Education and Citizenship on the Left and Right


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’m bowled over by the new Claremont Review – Bill McClay’s cover story on the underlying cultural and educational sources of the nation’s current crisis is a real show-stopper. In the shorter items, Charles Murray has a great piece on the ups and downs of Ayn Rand, and my dissertation advisor Steven Smith has a fantastic (not that I’m biased) overview of the issues surrounding Heidegger’s Nazism.

In the education hopper, there’s Terry Moe’s Moore’s [oops!] review of E.D. Hirsch’s new book The Making of Americans. I haven’t seen the book yet; Moe Moore writes that Hirsch, always a man of the Left, makes the lefty case for curriculum reform centered on cultural literacy. To wit, schools paternalistically imposing upon children a homogeneous American culture strongly rooted in a matrix of moral values is the best way to help the poor rise, which is what lefties want.

Moe Moore also casually inserts that in this book Hirsch renews his flat-footed argument against school choice – that empowering parents with choice won’t improve schools because what schools need is better currucula. We’ve been around this merry-go-round with Hirsch before; his argument is like saying that empowering computer users to choose what computers they buy has no impact on the quality of computers; what makes computers better is that the computer companies invest in making them better. Of course, the reason computer companies work so hard to make their computers better, faster and cheaper every year is because they have to serve their customers in a highly competative market.

Moe Moore doesn’t draw the connection between Hirsch’s lefty argument for cultural literacy and his harebrained opposition to school choice, but the connection is there. It’s equally visible in Little Ramona, who – like Hirsch – has been wrongly considered a “conservative” for many years solely because she opposes multiculturalism and supports . . . well, the lefty argument for curriculum reform based on cultural literacy.

This matters because everybody’s all topsy-turvy about what is “progressive” or “conservative” in education, and it will take some effort to get our thinking straight.

Moe Moore picks up Hirsch’s statement that the movement for “progressive curricula,” i.e. the whole Dewey-inspired attack on traditional academic curricula, is really not a movement for a progressive curriculum but a movement against having any sort of “curriculum” properly so called. The point is not to change what’s in the curriculum but to have no substantive curriculum at all when it comes to inculcating a national character or a shared national culture. This is true, and it’s relevant to the question of why lefties who love cultural literacy hate school choice.


Since the late 1960s, the “progressive curriculm” (that is, the “anti-curricular”) movement has dominated the political left by making common cause with the teachers’ unions, who were not congenitally anti-curricular but whose interests were served by promoting the anti-curricular cause. As Moe Moore insightfully points out, the anti-curricular movement is really also an anti-teaching movement; it is therefore a perfect fit for the union agenda of more pay for less work. Thus, anyone who is “pro-curricular” is pigeonholed as being on the political right.

But that is a temporary phenomenon brought about by a unique confluence of political circumstances. In its historical orgins and in the logic of the position, the drive to use schools as engines of cultural homogeneity is a phenomenon of the authoritarian political left.

This goes all the way back to the roots of the system. It’s widely known that one of the major reasons America adopted the government monopoly school system in the first place was hysteria over the cultural foreignness of Catholics. However, there’s another tidbit worth knowing. As Charles Glenn documents in The Myth of the Common School, one of Horace Mann’s motivations for pushing the “common” school system was his vitriolic contempt for evangelical Protestant Christianity. The hicks in the rural Massachusetts countryside with their backward and barbaric adherence to traditional Calvinist theology – which had survived down through the centuries from the Puritan settlers – was repugnant to civilized and enlightened Boston-Brahmin Unitarians like himself.

Someone had to do something to rescue these culturally deprived children from their unenlightened parents! That’s why Mann’s schools had such a heavy emphasis on teaching the Bible – teaching it in a very particular way. Part of the school system’s purpose was cultural genocide against evangelicals, to use the power of the state to indoctrinate their children with unitarianism. And it worked beautifully; how many traditional Calvinists are left in Massachusetts?

