From the Archives: August Heckscher and Conservative Multiculturalism

Could American conservatives embrace their own, distinctly conservative vision of “multicultural” education?

Thanks to Brad Birzer at The Imaginative Conservative, we find a resurrected 1953 argument that forces us to wonder.  This essay, by historian and parks administrator August Heckscher II, insists that true conservatism must never be an “ideology,” but rather

a way of thinking and acting in the midst of a social order which is too overlaid with history and too steeped in values, too complex and diverse, to lend itself to simple reforms. It is a way of thought which not only recognizes different classes, orders, and interests in the social order but actually values these differences and is not afraid to cultivate them.

Heckscher himself could not claim conservative credentials.  He worked in the Kennedy administration and gushed at the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson.  As one conservative commentator complained about Heckscher on the American Conservative, Heckscher was merely “another liberal Democrat explaining to Conservatives politely, but firmly, the need for them to shut up and get out of the way until certain debatable ‘reforms’ are irrevocably in place.”

Yet other conservative thinkers, notably the editors at The Imaginative Conservative and The American Conservative, consider Heckscher’s 1953 polemic worth revisiting fifty years later. Today’s Burkean, traditionalist conservatives were likely attracted by Heckscher’s Burkean, traditionalist definition of true conservatism.

It seems too strange to be a coincidence that Heckscher’s essay came out in the same year as Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind.  Kirk transformed American conservative intellectual life by promoting this sort of Burkean traditionalism.

Heckscher, like Kirk, insisted that American conservatism must be, and has always truly been, more than simply rock-throwing at government expansion.  True conservatism, Heckscher wrote, would embrace programs such as social security, if those programs were “conceived as a means of strengthening local ties, strengthening the family, and strengthening the true spirit of inde­pendence in the citizens.”

At ILYBYGTH, our attention was drawn to Heckscher’s comments about the nature of truly conservative education.  Heckscher offered a 1950s preview that sounds strangely familiar.  Since the time of Herkscher’s essay, we have become accustomed to “multicultural” ideology in education.  But we generally have not thought of this as a particularly conservative idea.  Here is Heckscher’s vision:

Education in conservatism can come, I suggest, in part from a schooling that makes men aware of the values in a community, and tolerant of their differences. It can come in part, also, from the common everyday discipline of living in an environment where multitudinous groups think in their own ways and set a varying hierarchy of values upon the goods of life. In such a community the doctrinaire approach is impossible. Rationalism cuts athwart the basic understandings which hold all together; and the search for a unique solution would drive men to distraction were it not aban­doned for a spirit of practical accommodation and acceptable com­promise. The diversity with which the citizen learns to live sanely comes by degrees to seem a virtue; and the climax of the wise man’s education is when he turns about and begins consciously to preserve and nourish the institutions in which diversity has been bred. That is the moment, too, in which he becomes a conservative.

Recognizing the value of diversity, in other words, is the sine qua non of truly conservative education.  Since the time of Heckscher’s 1953 essay, “multiculturalism” has earned a negative reputation among many conservative intellectuals.  Many conservatives might line up more happily with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s blistering 1990s critique of multiculturalism than with Heckscher’s 1953 endorsement.

But in the context of Heckscher’s Burkean vision, this definition of proper education needs another look.  In the twenty-first century, when we hear a call for “diversity” and a non “doctrinaire” inclusion of “multitudinous groups,” our minds jump first to the sort of “multiculturalism” heralded by scholars such as James Banks.  Banks and other education scholars argued that good education must emphasize the contributions of many different cultural groups.  At its heart, this sort of multiculturalism suggests a radical egalitarianism.  Cultures are different, but all deserve equal respect.  This approach, Banks promised, would not only be good for students of minority ethnic groups, but for all students.  A multicultural curriculum, in this vision, would help overcome America’s history of white Christian hegemony.

Read in the context of his full essay, Herkscher’s call for multicultural education looks much different.  The various voices Herkscher wants to hear are those of different “classes, orders, and interests.”  Herkscher’s conservative multiculturalism does not seek to overcome or diminish those differences between classes and orders, but rather to cherish and promote those differences.

A conservative, Heckscher seems to be saying, learns that every class, every social group, has its intrinsic value as part of a well-ordered society.  Every member of each class must learn to think of himself or herself not primarily as an individual acting in isolation, but as an individual representative of his or her social class.  Harmony comes from valuing the diverse contributions of each group, not by trying to make each group equal.

This is a profoundly different sort of multiculturalism than the explicitly racial vision promoted by later generations of multicultural educators.  The ultimate vision of a harmonious and hierarchical society differs radically from the later multiculturalists’ ultimate vision of an egalitarian utopia. Today’s “multicultural” ideologues might recoil in horror at the notion that education should teach people to see society as a hierarchical structure in which every person must find his or her proper place.

Evidence from Heckscher’s career, too, supports the notion that Heckscher’s multicultural vision differed markedly from multiculturalism’s later incarnation.  As New York City Parks Commissioner between 1967 and 1972, Heckscher applied his vision of social justice in tricky circumstances.  According to his 1997 obituary, Heckscher removed a Black Panthers flag when it had been raised instead of the Stars and Stripes.  Other officials, including the police commissioner, had refused to confront the Panthers, fearing violence.  But Heckscher simply walked alone to the flagpole, took down the flag, and presented it to the African American crowd.  He told them not to put it up again.

Conservatives today might embrace Heckscher’s personal bravery and refusal to truckle to race-based bullying.  But they might also consider the educational ramifications of Heckscher’s 1953 essay.  What would a Burkean multiculturalism look like?  Could students learn to value different groups and classes, not as a way to overcome hierarchy, but as a way to preserve it?

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