Bursting the Conservative Bubble about Educational History

How did American public schools get started? Like the rest of us, conservative intellectuals and activists have always told themselves stories that confirmed what they wanted to believe. This morning, we see another expression of century-old conservative myths about educational history.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, conservatism has always been fueled by a false notion of America’s past. When it comes to schools and schooling, conservative activists since at least the 1930s have told themselves that schools used to be great, but scheming progressive New Yorkers took over at some point and ruined everything.

rafferty what they are doing

Schools USED to be great…

Consider this example from my favorite twentieth-century educational conservative, Max Rafferty. Rafferty was the superintendent of California’s public schools in the 1960s. He was a popular syndicated columnist and almost won the US Senate race in 1968. One of the reasons for Rafferty’s popularity was his persuasive but false vision of educational history. He told readers over and over again that American public schools used to be great, local institutions. The problem came, Rafferty explained, when New York “progressives” took over.

As Rafferty wrote in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

Wherever progressive education was allowed in infiltrate—and this was almost everywhere—the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

This morning we stumbled across a 2018 update of this twentieth-century just-so story. Writing from Pepperdine’s American Project, Bruce Frohnen tries to explain why conservatives hate public schools. Along the way, Prof. Frohnen makes big false assumptions about the history of those schools.

First example: Like a lot of conservatives, Frohnen incorrectly assumes that federal and state leaders call the shots in public schools. As Prof. Frohnen puts it,

The problem is precisely that they are run by people and according to rules that are too distant from, and consequently hostile toward, our local communities.

Not really. Most teachers ARE the local communities.  As Stanford’s Susanna Loeb found,

A full 61 percent of teachers first teach in schools located within 15 miles of their hometown; 85 percent get their first teaching job within 40 miles of their hometown. And 34 percent of new teachers took their first job in the same school district in which they attended high school.

Similarly, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that the most important factor driving teachers’ choices about evolution education was local values. If communities wanted evolution taught, teachers taught it. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

gallup local schools

If schools aren’t local, why are so many locals happy with them?

So, yes, the impact of federal funding has increased since 1950. But most of the day-to-day decisions about schooling and education are made at the very local level. This localism might explain why most American parents are actually very happy with their children’s schools. Gallup polls have consistently found that most people grade their kids’ schools highly, in spite of the hand-wringing by pundits like Dr. Frohnen.

Second example: Like a lot of people, Prof. Frohnen mischaracterizes the early history of American public education. As he argues [emphasis added by me],

Today, politicians, professional educators, and administrators all tell us that the federally-regulated public school is essential to American public life—that it is the place where children from widely divergent socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American. It is understandable that Conservatives harken back to this vision as they face an education establishment determined to undermine our common culture. But we need to remember that historically American schools integrated students, not into some national community defined by ideology, but into local communities defined by tradition, history, and local relationships. Nationalized education got its start with the famous 19th century educator, Horace Mann.

Nope. From the get-go, ed reformers promised that publicly funded schools would serve a national purpose. And those reformers preceded the attention-hogging Horace Mann. Consider just a couple of examples from my recent research into the career of Joseph Lancaster. Starting in 1818, Lancaster swept into Philadelphia, New York, and other cities, promising that his “system” could educate a new nation’s children.

Lancaster and his fellow reformers insisted that their goal was precisely to train NATIONAL citizens, not local ones. As he wrote in a 1817 guide to his system [emphasis added again],

Another inducement to pursue the Lancasterian system, as it respects the state at large, is the uniformity of principles and habits, which would be thus inculcated among the children of those citizens who are the subjects of this kind of instruction, a desideratum essential to the formation of correct national feeling and character.

In all of his early writing, Lancaster explicitly promoted his scheme as a way to foster “NATIONAL EDUCATION” [his emphasis this time]. Indeed, one of the reasons Lancaster’s reform plan was so popular in the 1810s was precisely because it promised to train national citizens—at the time, the security of the new nation was extremely shaky.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, agree with Prof. Frohnen’s ideas about public schools or don’t. Embrace his vision of conservative principles or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t listen to pundits who tell you that America’s public schools are ruled by any distant power. And don’t buy the old line that schools in the old days used to be about purely local values.

