President Obama, meet Chancellor Bismarck

When Sen. Barack Obama went to Berlin in 2008 and proclaimed himself a “citizen of the world,” he was acclaimed by hundreds of thousands of young Germans. They were as excited as many young Americans were by this avatar of Hope and Change.

The candidate chose an odd backdrop for his address, however. Mr. Obama spoke in front of the Berlin Victory Column. It is an impressive monument to be sure, but it commemorates the lightning victory of Prussia in a lightning war against its unoffending little neighbor, Denmark.

This was the first in a series of aggressive wars waged by the man who would unify Germany by liberal application of “blood and iron.” That man -- the true power in the new Germany, was Otto von Bismarck. He openly expressed his contempt for representative government and the processes of constitutional government:  “Not by speeches and votes of the majority, are the great questions of the time decided -- that was the error of 1848 and 1849 -- but by iron and blood.”

Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the Iron Chancellor has long had his admirers in the Academy. British historian A.J.P. Taylor, for example, lauded him in a 1955 biography: “He was too great, too domineering, too skilful, to be controlled by a parliamentary majority.”  (Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman, p. 155)

Once he had united Germany, Chancellor Bismarck proceeded against those in the country whom he viewed as enemies of the state (Reichsfeinde). In 1872, this was expressed in his innocently-titled “law on school supervision” (Schulaufsichtsgesetz). This was his modernizing law on school supervision. The Chancellor was quite the education reformer (and he had legions of admirers here in America). Bismarck promised to give Germans a world-class education system. He viewed education as a key to enhancing the power of the nation. He was determined to ram his “reform” through a compliant legislature, the Reichstag.

But Bismarck’s plans ran roughshod over the religious freedom of Catholics and, in time, even conservative Protestants. As Chancellor, he would determine what was taught, who taught it, and to whom it was taught. Berlin would dominate all instruction in the new Germany.

President Obama came to office promising to “fundamentally transform this country.” He is doing it. And Common Core State Standards is one of the key “reforms” required for changing America. Under Common Core, the states will become mere branch offices of the federal education department. Even now, the states are given “incentives” to sign on to Common Core. What is the incentive? They are generously allowed to receive back some of their own money. And this money comes with strings. The States can escape George W. Bush’s onerous No Child Left Behind program only by signing on to Common Core. This is a bit like letting a man escape the torture of the rack by telling him to climb into this nice, comfortable Iron Maiden.

The United States of America achieved great things without a centralized education system directed from Washington, D.C. We won two world wars against a Germany animated by Bismarck’s concept of zentralismus -- centralized control. We made it to the Moon ahead of a centralized Soviet system in which every lesson taken by every student in twelve time zones was determined from Moscow.

What have we achieved since education was effectively centralized in this country?

You might say that we prevailed over the Soviet Union after the Cold War. Yes, but that was due to the inspired leadership of my great chieftain, Ronald Reagan. And Ronald Reagan was the last American president resolutely to oppose centralized education and to publicly call for the disestablishment of the federal education department.

The failures in education can be fairly laid at the doorstep of presidents of both parties. Jimmy Carter created the federal education department as a political payback to the teacher unions for their support against the even more liberal Ted Kennedy.

George H.W. Bush said he wanted to be “the education president.” He summoned the nation’s governors to the first National Education Summit in Charlottesville in October 1989. There, at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, he urged the governors to adopt national education goals statement. Nowhere in the Constitution Mr. Bush had just sworn to defend could he find any authority to do such a thing. The statement adopted by 49 of 50 governors had been crafted, mostly, by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. In the next election, voters turned out Mr. Bush. If they were going to get Clinton education policies anyway, it made sense to get them from the Clintons.

George W. Bush gave us No Child Left Behind. He took that title from a slogan of the leftwing Marian Wright Edelman and her welfare rights organization. At the bill’s signing, President Bush handed one pen to Sen. Ted Kennedy, a lifelong proponent of centralizing education. Critics puckishly said the only time Ted Kennedy improved public education was when he parents packed him off to private school! The president then handed another signing pen to Congressman George Miller, the very liberal California Democrat who tried clandestinely to outlaw home schooling. Still, President Bush called him “George Grande” (Big George). Miller responded to the president’s friendly embrace by calling his impeachment “justified” (if impractical). President George W. Bush, most regrettably, proved to be a “uniter not a divider” in education: everyone is unhappy with No Child Left Behind.

The response of the grassroots to Common Core is exciting. It is a wonderful example of American democracy at its best. Parents care deeply about their children’s education.

And they also care deeply about their children’s privacy. The well-respected Pioneer Institute has just released another powerful report titled “Cogs in the Machine” that raises justifiable concerns about the erosion of pupil privacy and the collection of student data.

Most of all, we should all care about freedom. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli saw the inherent flaw in Bismarck’s push to centralize all power -- including power over what was taught and thought in Germany -- in the hands of Berlin functionaries. “Bismarck,” he said, “made Germany great by making the Germans small.” That was Disraeli’s acute assessment of the Iron Chancellor.

President Reagan had a better understanding of freedom. He said the three most important words in our Constitution are “We the People.” And he taught us that we are a people who have a government; our government does not have a people. Reagan recognized that the constitutionally prescribed role for the federal government in education was no role.

When a moderate Republican congressman asked him for an appointment to discuss the future of the federal education department, Reagan penciled in his appointment calendar: “I hope it doesn’t have a future.”

The elimination of federal intrusion and executive usurpation is the single greatest improvement we could see in American education. We need to restore authority for education to parents, locally elected school boards, and state legislators who are closest to the people they represent. That’s where the Constitution places it. After fifty years of federal failure, maybe we should consult the operator’s manual.

Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison are Senior Fellows at the Family Research Council, in Washington, D.C.