The Most Important Thing Anyone’s Ever Said

What is the most important line in the history of American education?  Something from Ben Franklin?[1]  Frederick Douglass?[2]  Horace Mann?[3]  John Dewey?[4]

According to Bruce Frohnen in the recent pages of The Imaginative Conservative, that honor goes instead to Annette Kirk.  Her line from the 1980s, Frohnen argues, offers traditionalist conservatives and anyone who cares about real education the only thread of hope in the blasted and devastated landscape of American public education.

Conservative intellectuals have long taken a dim view of the state of American education.  Frohnen opens his recent jeremiad with a nod to the terrible state of today’s schools.  “Can public education in the United States be saved?” Frohnen asks.

Given the stranglehold of teachers’ unions over school districts and state legislatures, the constant meddling of an ideologically motivated federal Education Department, the sheer weight of bureaucracy, and the commitment to mediocrity? Perhaps not.

But traditionalists such as Frohnen are not the only ones who tend to throw the school baby out with the modern bathwater.  Leftist historian Michael Katz, for instance, opened a new era of revisionist educational historiography in 1968 with his assertion that schooling in the United States has always been “conservative, racist, and bureaucratic.”[5]  Also from the left, Marxist economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis denounced American public education in 1976 as a tool of the economic elite.   Libertarian historian Joel Spring famously denounced the cookie-cutter domineering of “The Sorting Machine.”

Frohnen agrees with these folks about the terrible state of public education in the USA.  But it’s hard to imagine Professors Katz, Spring, Bowles, or Gintis agreeing with Frohnen about school’s saving grace.  According to Frohnen, the only glimmer of hope in the last generation has been a line inserted by Annette Kirk into the 1983 blockbuster report A Nation at Risk.

You history nerds out there might think that Frohnen is referring to some of the most famous lines of that report.  Every survey of American educational history, for instance, talks about the reports catchy warning about a “rising tide of mediocrity.”  Most surveys, too, note the apocalyptic edge to the report’s conclusion.  “If an unfriendly foreign power,” the report noted, “had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”  Ouch!  Take that, teachers’ unions!

But those memorable lines were not the ones to which Frohnen referred.  No, the most saving line of the report, Frohnen argues, was one inserted by the true conservative Annette Kirk.  In Frohnen’s words, Kirk made sure that the report included the principle that “parents are the first and primary educators of their children.”

Thanks to this perspicacious inclusion, American education has been saved from the worst strangleholds of state-dominated educracy.  Parents in the United States, Frohnen points out, still have the freedom to free their children from the school system entirely.  Homeschooling offers such parents their last best hope of seeing their children truly educated.


[1] “Genius without education is like silver in the mine.”

[5] Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 3.

From the Archives: August Heckscher and Conservative Multiculturalism

Could American conservatives embrace their own, distinctly conservative vision of “multicultural” education?

Thanks to Brad Birzer at The Imaginative Conservative, we find a resurrected 1953 argument that forces us to wonder.  This essay, by historian and parks administrator August Heckscher II, insists that true conservatism must never be an “ideology,” but rather

a way of thinking and acting in the midst of a social order which is too overlaid with history and too steeped in values, too complex and diverse, to lend itself to simple reforms. It is a way of thought which not only recognizes different classes, orders, and interests in the social order but actually values these differences and is not afraid to cultivate them.

Heckscher himself could not claim conservative credentials.  He worked in the Kennedy administration and gushed at the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson.  As one conservative commentator complained about Heckscher on the American Conservative, Heckscher was merely “another liberal Democrat explaining to Conservatives politely, but firmly, the need for them to shut up and get out of the way until certain debatable ‘reforms’ are irrevocably in place.”

Yet other conservative thinkers, notably the editors at The Imaginative Conservative and The American Conservative, consider Heckscher’s 1953 polemic worth revisiting fifty years later. Today’s Burkean, traditionalist conservatives were likely attracted by Heckscher’s Burkean, traditionalist definition of true conservatism.

It seems too strange to be a coincidence that Heckscher’s essay came out in the same year as Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind.  Kirk transformed American conservative intellectual life by promoting this sort of Burkean traditionalism.

Heckscher, like Kirk, insisted that American conservatism must be, and has always truly been, more than simply rock-throwing at government expansion.  True conservatism, Heckscher wrote, would embrace programs such as social security, if those programs were “conceived as a means of strengthening local ties, strengthening the family, and strengthening the true spirit of inde­pendence in the citizens.”

At ILYBYGTH, our attention was drawn to Heckscher’s comments about the nature of truly conservative education.  Heckscher offered a 1950s preview that sounds strangely familiar.  Since the time of Herkscher’s essay, we have become accustomed to “multicultural” ideology in education.  But we generally have not thought of this as a particularly conservative idea.  Here is Heckscher’s vision:

Education in conservatism can come, I suggest, in part from a schooling that makes men aware of the values in a community, and tolerant of their differences. It can come in part, also, from the common everyday discipline of living in an environment where multitudinous groups think in their own ways and set a varying hierarchy of values upon the goods of life. In such a community the doctrinaire approach is impossible. Rationalism cuts athwart the basic understandings which hold all together; and the search for a unique solution would drive men to distraction were it not aban­doned for a spirit of practical accommodation and acceptable com­promise. The diversity with which the citizen learns to live sanely comes by degrees to seem a virtue; and the climax of the wise man’s education is when he turns about and begins consciously to preserve and nourish the institutions in which diversity has been bred. That is the moment, too, in which he becomes a conservative.

