Can You Find the Conservative Education in This Picture?

Gracy Olmstead doesn’t mind tweaking the noses of her fellow conservatives.  She has encouraged them to relax about the dangers of the new(ish) Common Core State Standards, for example.  And now she wants conservatives to embrace Finland’s progressive-education model.

In today’s battles over classroom teaching and school organization, progressives often point to Finland as a guide.  Olmstead wants to claim Finland’s model as one for thinking conservatives.  I’ll admit: I’m stumped.  I can’t find the “conservative” elements Olmstead wants me to see in this picture.

A Conservative Model?

A Conservative Model?

Famously, Finland’s schools shun standardized tests.  Finland’s teachers are an elite cadre of highly trained professionals.  Students in Finland’s schools spend little time cramming or regurgitating information.  Students are encouraged to play, to think, to roam outside the boundaries of classrooms and textbooks.

Most progressives love this model.

Olmstead does too.  She says it embodies the core conservative principle of subsidiarity.  For those of us who haven’t been paying attention to conservative rhetoric for the past couple of years, “subsidiarity” is an old term that has attracted some new conservative devotees lately.  Paul Ryan, for instance, famously invoked the Catholic notion of subsidiarity as the moral justification for his 2012 budget plan.  Though other Catholic intellectuals disputed Ryan’s definition, Ryan used the term as shorthand for Reagan-esque encouragement of localism in government.  The best solutions were those closest to the problems.  Central governments should play only a subsidiary role, tackling issues local folks cannot.

Olmstead finds this principle at the heart of Finland’s school plan.  No centrally imposed curriculum, no dictatorial imposition of one-size-fits-all schooling.  She notes that some conservatives might not like the lack of private options for schooling.  But she does not stress the fact that American conservatives will likely also rebel at the very practices of schooling in Finland.  Olmstead quotes progressive guru Linda Darling-Hammond’s description of Finnish schooling:

In a typical classroom, students are likely to be walking around, rotating through workshops or gathering information, asking questions of their teacher, and working with other students in small groups.

Now, Olmstead’s enlightened conservatism may find this image appealing.  But many American conservatives (not all!) connect traditional classroom practices with effective schooling.  Indeed, one of the constant themes of conservative educational activism throughout the twentieth century, I argue in my upcoming book, has been this connection between traditionalist classroom practice and traditionalist social morality.

I applaud Olmstead’s open-mindedness.  But I wonder how many other conservatives will join her in her embrace of the Finnish model.


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  1. Doesn’t Finland have national standards? My understanding is that we tried to emulate their idea of standards that give teachers room to still have a sense of autonomy, which is why you’ll only see, for example, 10 anchor standards for ELA Reading Literature. (Previously, states would have dozens of standards for a specific genre.) If I’m correct about Finland and our attempt to copy them, then the US has missed a huge piece in the puzzle that allows for autonomy: high-stakes testing. I could be wrong, though. Wouldn’t be the first time.

  2. And yes, that picture is Hemingway with a gun.

  3. I really like the idea in theory, but I think there’s one big inherent wrinkle in trying to import something that works in a country like Finland to the US. The US has a very diverse range of people – ethnically, culturally, religiously, you name it. Finland is much more homogeneous in comparison if this is to be believed –

    (I didn’t audit it, so if the facts are wrong I apologize)

    My point is – in a country like Finland with the population as a whole having so much similarity in priorities, managing education at the national level is more like (in the US) managing education at the state / borough / county level than it is the national level. If we were to free kids from standardized tests in this country, you would see kids in some localities flourish to their full potential. learning all about science, history, the world, and the universe, while kids in other localities would study only the Bible, and learn that mathematics and reason is irrelevant if it contradicts the plain meaning of their favorite English translation of the bible.

    In a country like ours, standardized testing and a national curriculum is basically a national statement of educational priorities across diversity of thought and cultures that isn’t as essential in a more homogenized area.

    • Excellent points, Athena. However, when we compare similar demographics in local areas that align with the same homogeneous population in Finland, they still crush us. Your second point speaks more to the issue, but I don’t think our solution is testing, which has proven to fail. Staying with the status quo because we fear that a better system “can’t” work in the US just doesn’t sound right to me.

      • “However, when we compare similar demographics in local areas that align with the same homogeneous population in Finland, they still crush us.”

        That’s good to know, and assuming there’s not something I’m missing, I think it shows the extent to which national standards can strangle localities that would do a MUCH better job of managing their own education.

        We still have to address how to handle the places that would use more freedom poorly and on what basis we can tell them “you’re doing it wrong.” I have a hard time picturing how that would work without a national curriculum and some standardized testing data points for reference.

        “Staying with the status quo because we fear that a better system “can’t” work in the US just doesn’t sound right to me.”

        It’s not that – I think the particular system we are discussing (as well as most systems in Europe) would likely do more harm than good to a sizable portion of the country just because of how the US is, structurally.

        Also, I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to move away from the status quo unless we’re at least pretty certain we’re not going to unintentionally make things worse.

        But then we circle back to – what can we do to improve things? I wish I knew more about this area; maybe if I did I would have some positive suggestions.

  4. Rose

     /  March 21, 2014

    For what it’s worth, Gracy Olmstead was homeschooled, and pro-homeschooling rhetoric tends to borrow from progressive educational rhetoric in interesting ways, even in very conservative circles. This happens especially when proponents try to set up a stark public school vs. homeschool dichotomy and argue that homeschooling is superior (which they do often, and sometimes with a certain level of vitriol toward U.S. public schools and toward the very idea of public education). They suggest that public schools are a “factory model” designed to produce “worker bees” who can’t think for themselves and question the system, in addition to the arguments you might more readily expect from conservative homeschoolers — that public schools are morally corrupting and promote liberal/secular indoctrination. Yes, there’s a level of dissonance here, especially when these same people embrace an authoritarian parenting style. But ideologies, movements, and people are complex. (Sounds trite, but still true!)

    Not that Olmstead isn’t making an original, interesting, and provocative argument. But I do think the conservative homeschooling background lends itself to seeing Finland-style education as potentially conservative, or at least not inherently anti-conservative.

  5. Agellius

     /  March 22, 2014

    It just goes to show that there is not a neat line dividing liberal from conservative. Indeed, left and right in this country are really divisions of the left side of the original left/right divide in post-Revolutionary France; i.e. both favor equality under the law and neither favors a return to monarchy.

    So naturally, the idea of letting parents choose how to school their kids appeals to conservatives. But one difference between liberals and conservatives is that the latter tend to believe in God and therefore in an objective human nature, and for that matter objective truth in general, as opposed to relative truth (“that may be true for you but it’s not for me”).

    I would suggest that the reason the Finnish model appeals to liberals is because it refrains from imposing objective truth on the kids, but let’s them “discover” truth on their own terms (at least that’s how it appears). Whereas that aspect of it is unappealing to conservatives because it assumes that truth is subjective.


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