Why Don’t Conservatives Like to Win?

You’ve heard the news by now: The College Board revised its framework for the Advanced Placement US History course.  Recently in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger crowed that this reversal proved that conservatives could influence national education policy.  Unfortunately, Henninger makes the same mistake as every other pundit out there.  He seems to think that conservatives at some point in the past lost their influence over national education policy.  It just ain’t so.

Franklin's In, "neo-Marxism's" out.

Franklin’s in, “neo-Marxism’s” out.

For those of you who were napping, a quick reminder: Under pressure—significant pressure—from conservative thinkers and lawmakers, the College Board agreed to revise these standards for its AP US History course.  Conservative thinkers had complained that the old framework put too much emphasis on

such abstractions as ‘identity,’ ‘peopling,’ ‘work, exchange, and technology,’ and ‘human geography’ while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideas and political institutions. . .

Henninger argues that, with the conservative revision, the new framework is “about as balanced as one could hope for.”  More interesting for our purposes, he argues that this conservative victory is “an important political event.”  He thinks it “marks an important turn in the American culture wars. . . .”  To Henninger, this conservative victory is a new thing, a change in the ways American culture and politics work.  Until now, Henninger intones, conservative ideas about proper education were

being rolled completely off the table by institutions—‘Washington,’ the courts, a College Board—over which [conservatives] had no apparent control.

Until now, Henninger tells us, conservatives had not been able to influence national education policy.  Only “neo-Marxist” experts decided on what vulnerable young minds would learn.


Perhaps Henninger’s problem is his limited range.  To be fair, he only says that this has been the case since 1992.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, America’s educational culture wars have a vital history that stretches back across the twentieth century.  Henninger ignores it at his peril.

As I argue and detail in my recent book, since the 1920s conservative activists have been able, time and time again, to derail, defang, and water down progressive curricula and textbooks.

But here’s the real kicker: We can’t really single out Henninger for short-sightedness.  For almost a century now, both progressive and conservative intellectuals and activists have assumed that conservatives had been kicked out of the conversation.

You read that right.  Ever since the 1920s, conservative and progressive reformers alike have committed the same sort of Henningerism.  They have assumed in the face of historical fact that “The Schools” had been taken over by progressive ideas and curricula.

To cite just one example of this trend, consider the case of progressive textbook impresario Harold Rugg.  Rugg was a progressive’s progressive, committed to pushing the nation in leftist directions by seizing control of its public schools.

In the 1930s, it looked as if he had succeeded.  Millions of schoolchildren read his tendentious textbooks.  At the end of the decade, however, conservative activists in the American Legion and elsewhere organized to block such progressive “subversion.”

They succeeded.  Just like today’s College Board, school administrators and textbook publishers in the 1930s fled in horror from the potential controversy over Rugg’s books.  Sales plummeted.  Schools hid them away.  School boards thought about burning them.

Seems like any right-thinking observer would conclude that conservative activists could exert significant control over the national curriculum, right?

In fact, Rugg himself concluded that the progressives had won, that a shiny progressive victory was just around the next corner.  As he wrote in his 1941 memoir, progressive schooling

has already begun to shake the old and inadequate out of our educational system and to lead to the building of a new school to implement democracy.  Nothing save a major cultural catastrophe can now stop its progressive advance. It was utterly inevitable that workers in education would find the vast library of documented data produced on the other frontiers and use it in the systematic reconstruction of the schools.

You might think that conservative activists would dispute Rugg’s rosy left-wing prediction.  But they didn’t.  Instead, conservatives at the time performed their own odd Henningerisms.  One of the leaders of the anti-Rugg fight, Alfred Falk of the Advertising Federation of America, warned a friend that left-wing educational thinking had taken over schools years before, all part of a “deliberate plan worked up by a well-defined group of left-wingers and educators, collaborating for a number of years on this huge project of reconstructing our society.”

We could multiply these examples of Henningerism endlessly.  Time and time again, long before 1992, conservatives have concluded incorrectly that they had been kicked out of the schools.  And progressives gleefully agreed.

It brings us to our interesting question: Why do conservatives and progressives agree—in the face of vast reams of historical evidence to the contrary—that conservatives are have been locked out of national education policy-making?

