Let My Children Go

Even the smartest conservatives don’t get it. There’s a big win for conservatives buried in the Senate’s tax plan. If it goes through, though, it will not prove the strength of conservative ideas, but rather the desperate strait they are in.

Before we dig into that, let me back up a little bit and tell a story. When my book about the history of educational conservatism came out, I did an interview with National Review’s John Miller. He wanted to know how twentieth-century conservatives had pushed for charters and vouchers.

9780674416710

Things are not always what they seem…

The problem was…they hadn’t. As I have argued elsewhere, when Milton Friedman first proposed charter schools in the 1950s, no one listened. The conservative push for charters and vouchers only gained real steam at the very tail end of the century.

By and large, conservatives didn’t want to escape from public schools in the twentieth century. Why not? It’s obvious: They still hoped to control them.

There were exceptions. After Brown v. Board in 1954, whites in the South massively resisted by privatizing public schools. And yes, the evangelical exodus from public schools took off in the 1970s. Then the second-stage flight from fundamentalist schools to fundamentalist homeschools began in the 1990s.

In the big picture, though, conservatives generally considered public schools their schools throughout the twentieth century. In the Reagan era, conservative intellectuals who cared about schools—most notably William J. Bennett—didn’t want to help conservative parents escape from public schools. Rather, Bennett thought the public schools themselves could be nudged in conservative directions. As we’ve seen lately, though, there’s a huge divide between today’s conservative thinking about public schools and Bennett’s. Most obviously, Bennett’s conservative dream for common state standards met with virulent conservative opposition.

What does any of this have to do with the Senate tax bill? The Senate version contains a clever sweetener for conservatives who want to remove their children from public schools. As reported in Quartz, their proposed tax bill will extend the use of 529 plans to K12 education. In the past, those programs allowed parents to squirrel money away for their children’s college expenses. Any earnings weren’t taxed, as long as the money was spent on tuition.

The new tax bill allows parents to do the same thing with private and charter schools. In effect, the new bill is a modest tax break for conservatives who want to keep their children out of the hands of the public schools.

I should add the usual clarification: SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again. I am no conservative myself. I am deeply concerned about the two terrible tax bills currently under debate. The push to reduce and reroute funding for public education is a cruel and shortsighted effort. IMHO.

As a historian, though, I can’t help but notice that this is yet another example of the ways conservative dreams have deflated in the past century. In the 1920s, as I argued in my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives hoped for nothing less than to legislate the theocratic control of public education.

These days, as this tax plan demonstrates, conservatives no longer hope to push public schools in conservative directions. Rather, conservative strategy consists of sneaking in tax breaks and incentives for parents who are trying to flee.

Advertisements

Students: Customers, Wards, or What?

The devil stalks the University of North Carolina. At least, that’s the impression I get when I read the progressive Nation’s description of new system president Margaret Spellings. Of all the damning evidence against Spellings, perhaps the worst thing, for these progressives, is that she referred to students as “customers.” I wholeheartedly agree that good education, healthy education, shouldn’t be understood this way. But I don’t think progressives like me have come up with a better analogy. The only other likely candidate makes us even more uncomfortable.

Margaret Spellings

Sympathy for the Devil…?

Spellings has a long career in education. She has been one of the fiercest and most successful proponents of Milton Friedman’s prescriptions for better schools. If markets are allowed to do their magic, this school of thought explains, much of the dead hand of institutional lethargy will be stripped away.

In the K-12 world, market reformers have pushed vouchers, charters, and “choice,” with a lot of success. During her tenure as Education Secretary, President Spellings famously promoted a similar sort of market approach to higher education. The solutions to university blahs, the Spellings Report explained, lay in a new vision of students as “consumers,” with schools competing for their business.

“In this consumer-driven environment,” the report argued,

Students increasingly care little about the distinctions that sometimes preoccupy the academic establishment. . . . Instead, they care—as we do—about results.

A good college, from this perspective, is one that gives students good financial pay-back for their tuition investment. The “results” for “consumers” should be significant, in terms of higher salaries and better economic prospects for families.

