“Yellowstone”, the Protestant Reformation, and Microschools
The 16th century Augustinian monk Martin Luther didn’t intend to start a theological revolution.
When the German Catholic posted his ninety five points of debate on the castle doors in the university town of Wittenberg in 1517, it was with the express purpose of reforming the Roman Catholic Church–hence, the name “Protestant Reformation”. Bureaucratized institutions can be taken over–by persons of ill will, by inertia, by hostile competition–and Luther understood that the Roman Catholic Church had been largely commandeered by corruption. He simply wanted to take it back.
Of course, that’s not quite how it worked out. Those who benefitted from the status quo pushed back hard, as they always do. The break became inevitable and the Lutheran Church was born. A few years later, a French lawyer name John Calvin did something similar, and his break gave rise to what we call the Reformed tradition, or the Presbyterian Church. Other groups broke and formed the Anabaptist movement, which we now know as the Baptists. The trend was away from bureaucratized institutions, and the more local and organic a worshipping community became, the harder it was for a rival ideology or corruption or just rank incompetence to take over.
We are in a similar moment in America politically and culturally. Americans, and particularly conservative Americans, have now realized how corrupted our institutions have become, and it has resulted in a movement away from large institutions and toward local, organic communities. A number of cultural trends point in this direction: The popularity of Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option” is one. The number of millenials turning to agrarianism is another.
And then there’s “Yellowstone”–the most popular television show right now in a walk. Part Western, part soap opera, “Yellowstone” is the story of the Dutton ranching family in Montana and what they are willing to do to defend their traditional, agrarian way of life. The cinematography and writing are superb, and, of course, there’s Beth Dutton, who is a force of nature all her own. (And I do mean force of nature. In an early episode, Beth tells an enemy, “You’re the trailer park. I’m the tornado.”) A fundamental theme of the show is that the old ways are best. Depending upon family and community are best. Being tied to the land is best. Hard work is best. In the current season, patriarch John Dutton is elected governor of Montana and he gives a speech juxtaposing the California and New York worldviews with his “flyover” worldview. Suffice it say, he isn’t complimentary of the coastal elites.
The popularity of the show would seem to indicate that Americans really are moving toward local, toward traditional, toward agrarian. The faceless and bureaucratized institutions that promise to take care of us in every way are unable to do so–and shouldn’t even if they could. Americans are realizing what Henry David Thoreau evoked so long ago: There’s something to be said for self-reliance.
And that’s where microschools come in. Along with co-learning spaces and homeschooling, microschools are local, organic educational options where individual students’ needs are met, where parents have control, and where the bureaucratized institution has far less influence, if any. Microschools are often called “one room schoolhouses”, and the nomenclature is more accurate than many realize. With different age groups learning together, and with less regulatory red tape, microschools are responsive and flexible in tapping into kids’ natural curiosity. They result in better educational outcomes; they’re safer; they’re tailor-able to each student. But they are also small, community-oriented organisms that can’t be taken over by hostile actors, by inertia, by bad ideas, or by anything else that plagues bureaucracies. Microschools represent precisely that marriage of self-reliance and liberty that is the hallmark of America.
Beth Dutton would be proud.