Time for Conservatives to Panic?

Beware! The nation’s schools have become cesspools of [select one] batty progressivism/subversive socialism/right-wing indoctrination/etc. etc. etc. For a hundred years now, activists have seized on stories from unusual schools and pretended that they represent the “new trend in education.” In the latest go-round of this culture-war tradition, conservatives have gleefully assumed that one odd Brooklyn school has proved them right.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

Here’s the latest: You probably saw George Packer’s piece in the Atlantic about the dizzying dance of progressivism gone wild at his kid’s school. Packer is a well-to-do New Yorker describing his adventures in securing the best education for his kids. He frets about the loss of a meritocratic idea in schools—to Packer, rich people like himself seem too safe behind the expensive walls of their educational castles.

Worse than that, Packer concludes, a venomous “new progressivism” has warped America’s public schools. At his kid’s school, for example, rigid left-wing identity politics has perverted the entire purpose of education. State tests were to be skipped. Bathrooms were to be gender-neutral. Students were to learn the glories of every other civilization besides American. Child-centered classroom methods had become totalitarian fear-mongering. In the end, Packer concludes,

At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics.

Almost before the ink was dry—and it was a lot of ink—conservative pundits seized on Packer’s piece as proof of the deadly realities of modern public education. Peggy Noonan called it an “important piece.” Niall Ferguson called it a “brilliant essay” that “gets right to the heart of the degeneration of American education.” Rod Dreher told his readers that they “have to read this” description of the “progressive dystopia of NYC schools.”

noonan on packer tweet

I’m sure there are conservative intellectuals out there who didn’t fall for this obvious fallacy, but plenty of them did. What’s the problem? As Chalkbeat noted, Packer’s conclusions based on one school might or might not be fair, but they don’t represent anything beyond one person’s unique experience. As CB put it,

close observers of the city’s schools have struggled to recognize the school system Packer is describing. . . . the school is by no means typical in New York City.

It has ever been thus. Throughout the twentieth century, as I noted in my book about the history of educational conservatism, activists have seized on unusual, possibly fake examples and assumed that they represent a horrifying new reality of American public education. Over and over again, conservative activists took apocryphal stories from alleged schools and used them to warn one another of the terrible trends that had taken over American education.

In the 1930s, for example, Forbes Magazine founder Bertie Forbes heard from local middle-schoolers that their teacher had denied that America was the most awesome nation on earth. Forbes’s response? He launched a national crusade to purge schools of this terrible subversive rot.

In the 1960s, Texas activists Mel and Norma Gabler were shocked by the contents of their son’s textbook. Their conclusion? According to a sympathetic biographer,

The Gablers . . . began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.  They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise.  Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

That’s a lot to learn from one student’s homework assignment one night in 1961!

Or, to consider one last example, what about the experience of Alice Moore in Kanawha County, West Virginia? Ms. Moore ran for school board in the 1970s, and her first move was to visit a local progressive middle school. The school had been conceived as a different sort of school, with one big open learning space, student freedom to pursue independent projects, and teachers who consulted with students instead of dictating to them.

SH Gablers

They’re teaching our children what we ask them to teach…

As Ms. Moore told me many years later, the school became a nightmare. Students weren’t learning. Well, they weren’t learning in class. They were learning how to be rude to adults, how to smoke, and how have sex in nearby barns. What was Ms. Moore’s conclusion? That the school was typical of the problems of American education at the time. It was representative of progressive schools all over the country.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Yes, there have long been experiments with progressive pedagogy and progressive politics in American public education. But they have never really represented the “new” force that conservatives in every generation keep warning about.

In fact, once we venture outside the world of clickbait, we see a much different picture of American public education. Public schools—taken as a group—are remarkably diverse institutions. It’s difficult to say much about public education in general, but there is one thing we know to be true. By and large, public schools in America reflect the communities in which they are located.

Unlike what activists have warned about for generations, there is no scheming outside force taking over public schools. Distant experts are only heard distantly. Instead, public schools tend to reflect the values and the desires of their local communities. And that’s why parents tend to be happy with the schools their kids go to, even if they have learned to be nervous about American public education as a whole.

The poll numbers are clear. In 2010, for example, 77% of parents gave their children’s schools an “A” or a “B,” but only 18% of parents said that about the nation’s schools as a whole. Why? Because unlike George Packer, most parents are in general agreement with the goings-on at their kids’ schools. And unlike the chicken-little hysteria of some conservative commentators, most Americans know that real schools are different from the ones that commentators imagine.