Want School Reform? Go Medieval!

It’s hard to cross the street these days without bumping into a new panacea to fix America’s schools.  Longer school days, more parent choice, uniforms, more art, more math, more tech, less tech…everybody’s got a new idea to fix education.

We read today in the pages of Forbes Magazine a different sort of proposal.  To fix America’s high schools, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes, we should go medieval.  To be specific, we should emulate the tutorial style of education developed in the middle ages at Oxford University.  Could it work?  Or, more intriguing, could proposals like Gobry’s serve as a new grand educational rapprochement between conservatives and progressives?

In that tutorial system, Gobry argues, students read a book every week and write a short essay about it.  Then they share the essay with a small group, including a tutor and two or three fellow students.  There is no grading, there are no test scores.  The reading list would include great books, however we wish to define them.

Could it work?  Gobry insists that this plan is both practical and “urgent.”  Elsewhere, Gobry wrote that too often education is misunderstood.  His plan would put it back on track.  Even liberal leaders, Gobry pointed out recently, seem to agree that education is meant mainly to produce technically qualified but dead-eyed engines of economic growth. “Nobody stops to ask what education is for,” Gobry lamented,

because the answer is implicitly accepted by all: an education is for getting a job. It is, in other words, for being a cog in the giant machine of post-industrial capitalism. It is, in other words, for the opposite thing that our forefathers wanted for us. I do not use these words lightly, but it is against–in the sense that a headwind is against a ship–the very foundations of our liberty and our civilization.

We could nitpick about whether Gobry’s plan could work.  As a ten-year veteran classroom teacher, I can see plenty of holes that Gobry does not seem to recognize.  But a more interesting question for ILYBYGTH readers is this: Could Gobry’s proposal serve as the foundation of a grand rapprochement between liberals and conservatives?

Here’s what I mean: At the roots of both “progressive” and “conservative” educational reform traditions there lurks a desire to free students of mindless routine and push them to more rigorous study, more authentic, transformational learning.  John Dewey, for example, hoped his school reform program would eliminate mind-numbing recitations and force students to engage more thoughtfully with the big ideas.  And William F. Buckley sparked the post-war conservative fusion movement with his searing critique of the soft and soulless education peddled at his alma mater.

Dewey became the spokesperson for progressivism, while Buckley personified conservatism.  But when it came to the goals and process of learning itself, the two thinkers were not very far apart.  This may seem a shocker, but Gobry’s short essay supports the notion.  What thinking conservative would not support a notion of education that presses students to engage profoundly with the formative documents of our civilization?  That forces teachers to do more than process young humans and train them in lock-step obedience?  And what thoughtful progressive does not want an education that makes human freedom its primary goal?  An education that tears up meaningless standardized tests and instead engages students of every background to struggle with humanity’s oldest problems?

In the end, I don’t really think Gobry’s great-books plan will work as a silver bullet to fix America’s public schools. But Gobry’s line of thinking might serve as a way to get conservative and progressive intellectuals to come together in recognition of their vast similarities.


Abortion and Social Justice at Yale

A pro-life student group at Yale University has been refused membership in a “social justice” organization.  Why?  Because, in the words of one student leader, “The pro-life, anti-choice agenda stands in the way of gender equity, and thus in the way of social justice.”

The controversy raises difficult questions: Is conservative religion still seen as a legitimate force for good?  For “social justice?”  Or has conservatism become irredeemably trapped by accusations of bigotry?  At least in the effete environs of Yale, it seems pro-life thinking has been stripped of its moral legitimacy.

Well-dressed Activists

Well-dressed Activists

The student group, Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), had been a provisional member of Dwight Hall, an umbrella group of student social-justice clubs.  Membership in Dwight Hall would have given CLAY access to meeting rooms and a sense of campus legitimacy.

Is pro-life a “social justice” cause?  Former CLAY president Michael Gerken thinks it is.  As he explained in the pages of First Things, CLAY members

realized that abortion has never been solely a matter of a baby’s life and liberty. It’s about the desperation and hopelessness of the mother that walked into the clinic. It’s about the grandfather who will never put that little girl in his lap. It’s about the classmates who will never sit next to her, and the boy who will never work up the courage to write her that awkward poem. It’s even about that friend who she would drift away from over the years, the successful sister who would make her insecure, and the God she’d curse when she lost her job and then her mortgage. The biggest lie in all this is that the choice to end (or to save) a life is a solitary one.

Of course, Yale will always have a special place in the history of conservatism and education.  It was William F. Buckley’s precocious expose of the godless atmosphere on campus that launched his career, and in many ways signaled the start of the modern conservative movement.

And college campuses have become leading forums to debate whether or not conservative religious ideas are legitimate traditions or vestiges of bigotry.  ILYBYGTH readers may remember a case at Tufts University a while back.  In that case, the evangelical student group Intervarsity was stripped of its official student-group status.  Other student groups complained that the prominent evangelical group represented an inherently bigoted worldview, one that did not recognize the full equality of homosexual students.

The current controversy at Yale represents a similar conundrum.  Do conservative religious groups automatically lose the right to participate in campus life?  Is it inherently bigoted to fight against abortion or gay marriage?  Perhaps most important, who gets to define “social justice?”


