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.