Whose Values Rule the Schools?

What are the dominant values in American public schools? Progressive activists tend to think schools are dominated by conservatism. But conservatives say that progressives are in charge. New poll data suggest that conservatives are wrong. When it comes to general attitudes toward children and education, conservative values seem enormously powerful.

Progressives have always hoped that schooling would soon be transformed into a progressive paradise. But they have also always acknowledged widespread public resistance. As far back as 1925, scholars Otis Caldwell and Stuart Courtis—from the progressive bulwark of Teachers College, Columbia University—argued that the “new philosophy” of progressive education could transform schools into a “childish utopia.” Unfortunately, they wrote, most Americans weren’t interested. Instead, most people “blamed teachers and schoolmen generally for ‘new-fangled methods.’”

These days, leading progressives agree. Pundits such as Alfie Kohn insist that progressive ideas are the best. As Kohn once put it, progressive education is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.” In spite of the clear superiority of progressive methods, Kohn writes, most schools only use them in dribs and drabs. Conservative, traditional schoolrooms, Kohn notes glumly, tend to be the norm.

We might think that conservative activists would celebrate their domination of American public education. But in fact we see just the opposite. Historically, conservative activists have taken progressive dominance for granted. Many conservatives have assumed without question that the progressive nostrums of philosopher John Dewey had long ago triumphed.

Writing in the wake of a tumultuous school battle in 1950s Pasadena, California, for instance, conservative activist Mary Allen explained that “traditional education” had been abandoned in the 1930s. Why? Because at that time “some of Dewey’s followers prepared to use the schools to introduce a new social order.” To Allen as to generations of conservatives, conservative values had long since been kicked out of public education.

Today’s educational conservatives voice similar frustration. For example, Peter Collier has lamented the dominance in public education of the progressive tentacles of Columbia University’s Teachers College. A pernicious leftist stew of “critical pedagogy,” Collier noted, “slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching.”

How important is "curiosity" as an educational goal?

How important is “curiosity” as an educational goal?

New poll data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press suggest that conservatives have this one wrong. When it comes to basic attitudes about children and proper education, conservative ideas tend to dominate. Those who call themselves “consistently liberal” find themselves on the outside looking in.

Who's the outlier here?

Who’s the outlier here?

To be fair, the poll also suggests that Americans of all ideologies share broad agreement about the proper way to raise children. Huge majorities of the “consistently liberal,” the “mostly liberal,” the “mixed,” the “mostly conservative,” and the “consistently conservative” agree that children must be taught responsibility.

But in a couple of other categories, those who call themselves “consistently liberal” stand out. And those differences tell us something about the values that dominate our schools and society.

For example, the “consistently liberal” place a much higher value on teaching curiosity than do any other groups, by a huge margin. Nearly a quarter of the consistently liberal place this among the three most important factors for children, and over three quarters think it is important. In contrast, none of the other groups, including the “mostly liberal,” thought that teaching curiosity was nearly as important. Only nine percent of the “mostly liberal” called curiosity one of the most important values, and only fifty-eight percent considered it important. And though fifty-seven percent of the “consistently conservative” agreed that curiosity was important, only a paltry three percent of consistent conservatives placed it at the top of their lists.

In addition, large majorities of every group except the “consistently liberal” placed a high value on teaching obedience. Even among the “mostly liberal,” sixty percent found this important. At the high end, two-thirds of the “consistently conservative” thought obedience was an important idea for children, compared to just over one-third of the “consistently liberal.”

Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to define “progressive” and “conservative” ideas about education. But in general, it’s fair to say that progressives tend to value curiosity above obedience, exploration above authoritarianism. Yet those values are only shared by a small sliver of the respondents in this survey.

The good news for conservatives? They are wrong about the values that guide American public education.   Progressive notions of child-centered learning, of students freed from the dictation of authoritarian teachers and exploring the creative curiosity of youth, have not sunk the deep roots that conservatives have often assumed.

Instead, when it comes to central ideas about obedience and curiosity, this poll suggests that conservative attitudes are the norm.