“Academics” and the “Practical” Part IV: Seizing Power

January 19, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

For a while now I’ve anticipated that the next installment of this series would be about power. Since Jay has broached the subject, I guess it’s finally time to get around to writing what I’ve been planning!

A quick review of my Unified Field Theorem of Education Reform:

Part 1: Education reformers shake out into two groups, which I call the “liberal artists” and the “pragmatists.” The liberal artists want to teach first the three Rs, then traditional “academic” content more generally. Their strength is their insistence on tangible accountability for teaching all children; their weakness is their overreliance on standardized testing – now culminating in the current effort to create a government-controlled national testing regime which logically implies the further step of imposing a single curriculum on all schools under the control of a central authority. The pragmatists want to make education in various ways “more relevant to real life.” Their strength is their desire to create new models of education that will prepare students better for life in the (changing) world. Their weakness is their tendency to discount (in practice if not in rhetoric) the value of traditional academics, and especially their fear of accountability systems.

Part 2: Both sides undermine not only education governance (the focus in Part 1) but pedagogy as well. The pragmatists want to abstract “skills” from “content” and focus on teaching the skills; they fail to appreciate that the only way to learn skills is by leaning content. You can never teach “skills” directly. The liberal artists want to abstract “knowledge” from “practice” and focus on teaching the knowledge; they fail to appreciate that all the really important knowledge is intricately bound up with practice, and can only be learned practically.

Part 3: Liberal artists need to get over their testaphilia, and pragmatists need to get over their testaphobia. A vast quantity of what students deperately need to learn must be learned in ways that can’t be tested with the level of objective systematization the liberal artists insist upon. You can “test” practical knowledge but not in the ways the liberal artists want – and not in ways that can be effectively used as the basis of an accountability regime. Yet standardized testing, and more generally the “rote” “regurgitation” of “mere” “facts,” is always going to be a crucial part of good education. In Daniel Willingham’s language, you can’t get to the “deep structure” of problems, which is what the pragmatists want, until you’ve first mastered the “surface structure,” which is the rote facts the pragmatists disdain. You have to walk before you can fly.

Running through all this is the tension between governance and pedagogy. Once we decide what we want schools to do, how do we structure the system to try to get them to do that?

The links beteween each camp’s pedagogy and governance, both in their good and bad aspects, run much deeper than it may at first appear. What’s really at stake is our view of the human person.

An analogy to politics will help here. In modern political philosophy there are basically three anthroplogies on offer. They give rise to different political systems.

  • You can be cynical about human nature, thinking that people are basically bad. This leads more or less directly to an explicitly authoritarian, implicitly totalitarian tyranny of “enlightened” despots. Because people are basically bad, no one can ever have legitimate power (no one deserves it) and the world will really operate by illegitimate power no matter what you do. So you might as well give the power to the smartest people so they will at least make things run more smoothly and everyone will have an easier time of it. Machiavelli and Hobbes fit this model.
  • You can be naive about human nature, thinking that people are basically good. This also leads more or less directly to an explicitly authoritarian, implicitly totalitarian tyranny of “enlightened” despots. Because people are good, they will naturally want to cooperate to make everyone better off, which of course means putting things under the control of the smartest, best people. And those people ought to have the power to coerce everyone’s cooperation, becasue such power won’t really need to be exercised very much – just enough to encourage people to get over their less powerful selfish tendencies and live into their natural desire to benefit others, which is (underneath the superficial layer of selfishness) really their deeper and stronger desire. The payoff from giving dictatorial power to experts is huge (because the experts are not only smart but good and trustworthy) and the cost is small (because the power won’t have to be exercised much). Rousseau and Hegel fit this model.
  • You can take a mixed view of human nature, thinking that people are both basically good and basically bad. They need freedom to do their good stuff, but also enough restraint to keep them from getting out of line and destroying other people’s good stuff; the rulers, in turn, must be strong enough to restrain violence, but not so strong that they themselves become unaccountable. This is the anthropology of liberal democracy, freedom of religion, and the entrepreneurial economy; Locke, Montesquieu and Madison are its architechts.

