Traditionalism and Education

This morning’s column by David Brooks in the New York Times is sure to provoke some head-scratching.

Brooks points out the conventional division of contemporary conservatism into two constituent entities. He calls them “economic conservatism” and “traditional conservatism.” Economic conservatives are the free-market champions. They are the sort who cheered when Reagan described the nine most terrifying words in the English language as, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Traditionalists, on the other hand, value localism, organic social structures, and community. They derive their ideas from the likes of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk.

Those who follow the intellectual history of modern conservatism will scratch their heads that Brooks did not include other important types of conservatism, such as the Jerry-Falwell-style Moral Majoritarianism, the kind of conservatism that wants to regulate personal behavior and use government power to improve America’s morals. And where are the “tribal” conservatives, folks such as Rush Limbaugh who cling to “conservatism” largely as a form of in-group identity?

On the other side, people less familiar with the landscape of modern American conservatism might be surprised at Brooks’ evocation of an entirely different style of conservatism. Those unfamiliar with this traditionalist tradition might be shocked to hear of conservatives who oppose a pure laissez-faire approach to economics. Conservatives, as Brooks puts it, who want government to use a “subtle hand” to encourage family and neighborhood cohesion.

As Brooks notes, influential bloggers such as Rod Dreher at the American Conservative keep traditionalist conservatism alive and kicking. Brooks might also have included Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic in this survey.

Those of us most interested in the relationship between conservatism and education can explore Deneen’s exposition of traditionalist hero Robert Nisbet.  In 1953, Nisbet had lamented the increasingly universalist nature of higher education.  Deneen argues that such trends have only accelerated.  As Deneen noted a few years back,

“The modern university system has arisen with the consent of those on the Right and Left alike, particularly in its guise as the modern research university aimed toward the end of ‘creating knowledge’ and providing educations that allow our students to ‘succeed’ and to ‘solve problems.’ Both have actively assented to a national, and increasingly international educational system that becomes annually more homogenous and standardized (This is just as true of supposedly ‘conservative’ administrations, one of which gave us ‘No Child Left Behind’ and Margaret Spellings).”

The traditionalist solution, Deneen argues, is to restore some measure of true diversity to university life in America.  Instead of a spread of cookie-cutter colleges arrayed to produce skilled mechanics of a corporate juggernaut, institutions of higher education could instead strive to emphasize the particularities of their own local communities.  Elsewhere, Deneen has suggested that this particularity must embody not only a constrained localism, but also a truer conception of universality. 

As David Brooks suggests, much of the subtlety of this sort of traditionalism has been read out of today’s conservative discussions of education.  For those of us trying to understand conservative thinking about education, however, it is a useful reminder of the complexities of what Brooks calls “half of [the Republican Party’s] intellectual ammunition.”

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