[Update: It has been brought to my attention that the Presbyterian Church in America, a traditional Calvinist denomination, has lately been experiencing dramatic growth in New England. So perhaps I should have said “It worked beautifully; after a century of Mann’s schools, how many traditional Calvinists were left in Massachusetts?”]

What we have to get clear is that both the anti-Catholic and anti-evangelical hysteria – then as now – were on the political left.

The great crusade in the early 20th century to use the government monopoly school system to forcibly “assimilate” immigrants with “Americanism” was likewise a movement on the political left. On this subject, please do yourself the biggest favor you’ll do yourself all year and read (if you haven’t already) Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. Fanatical patriotism was, until the convulsions of the 1960s, the special hallmark of the left, not the right.

The issues got scrambled after the 1960s by two factors. First and most important was the rise of an aggressive cultural ideology (what we now call “multiculturalism”) seeking to use the government school monopoly to impose its amoral and anti-American value system on the nation’s children. This movement was not only born on the left, but, as noted above, it formed a fruitful partnership with the unions who were also on the left. So naturally, the backlash formed on the right, and the identification of being “anti-multiculturalist” applied to conservatives. However, this was never really the same kind of animal as the left-wing authoritarian drive to use government schools to enlighten the benighted and make them into good Americans. Conservative anti-multiculturalism is negative and defensive in character; it’s not seeking to use government to impose a culture, but to stop the multiculturalists from doing so.

Second, as Goldberg documents, the authoritarianism of 20th century progressivism began to migrate over and infect the right; hence we get absurd specatcles such as a “conservative” president saying such things as “when people are hurting, government has to move.” And, similarly, some conservatives try to use the power of the state to impose right-wing cultural values. But this is really the result of conservatives having drunk from the polluted cultural water of left-wing authoritarianism.

Now let me be perfectly clear. Anxiety about whether young people are picking up 1) moral values and 2) cultural identity as Americans is of course widespread on both sides of the political isle. Believe me, I’m as worried as anyone about whether the nation is successfully passing on its civilization to its children, and whether today’s immigrants will assimilate and self-identify as Americans – not only for the sake of the nation, but for their own sake, since the chief victims of amoralism and multiculturalism are the people who believe in them.

The difference is not in being worried about this problem, but in how we want to solve it. Using the brute power of a government monopoly school system to paternalistically impose a homogenous culture has never been a conservative idea. Go back and look at the great conservative debates over this in the 1990s; whether you’re talking about William Bennett, James Q. Wilson or Charles Murray, you just never find conservative thought leaders talking that way. It’s the lefties like E.D. Hirsch and Little Ramona who dream that their cultural anxieties can be salved with the soothing balm of state power.

And really, it should be obvious why. If you’re the kind of person who thinks the brute force of state power can change culture, well then, you’re probably also a political lefty. If you’re the kind of person who thinks our culture will get along just fine if the state will just stop tinkering with it through social engineering, then you’re probably also a political righty.

It all comes down to how you concieve of the relationship between the government and the nation – which is to say, between power and culture. As Reagan famously asked, are we a nation that has a state, or a state that has a nation? To put the same question another way, does culture drive politics or does politics drive culture? Or, to put it even more bluntly, is the use of power shaped by the conscience of the nation, or do we use power to shape the conscience of the nation?

The conservative approach to schools and American culture is to use school choice to smash state power, thus depriving the multiculturalists of their only serious weapon. Get the state out of the way and let Americans worry about how to pass on American civilization to the next generation.

Oh, and here’s one other way you can tell that this is the conservative approach: the evidence shows it works.

[HT Ben Boychuk for pointing out I misread “Terry Moore” as “Terry Moe” – and apologies to both Terrys!]

38 Responses to Education and Citizenship on the Left and Right

  1. matthewladner says:

    Great post Greg. I was aware of the anti-Catholic motivations behind many public school supporters, but could you elaborate on your references to unitarianism and anti-evangelical sentiment?

  2. Patrick says:

    Are you sure amoral is the right word? Economics is amoral and there is nothing wrong with teaching kids economics. In fact, we should teach kids economics.