Recognizing the value of diversity, in other words, is the sine qua non of truly conservative education.  Since the time of Heckscher’s 1953 essay, “multiculturalism” has earned a negative reputation among many conservative intellectuals.  Many conservatives might line up more happily with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s blistering 1990s critique of multiculturalism than with Heckscher’s 1953 endorsement.

But in the context of Heckscher’s Burkean vision, this definition of proper education needs another look.  In the twenty-first century, when we hear a call for “diversity” and a non “doctrinaire” inclusion of “multitudinous groups,” our minds jump first to the sort of “multiculturalism” heralded by scholars such as James Banks.  Banks and other education scholars argued that good education must emphasize the contributions of many different cultural groups.  At its heart, this sort of multiculturalism suggests a radical egalitarianism.  Cultures are different, but all deserve equal respect.  This approach, Banks promised, would not only be good for students of minority ethnic groups, but for all students.  A multicultural curriculum, in this vision, would help overcome America’s history of white Christian hegemony.

Read in the context of his full essay, Herkscher’s call for multicultural education looks much different.  The various voices Herkscher wants to hear are those of different “classes, orders, and interests.”  Herkscher’s conservative multiculturalism does not seek to overcome or diminish those differences between classes and orders, but rather to cherish and promote those differences.

A conservative, Heckscher seems to be saying, learns that every class, every social group, has its intrinsic value as part of a well-ordered society.  Every member of each class must learn to think of himself or herself not primarily as an individual acting in isolation, but as an individual representative of his or her social class.  Harmony comes from valuing the diverse contributions of each group, not by trying to make each group equal.

This is a profoundly different sort of multiculturalism than the explicitly racial vision promoted by later generations of multicultural educators.  The ultimate vision of a harmonious and hierarchical society differs radically from the later multiculturalists’ ultimate vision of an egalitarian utopia. Today’s “multicultural” ideologues might recoil in horror at the notion that education should teach people to see society as a hierarchical structure in which every person must find his or her proper place.

Evidence from Heckscher’s career, too, supports the notion that Heckscher’s multicultural vision differed markedly from multiculturalism’s later incarnation.  As New York City Parks Commissioner between 1967 and 1972, Heckscher applied his vision of social justice in tricky circumstances.  According to his 1997 obituary, Heckscher removed a Black Panthers flag when it had been raised instead of the Stars and Stripes.  Other officials, including the police commissioner, had refused to confront the Panthers, fearing violence.  But Heckscher simply walked alone to the flagpole, took down the flag, and presented it to the African American crowd.  He told them not to put it up again.

Conservatives today might embrace Heckscher’s personal bravery and refusal to truckle to race-based bullying.  But they might also consider the educational ramifications of Heckscher’s 1953 essay.  What would a Burkean multiculturalism look like?  Could students learn to value different groups and classes, not as a way to overcome hierarchy, but as a way to preserve it?

What’s Wrong with School? A Traditionalist Remembers the Bad Old Days

Nostalgia can pack a political punch.  Ronald Reagan promised it was “morning again in America.”  More recently, Tea Party activists have worked at “Taking America Back.”  Even President Obama used nostalgia to infuse his 2012 campaign with some of the energy and verve of 2008.

Recently, one traditionalist essayist has warned of the dangers of nostalgia, especially among conservatives.  At Front Porch Republic, Mark Signorelli reminds readers that going home is often the worst sort of backwards movement.

As I have argued in a Teachers College Record essay, the power of nostalgia among educational conservative thinkers has always been intense.  Lots of different types of conservative intellectuals, from Milton Friedman to Max Rafferty to Henry Morris to Sam Blumenfeld, all based their educational policy arguments on a bedrock assumption that something had gone terribly wrong with American education and culture.  Each of them posited a different educational golden age, before teachers’ unions, or evolution, or progressive education trampled on proper education.

Mark Signorelli doesn’t disagree that the education system in America is terrible.  His mother, a veteran teacher in his hometown school district, suffered repeated harassment for trying to do a good job.  Nor was the experience uplifting for Signorelli as a student.  As he writes,

The schools in my town had problems reaching far beyond the poisonous effects of identity-politics, however.  They are the same problems afflicting schools throughout the country – the disorder in the classroom and the hallways, the narrowing of pedagogical aims to the strictly vocational, the failure to transmit anything resembling our intellectual and artistic heritage.  I do not wish to sound ungrateful; throughout my schooling, I had a number of remarkable teachers, to whose instruction I owe much.  But they, like me, were confined within an aimless system, which had long ago abandoned any responsibility to tend to the moral development of young minds. . . .  It seemed to me as though my teachers had engaged in an extensive conspiracy to rob me of my proper literary patrimony.  But they did teach me the varieties of STD’s.  The situation was exactly the same in the Catholic as in the public schools; I moved between the one and the other throughout my youth, but found little difference between them except for the dress code at the Catholic schools, and their considerably lower rates of assault and battery among the student body.

Signorelli warns that such shoddy educational experiences make nostalgia a dangerous weapon, especially for those traditionalists prone to fetishize “going home.”  If such was the fare on offer in our hometowns, how can we ever justly yearn to go home again?