Can you be an ed reformer and a conservative?

My Fordham colleague Andy Smarick is engaged in a one-man intellectual odyssey this summer aimed at quelling his intellectual discomfort on a fascinating question: is education reform inherently anti-conservative?

“At its heart, conservatism is about humility. It holds that there is great value in the traditional. Old things have stood the test of time,” Andy writes. So how can you call yourself a conservative, as Andy does, if you are “disposed to preserve venerable institutions and yet favor dramatic K–12 change?”

Andy’s posts are a work in progress, but allow me to enter the fray in medias res because I find the frame and his intellectual exercise absorbing. I’ll confess that disrupting the “institution” of public education has never given me much pause. I’m not sentimental about “public schools” and haven’t been since I started teaching in one. “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty,” Madison said. He had nothing to say about the issues ed reformers (and those who resist reform) tend to focus on: under whose control, beneath which roof, on whose dime, and with what forms of accountability?

The public’s interest lies in a well-educated citizenry. The wish to share with our children the best of what has been discovered, thought, written, and accomplished is at heart a deeply conservative impulse. The means by which this is accomplished is a secondary concern. Advancement and diffusion should be enough. There is no need to protect and defend a system of public schools if those schools fail to serve the purpose for which they were conceived and constructed. Andy needn’t lose sleep that he is betraying his principles—at least not on that score.

What he may not be considering—and this is an issue that might obsess conservatives—is that the founding purpose of public education was not economic competitiveness, gap closing, or “college and career readiness” but minting American citizens, invested in the health and well-being of the republic.

Schools are not mere academic or vocational training centers. A physical place called a school is at heart a civic institution. The first and deepest independent relationship a child forms with a public institution is almost invariably with his or her school. Family—and, for many Americans, religious institutions—may be paramount in shaping us as individuals. But we go to school on our own.

The tension about which Andy is ill at ease may not lie in the reform impulse but in striking a balance between the equally important private and public functions served by schools. We send our children to school for the private purpose of preparing for personal advancement—for college, career, and in hope that they might do a little better in life than we have. But this private good occurs in a public place. At school they study, but they also make friends, play, join sports teams and bands, and generally learn and practice an acceptable range of public behavior. School is where you go to begin to assimilate yourself as an individual into the public life of your community. You go to school to become an American. Ideally, you emerge not just with a private plan of self-betterment but also disposed toward a lifetime of active, engaged citizenship.

I get nervous when I hear reformers talk about competency-based learning, eliminating grade levels, personalized learning, virtual schooling, and other means of upsetting the traditional paradigm of schooling. These are not bad ideas; in fact, they have great merit. But they are aimed almost exclusively at the private dimension of education (there would, of course, be a long-term public economic benefit in improving educational attainment and efficiency). Likewise, the reform impulse to improve the quality of teachers and expect more of school is mainly the right one and is generally sound policy. But here, too, I get nervous when we take it too far and risk destabilizing the profession and the institutions teachers serve. The conservative impulse might be to do these things but with care and caution.

I have made the point elsewhere that schooling is conservative, while education is progressive. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but we try to ensure that as many as possible share the view. This implies that the real challenge for conservatives like my pal Andy has less to do with the nature of reform than ensuring that the public and private functions served by education are brought into proper balance, held there, and made to work optimally for as many of our children as is humanly possible.

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