Colleges, the Spellings Report insisted, need to adapt or die. If a for-profit college can deliver marketable skills better and faster, it should be encouraged, not deplored. Such law-of-the-jungle competition would push colleges in the right directions, toward “improving their efficiency.” A good higher-education system, the Spellings Report concluded, would give “Americans the workplace skills they need to adapt to a rapidly changing economy.”

Those of us who don’t like this vision of the proper form and function of higher education are not without alternatives. But for progressives, the primary alternative would not be an improvement.

For long centuries, colleges and universities operated on a very different model, what we might call the “family” plan. Students were not consumers, but rather more like apprentices. They entered into higher education with an understanding that they would be shaped according to the guidance of the school.

As historian Roger Geiger explained so clearly in his recent history of higher education, this system persisted much longer than did the apprentice system for young workers. Well into the nineteenth century, students had very few rights, very few choices to make.

They didn’t like it. As Geiger relates, the 1810s were a far more turbulent decade on American campuses than were the 1960s or 1970s. Indeed, if today’s students at North Carolina don’t like Spellings’s consumer model, they might learn a lesson from their predecessors. In 1799, UNC students held a week-long riot, in which they captured and horsewhipped their unpopular presiding professor. (See Geiger, pp. 116-129.)

What made these students so angry? The family model of higher education insisted on draconian rules for student life, including onerous daily recitals and endless rounds of mandatory chapel services. Students did not “consume” higher education in this family model, they submitted to it.

During the 1960s, student agitation against in loco parentis rules represented a late protest—and a very successful one—against the persisting vestiges of the family model. Students demanded an end to mandatory curfews and even core curricula.

The family model never totally disappeared, of course. Indeed, today’s “safe space” protests are usually built on an implicit assumption that the university will protect and shield students, implying a continuing authoritative family relationship.

In general, though, progressive students, faculty, and administrators don’t like the family model. They don’t want to impose a set of readings or experiences for students. They want students to be empowered to design their own educational experiences, to a large degree.

But if we don’t like the old family model, and we don’t like the new consumer model, what else is there?

As usual, I don’t have answers, only more questions.

  • If we don’t want to think of college students as customers, and we’re not willing to re-impose an authoritarian system, what should we call them?
  • Put another way: If the family model is out, and the consumer model is out, what’s left?
  • What could it mean to think of students as producers, rather than consumers?
  • If the nature of consumption has changed radically in the past fifteen years with online shopping and etc., might it mean something very different these days to call students “consumers”?
  • Is there wiggle room in the consumer model? Think of the differences, for instance, between equipping someone with tested, high-quality gear for a life-long expedition and equipping them with shiny junk they really don’t need.

Rubio’s College Fix: Make Students Profitable

Vouchers. Charters. Conservatives these days like to offer “market” solutions to school problems. In the pre-run-up to the 2016 presidential contest, Florida Senator Marco Rubio is offering a market fix for college students: Sell shares in yourself.

Of course, not every conservative is a free-marketeer. “Traditionalist” conservatives (for good examples, check out the Imaginative Conservative or the American Conservative) decry the dehumanizing effect of ruthless commodification. But there has been a long tradition in these United States of tying traditional values to an apotheosis of the free market.

In education, the most influential voice for marketization has been the late Milton Friedman. As he remembered in the 1980s, when he started advocating vouchers, it was “far out of the mainstream.” But by the twenty-first century, such market ideas had become dominant. Parents should all have the right to choose the right school for their children, Friedman insisted. The only reason they could not, he wrote, was because self-interested teachers’ unions had seized control of education and forced an “excess of conformity.”

Rubio’s plan expands on this principle. In a recent talk organized by the National Journal, Rubio worried that the “American dream” of college education has become unaffordable for many. The danger, Rubio warns, is an increasing opportunity gap between those who have advanced education and those who do not. His plan will help narrow that gap by making it possible for everyone to go to college. Our “new economy,” he says, is still working with a higher-ed system built for the “old economy.”

Sell yourselves, students...

Sell yourselves, students…

Tuition costs have shot up far faster than the rest of the economy. Students from less-affluent backgrounds have been forced out of college, or saddled with impossibly huge debt burdens. Colleges are getting fat on these hefty tuition bills, largely financed by federal student loans. And, according to Senator Rubio, many “high-skilled, high-paying industries suffer from a shortage of labor.”

