Authority and Education

When is a school not a school?

According to Anthony Esolen, a school forfeits its rights to that name when it tries to abandon its authority over its students.

Esolen’s essay in Public Discourse is roughly a year old, but I came across it recently.  Esolen reviews Philippe Beneton’s Equality by Default and insists, among other things, that true education requires a submission of student to the authority of the teacher and the school.

For those of us struggling to understand the conservative tradition in American education, Esolen’s article is worth reading in its entirety.  Esolen articulates a position that has long been at the root of American protest against the excesses of progressive education.

True teachers must take on the burden of authority, Esolen believes.  This is not autocracy, but rather a humble assumption of responsibility for the formation of the young students in teachers’ care.  Such authentic, authoritarian teachers, Esolen argues,

“would no doubt have furrowed their brows to try to make the least sense of the educational patois of our day, which insists that school be ‘child-centered.’ It would be like asking a hymn to be ‘choir-centered,’ when the very purpose of a hymn is to bring the singers out of themselves, in devotion. So too the ‘child-centered’ classroom, if indeed it focuses on the tastes and habits of the children who happen to be there, mistakes both the nature of the child and the purpose of education. It ignores what the child, as a human person, most needs, and that is to give himself in love to what transcends his personality or his class or his age.”

Esolen articulates in this essay the philosophic core of traditionalist education.  Before we seek to reform our schools, Esolen argues, we need to clarify the true purpose of education.  “If the object is to produce an elite cadre of technicians,” Esolen argues, “. . . then I fail to see why people should support schools at all.”  True education, Esolen insists, consists of “the handing on of culture, against which the mass phenomena of our time, and the facile reductions of scientistic academe, array themselves in enmity.”

As I argue in the book I’m currently working on, tentatively titled The Other School Reformers, this notion has lodged squarely at the heart of conservative reform movements in American education throughout the twentieth century.  Though many activists and politicians could not express the idea as elegantly and coherently as Esolen does in this essay, conservative activists fighting against evolutionism, socialism, “sexualityism,” secular humanism, progressivism, and other perceived cultural problems in America’s schools usually based their protest on the notion that such doctrines fundamentally subvert the true purpose of education.

To cite just one example from the textbook controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974, conservative businessman and activist Elmer Fike defined the two sides in any education controvery as follows:

“The traditionalists perceive education as a process of teaching the child the basic knowledge and skills.  Since some indoctrination is inevitable, it should promote the accepted social attitudes and morals of the society in which the child lives.  The job of the schools is considered to be the transmission of the tradition of the parents to the children in order to preserve society. . . .The progressives claim to object to any indoctrination because it gives too much power to the agency that determines the thrust of the indoctrination and because it does not teach the child how to examine ideas critically.  They would prefer that the child be allowed to examine all philosophies with a minimum of guidance.  Thus, the child develops the ability to choose what is best and will not, as a mature adult, be easily misled or indoctrinated by demagogues who offer simple solutions.  The philosophy is most easily summed up by the statement, ‘Teach the child how to think, not what to think.’  The progressives also prefer a minimum of discipline and greater freedom for the student to decide what or how he will study.”

For Fike, as for Esolen and generation of conservative educational activists, the first goal of school reform must be a thorough examination of the true purpose of education.  At their core, battles over sex ed, prayer in schools, and evolution education often boil down to competing visions.  Are schools first meant to pass along the cultural inheritance of our civilization?  Or are they mean to train children to challenge all inherited notions?

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