It just ain’t so.

Our Children: Evil & Successful

What have we done?  By giving our children everything, we’ve made them into self-centered, grasping monsters.  At the Imaginative Conservative, Bruce Frohnen accuses our culture of eating its own children.  As the perfect terrifying example, Frohnen uses the life and rapacious career of the late Steve Jobs.  Perhaps unconsciously, Frohnen dips into one of the strongest traditions of educational conservatism.

Spoiled Children, Spoiled Society

Spoiled Children, Spoiled Society

Frohnen, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University, castigates Jobs as the exemplar of all things rotten in our culture.  Jobs, Frohnen writes, lived as

a mean-spirited narcissist who translated a certain aesthetic sensitivity and capacity for bullying and hucksterism into a colossal waste of money and collective time, further separating Americans from one another in pursuit of a false control over their environment. As bad, his personality and corporate ethos furthered highly damaging political and economic structures of a kind best described as libertarian socialism, in which corporations and rich individuals behave without conscience, expecting the social programs they vote for but seek to escape funding to pick up the pieces from their own “creative” destruction. I also see him as in many ways a sad character, emotionally and spiritually stunted in part because of the failings of the infantilizing environment in which he grew up.

Frohnen’s arch analysis of Jobs’ character serves as more than a brutal post-mortem on a unique American life.  Frohnen wants us to see Jobs as typical, the predictable result of American culture gone off the tracks.

Why was Jobs such a grasping bully?  Because he came out of the 1960s American culture that had wilfully abandoned its own traditions of child-raising.  Jobs, like so many of his generation, was relentlessly coddled, given everything and asked for nothing.

This was more than just a question of parenting.  Frohnen examines the college education on offer at Reed College in Oregon, where Jobs briefly took classes and where Frohnen briefly taught.  The faculty at Reed, Frohnen argues, deliberately discarded educational tradition and encouraged students to wallow in self-love.  As Frohnen remembers it,

Reed College in Portland, Oregon is one of those places where students dress in black to show how depressing it is to be young and well-off; lots of Volvos in the parking lot when I was there. And the drug culture remained. By my second semester at Reed several students had overdosed on illegal drugs. When the President, a “good” leftie from Oberlin, decided to take the minimal action of proposing a faculty resolution decrying the self-destructive behavior he was in for a surprise. At first I thought the principal opposition speaker was a bag lady. It turned out she was just some English professor in a poncho. She was nearly in tears as she argued that “we” could not hope to engage productively with students if we began with such a “superior attitude.” The resolution failed by an overwhelming margin.

Though Frohnen ties his bitter eulogy to a specific time and place—the 1960s lax parenting and education of the San Francisco era—conservative intellectuals and activists have made similar arguments throughout the twentieth century. As I argue in my upcoming book, at least since the 1920s conservatives have lamented the tendency of political liberals and educational progressives to coddle children. Parents and educators make a mistake, conservatives have insisted, when they offer too much to children.

Consider, for example, the educational vision of Grace Brosseau in 1929. At the time, Minor served as the President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She insisted, as Frohnen does, that parents and teachers must not abandon their duty to impose on children. “Flagrant cases of un-American tendencies have been brought to light and exposed,” Brosseau warned. America had gone to hell in a handbasket. And why? Too many teachers believed in the “decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions. This may be the proper system for the seasoned adult,” Brosseau warned, but

With the young, the chances are too great, for there a dangerous inequality exists.  One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.  Instead, one carefully supplies only what will make for the development of the young body and assure its normal growth.  Why then apply the very opposite theory when dealing with the delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind?

Writing in the 1980s, conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler repeated this warning that too much choice spoils a child.  “The only absolute truth in modern humanistic education,” the Gablers warned,

is that there are no absolute values.  All values must be questions—especially home- or church-acquired values.  Discard the experience gained from thousands of years of Western civilization.  Instead, treat the students as primitive savages in the area of values.  Let them select their own from slanted, inadequate information.

By giving everything to our children, these conservative writers have insisted for generations, we’ve taken everything from them.  In the case of Steve Jobs, Frohnen argues, we see the perverted results that ensue from too much too soon.