His solution? Among other ideas, Rubio wants students to sell shares in themselves. Instead of borrowing a fixed amount, students could promise investors, say, four percent of their earnings for ten years after graduation. Students might end up paying far more than they borrowed. Or they might pay less. But that is all part of the promise and peril of the market.

As Rubio notes, this will pusher higher education in “practical” directions. It will push students to pursue “the right degree, geared toward the right industry.” Not a lot of investors will jump at the chance to invest in a philosophy major. But students in “engineering, health services and education,” Rubio thinks, will be a good bet.

There are plenty of conservatives, I think, who would be aghast at this marketization plan. The purpose of education, many conservatives insist, is to humanize.

Rubio’s brand of conservatism is different. He wants to let the market work its magic.

Conservative College Cheapskates

Cheap college for all!  That’s the call of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  ALEC members will consider a proposal to mandate public university education for under $10,000.  So why is this a “conservative” idea?

The conservative group’s annual meeting agenda just came out.  Members will be asked to consider several model bills about education, including two that support expansion of charter schools.  No surprise there.  Many free-market conservatives, way back to the 1950s work of free-market guru Milton Friedman, have wanted to reform education by introducing market principles.

ALEC's Get-Together

ALEC’s Get-Together

But I’m puzzled by the higher-ed model bill.  ALEC proposes the “Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act,” a model bill that will require public universities to offer cheaper college educations.  In the words of the proposed bill,

The Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act would require all public four-year universities to offer bachelor’s degrees costing no more than $10,000, total, for four years of tuition, fees, and books.  The Act would require that ten percent of all public, four-year university degrees awarded reach this price-point within four years of passage of this act.

To achieve this price-point, universities would be instructed to capitalize on the opportunities and efficiencies provided by (1) web-based technology and (2) competency-based programs.

Simple enough.  There has been oodles of talk lately about the problem of burgeoning student debt.  This proposal would at least introduce a new way to talk about the price and value of college education.

I don’t know the history of ALEC’s model bill, but it looks to be modeled on a similar bill in Texas.  Two years ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry—a decidedly and self-consciously “conservative” politician—introduced a similar affordable-college law.

But here’s my question: What is “conservative” about this proposal?  I know there are conservatives and then there are conservatives, but ALEC has traditionally been a champion, in its words, of “Limited Government, Free Markets, [and] Federalism.”

On first glance, it isn’t clear how this college model bill would limit government or help free markets.  Isn’t the price of college education part of a free market?  Wouldn’t a government imposition of a price cap increase the role of government and decrease the fluidity of the free market?

Here’s my hunch: The key to understanding the “conservative” elements of these bills lies in two important words, “efficiencies” and “competency.”  As I argue in my upcoming book about the history of conservative activism in education, conservatives have long looked skeptically at the way higher education has been run.  Just as conservatives have often insisted that teachers’ unions exert an unhealthy stranglehold on K-12 schooling, they have also often insisted that higher education has been taken over by sclerotic bureaucracies and leftist ideologues.

By forcing colleges and universities to offer credit for “competencies,” free-market conservatives might hope to shatter the grip of college bureaucracies.  Too often, conservatives might argue, college rules have insisted that students spend a certain amount of time in seats, parroting back academic drivel instead of learning real skills.  If students can demonstrate competency in life skills—running a business, maybe, or opening a charter school—those “competencies” should get college credit.

Similarly, by promoting “efficiencies” in higher education, free-market conservatives might hope to force lazy and pampered college faculty to use new technology to deliver information and skills more quickly and cheaply.  Since public universities are funded at least in part by government money, forcing them to run more quickly and cheaply could be seen as crucial part of conservatives’ desire to slim down big government.

That’s my guess, in any case.  To those who know their higher-education history, though, it is surprising to hear cheap public education promoted as a “conservative” cause.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s, after all, accessibility and affordability were hallmarks of leftist activism in higher education.

