To Win Elections, Conservatives Need to Win in Schools

What happened?

Why do conservative candidates lose elections?

That is the question Mark Bauerlein of Emory University asked in Friday’s Public Discourse.

Bauerlein finds the answer not in demographics or policy prescriptions, but in college and high-school curricula.  The revolution in teaching of the past forty years, he says, means that conservative candidates lack the intellectual heft and agility necessary to win.  Bauerlein modifies a Thatcher motto: “First you win the schools, then you win the government.”

Governor Romney, Bauerlein argues, exemplified the problem.  Romney’s famous blunder about “47%” of the electorate was a lost opportunity, Bauerlein thinks, to introduce a new generation of voters to true conservative principles.  Romney did not explain the central conservative principles of thrift, independence, and liberty that could have made his point.

The real remedy, Bauerlein insists, is not in new polls or smoother candidates.  The long-term conservative remedy will be to take advantage of the profound conservatism at the heart of American culture.  If young people receive a better education in the American tradition, they will be both more receptive to and more articulate about those conservative American principles.

“The lesson is this:” Bauerlein tells us,

Conservative candidates must possess, among other attributes, a conservative tradition in their heads, not just political principles, but great thinkers and artists of them, too. . . .

The best way, perhaps the only consistent one, to plant conservative writings and art in the formation of politicians is through the high school and college curriculum. There, individuals have the space to absorb them as common intellectual equipment, as regular facets of the world, not as political positions. . . .

What they encounter and how it is presented determine what they think is important. If English and history courses don’t include Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 (an anti-political correctness novel) alongside multiculturalist fiction of the 2000s, if they don’t add David Horowitz’s Radical Son to celebrations of the 1960s counterculture, if James Madison doesn’t precede Malcolm X, then the conservative tradition has no place in the accepted body of cultural literacy. If The Scarlet Letter is taught as an indictment of sexual oppression in a Puritan community, not as a complicated tale in which the community has a valid claim upon Hester’s desires, then social conservatism is reinforced as an uptight, obsolete imposition.

This is to recognize the curriculum as an authorizing process. What makes it onto the syllabus has legitimacy, and the angle the teacher takes upon the materials tends to stick. If conservative donors wish to back winning candidates, to cultivate politicians who can deflect sallies of biased reporters and liberal counterparts with intelligent and informed convictions, they must reach conservative politicians not only in election years, but at impressionable ages, too.

The good news for conservatives, Bauerlein writes, is that many schools have already begun to implement this kind of strategy.  They teach conservative ideas not only in short-term intellectual boot camps, but as part of a thoughtful tradition that includes all the best thinkers from across the intellectual spectrum.

What could this look like?  According to Bauerlein, it could mimic the success of liberal efforts such as the Ford Foundation’s funding of centers for Women’s Studies.  That field went from zero to influential in a decade, thanks in part to such funding. Bauerlein thinks it’s time for conservatives to do the same.



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1 Comment

  1. I don’t see the anti-political correctness angle in Fahrenheit 451, perhaps its been awhile since I’ve read it….


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