 

The Most Important Thing Anyone’s Ever Said

What is the most important line in the history of American education?  Something from Ben Franklin?[1]  Frederick Douglass?[2]  Horace Mann?[3]  John Dewey?[4]

According to Bruce Frohnen in the recent pages of The Imaginative Conservative, that honor goes instead to Annette Kirk.  Her line from the 1980s, Frohnen argues, offers traditionalist conservatives and anyone who cares about real education the only thread of hope in the blasted and devastated landscape of American public education.

Conservative intellectuals have long taken a dim view of the state of American education.  Frohnen opens his recent jeremiad with a nod to the terrible state of today’s schools.  “Can public education in the United States be saved?” Frohnen asks.

Given the stranglehold of teachers’ unions over school districts and state legislatures, the constant meddling of an ideologically motivated federal Education Department, the sheer weight of bureaucracy, and the commitment to mediocrity? Perhaps not.

But traditionalists such as Frohnen are not the only ones who tend to throw the school baby out with the modern bathwater.  Leftist historian Michael Katz, for instance, opened a new era of revisionist educational historiography in 1968 with his assertion that schooling in the United States has always been “conservative, racist, and bureaucratic.”[5]  Also from the left, Marxist economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis denounced American public education in 1976 as a tool of the economic elite.   Libertarian historian Joel Spring famously denounced the cookie-cutter domineering of “The Sorting Machine.”

Frohnen agrees with these folks about the terrible state of public education in the USA.  But it’s hard to imagine Professors Katz, Spring, Bowles, or Gintis agreeing with Frohnen about school’s saving grace.  According to Frohnen, the only glimmer of hope in the last generation has been a line inserted by Annette Kirk into the 1983 blockbuster report A Nation at Risk.

You history nerds out there might think that Frohnen is referring to some of the most famous lines of that report.  Every survey of American educational history, for instance, talks about the reports catchy warning about a “rising tide of mediocrity.”  Most surveys, too, note the apocalyptic edge to the report’s conclusion.  “If an unfriendly foreign power,” the report noted, “had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”  Ouch!  Take that, teachers’ unions!

But those memorable lines were not the ones to which Frohnen referred.  No, the most saving line of the report, Frohnen argues, was one inserted by the true conservative Annette Kirk.  In Frohnen’s words, Kirk made sure that the report included the principle that “parents are the first and primary educators of their children.”

Thanks to this perspicacious inclusion, American education has been saved from the worst strangleholds of state-dominated educracy.  Parents in the United States, Frohnen points out, still have the freedom to free their children from the school system entirely.  Homeschooling offers such parents their last best hope of seeing their children truly educated.


[1] “Genius without education is like silver in the mine.”

[5] Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 3.

Ed Schools and the Perversion of Teaching

Ed school: Just a front for left-wing ideological indoctrination?

That’s the accusation this morning by Bruce Frohnen in the pages of The Imaginative Conservative.

We’ve looked recently at the history of ed-school animus among conservative intellectuals.  The schools that train America’s teachers are often accused of lackluster academics, stultifying political correctness, and shoddy scholarship.

Frohnen warns that ed schools don’t educate much at all.  Instead, they force young people through an intellectually embarrassing and politically damnable course of shopworn leftist clichés.

Ed schools, Frohnen accuses, willfully misunderstand the purposes of true education.  Instead of training new teachers to think of education as a process by which young people master vital knowledge and skills, ed schools train new teachers to think of education first and foremost as a process of “liberation.”

Frohnen cites the case of the University of Minnesota, where teachers-to-be take required fluff courses such as “Creating Identities through Art and Performance,” “Diversity in Children’s Literature,” and “Introduction to Cultural Diversity and the World System.”

A more sympathetic critic might see such courses as important attempts to introduce new teachers to central ideas.  Not Frohnen.  He calls them part of the “trendy but outdated ideological indoctrination so typical of our education schools.”

It is no surprise, with this perspective, that so many conservative academics view teacher education as no education at all.

Frohnen suggests a more positive alternative.  Programs such as Teach For America, Frohnen believes, offer smart, motivated young people a chance to do some good, without jumping through all the left-wing hoops on offer at the nation’s ed schools.