Perhaps the best example of this is the history of City University of New York.  During the 1920s and 1930s, CUNY, especially City College of New York, was known as the “Ivy League of the Proletariat.”  Top students crowded into CCNY, especially Jewish students excluded from Ivy League colleges.  It was an elite institution, admitting only the most qualified students.  Back then, it was also free.  If you could get in, you could go.

Do these CUNY tuition protesters look "conservative" to you?

Do these CUNY tuition protesters look “conservative” to you?

In the late 1960s, student activism forced a change in admissions policy.  To fight elitism and cultural prejudice, leftist activists pushed through an open admission policy.  Back then, it was leftist student radicals who called for cheap college for all.

Does ALEC’s model bill signal a shift?  Is it now a “conservative” cause to limit the cost of public higher education?

 

 

Teachers’ Unions: The Root of All Evil

Last week a California judge decided that bad teachers can be fired.  In his decision in Vergara v. California, Judge Rolf M. Treu dealt a severe blow to the power of teachers’ unions.  Not surprisingly, conservative intellectuals rejoiced.  For almost a century, conservative school reformers have insisted that teachers’ unions represent a double-headed threat.  But here’s my question: why do today’s conservatives only focus on one half of their traditional gripe against teachers’ unions?

In Judge Treu’s decision, he argued that ineffective teachers have a negative impact on students.  And since the poorest students suffer most, the judge concluded that the situation was open to judicial remedy.

In the pages of the conservative National Review, writers celebrated the decision.  One “liberal” pundit shared her horror stories of terrible teachers and school principals, protected and made more arrogantly despicable due to their union-backed sinecures.  Andrew Biggs suggested taking the California decision national.  Biggs offered a simple four-word phrase to rejuvenate the nation’s public schools: Fire the Worst Teachers.

Not every conservative intellectual liked the decision.  Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute warned that the judge’s power-grab could spell out a future of terrible decisions by similarly activist judges.

But even Hess did not support the unions’ traditional role as the unpopular defender of teacher-tenure rules.  After all, conservative school reformers have for generations identified unions as the source of all that was rotten in America’s public-education system.

Perhaps most memorably, the late free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that the dead hand of teachers’ unions had strangled public schooling.  As I wrote a few years back in the pages of Teachers College Record, Friedman’s narrative of educational history pivoted on the development of teachers’ unions.  Most teachers, Friedman wrote, were “dull and mediocre and uninspiring.”  Nevertheless, beginning in the 1840s, Friedman believed, those teachers had captured control of America’s educational system.  Instead of working to improve education for all, teachers’ unions only worked for their own “narrow self-interest.”  The driving force of expanded public-education systems in the 1840s, Friedman argued in Free to Choose, was teachers’ selfish desire to

enjoy greater certainty of employment, greater assurance that their salaries would be paid, and a greater degree of control if government rather than parents were the immediate paymaster.

Today’s conservative complaints about the power of teachers’ unions owe a lot to Friedman-esque free-market critiques.  Schools suffer, free-market conservatives argue, when the market for good teaching talent is blocked by sclerotic union rules.  Instead of bringing in the best teachers, unions dictate a self-interested last-in-first-out rule that preserves seniority, no matter how incompetent.

But there is another reason why conservative intellectuals have long battled against the power of teachers’ unions.  Those unions, after all, have resolutely supported left-leaning or even frankly leftist social programs.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this leftist tendency was the tumultuous history of New York’s Teachers Union.  From the 1930s through the 1950s, as Clarence Taylor has described in his great book Reds at the Blackboard, New York’s Teachers Union wrestled with questions of communism, reform, and subversion.  Again and again, the union suffered internal factional disputes, most famously the expulsion of the communist Local 5 faction.  And again and again, the union came under attack for harboring subversive teachers, most famously the purge of hundreds of affiliated teachers in the 1950s.  Throughout its history, though, the famous union supported left-leaning causes.  Internal factional disputes were not left versus right, but rather left versus left.

Even today, teachers’ unions often endure factional disputes on the left.  The militant Badass Teachers Association wants to push the more moderate American Federation of Teachers and the staid National Education Association to take more recognizably leftist positions.

Given all this history, why do conservative these days focus on the free-market angle?  That is, why don’t conservative pundits attack unions as islands of antiquated leftist ideology, instead of just attacking unions as inefficient and self-serving?

