Conservative Education for Dummies

How can a conservative person in America be sure her kids are getting a good education?  Relax, says Anthony Esolen in a recent article in the Imaginative Conservative.  It’s easy.  Just follow a few simple steps.

1.) Don’t give up on memorization.

2.) Read good books.

3.) Relax: your kids will get a good education.

Esolen advises conservative parents and school leaders to trust in the natural learning capacities of young people.  Children learn.  If we trust in our instincts, we will help.

One thing that works is to have children memorize things.  Too often, Esolen writes, educators look down their noses at “mere” memorization.  “For fifty years,” Esolen laments, “we have been cowed by the educational ‘experts’ into believing that it is contemptible, simplistic, backward, and ineffectual.”  But memorizing things—whether it’s the multiplication tables or Milton—lies at the heart of education.  Esolen relates the tale of a farmer who memorized Paradise Lost.  This was more than just rote memorization.  This was “getting it by heart,” a process of imbibing a priceless intellectual resource to spark real human-scale education.

What should be the content of this sort of real education?  Esolen wants conservative parents to relax.  There are good books everywhere that can form the base of an effective education.  Too often, Esolen says, educators focus on the crass, the cynical, or even the pornographic in a misguided attempt to expose children to the latest intellectual fads.  Why pervert your children’s minds by assigning Slaughterhouse Five, Esolen asks, when the list of good books is so long and so readily available?  Why not pick from any of the good books all around us:

Heidi, Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden, The Yearling, David Copperfield, Silas Marner, Black Beauty, Kim, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Little Women, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinkerthe fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and of Hans Christian Andersen.

For older students, pick from

Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Whittier, Dickinson, Frost, and many more. We have all of the wonderful novels of Jane Austen and Dickens and Eliot and Mark Twain and Walter Scott. There’s the great literature of the western world—Virgil and Dante and Cervantes and Tolstoy.

Relax.  Esolen insists, this process is “not like going to the moon. It is like looking up at the stars.”

If you educate your children this way, Esolen writes, no standardized test will have the power to frighten or dismay them.  They will know more than children educated by the most modern methods.  Indeed, they will know things, and other children will not.

What is a conservative parent to do?  According to Esolen, the answer is clear: Relax.  The tried-and-true methods and content of schooling are still the best.


Leave a comment


  1. Donna

     /  March 18, 2014

    I don’t think memorization “lies at the heart of education.” I do think it is one piece of the puzzle.
    I do think that kids need to be able to understand the tough topics in life. Where I will often disagree is the method used to teach those topics.

  2. In my classes, I often remind my students that “a burning heart is not fueled by an empty mind.” I teach primarily biology courses and it is clear that memorization is key to understanding concepts e.g. if you don’t have a clear picture of purines and pyrimidines in your head, you will not understand DNA structure and function. The key is to no let memorization supersede understanding but to rather use it as an adjunct to understanding. I believe that a deep understanding in any subject is what drives passion.

    • I agree with you 100%. Memorization leads to a better understanding–I had to memorize all kinds of things in nursing school, but the content of the topic which involved the memorization was much deeper and more complex. We had to memorize anatomy, for example, but having done so, then allowed us to understand the complexities of epidemiology. I agree that conservatives need to relax, but relaxation doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    • “The key is to no let memorization supersede understanding but to rather use it as an adjunct to understanding.”

      I think that’s exactly it.

  3. Not sure how to comment on this without writing a novel. I’ll try to be brief –

    It’s so frustrating to try to explain to certain people I know that the way they were educated in the 1950’s is limited in how useful it is anymore. Back then, if you wanted information, you had to physically go to the library, find the right book, and then find the information you wanted in the book. In that environment, memorization of everything makes sense because not having something committed to memory is crippling.
    Now, if all you do is memorize (beyond DouglasE’s “adjunct to understanding” point), you’re spending time that would be more effectively spent either: 1) deepening your understanding; or 2) learning how to use the tools available to find the information you need. Almost every time my 10-year-old asks me a question that I know off the top of my head, I tell her to Google it and figure it out herself. She needs to learn how to find her own answers.

    So, you just cram your kids’ heads full of “literature” and “classics” and announce that you have done your job as a parent? Because anything written before 1850 (or so) will automatically congeal in your kids’ heads as insightful observations on human nature and themes of literature? And let me guess, any of the complex writing of the last few years is dismissed as “modern garbage,” right?
    Merely cramming “literature” into kids’ heads doesn’t serve any purpose; ask anyone who went to high school. It would be different if we taught literature as a whole as “The Story of Human Civilization” as written by multiple authors over several thousand years. Something to tie it all together as a progression through history, talking about historical context and what people were thinking / worried about at the time, up to and including today.

  4. V

     /  March 21, 2014

    The issue with memorization is that most students memorize information for a test and forget it the moment they receive their A. I can tell you countless things that I have been made to memorize that I could not tell you a thing about now.
    Beyond that, even if something actually sticks, students might “know more than children educated by the most modern methods” but they will not be able to do anything with that knowledge. They might be able to memorize Paradise Lost, but that’s not going to get them a job. They never learned how to figure things out, only how to memorize what is being fed to them.
    I think the most true example of this is language. I took Chinese for a few years and I was told to memorize lists upon lists of vocab words and characters. I have a really easy time memorizing things, so I loved the class. I passed every test. Then I decided to study abroad in China and when I got there I realized I could not speak Chinese at all. I could recite sentences I had been told to memorize, I could think of specific vocab words, but I could not hold a conversation or even read a sign. I had to go to enroll in a basic language class for foreign students, where we were not given vocabulary words but we were taught to understand the foundations of the language, and I learned more in my first month there than I did in 3 years of memorizing words.
    Teaching students to memorize is lazy teaching. Teaching them to grasp concepts and come up with ideas is what education should be about. Maybe memorization will get your kid to pass their tests, but it won’t get them to actually learn anything.


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