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  1. I suppose each side listens to its own echo chamber. It’s an interesting question.

  2. Why do conservatives and progressives agree—in the face of vast reams of historical evidence to the contrary—that conservatives are have been locked out of national education policy-making?

    Conservatives are not locked out. But they are still losing.

    If conservatives had what they wanted, there would be no sex-ed classes, and teachers would be leading their students in prayer. They lost both of those.

    I think what happens is that progressive ideas slowly make their way. From time to time, conservatives take a stand. But then progressive ideas resume slowly making their way.

    • Neil, You raise a very important point. Are conservatives “losing” if they have given ground over the course of the twentieth century, or are they merely changing their goals and “winning” each battle? In other words, in the past, moderate, thoughtful conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr. endorsed racial segregation. That battle has long been lost, at least legally. And moderate, thoughtful conservatives no longer support the idea of legal racial segregation. Does that mean that progressive racial ideas have slowly won? Or, rather (and this is the idea that seems correct to me), have both progressives AND conservatives changed in their thinking since 1954?
      Do you see what I mean?
      Conservatives have come to agree with ideas that once seemed progressive. That’s not a loss, that’s just change over time. When conservatives have fought for specific goals, they have often won, more often than not. The Godfather of conservatism Edmund Burke famously supported social change. He only wanted it do be done slowly and carefully, not willy-nilly. It seems to me many American conservatives today are in the same boat.

      • Or, rather (and this is the idea that seems correct to me), have both progressives AND conservatives changed in their thinking since 1954?

        Yes, I agree that is correct. But it seems to me that conservatives seem to resent the need to change, while progressives embrace it. So that’s why both conservatives and progressives have the view that conservatives are losing.

        From my perspective, I see progressive ideas as winning, but conservatives as slowing them down. This is probably a good thing. Some progressive ideas can be a bit wild, and slowing them down is often a good idea.

      • Agellius

         /  September 1, 2015


        You write, “When conservatives have fought for specific goals, they have often won, more often than not.”

        Weeelllll, I’m not sure that it’s really winning, when all you’re doing is keeping things the way they were in one particular respect, temporarily. I think of it like a tug-of-war, and the conservatives have been dragged more-or-less constantly leftward over the past century or so (but longer, really). Occasionally they manage to grab onto a passing branch and hold on for a while, but eventually they’re forced to let go and resign themselves to further leftward “progress”.

        When things are dragged positively rightward, and not merely prevented from moving further leftward, is when I would consider it a victory.

        I grant your point that in some areas, progressive “victories” are really just a matter of conservatives having changed their minds. Then again, that mind-changing itself may be a symptom of the constant leftward dragging, that is, new generations of conservatives having been raised in a culture that has been dragged further leftward than it was when their parents were raised.

      • You have to understand the conservative mind and its longing for, if not an enchanted world, one where key truths do not change. Change means losing if it is “permanent things” that are changing. It’s experienced on the family and community level as betraying one’s forbears. For many it is sin and secularization. William Bouwsma, a significant scholar in Reformation studies at UC-Berkely, characterized the mentality as it emerged 500 years ago:

        “The psychological boundaries by which the old culture had sought to understand
        the nature of man and predict his behavior were useless when he was no longer
        inhibited by the pressure of traditional community; and, experienced concretely
        in a more complex setting, human acts proved too ambiguous for neat
        classification. […] When man still clung to the old culture, he seemed to have
        become, in spite of himself, a trespasser against the order of the universe, a
        violator of its sacred limits—literally’ no man’s land—he had been conditioned
        to avoid. But his predicament was even worse if this experience had taught him
        to doubt the very existence of boundaries. He then seemed thrown, disoriented,
        back into the void from which it was the task of culture to rescue him. And this,
        I suggest, is the immediate explanation for the extraordinary anxiety of this
        period. It was an inevitable response to the growing inability of an inherited
        culture to invest experience with meaning.”

        (This is from a book of essay called “The Uses of the Past,” on early modern historiography. The essay is “Anxiety and the Formation of Early Modern Culture.”)

  3. johnkutensky

     /  August 30, 2015

    I would tie it to their apparent martyr-complex.

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