One possibility is that conservative school reformers these days take the tried-and-true school reform tactic of taking the politics out of education.  As historian David Tyack argued most memorably in his 1974 book The One Best System, school reformers always insist that their ideas are not about politics, but only about better schooling for all.  As Tyack showed, calls to “take the schools out of politics” never really want to take the politics out of schooling.  But reformers from every political background score more success when they appear to be impartial educators, interested in pedagogy, not ideology.

Is that what’s going on here?  Do today’s conservative intellectuals hope to eliminate the power of leftist teachers’ unions without making it look like a politically motivated hack job?  Do conservative pundits focus on the educational problems of teachers’ unions, instead of focusing on their left-leaning political positions, in order to make it look as if conservatives only want better schools for all?

 

Why Are Schools So Terrible?

Conservative intellectuals have long asked the question: What went wrong with America’s schools?

Of course, the question presumes that something HAS gone wrong.

We at ILYBYGTH don’t really care if America’s schools are terrible.  We’re more focused on dissecting conservative approaches to the question. How have different conservatives at different times offered different answers to this perennial question?

Now available free online is an argument I put together a few years back. The article appears in the pages of the storied Teachers College Record.

This article looks at the school-history visions of four very different conservative thinkers: Milton Friedman, Max Rafferty, Sam Blumenthal, and Henry Morris. Each of them agreed that public schools had become ineffective, even dangerous institutions. But the reasons they gave for that lamentable decline differed. Friedman, for example, blamed teachers’ unions and government control, beginning just after the American Civil War. Rafferty blasted the wrong-headed “progressive” takeover of the 1930s. Blumenfeld and Morris both looked further back, to a Unitarian coup at Harvard University variously timed either in 1805 (Blumenfeld) or in 1869 (Morris).

These conservative activists do not only differ in the timelines they gave for America’s educational decline, but also in their diagnoses and prescriptions. Friedman wanted a free-market solution. Rafferty hoped for clear-headed traditionalism. Blumenfeld wanted to scrap public education entirely. Morris hoped to heal schools with creationism.

In every case, these conservatives based their arguments about schooling on a historical vision. They are not alone. Activists of every political stripe use history to prove their points. In this essay, I outlined the ways a few prominent conservatives did so.

Decadence and the Fall of American Public Education

Things today ain’t as good as when I was young.

That’s the central notion, the vaguely articulated impulse, the often-unexamined presumption behind a good deal of conservative educational rhetoric.  Schooling these days has declined from glory days of the past.

In an essay in The American Interest, Charles Hill warns of the real consequence of decadence in American life.

As Hill notes, the idea of civilizational decline and fall is an old one.  Yet Hill insists that it retains explanatory power; Hill makes the case that twenty-first century America is sliding into a dizzying downward spiral.  Everything from technologically induced “screen culture” to awkward proletarianization of elites can be better understood as part of a lamentable decadence.

As Hill concludes,

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, “decadence” arose as a romantically thrilling elitist fashion, providing a “sweet spot” in which a privileged, self-selected class could revel in dissolute practices while applauding their own cultural superiority. At the turn of the 20th to the 21st century something akin has emerged—call it a democratized form of decadence—among a far wider swath of the population, with the support of government and approbation of the cultural elite. Many observers have gazed upon such phenomena, then and now, and have seen mainly the sources of shifts in the art world. We move from the 1913 New York Armory Exhibition to mainstreaming of “street art” a century later rather effortlessly. But if what is at stake is world order, with national character and identity as its foundation stone, and democracy as the procedurally and practically most efficacious political form, then the fate of the art world may be the least of our concerns.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety.

Of particular interest here are its implications for American education.  Hill makes a few points about this himself.  For one thing, he notices the disturbing intellectual ramifications of “screen culture” especially among the young.  A generation accustomed to viewing people on computers, tablets, TVs, and phones, able to view without being viewed, Hill argues, adds a “new dimension” to old ideas about decadence.  Weaned on screen culture, Hill says, young people “can become oblivious to others.”

In a nuts-and-bolts way, Hill notes the way our current decadence has squeezed out learning in favor of training.

