Few conservatives disagree with the claim that education in America—at every level—is broken. There is, however, little agreement about the nature of the problem, much less what should or can be done to fix it. In this first of two articles, I will diagnose the malady and indicate the cure; the second piece will treat a plan in greater detail.
Many conservatives come to the problem of education through high-profile cases of political correctness, identity politics, social justice warriors—whatever we want to call the present disease of the academy—run amok in established institutions of higher learning. Consequently, they imagine that attacking the ideology of multiculturalism and leftist intolerance in these places and in the wider culture, or defunding and destroying the humanities and liberal arts programs which provide the petri dishes in which this toxic culture grows, is the solution.
Of course the activist professoriate, the cancerous and malignant administrators of diversity and inclusion, and the cast of cowardly and morally illiterate bystanders in university administration and on faculties who uselessly gawk at the cooption and radicalization of their venerable and stately colleges, lecture halls, and public spaces, are blameworthy and should be excoriated. But they are mere epiphenomena, emanations and boils of a diseased body. Destroying or stopping them will prove nearly impossible without addressing their source. And if the true problem is addressed, attacking them directly them will prove to be unnecessary.
What Is Education?
Conservatives fail to see this because they have a hard time articulating what education is in the first place.
Their instincts about what the result of education should be are generally clear and correct—American students shouldn’t come out of American schools hating America while knowing nothing about America; they should be aware of our intellectual tradition and consider it their own; and they should be prepared to take on the responsibilities of family and citizenship. So far, so good.
But many conservatives remain muddled about how, exactly, we can achieve these ends. How can we raise up children to know their past, learn the virtues of men and citizens, and grow publicly-spirited and patriotic? To do so, we cannot merely oppose the latest cultural assault. We must understand the difference between a classical and civic education, on one hand, and a progressive and “global” one, on the other.
The former starts with a conception of the human being as a whole person, with a mind and soul that must be rightly ordered, directed toward the good—“centered,” as Tennyson wrote of Telemachus, “in the sphere of common duties.” To call this education classical is to say more than what is necessary; we need start only with the natural inclination of any sane people to pass down to the next generation its language, its culture, its laws, its traditions, and, embodying all of these, its accumulated knowledge of human things.
Progressive education—the education of most of our schools—however, conceives of children as vessels, to be given value-neutral “content” and “skills” and so to be prepared to “succeed”—to what end is not specified—by getting jobs and making money. Such schools do indoctrinate children, but only as a kind of byproduct of their main focus, which is putting out a reliable educational “product.”
It is true, of course, that at the primary and secondary level humanities are taught in such a way that individuals are made to matter less than “social forces” and “systems of ideas,” and in some places schools emphasize “social consciousness” and the like, encouraging the young to be indignant before they learn to think.
But for the most part America’s schools do harm by a kind of stupid neglect, not through radicalization.
Most classes are dull and insipid rather than dissident and rousing. Go visit an American classroom and you will likely find not firebrands listening intently to passionate teachers, but bored kids, slouching together in groups, “working” on packets or other senseless projects while looking obsessively at their phones.
Teachers, I’ve noticed, do not really distrust or despise the very things they should be passing down; often they are merely ignorant of such things, perhaps profoundly so, and thus cannot possibly prepare their students to withstand the inevitable indoctrination they will face in college.
It is a sad and embarrassing fact that education majors at most colleges and universities, who earn the certification required to teach at most public schools, are among the worst students to enter college, and face one of the least rigorous courses of study.
But what they do learn in that study is a pseudo-science of pedagogy which makes clear to them that their job is not to raise up the young to inherit their birthrights as Americans and citizens, fathers and mothers, and members of communities—but to transmit “basic skills” that will enable students to succeed as individuals in college and in the workplace.
And many conservative politicians, intellectuals, and think-tank professionals agree. They think destroying and defunding liberal arts and humanities programs and focusing on science, technology, and engineering education is the solution to our educational problems. As the saying goes, “We have enough baristas and basket weavers.”
But this turn to technical education, this emphasis on the rigorous and practical disciplines of science and engineering—said to be immune to the politicization of the softer fields of the humanities—is misguided. Rather than providing an antidote to ideology and groupthink, this turn away from true humanities education will instead produce—and has been producing—the very people who, unarmed against the assault of ideology, and lacking any sense of the scale and proportion of human things that comes from a broad liberal education, will passively adopt whatever opinions seem to be in vogue, no matter how monstrous or idiotic.
Graduates of such technical, practical programs are now and will increasingly continue to be technically adept but unfree, unable to distinguish between a tyrannical ideology and the deliberations of a free people.
Immunize Students From Higher Ed: Reform K-12 Education
It is not only true that not everyone needs to go to college, but that a society in which college is required to make a decent living is unhealthy.
Yet the Left wants to double down on the sickly status quo. Many propose student loan forgiveness and universal college education in order to further reform, remake, and rehabilitate the citizenry—to reorder Americans toward the illiberal diversity regime.
But increasing vocational schooling and defunding humanities programs will not thwart this project. Neither will insisting on “viewpoint diversity” in higher education or calling for “an ivory tower of our own,” as laudable and promising as those projects are.
By all means, we should attack the activists and cowards who staff university administrations and faculties when necessary. But this is not enough: To truly reform education, we must seek to immunize the minds of students from the academy’s own attack. This is why we cannot have a meaningful conversation about the practical reform of higher education without talking about primary and secondary education.
We avoid this conversation because it is easy for us to blame outrageous academics and their invisible lines of cultural influence. It requires nothing of us; after all, we are not academics, so what can do?
Or, if we are academics, we feel we are doing our part by contributing serious, non-ideological scholarship, participating in symposia with the like-minded, and even establishing programs and fellowships for young conservative academics: sinecures like our own which will, perhaps, ensure the continuity of some tiny remnant to stand by warily and utter noble protests at each new atrocity.
Of course ideas and ideologies sometimes gestate in the rarefied air of the academy and then make it out, from there, to the wider culture. But this doesn’t happen magically. The Left has, for at least a century, made this influence a deliberate project, and its success there, especially in the schools, has ensured a steady stream of adherents and acolytes.
It is important for conservatives and defenders of the liberal arts to defend what spaces they have in the academy, but it is even more important that they fight against the corruption of education everywhere else, too. Which is to say, everywhere.
Does anyone really believe that the effects of the ignorance, dimwitted relativism, and weak progressive piety being passively absorbed by the tens of millions of students at nearly one hundred thousand American public schools for seven hours a day and 150 days a year can be combatted by exposing the illiberalism of the leftists in our universities? By some quickly-fashioned national policy, somewhat less favorable to the university-industrial complex?
No. Only a long, slow work over generations can reverse our current crisis. Only an effort multiplied many times over, family by family, community by community—a multitude of struggles to which millions of public-spirited Americans, from the unglamorous home-schooling mother to the young college graduate drawn to teaching, give many of their best years.
Conservatives must give up the dream that the problem of the ideology of academia can somehow be resolved without teaching students how to think in the K-12 educational system that forms them first. And they must give up the dream that some sudden, sweeping action undertaken by someone, somewhere else—will restore the freedom to educate their own children. They must take it back themselves.