Plumbers and Teachers

What is a teacher? A hired hand?  Or an independent scholar?  A functionary enrolled to help parents?  Or a professional charged to form young minds as she or he best sees fit?

Students of conservative educational activism like me often list the same litany of complaints made by conservatives about public schooling in the past century.  Schools, conservatives often complain, must not warp their students’ minds.  Schools should teach patriotism.  Schools should teach respect for religious values and traditional notions of right and wrong.  Some conservatives believe schools must not teach atheism and call it science.

But there remains one hugely important conservative issue that rarely gets the same amount of attention: conservative concern with the overweening authority of teachers and educational experts.

As part of his recent series on education at Front Porch Republic, Anthony Esolen articulates this traditional conservative frustration.

Esolen frames the question in a provocative fashion: What if teachers were plumbers?

Here is one of Esolen’s scenarios:

“Jones pokes his head into the basement. He hasn’t done that in two years. He’s told himself again and again that they must know what they are doing, they are the experts and he isn’t, they are from the government, and he must mind his own business. But the devil gets into him.

“‘What is that?’

“‘What is what?’

“‘That – that tangle of pipes! Why so many? It’s a maze! It takes up half the room. In some places you can’t stand up straight. It’s like what happens to a hundred foot extension cord. The whole contraption is in knots!’

“‘I fail to see what you are so concerned about. Presumably you wanted us to do your plumbing. Well, so we have. We’ve done a great deal more than you expected.’

“‘But it’s leaking all over the place! Why didn’t you just do the simple but necessary thing? Why didn’t you do what I hired you to do?’

“‘Hired, Mr. Jones?’”

In the research for my current book about twentieth-century conservative educational activism, I’ve seen this argument repeated with a variety of emphases.  For generations, conservative activists have argued that schools and teachers have taken too much authority over children.

For instance, during the 1920s school controversies, William Jennings Bryan famously argued, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

A generation later, in 1951, Ernest Brower, a conservative leader from Pasadena, California, complained to a state senate investigating committee that “progressive” education had seized too much control.  In their citizen investigation, Brower reported,

 “Well, you might liken public education, in Pasadena at least, and I think probably in other sections of the country as well, to a patient who is very sick, and so, naturally, the proper thing is to start looking for symptoms, and we found several symptoms of the disease. . . . we noticed there was a definite elimination of parental authority, undermining of parental influence.”

For Brower, as for Bryan and Esolen, this undermining of parental influence signaled the underlying “disease,” of which other educational problems were merely symptoms.

In 1968, conservative California school superintendent Max Rafferty agreed.  “Children,” Rafferty warned,

“do not belong to the state.  They do not belong to us educators, either.  They belong to their parents and to nobody else.  And don’t you forget it.

“Because if you do forget it and let the kids become wards of an all-powerful government, you won’t have to look forward with fear and trembling any more to that dread year 1984.  It will be here, considerably ahead of schedule.”

In 1980, free-market economist Milton Friedman lent his considerable influence to this central conservative notion.  “Parents,” Friedman wrote,

“generally have both greater interest in their children’s schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else.  Social reformers, and educational reformers in particular, often self-righteously take for granted that parents, especially those who are poor and have little education themselves, have little interest in their children’s education and no competence to choose for them.  That is a gratuitous insult.”

We could multiply examples of this sentiment almost endlessly.  From the early years of the Heritage Foundation’s work, Connie Marshner insisted,

“A parent’s right to decide the direction of his child’s life is a sovereign right, as long as the child is subject to his parent.  Educators have no business creating dissatisfaction with and rebellion against parental wishes.”

Similarly, Texas school watchdog Norma Gabler echoed this sentiment in the 1980s,

“Number one, my sons belong to my husband and I.  They do not belong to you and the state—yet.”   

For all these leading conservative intellectuals and activists, one foundation of schooling is that it is a service provided for families by educators.  It has long been a source of intense frustration that progressive educators presume glibly to arrogate total control over children’s lives.

As Professor Esolen reflected in his recent essay series, this arrogance is all the more exasperating when it seems utterly unaware of its own ridiculousness.  We would not accept the fact that a plumber would ignore our wishes and have his way with our pipes.  Why, Esolen asks—echoing generations of conservative intellectuals—why do we accept this brazen arrogance from teachers?

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