No Free Speech for Conservative Students

In less than a week, we’ll see the official fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. And some conservatives worry that college campuses will celebrate that milestone by cracking down particularly on the free speech of conservative students.

What Free Speech looked like fifty years ago...

What Free Speech looked like fifty years ago…

Some found it ironic that Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks began the commemoration season with an equivocal email. Dirks encouraged the Berkeley community to remember to temper its yen for free speech with an esteem for the value of civility.

Over the past year, too, campuses nationwide have wrestled with their policies of establishing limited “free-speech zones.” In some cases, conservative students have come under special pressure, either for preaching conservative evangelical religion or for protesting against abortion.

This week in the Wall Street Journal, education scholar and historian Sol Stern lambastes the current climate of campus free speech. As he recalls, as a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student, he stood up for free-speech rights at Berkeley fifty years ago. But nowadays, he laments the trajectory of campus politics. “Though the movement promised greater intellectual and political freedom on campus,” Stern argues,

the result has been the opposite. The great irony is that while Berkeley now honors the memory of the Free Speech Movement, it exercises more thought control over students than the hated institution that we rose up against half a century ago.

Why do today’s campus activists face a more restrictive environment? Stern blames the new dominance of academia by closed-minded leftist autocrats. “Unlike our old liberal professors,” Stern writes,

who dealt respectfully with the ideas advanced by my generation of New Left students, today’s radical professors insist on ideological conformity and don’t take kindly to dissent by conservative students. Visits by speakers who might not toe the liberal line—recently including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Islamism critic Aayan Hirsi Ali —spark protests and letter-writing campaigns by students in tandem with their professors until the speaker withdraws or the invitation is canceled.

There seem to be two questions on the table. First, do campuses need to restrict student speech in order to maintain order? And, second, as Stern and other conservative commentators argue, do conservative students sustain the brunt of these anti-free-speech attacks?

Is this what free-speech looks like today?

Is this what free-speech looks like today?

Will the REAL Conservative Fan of the Common Core Please Stand Up

Are the new(ish) Common Core Learning Standards “conservative?” Some say yes, some say no. But even among those who say yes, we see a split. Leading conservative educational thinker Sol Stern offers one “conservative” vision of the Common Core, while Michael Petrilli gives another. And their differences can tell us a lot about the complicated world of conservative educational thinking.

Among some conservatives—some of them literally from an earlier generation—the new standards seem obviously objectionable, simply because of their provenance. Phyllis Schlafly, for example, emerged from the 1970s to bash the Common Core as a power grab by “Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.” Some pundits from a newer generation agree. Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin warn that the new standards are turning American kids into “guinea pigs.”

But among those conservatives who like the Common Core—or at least think the new standards are the least-bad option—we see different emphases. Both Stern and Petrilli agree that the new standards will offer a more rigorous academic experience. But Stern suggests that such rigor is the core of the conservative case for the Core, while Petrilli says that academic rigor is only one aspect of the conservative argument in favor of the new standards.

Writing in the pages of the New Criterion, Stern defends the Common Core as the best “chance of restoring traditional academic content to the classroom.” As Stern explains,

As a conservative, I remain convinced that, faults and all, the Common Core still presents a golden opportunity and a challenge for states and school districts to rethink what is taught in their classrooms. The Standards are more than just a list of learning objectives and skills that American students are expected to achieve by the end of each grade level. The most hopeful part of the new Standards is that they reject the instructional malpractice that prevents the public schools from fulfilling their historic mission of producing literate American citizens who know something about their country’s history and its republican heritage. Contrary to the conservatives’ complaints, the Common Core is, in fact, a document that the founders would approve.

Michael Petrilli does not disagree. He thinks the Common Core will indeed help re-introduce academic rigor to public schools. But as he argued a while back in the pages of the Weekly Standard along with co-author Chester Finn, the real score of the Core is elsewhere. As Petrilli tells the story, the road to the Common Core began back in the days of Bill Bennett, Reagan’s second secretary of education.

Petrilli argues that the new standards fulfill a generation-long conservative plan to make schools more measurable, more interchangeable. With such standards in place, free-market conservatives have thought, public schools could be freed from the dead hand of left-leaning teachers’ unions. Parents could be offered a market-friendly menu of charter schools and voucher-funded private schools.

In Petrilli’s words,

Standards do a good job of clarifying the public’s expectations for schools, and signaling to parents and taxpayers whether the campus down the street is educating its students poorly or well. But standards-based reform has never had a suitable answer for failing schools. It can identify them but has had little success turning them around.

Choice, on the other hand, is great at creating new school options, places that can replace the failures and give needy kids decent alternatives. Yet market-based reform needs reliable consumer information for it to lead to strong outcomes—information that standards and tests are excellent at providing.

We might describe this difference in conservative emphases as a difference between a “classroom” approach to conservative school reform and a “systemic” approach. Or maybe a “traditionalist” versus a “free-market” approach.  And, again, we don’t want to make these plans sound entirely exclusive.

But it seems as if Stern is arguing that the heart of “conservative” reform must be with an intellectual change in the way kids are taught. Stern excoriates pedagogical ideas such as “balanced literacy.” Instead, Stern celebrates the approach of anti-progressive E.D. Hirsch. Instead of looking at structural reforms, Hirsch and Stern wanted conservative reforms to begin in the classroom. Students needed to learn basic cultural information, to focus on “Core Knowledge.”

Petrilli, on the other hand, emphasizes a different approach. Academic rigor is important, Petrilli argues, but it is only one of the reasons for conservatives to support the Core. At least as important, Petrilli says, is the boost the standards will give to school choice. Without what Petrilli calls “true external standards,” it will always be impossible to introduce a true educational marketplace. After all, how can parents know what school is the best if there are not measures that compare schools in a fair way?

In any case, these conservative pleas in favor of the Common Core might be too little, too late. Recent polls have indicated plummeting popular support for the new standards. In spite of the smart arguments of intellectuals like Stern and Petrilli, parents might decide that these standards are just too iffy.