Of more consequence than the specific educational ramifications argued by Hill is the sense of decline Hill articulates.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is nearly impossible to understand the conservative impulse in American educational thought and activism without grasping the power of the idea of decadence.  Leading conservative intellectuals—even ones from very different backgrounds—have all grounded their educational philosophy on a notion that the educational system in the United States has ground down in a systematic pattern of decline.

In his landmark work Capitalism and Freedom, for example, free-market theorist Milton Friedman insisted that American public education entered a noticeable period of decline after the American Civil War when the government “gradually” (page 85) stumbled into the near-total “‘nationalization,’ as it were, of the bulk of the ‘education industry’”(page 89).

Conservative education leader Max Rafferty agreed about the decadence, but argued for a different time and cause.  The problem really began, Rafferty believed, in the 1930s, when “Dewey-eyed” reformers injected a deeply flawed notion of education into the American cultural bloodstream.  Instead of learning heroic truths and facing moral challenges, students in post-1930 “life-adjustment” classrooms only learned to revel in their own inability to determine right from wrong.  Such decadent teaching and learning, Rafferty argued in his 1963 book Suffer, Little Children, produced a weak generation, unable to combat the existential threat from “a race of faceless, godless peasants from the steppes of Asia [that] strives to reach across our bodies for the prize of world dominion.”

Though he viewed the goals of education very differently from Rafferty and Friedman, creationist leader Henry Morris agreed that public education had declined dramatically.  The root of the problem, Morris argued in his 1989 book The Long War Against God, lay in a one-two punch of Unitarianism and secularism.  The first blow had come in 1869, when Unitarians took over Harvard University.  Their example led American education away from its roots in what Morris considered to be authentic Christianity (pages 46-47).  The second decisive weakening came later, with John Dewey’s rising influence in public education.  That influence, Morris argued, led public schools away from religion into a markedly anti-religious humanism.

These examples could be multiplied nearly endlessly.  William J. Bennett, for instance, has argued with his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators that American culture as a whole—especially including its public schools—has declined terrifyingly since 1960.

It is taken as an article of faith among many conservative educational thinkers and activists that education today is worse than it has been.

This is more than the common griping about “kids these days.”  This is more than the old story about how when I was young I had to walk to school barefoot, through ten feet of snow, uphill both ways.

To understand conservative thinking about education, we have to understand this assumption of decadence.  Not many activists articulate this sentiment as clearly as the intellectuals described here.  Not many offer the careful examination of the meanings of decadence expressed by Charles Hill’s recent essay.

But behind many of the policies promoted by educational conservatives lurks this ubiquitous sentiment: things today are worse than they have been in the past.  Schools today are worse than they have been in the past.

 

Plumbers and Teachers

What is a teacher? A hired hand?  Or an independent scholar?  A functionary enrolled to help parents?  Or a professional charged to form young minds as she or he best sees fit?

Students of conservative educational activism like me often list the same litany of complaints made by conservatives about public schooling in the past century.  Schools, conservatives often complain, must not warp their students’ minds.  Schools should teach patriotism.  Schools should teach respect for religious values and traditional notions of right and wrong.  Some conservatives believe schools must not teach atheism and call it science.

But there remains one hugely important conservative issue that rarely gets the same amount of attention: conservative concern with the overweening authority of teachers and educational experts.

As part of his recent series on education at Front Porch Republic, Anthony Esolen articulates this traditional conservative frustration.

Esolen frames the question in a provocative fashion: What if teachers were plumbers?

Here is one of Esolen’s scenarios:

“Jones pokes his head into the basement. He hasn’t done that in two years. He’s told himself again and again that they must know what they are doing, they are the experts and he isn’t, they are from the government, and he must mind his own business. But the devil gets into him.

“‘What is that?’

“‘What is what?’

“‘That – that tangle of pipes! Why so many? It’s a maze! It takes up half the room. In some places you can’t stand up straight. It’s like what happens to a hundred foot extension cord. The whole contraption is in knots!’

“‘I fail to see what you are so concerned about. Presumably you wanted us to do your plumbing. Well, so we have. We’ve done a great deal more than you expected.’

