Fuzzy Math—and English, Too

A conservative manifesto on education reveals the poverty of their education agenda.

By Conor P. Williams

Tagged Education

How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools By Michael J. Petrilli & Chester E. Finn • Templeton Press • 2020 • 304 pages • $24.95

Nearly four years into the Trump Administration, it’s clearer than ever that asymmetrical polarization is the central political dynamic shaping public discourse. That is, while the two major parties are each moving away from the center, conservatives are positively sprinting. As the Republican Party has coalesced around its far-right flank, conservatives have largely abandoned engaging with progressive concerns in favor of, to use the parlance of our times, “owning the libs.”

To own, perchance to clown, progressives as not just political opponents, but as wrongheaded, misguided, un-American fools or worse, perhaps even traitors—that instinct has swept across conservative online discourse and largely conquered the right’s political establishment. Look no further than the White House, where President Trump has elevated political tribalism into the right’s primary governing style. In 2020, progressive political leaders can’t be mentioned by the Administration—let alone engaged—without a diminutive nickname and a bevy of insults.

This dynamic has been a source of discomfort for those movement conservatives who style themselves “Never Trumpers” and argue that the current state of the Republican Party is a fallen departure from a cleaner, more respectable, principled conservatism.

Most of the prominent Never Trumpers are well-known political commentators like Bill Kristol and David Frum. But many others work in or near the orbit of education policy, an issue area that has been something of an eddy sheltered from the current of conservative polarization. For most of the past 20 to 30 years, education policymakers in both parties found significant common cause around a core of policies: raising academic standards, measuring school and student performance against clear benchmarks, and increasing federal authority to pressure schools to address educational inequities. The cross-partisan education reform coalition drafted and passed 2002’s No Child Left Behind and 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act. They wrote and expanded the Common Core State Standards, which are now in place in a majority of states.

But no eddy resists the river forever; the right’s sprint toward radicalism has slowly imposed the usual partisan divides on education reform. Emboldened by the 2016 election, conservatives have tried to pull their erstwhile progressive counterparts rightward—in support of school vouchers and other right-wing priorities. They’ve had little success.

In other words, the collapse of the old education reform movement puts conservative education thinkers in a tight spot—they want badly to resist Trump’s puerility, even as his Administration has largely adopted and expanded their framing, priorities, and ideas on a range of issues from federal civil rights enforcement to support for school vouchers to opposition to expanding early education programs. To support Trump’s education agenda—and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s efforts to carry it out—would require them to make common cause with his gauche, cruel, and uneven mode of governing.

This context goes a long way to explaining the arrival of How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, a volume of essays edited by Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The authors assembled for the volume include some of the right’s leading voices on education—including three former secretaries of education, one of whom is also a sitting U.S. Senator. If any group of conservatives could articulate a new vision for U.S. schools in 2020, it would be this one.

Indeed, Trump haunts the book, particularly when authors urge conservatives to take up the mantle of character education. “In recent decades,” write the volume’s co-editors, “American education has paid even less attention to goodness than to knowledge. Today, sadly, we are reaping the harvest. We can see—around the planet, not just at home—the harm done by political leaders who lack character, by business leaders who lack virtue, by celebrity figures who lack morality—and by a citizenry that too often doesn’t seem to care all that much, or perhaps can’t tell the difference.” The book, they explain, aims to create “a space in which conservatives can refresh their own thinking about schooling’s proper role and the contents of a first-rate education.”

Unfortunately, readers will search this confused, frustrating volume in vain for anything like a clear conservative agenda for American schools. In its place are hundreds of pages of scattershot complaints about conservatives’ ideological opponents.

In its preface, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander warns that progressives imperil the promise of American education by indulging too deeply in cultivating individual students’ idiosyncratic development. But he also cheers the supposed defeat of efforts to expand national academic standards as a victory over progressivism. Progressives, apparently, err by both over- and under-standardizing education. In the book’s first essay, conservative pop intellectual Jonah Goldberg similarly flounders. He accuses progressives of wielding public schools as tools for radical social change and as staid forces imposing homogeneity on children.

