opportunity agenda and strategy.

Opportunity is a way for conservatives to engage the entire electorate. Opportunity is nonpartisan and non-ideological. It does not seek to centralize power, but rather to disperse power. It requires educational reform. It guarantees the ability to succeed, but does not assure an outcome recognizing instead that risk is an ingredient of reward. These are all items of broad national appeal, but also items where we diverge substantially from liberal thinking. And therein lies our opportunity.

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