“‘But it’s leaking all over the place! Why didn’t you just do the simple but necessary thing? Why didn’t you do what I hired you to do?’

“‘Hired, Mr. Jones?’”

In the research for my current book about twentieth-century conservative educational activism, I’ve seen this argument repeated with a variety of emphases.  For generations, conservative activists have argued that schools and teachers have taken too much authority over children.

For instance, during the 1920s school controversies, William Jennings Bryan famously argued, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

A generation later, in 1951, Ernest Brower, a conservative leader from Pasadena, California, complained to a state senate investigating committee that “progressive” education had seized too much control.  In their citizen investigation, Brower reported,

 “Well, you might liken public education, in Pasadena at least, and I think probably in other sections of the country as well, to a patient who is very sick, and so, naturally, the proper thing is to start looking for symptoms, and we found several symptoms of the disease. . . . we noticed there was a definite elimination of parental authority, undermining of parental influence.”

For Brower, as for Bryan and Esolen, this undermining of parental influence signaled the underlying “disease,” of which other educational problems were merely symptoms.

In 1968, conservative California school superintendent Max Rafferty agreed.  “Children,” Rafferty warned,

“do not belong to the state.  They do not belong to us educators, either.  They belong to their parents and to nobody else.  And don’t you forget it.

“Because if you do forget it and let the kids become wards of an all-powerful government, you won’t have to look forward with fear and trembling any more to that dread year 1984.  It will be here, considerably ahead of schedule.”

In 1980, free-market economist Milton Friedman lent his considerable influence to this central conservative notion.  “Parents,” Friedman wrote,

“generally have both greater interest in their children’s schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else.  Social reformers, and educational reformers in particular, often self-righteously take for granted that parents, especially those who are poor and have little education themselves, have little interest in their children’s education and no competence to choose for them.  That is a gratuitous insult.”

We could multiply examples of this sentiment almost endlessly.  From the early years of the Heritage Foundation’s work, Connie Marshner insisted,

“A parent’s right to decide the direction of his child’s life is a sovereign right, as long as the child is subject to his parent.  Educators have no business creating dissatisfaction with and rebellion against parental wishes.”

Similarly, Texas school watchdog Norma Gabler echoed this sentiment in the 1980s,

“Number one, my sons belong to my husband and I.  They do not belong to you and the state—yet.”   

For all these leading conservative intellectuals and activists, one foundation of schooling is that it is a service provided for families by educators.  It has long been a source of intense frustration that progressive educators presume glibly to arrogate total control over children’s lives.

As Professor Esolen reflected in his recent essay series, this arrogance is all the more exasperating when it seems utterly unaware of its own ridiculousness.  We would not accept the fact that a plumber would ignore our wishes and have his way with our pipes.  Why, Esolen asks—echoing generations of conservative intellectuals—why do we accept this brazen arrogance from teachers?

In the News: The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and the “Educrats”

As several commentators have pointed out, the Chicago teachers’ strike puts Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in an awkward position politically. He has been gleefully endorsed by conservative Republicans such as VP nominee Paul Ryan.  Emanuel’s fight with the teachers’ union puts him on the side of union-busting GOP governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. 

In cultural politics, too, fighting with a teachers’ union puts Mayor Emmanuel in the company of decades, even generations, of conservative educational activists and intellectuals. As I discussed in an article in Teachers College Record a few months back, teachers’ unions have often been the primary villain in conservative versions of American educational history.

Free-market pioneer Milton Friedman, for example, blamed America’s educational woes on the increasing power of teachers’ unions. In Free to Choose (1990) the Friedmans explained that even well-meaning teachers and school administrators always want “greater centralization and bureaucratization” at the cost of worse schooling (pg. 157). Since the 1950s, Milton Friedman had argued that teachers’ unions invariably degraded education, since most teachers are “dull and mediocre and uninspiring” (Capitalism and Freedom, 2002 edition, pg. 96). Union control of school, Friedman believed, protected less talented teachers and led to less efficient, less effective schooling.