Sadly, these pieces set the course for the rest of the book. In chapter after chapter, How to Educate an American’s authors inveigh against progressive influences in public schools, but they never quite manage to articulate just what, exactly, those nefarious lefties are trying to do. For instance, when it suits the book’s arguments, progressives are squeamish nihilists who yearn to drum moral judgments and character education out of public education in the name of tolerance. But at other times, they are also scorned as crusaders who brook no dissent in imposing their own cosmopolitan moral code on all students. Further, progressives are squishy social justice warriors insufficiently committed to raising standards of academic rigor and promoting robust, content-driven learning, but they are somehow also wildly, unreasonably determined to prepare all children to graduate from high school ready for college.

Indeed, after hundreds of pages blaming progressives for American public education’s shortcomings, it almost becomes possible to forget that conservatives control the majority of the country’s federal and state education policymaking levers. Before being appointed—by a conservative President—to take the reins at the U.S. Department of Education, DeVos was one of the country’s most prominent conservative education philanthropists. Conservatives hold a majority on the Supreme Court and in the U.S. Senate; They control a majority of state legislatures and hold a majority of governorships.

This flock of confusions about progressives’ views ultimately reflects the authors’ own uncertainties. In his chapter, Stanford professor William Damon, a psychologist who is known for his research on adolescent development, complains that “character education in public education has been hindered by progressive resistance to instruction that makes claims about right and wrong in the face of cultural variation.” Just two pages later, however, he makes clear his real problem with the state of moral tutelage in public education: “Many educators urge schools to teach children to become ‘citizens of the world’ rather than of a single nation, and to adopt a ‘cosmopolitan’ perspective.” In other words, Damon’s problem with public schools isn’t that they don’t teach morality anymore. It’s that the tolerant, plural moral code many schools have adopted doesn’t track with his particular views on right and wrong. They’re saying “Happy Holidays,” and he’s insisting on “Merry Christmas.”

There are many other similar examples. Ultimately, the book reads like an exercise in intemperate group therapy performed by—and for—a political amen choir. For all the book’s complaints about progressives, rigorous engagement with progressive educational thinking is scarce and slapdash. For instance, late in the book, William Bennett, one of President Reagan’s secretaries of education, briefly quotes me (of all people!) as proof that progressives have abandoned education as a priority. Ironically enough, though his chapter bristles with complaints about the weak academic caliber of U.S. public schools, Bennett misspelled my name.

Actual engagement with progressive thought might have revealed more agreement with progressives than the volume’s conservative authors suppose. For instance, in his opening chapter, titled “Irradiating the Past,” Goldberg derides progressives for running down the United States in the name of focusing on our national sins. By insisting on the cruelty and ugliness in the American story, Goldberg warns, progressives teach students not to identify with the best in our shared traditions. “Hypocrisy is only possible when you have ideals,” he writes.

And yet, this is precisely the attitude taken by the bulk of progressives—parents, educators, and intellectuals alike. Richard Rorty, one of the most influential progressive political philosophers of the past half-century, made this argument central to his Achieving Our Country. Indeed, it opens with a line similar to, if more profound than, Goldberg’s: “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.” This is a common position on the left. As Eric Liu argued when profiling the work of liberal University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch in these pages in 2015, we need to “to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols.”

It’s 2020, and the country’s preeminent conservative education leader proposed school choice as a response to a global health crisis.

Similarly, many chapters of the book decry how American schools deaden learning. Math and literacy assessments, writes Damon, “led to deadly instructional practices such as drill and rote regurgitation, and objectives such as short-term learning rather than understanding and commitment.” Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige agrees, writing that “American educational practices rest on the assumption that the teachers’ role is to teach and the students’ role is to sit there and let teachers bear primary responsibility for their learning.”