    Did you mean subjective?

  3. Brian says:

    Hilarious! But why a satirical post today of all days? What’s the occasion?

    Here is my favorite part:

    Using the brute power of a government monopoly school system to paternalistically impose a homogenous culture has never been a conservative idea.

    Funny stuff!

  4. Greg Forster says:


    Starting in the 1820s and then really taking off in the 1830s and 40s you had this philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. Henry David Thoreau came out of this movement, although Ralph Waldo Emerson is really its intellectual father. Horace Mann created the government school monopoly in Massachusetts at the height of this movement. Well, Transcendentalism as such faded out before too long, but its lasting impact was that the whole upper-class Boston intellectual elite was dramatically de-Christianized (if by “Christianity” we mean the belief that Jesus is God and all people are sinners who can be saved by trusting in him). But, as usually happens in cases like this (see England, Church of) just because people cease believing in Christianity they see no reason to stop going to church – or even being clergymen. So, we got “unitarianism” – which is the American name for “deism that calls itself Christianity.” Boston and its general environs remained nominally Christian but few of their clergy believed in anything like the historic Christian faith.

    Meanwhile, none of this stuff has any influence to speak of in the Massachusetts hinterlands. They’re all still good Puritan Calvinists, more or less.

    If you want a picture of what Masschusetts was like in Horace Mann’s day, take a look at the relations today between the radically evangelical Anglicans in Nigeria and the female-Jesus-worshipping American Episcopalians, and think about how they would feel about each other if they lived in the same state and had to deal with each other all the time. And the liberals ran the state government. And they created a government monopoly school system in which their own religious system was taught to all children.

    Does that tell you what you want to know?

  5. matthewladner says:

    As an escapee from the sinking ship of Episcopalian Church, you analogy holds great weight with me. Can you elaborate however on the type of Bible instruction that the early public schools carried out? I’m trying to imagine how a group of evangelical secularists go about establishing public schools with any sort of Bible reading going on.

    • Greg Forster says:

      But they weren’t secularists. They were Unitarians. Unitarianism is a religion! It’s just not Christianity.

      I don’t recall the gory details offhand; it’s been too many years since I read Charles Glenn’s book. But if you want to know how to use the Bible to preach against Christianity, all you have to do is stroll down to your local Unitarian church (if there are any left) and listen to the all-law-no-gospel sermon.

      • Kyle Ferguson says:

        There are many Unitarian churches left today. Ironically, there is a large Unitarian Church across the street from Trinity Seminary in Chicago!

  6. matthewladner says:


    I think if you substitute the word “libertarian” for “conservative” then Greg’s statement would be accurate. Without the substitution, I would have to agree with you that the vast bulk of people we would probably think of as “conservative” bought into the melting pot ideology and public schooling, even if they didn’t drive the formative process.

  7. Brian says:


    Agreed. But that error is only the tip of the iceberg. I don’t have the time or the energy to get any further into this, especially because I know I won’t be nice about it. You might try to consider what the point is. Personally, I wonder what purpose is served by promoting Goldberg’s BS and equating liberals with Nazis. I guess if alienating half your audience is the goal, mission accomplished.

    I got past the rah-rah delusion of “my team always good, your team always bad” back in college.

  8. matthewladner says:

    I read Goldberg’s book, and despite the cover art, it does not claim that Hippies are Nazis. It does demonstrate that American progressive thought shares an intellectual bloodline with various sorts of European totalitarians.

    I read the book a few years ago, and I have been waiting for a serious and reasoned refutation from the left ever since. For instance, I remain open to the possibility that Goldberg took all the gushing over Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler that the New Republic did back in the day out of context. I have yet to see anyone muster that case, and I searched for it after reading the book.

  9. Brian says:

    Intellectual bloodline, eh? Well, I can easily refute that. You see, that was really the result of liberals having drunk from the polluted cultural water of right-wing authoritarianism.

    See how easy that was? All I have to do is identify the bad things that my team does as the fault of the other team. I can’t lose!

