Whose Values Rule the Schools?

What are the dominant values in American public schools? Progressive activists tend to think schools are dominated by conservatism. But conservatives say that progressives are in charge. New poll data suggest that conservatives are wrong. When it comes to general attitudes toward children and education, conservative values seem enormously powerful.

Progressives have always hoped that schooling would soon be transformed into a progressive paradise. But they have also always acknowledged widespread public resistance. As far back as 1925, scholars Otis Caldwell and Stuart Courtis—from the progressive bulwark of Teachers College, Columbia University—argued that the “new philosophy” of progressive education could transform schools into a “childish utopia.” Unfortunately, they wrote, most Americans weren’t interested. Instead, most people “blamed teachers and schoolmen generally for ‘new-fangled methods.’”

These days, leading progressives agree. Pundits such as Alfie Kohn insist that progressive ideas are the best. As Kohn once put it, progressive education is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.” In spite of the clear superiority of progressive methods, Kohn writes, most schools only use them in dribs and drabs. Conservative, traditional schoolrooms, Kohn notes glumly, tend to be the norm.

We might think that conservative activists would celebrate their domination of American public education. But in fact we see just the opposite. Historically, conservative activists have taken progressive dominance for granted. Many conservatives have assumed without question that the progressive nostrums of philosopher John Dewey had long ago triumphed.

Writing in the wake of a tumultuous school battle in 1950s Pasadena, California, for instance, conservative activist Mary Allen explained that “traditional education” had been abandoned in the 1930s. Why? Because at that time “some of Dewey’s followers prepared to use the schools to introduce a new social order.” To Allen as to generations of conservatives, conservative values had long since been kicked out of public education.

Today’s educational conservatives voice similar frustration. For example, Peter Collier has lamented the dominance in public education of the progressive tentacles of Columbia University’s Teachers College. A pernicious leftist stew of “critical pedagogy,” Collier noted, “slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching.”

How important is "curiosity" as an educational goal?

How important is “curiosity” as an educational goal?

New poll data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press suggest that conservatives have this one wrong. When it comes to basic attitudes about children and proper education, conservative ideas tend to dominate. Those who call themselves “consistently liberal” find themselves on the outside looking in.

Who's the outlier here?

Who’s the outlier here?

To be fair, the poll also suggests that Americans of all ideologies share broad agreement about the proper way to raise children. Huge majorities of the “consistently liberal,” the “mostly liberal,” the “mixed,” the “mostly conservative,” and the “consistently conservative” agree that children must be taught responsibility.

But in a couple of other categories, those who call themselves “consistently liberal” stand out. And those differences tell us something about the values that dominate our schools and society.

For example, the “consistently liberal” place a much higher value on teaching curiosity than do any other groups, by a huge margin. Nearly a quarter of the consistently liberal place this among the three most important factors for children, and over three quarters think it is important. In contrast, none of the other groups, including the “mostly liberal,” thought that teaching curiosity was nearly as important. Only nine percent of the “mostly liberal” called curiosity one of the most important values, and only fifty-eight percent considered it important. And though fifty-seven percent of the “consistently conservative” agreed that curiosity was important, only a paltry three percent of consistent conservatives placed it at the top of their lists.

In addition, large majorities of every group except the “consistently liberal” placed a high value on teaching obedience. Even among the “mostly liberal,” sixty percent found this important. At the high end, two-thirds of the “consistently conservative” thought obedience was an important idea for children, compared to just over one-third of the “consistently liberal.”

Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to define “progressive” and “conservative” ideas about education. But in general, it’s fair to say that progressives tend to value curiosity above obedience, exploration above authoritarianism. Yet those values are only shared by a small sliver of the respondents in this survey.

The good news for conservatives? They are wrong about the values that guide American public education.   Progressive notions of child-centered learning, of students freed from the dictation of authoritarian teachers and exploring the creative curiosity of youth, have not sunk the deep roots that conservatives have often assumed.

Instead, when it comes to central ideas about obedience and curiosity, this poll suggests that conservative attitudes are the norm.

Leave a comment


  1. johnkutensky

     /  January 16, 2015

    Sometimes I’m really surprised how closely my stereotypes align with real world statistics.

  2. Agellius

     /  January 16, 2015

    The main reason I would not consider teaching curiosity to be important, is that I haven’t the foggiest notion how such a thing could be taught. Isn’t that like teaching someone to be smart or to like chocolate?

    I have two kids, both of whom are excellent students, but only one of whom is innately curious to the point where he is constantly striving after knowledge in various fields. How can I “teach” the other one to be as curious as his brother? He just doesn’t have the interest that his brother has in these various fields.

    I don’t think that conservatives are against curiosity and exploration. But I think that conservatives think that the first order of business is educating kids with the knowledge that we already possess. This then serves as a foundation for the pursuit of further knowledge: You have to know a certain amount before you can know what you don’t know.

    • This is exactly what I thought about the question of teaching curiosity. I’ve always been very curious, and I have credited that for much of my academic success and the choices I made about where to go to school and what to study. I value that curiosity in myself. If there was a way I could teach that to my kids, I would, but it seems to me more of a personality trait than something that can be taught. I think a teacher should nurture curiosity in the students that are curious and provide them with the tools and techniques to enable them to satisfy their curiosity. But a teacher should also look for creative ways to connect learning with the deep needs of the large number of other students who are driven more (for example) by their desire to care for others or their desire to experience or perform than by their desire to satisfy their curiosity.

  3. I tend to agree that you cannot particularly ‘teach’ curiosity, but you certainly can model it, and even sometimes coerce it in the classroom. Regardless of the subject, I will often ask ‘why is that’ or ‘what makes you think that is true.’ Particularly in the sciences, curiosity drives discovery.

    • Agellius

       /  January 16, 2015


      To me asking those questions is just a way of reinforcing what you’ve taught and making sure they understand it and are not just parroting what they’ve been told.

      • I probably wasn’t quite clear – I ask those questions about things that I have not taught or not necessarily in the textbook. Interestingly, some of the ‘curious’ students know the answer and the others are baffled at how they knew it. If no one knows, I make them go find out. Again, not necessarily teaching curiosity but trying to instill the concept.

      • Agellius

         /  January 16, 2015

        Well, if the survey question had asked whether it was important to let students try to figure things out for themselves once in a while, maybe they would have got different answers. : )

      • Probably so 🙂

    • How sad that things like obedience, tolerance, and faith are set in opposition to curiosity and openness to the world.

      My experience as a student in religious and public schools at every stage of the K-college trip and as a parent with kids who have been in public and private schools is that the squashing of curiosity is the most important thing to look at. Kids are curious by nature. They either get this crushed out of them by adults and pre-crushed peers or they do not. You can find teachers and school cultures of all kinds that that crush curiosity or nurture it. The crushers tend to be those with dogmatic axes to grind due to some injury or perceived threat.

      • Agellius

         /  January 26, 2015

        Kids are curious by nature but they’re not all equally curious, nor curious about the same things.

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