These are not brilliant, novel, twenty-first-century insights. Nor are they uniquely conservative. They’re straight out of the progressive educational canon. John Dewey, the ur-progressive education thinker, beat Damon and Paige to the critique by more than a century. Indeed, he built the entirety of his pedagogical project around the insight that schools should engage children in activities that actually interest them—and help them make sense of the real forces that shape their lives. “No number of object-lessons…for the sake of giving information, can afford even the shadow of a substitute for acquaintance with the plants and animals of the farm and garden acquired through actual living among them and caring for them,” Dewey wrote in The School and Society, more than a century ago. “[Lessons are] remote and shadowy compared with the training of attention and judgment that is acquired in having to do things with a real motive behind and a real outcome ahead.” When Damon decries rote instruction and urges leaders to “improve the capacity of schools to help students find purpose in their studies and beyond,” he is stumbling squarely onto well-established progressive educational turf.

It’s as though conservatives are loath to treat their political opponents—and fellow Americans—as real interlocutors. Why might that be? In his chapter on “campus illiberalism,” Princeton political theorist Robert P. George unwittingly identifies the volume’s central problem. George warns that American colleges and universities are plagued by “the unwillingness of so many members of college and university communities to entertain, or even listen to, arguments that challenge the opinions they hold.” If nothing else, How to Educate an American hints that this sort of illiberalism might, instead, be truly endemic amongst conservatives themselves.

That’s the key to this volume: How to Educate an American is best understood as a beleaguered, belabored effort to police the boundaries and rouse the membership of conservatism’s tribe. Most of the chapters try to relight old conservative political fires by setting progressives straight—even if the various authors can’t get on the same page as far as what they’d rather progressives do. To that end, Dewey, Rorty, and the wide current of progressive education thinking are all useful here only insofar as they can be appropriated as cursory, caricatured stand-ins for actual intellectual adversaries. It’s an exercise in shadow boxing with strawmen.

That’s also why it’s difficult to glean a policy agenda from the assorted essays. Petrilli and Finn, the book’s editors, warn that conservative education policy thinking must mean something more than persistent cheerleading for school choice. There’s a real need for some sort of new, more complete vision. In early July, the pandemic slowly forced schools across the country to announce that they’d be moving the 2020–21 school year online. In response, Secretary DeVos demanded that they reopen for in-person instruction and threatened to effectively voucherize their federal funding by sending it instead to families—who could then use it to pay tuition at a private school willing to risk reopening its campus. That is, 2020 was the year when the country’s preeminent conservative education leader proposed expanding school choice as a policy response to a crippling global health and economic crisis.

The current crisis clearly won’t be solved by a national voucher scheme, but public education also won’t be smoothly restored by a return to the inequitable pre-pandemic status quo. Many children—particularly those from historically marginalized backgrounds—are suffering significant lost learning from the prolonged school closures. Reopening schools would help—if the pandemic were to significantly recede—but it would also be expensive at a moment when states’ education budgets are collapsing with the economy. We should take this opportunity, before school does start to get back to normal, to focus on articulating clearer education policy thinking across the political spectrum.

This is likely to be a moment for fundamentally rethinking how we fund, staff, run, and measure public schools. Progressives are increasingly flagging longstanding school funding gaps and segregationist school enrollment policies as key areas where public education must become fairer and better. States will be relying on federal relief to support their response—national leaders should use that as leverage to insist that states do more to build equitable access to well-funded, high-quality public education for all children.

Meanwhile, beyond DeVos’s wholesale commitment to school choice, the future of conservative education thinking is less clear if this book is any indication. How to Educate an American isn’t actually organized around developing a new conservative education platform. It’s about tribal solidarity—defined primarily by drawing boundaries and establishing the unworthiness of opponents. While it makes a few efforts to sketch new policy reforms, there’s little apparent consensus. For instance, Bennett’s chapter suggests that states should begin drafting “standards in all core subjects where such standards do not yet exist,” which flies in the face of several other chapters’ warnings about how previous efforts at standardizing math and literacy content led to weak instruction and student disengagement.

In How to Educate an American, progressives get owned to embolden conservatives. Despite the contributors’ Never Trumpian self-image, that type of vision has plenty in common with the current leader of the Republican Party. Perhaps the President isn’t such an aberration from movement conservatism after all?

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Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation.

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