    Look, you never saw a serious and reasoned refutation from the left because nobody took Goldberg’s book seriously. The left did, however, have a non-serious and unreasonable refutation of it.

    • Patrick says:

      If you read the book he repeats over and over that he is not calling modern progressives and liberals Nazis. He does a lot of quoting from Nazi and Fascist leaders about how they are socialists, “men of the left” and discusses their policy preferences like old age pensions, guaranteed wages, elimination of usury, breaking up big box retail stores, worker management of major corporations, vegetarianism, animal rights, bla bla bla bla. I think it was a well needed addition to the conversation considering the left believes Nazis are right-wingers simply because they are racist and militaristic (as if that is the only thing that defines the political right).

      • Brian says:

        I agree with part of your point Patrick. It IS wrong when right-wingers are called fascists and Nazis. But the correction to that error isn’t to start accusing the left of being Nazis and fascists. That’s just reversing the hyperbole, not getting rid of it.

        I’m sure Goldberg said over and over that he didn’t really mean it, but come on. He knew exactly what he was doing and how it would be perceived. The title of the book says it all.

  10. McLovin says:

    It was very helpful for you to sort out the situation that has everyone “all topsy-turvy about what is ‎‎“progressive” or “conservative” in education”. I didn’t realize it was so simple as coming to realize that ‎all of the good ideas were the conservative ones and all of the bad ideas were the liberal (oh, who are ‎we kidding, fascist) ones. I guess we could go line by line though this rant/ post but that might be ‎shooting red herrings in a barrel.‎

    Look, we are at a really exciting time in education reform in this country. “Lefties” and “Righties” are ‎finding common ground on any number of issues from charter schools to teacher accountability, and ‎kids are doing better because of it. Why bicker over who gets to call dibs on the ideas? There is that ‎old cliché phrase that good can get done when no one has to take credit for it, and that is exactly what ‎can happen now. All you are doing is re-inviting division into issues that don’t need to be divisive. ‎Can’t our metric just be that an intervention helps kids?‎

    I’ll make ya’ll a deal, when I talk about vouchers I’ll kowtow and speak like Muslims talk about Jesus, ‎‎“The evidence supports the fact that vouchers (kowtow) ‘Milton Friedman peace be upon him’ help ‎students, so I think we should support them”. Will that make you happy?‎

    If ya’ll support an education reform because it advances your ideology and not because it helps kids, ‎I’ve got no time for you, there is too much work that needs to be done. ‎

  11. Collin Hitt says:

    “If you get away from the worst schools in the big cities, I think the central problem with the public schools is not poor teachers, but the curriculum teachers are given to teach, especially in elementary and middle school. There’s a great solution, packaged and ready to go, that doesn’t cost any more money than we’re already spending. It’s E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum…I commend it to all who might have influence with their local Board of Education. Install the Core Knowledge Curriculum in your local school, and some very large proportion of your complaints about public education will go away.” So wrote Charles Murray last year on AEI’s blog:

    • Greg Forster says:

      That’s an important data point – thanks for bringing that to my attention! Yet I don’t think Murray’s concern about the quality of education is moral or cultural. He’s not worried about imposing moral values or cultural homogeneity, as Hirsch is. He just wants schools to teach math better. That’s a big difference!

  12. Brian says:

    But Collin, Isn’t Charles Murray a “conservative?” And isn’t AEI “conservative?”

    I guess this is just another example of that left-wing kool-aid getting passed around.

  13. matthewladner says:


    Personally I support vouchers and a number of other reforms because I am convinced that they help kids. Vouchers and charter schools inevitably get caught up in ideological warfare, but many of the reforms advocated for here have nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with evidence.

    For instance, Jay’s research with Marcus Winters established the effectiveness of the 3rd grade social promotion ban in Florida. If we were simply out to burn down the public schools, we wouldn’t support such a policy. It might lead to kids staying in school an extra year and spending more taxpayer money, after all. We support the policy because it helps kids learn how to read.