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Max Rafferty argued that the choking tendrils of unions and educational bureaucracy had almost killed real education. “Education evolved,” Rafferty argued in 1964, “from a sparkling, beckoning opportunity into a more humdrum, sober-sided obligation. It became hedged about with legal requirements and equalization formulas, credentialing criteria and personnel-pupil ratios.” (What Are They Doing to Your Children, 1964, pg. 109).

In the 1980s, conservative educational thinker Sam Blumenfeld called the National Education Association “the Trojan Horse in American Education.” Educational experts, Blumenfeld noted—what he called “remote educational commissions in far-off universities” (Is Public Education Necessary, 1981, pg. 4), had long planned to discredit traditional values in the eyes of American schoolchildren.

For these conservative educational thinkers, teachers’ organizations epitomized all that was wrongheaded about American public education. For free-marketeers like Friedman, unions selfishly choked out all alternate ideas about schooling. For traditionalists like Rafferty, union bureaucracy forced a pernicious pablum down the intellectual gullet of America’s schoolchildren. For more extreme conspiratorial thinkers such as Blumenfeld, teachers’ unions carried out a long-standing plot to rob Americans of their patriotic and spiritual heritage.

And now Rahm Emanuel stands on their side. Emanuel will be gleefully supported not only by contemporary conservative politicians like Paul Ryan, but by generations of conservative educational activists and intellectuals.

IN THE NEWS: Santorum on America’s Educational History

This just in from the Republican presidential campaign trail: Rick Santorum knows what conservatives want to hear.  Not much of a surprise there; Santorum’s knack for positioning himself as the true conservative has led him to a surprisingly strong showing lately.

Of interest to ILYBYGTH readers, Santorum recently described his views on the proper nature of American education.  In doing so, he zeroed in on issues that have long resonated deeply with conservatives.

According to stories in the New York Times  and Los Angeles Times (here and here), Santorum outlined his thinking about the nature of public education in a speech on Saturday to the Ohio Christian Alliance in Columbus.

Santorum has already attracted attention as a homeschooler and advocate of government vouchers.  As his official website articulates, Santorum believes parental choice is one way to “restor[e] America’s greatness through educational freedom and opportunity.”

In Saturday’s speech, Santorum blasted the current “factory model” of education.  Today’s public schools, Santorum insisted, represented an “anachronism,” a period in which “people came off the farms where they did home school or had a little neighborhood school, and into these big factories . . . called public schools.”

Proper schooling, Santorum declared, should begin—and often end—at home.  Santorum appealed to a historical vision that is near and dear to the hearts of many American conservatives.  For most of American history, Santorum argued, even the Presidents homeschooled in the White House itself.

Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America?  Santorum asked.  Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.

As I argue in an essay coming out this month in Teachers College Record,  this vision of the history of American education has been extremely influential among conservatives.  Since at least the 1950s, prominent conservative activists have based their prescriptions for healing American society on the notion that American education went wrong at a specific point in America’s past.  Of course, they also point out the corollary: conservative reforms can put it back on the right track.

Santorum appeals to a glorious educational past in which public schools had not yet tightened their stranglehold on educational opportunity.  This has been a common trope among conservative activists hoping to free traditionalists’ minds from the pernicious notion that education must look like today’s public education system.

Other common ideas that conservatives have insisted upon in their vision of American educational history:

  • schools started out as frankly religious institutions,
  • schools in the past did a better job of teaching more kids with less public money,
  • a set of notions known as “progressive education” ruined America’s strong tradition of real education, and
  • creeping state control led to ideological and theological totalitarianism in public schools.

On Saturday, Santorum indicated his agreement with these notions.  However, just as “progressive” educators have long fought over the proper meaning and function of schooling, so have conservatives.  In my TCR article I take a closer look at four leading activists since 1950:

  • Milton Friedman,
  • Max Rafferty,
  • Sam Blumenfeld, and
  • Henry Morris.

Each of these writers described a different vision of America’s educational past.  Like Santorum and generations of other conservatives, each agreed that the system had broken down.  However, also like Santorum’s unique insistence on the importance of Presidential homeschooling in the White House, each pundit laid out a unique educational past.

Anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America will be wise to listen to Rick Santorum this year.  He seems to have a knack for dishing out all the ideas Fundamentalists want to hear.