Can Atheists Be Conservatives? Can Conservatives Be Atheists?

Sorry, Charlie.

That was what the Conservative Political Action Conference told the American Atheists recently when CPAC rescinded the atheists’ invitation to have a booth at the upcoming CPAC meeting.

The conservative planners apparently took offense to American Atheist leader David Silverman’s plans to shake up the meanings of American conservatism.  As Silverman told CNN,

Conservative isn’t a synonym for religious. . . .  I am not worried about making the Christian right angry. The Christian right should be angry that we are going in to enlighten conservatives. The Christian right should be threatened by us.

Threatened or not, conservative Christian leaders objected to the atheists’ presence at the meeting, a gathering that plans to attract 10,000 conservative activists to Maryland next week.  Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council crowed, if the atheists are welcomed, “they will have to pack up and put away the ‘C’ in CPAC!”

Other conservatives disagreed.  As the proudly atheist conservative Charles C. W. Cooke opined in the pages of National Review,

given the troubled waters into which American religious liberty has of late been pushed, it strikes me that conservatives ought to be courting atheists — not shunning them. I will happily take to the barricades for religious conscience rights, not least because my own security as a heretic is bound up with that of those who differ from me, and because a truly free country seeks to leave alone as many people as possible — however eccentric I might find their views or they might find mine. In my experience at least, it is Progressivism and not conservatism that is eternally hostile to variation and to individual belief, and, while we are constantly told that the opposite is the case, it is those who pride themselves on being secular who seem more likely and more keen to abridge my liberties than those who pride themselves on being religious.

From an historic point of view, Cooke seems to have the better of this argument.  As Jennifer Burns has argued, the atheism of Ayn Rand has played a crucial formative role in post-war American conservatism.  Though some contemporaries such as William F. Buckley rejected Rand precisely because of her atheism and her aggressive moral embrace of capitalism, later conservative leaders such as Paul Ryan proudly claimed Rand’s influence.

But even when Ryan did so, he explicitly rejected the atheism at the heart of Rand’s thinking.  David Silverman is asking CPAC to do something much more difficult: welcome conservative atheists as atheists, not in spite of their atheism.



William F. Buckley and a Party already in Progress

There it is again!  Every now and then we see some commentator who starts her historical discussion of conservatism in American education in 1951, or 1968, or 1980. 

This week we got another dose: In her Salon.com article about the conservative attack on liberal-arts education, Katie Billotte claimed William F. Buckley “pioneered these attacks [on liberal-arts higher education] in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, and his claim that universities serve as indoctrination camps for liberalism has become a standard talking point on the right.”

Billotte made her claim as part of a rebuttal of a Joseph Epstein article, “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?”  Her argument, and Epstein’s, are both worth reading.  But once again, we must point out that conservative attacks on the nature of higher education must be traced back at least to the 1920s.  The first generation of Protestant fundamentalists, for instance, complained bitterly about the ideological and theological perversions of liberal-arts higher education.  Texas Baptist fundamentalist leader J. Frank Norris, to cite just one example, warned in 1921 that college students went wrong when they studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

The tradition of conservative attacks on leftism and radicalism among liberal-arts educators in higher education was not limited to religious conservatives.  For example, in 1938, American Legion National Commander Daniel Doherty took an audience at Columbia University to task for becoming “the Big Red University.”  To a chorus of boos from his Columbia audience, Doherty warned, “The name of Columbia is besmirched from time to time when preachments containing un-American doctrines emanate from those who identify themselves with this institution.”  The problem, Doherty felt, stretched far beyond Columbia.  Later in 1938, he accused,

It is well known that many of our institutions of higher learning are hotbeds of Communism.  They disseminate theories and philosophies of government which are entirely alien to the American concept and American principles under which we have prospered more than a century and a half as no other people.

Such sentiments were standard fare among conservative activists and thinkers long before William F. Buckley criticized the trends at his alma mater.  Indeed, Buckley himself may be presumed to be familiar with the work of Albert Jay Nock.  We know Nock spent time at the Buckley home in Buckley’s youth.  And Nock’s attitude toward higher education, at least as expressed in his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) leaves little room for Buckley to “pioneer.”

Nock remembered his own liberal-arts education fondly.  Since his time, however, Nock claimed a far-reaching “educational revolution” had destroyed the liberal-arts tradition (85).  The “purge” was “based on a flagrant popular perversion of the doctrines of equality and democracy” (88). 

The conservative protest against the theological and ideological tendencies of higher education and its liberal-arts program long preceded William F. Buckley Jr.  In addition to drinking in long conservative traditions, Buckley cribbed much of his enfant-terrible critique of Yale directly from Nock and his ilk. 

Billotte might protest that her interest lay with today’s conservative attacks, not those from the 1920s, ’30s, or ’40s.  But like many other commentators, she makes claims about the history of conservatism without any apparent familiarity with the subject.  Buckley’s criticism of Yale only makes sense when we understand that it was not a pioneering effort at all.  Billotte’s argument will make sense only when she takes time to understand the legacy of her opponents’ ideas.