    The fact that the evidence supports Milton Friedman’s theory is ideologically satisfying, but that is merely a bonus.

  14. matthewladner says:

    You didn’t- just rhetorical excess on my part.

    As a Texan, I must say that I very much approve of the use of the word “y’all.” The French have “vous” and y’all is obviously superior to abominable phrases such as “youse guys” etc.

    I also like “all of y’all.” Even though it may appear redundant, it actually is a very useful phrase that means “every last one of you.”

  15. concerned says:

    Reagan also said, “We were told there was a ‘malaise’ in our nation and America was past its prime…We were told we would have to lower our expectations… Well, I disagreed with that…I saw no national malaise. I found nothing wrong with the American people.”

    I consider myself a conservative, but I don’t follow your logic. If “the use of power [was truly] shaped by the conscience of the nation” i.e. Americans, then there would be no need to “smash” it.

  16. concerned says:


    I greatly appreciate your post, although as I explained I don’t really follow the closing statements.

    I referenced it here

    and will remove the reference if you wish.


  17. Great post, Greg. Thanks for the information on the origins of Mann’s program.

    “If you’re the kind of person who thinks the brute force of state power can change culture, well then, you’re probably also a political lefty. If you’re the kind of person who thinks our culture will get along just fine if the state will just stop tinkering with it through social engineering, then you’re probably also a political righty.”

    I try to avoid “left” and “right” in pollitical classification, since classification in the political continuum requires many dimensions. I avoid “liberal”, and “conservative” since these terms have reversed meaning within my lifetime. “Liberal” used to mean, approximately, “laissez-faire” (libertarian) and still does in Europe. If “conservative” means “dedicated to the preservation of the established order” then defenders of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel qualify as “conservative”.

    All that said, as most people use the terms a first recourse to State (government, generally) power defines “the left”, while a preference for markets defines “the right”.

  18. (McLovin): “If ya’ll support an education reform because it advances your ideology and not because it helps kids, ‎I’ve got no time for you, there is too much work that needs to be done.”

    “Ideological” is an uncomplimentary way to say “systematic”. I try to be systematic.

    “Private property is socially constructed” as my Marxist friends say, trying to sound deep while stating the obvious: all legal regimes are socially constructed. This does not make all legal regimes equal in their effects. The system of title (private property) and contract law ‎recognizes the power of local knowledge and material incentives and calibrates the reward for improved answers to resource allocation questions to the urgency of the questions and the magnitude of the resources involved. In abstract, the education industry is an unlikely candidate for State (government, generally) operation. Given acceptance of the basic argument for a market economy, the fundamental question for defenders of the State-monopoly school system is “Why suppose that the education industry is an exception to the general case for competitive markets?”

  19. Daniel Earley says:

    Pardon me for the curtness to ensue, but it’s late and I’m too tired to remember where I filed what have become my boilerplate defense arguments of Goldberg’s book to match each of the boilerplate attacks posted here. Like Matt, I’ve done considerable investigating and have yet to find any unsubstantiated claims — which is remarkable, quite frankly.

    To Brian, I hope you would borrow a copy and read the final chapter, The Tempting of Conservatism. Or, you may simply read it here.

    I believe that will answer many of your questions.

    For the confusion over left, right, and where progressivism, fascism and any other statism belongs, let us remember that all valid spectra actually measure things. Pick your variable, then lay it on a yardstick. To be valid, it also must, in fact, be linear. If you add variables and axes, it can still be a multivariate measuring device, but no longer a spectrum. To measure heat, we call the spectrum a thermometer; for wavelengths of light, the electromagnetic spectrum, etc.

    Surprisingly enough, there is also an appropriate variable to single out in politics. State power — also known as force. Its most relevant empirical measure is really financial — given that money is, in fact, genuine power as well. Place this power of the state (which is always alleged to be for the public good) on a spectrum, and the ratio of do-gooder power controlled by the state vs the organic private sector basically picks your spot on the left/right measuring stick between Anarchy and the Borg (at their 0% – 100% absolute values), or Libertarianism and Totalitarianism if we nudge just barely away from those absolutes a tad. Certainly other things can be measured, but one at a time, and only by first defining the variable at hand.

    Meanwhile, labels often become twisted in a given generation, and this is why Goldberg stepped back to Rousseau and the Jacobins of the French Revolution to identify the birth of this most recent human urge to master-plan societies. Of course, this is the same temptation Hirsch and even *some* conservatives have fallen for in their ambitions to help others through the use of centralized control rather than by focusing on increasing the amount of human liberty. Unfortunately, every generation seem oblivious to the danger such state machinery poses once created, let alone any violations of natural law they might impose, given that they haven’t even a clue what that means. But I digress.

  20. Greg Forster says:


    1) Why do you want to learn?

    2) You point out that Goldberg repeatedly said he wasn’t calling liberals fascists, which is true. However, there is a more important point to make. The title Liberal Fascism does not imply that all liberals are fascists, but that some liberals have been fascists, and during one historical period (the Progressive Era) fascism was the predominant ideology of the American left, and the influence of this historical movement continues to impact our politics; therefore there exists a phenomenon that it is reasonable to call “liberal fascism.” If I talk about “Democratic environmentalism” I do not thereby imply that all Democrats are environmentalists; the union folks, for example, are notoriously not so. “Democratic environmentalism” means “the existence and influence of environmentalism within the Democratic party.” Similarly, “liberal fascism” means “the existence and influence of fascism within liberalism,” not “liberalism is fascism.” There were plenty of anti-fascist liberals as well, but that doesn’t mean it’s somehow offensive to talk about the liberals who were fascists, and who said (explicitly, over and over) that in their opinion fascism was a liberal-left ideology.

    Of course, you could also point out that anyone who’s read the book already knows this, while those who haven’t should be willing to admit that they’re talking about something they don’t know firsthand, and should be willing to accept correction from those who have firsthand knowledge.


    I did express myself inexactly in the passages you point to. There is legitimate state power and illegitimate state power. Also, there is the way things are and the way things should be. So I would rephrase in the following way: legitimate state power should be shaped by the conscience of the nation; illegitimate state power should be smashed.

  21. Patrick says:

    Because I enjoy learning. Because knowledge and information help me keep my job. 🙂 Because, maybe one day the knowledge will help me get a bigger pay check.

    Is this wrong?

    Economics is an amoral science. What is wrong with that? I’m not saying you can’t derive moral conclusions from economic findings. I think subjective would be a better term. People who are subjective about reality and reality are dangerous people (for the simple fact that their philosophy finds it quite easy to excuse great evil in this world).

  22. Greg Forster says:

    I absolutely wasn’t suggesting your motives were wrong. I’m just trying to understand your position before I offer my opinion. However, to help me out with that, let me reflect your question back at you in a slightly modified form, if I may.

    Would you say that your motives…

    1) enjoyment of learning
    2) preserving your job
    3) increasing your income

    …are amoral?

    To add an additional question, would you say that the field of economics as a whole exists for these purposes? Or does it exist to produce knowledge that is useful to people in general (rather than just to the knowledge-producers themselves)?

    • Patrick says:

      I’m not sure I understand this. If something is useful it is moral?

      lets be sure we’re on the same page. My understanding of amoral is that it is neither moral nor immoral or lacking in judgement of the two.

      • Greg Forster says:

        No, I’m not saying that if something is useful it’s moral.

        And my definition of amoral is the same as yours.

  23. Daniel Earley says:

    On this well-trod path, the next question will inevitably be: Who’s to say when state power is legitimate or not, as long as a majority of the public votes for it?

    This will be followed by a lucid explanation of Natural Law and the criteria for legitimacy when considering sources of delegated rights and powers that few will grasp if they haven’t read Cicero and Locke. Following this, the sterile pragmatists reading along will scratch their heads, shrug their shoulders, and the rest of us will take 600 mg of Advil.

  24. Greg Forster says:

    No need to read Cicero if you’ve read Locke! 🙂

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