The thing to note is that societies cannot be counted on to remain faithful to one model. In particular, the mixed model on which liberal democracy, freedom of religion and entrepreneurial economy are built is really darned difficult to maintain. We are constantly falling away into cynicism on the one side (e.g. Cass Sunstein, Catherine MacKinnon, Saul Alinsky) or naivete on the other (e.g. Michael Lerner, Alan Wolfe, Jim Wallis) with the same disastrous consequences every time.

How does this relate to pedagogy and governance in education? I propose that education needs to be based on a mixed model, but is constantly falling away into one or the other of two truncated models – and that’s why substantive education issues are constantly being hijacked by brute political power.

Look at the liberal artists. How did we get to a point where the people dedicated to the full flowering of human knowledge represented by “traditional academics” are in the process of reducing the content of education to what can be measured by bubble tests – and lining up to create a national dictator that will reach into every school in America and crush everything that isn’t bubble tests?

It’s because their anthropology privileges intellect over action. A human being is a mind that has a body. What they want is to educate the mind. The body is really of no concern to them. Even the mind is only of interest insofar as it knows things – the mind’s ability to do things through the body is not interesting. Re-reading my first post in this series, this is really clear in the exchange between Jay and Checker about whether schools should teach things like “entrepreneurial attitudes.”

Checker Finn’s ideal school

This anthropology implies an aristocracy of intellect. The system should serve the interests of those who are capable of learning. The liberal artists think they’re egalitarians and democratizers because they stick up for the poor black kids who want to learn – and, as I have said over and over, they’ve done us a great service. They have indeed been the great titanic warriors against race and class aristocracies. But there are other kinds of aristocracies as well. The liberal artists only stick up for the kids who want to learn in a certain way: the intellectual way, the bubble test way. They want the whole system to serve only the kids who desire to know for knowledge’s sake – and that’s not most kids. What about the kids who want to invent new things, or acheive greatness in other ways, and who might be willing to learn academics as a stepping stone to that but not for its own sake? They’re chucked into the maw of the intellectual tyranny.

Ken Robinson was wrong (in that video back in Part 1) to attribute this anthropology to the Enlightenment; it is actually far older, and has historically been associated with undemocratic power structures. Mind/body dualism was the philosophy of Greco-Roman aristocracy – Athens was the only democracy of any importance in the ancient world, and it executed the great dualist Socrates. Even during the Enlightenment, those who strongly embraced mind/body dualism (like Descartes) were strong supporters of traditional power structures. It was those who challenged mind/body dualism, like Locke, who ushered in democracy.

What about the pragmatists? It’s tempting to say that they have the opposite problem – they think kids are bodies that have minds. But that’s actually wrong. The strength of the pragmatists is that they’re not plagued by mind/body dualism.

Their problem is egalitarianism. They don’t want education to result in inequalities – no inequalities of life outcomes, but more fundamentally, no inequalities of educational outcomes. To draw a distinction, even in thought, between those who can accomplish more and those who can accomplish less is itself wrong. Anything that tends to reinforce the appearance of such distinctions, or (worse) explicitly assume such distinctions and build on them, is in principle radically evil.

This explains their testaphobia and their general aversion to accountability systems. It also explains why they are de facto but not de jure hostile to traditional academics. They have no objection to academics in principle – provided the illusion of equal outcomes is not punctured. But, of course, it always is. Much safer to stick to content-free, purely “practical” projects that teach “skills.”

The picture offered to us is one of glorious diversity in which every child is radically different, and none of the differences matter.

“You can think for yourselves!”
“Yes! We can think for ourselves!”
“You are all individuals!”
“Yes! We are all individuals!”

Naturally, while the liberal artists are striving to build an aristocracy, the pragmatists are striving to build a tyranny of the majority – the mob rule of unlimited democracy. This was their original sin going all the way back to John Dewey, whose perfidy begins right at the beginning when he sets out to redesign the whole educational enterprise to produce, not the fullest possible flourishing of human capacities, but people suited to fit the new, radical political system that early 20th century progressives were working so hard to build. Human beings are little clay figures just waiting for Dewey and his acolytes to mold them into the politically convenient shape. All the worst aspects of educational pragmatism can really be traced back to this original politicization of the project.

So both camps find substantial resistance to their desires – the liberal artists, in children who are capable of achievement but don’t highly value knowledge for its own sake; the pragmatists, in children who are capable of excellence (even the kinds of excellence pragmatists claim to value) and need special nurturing to achieve it.

And both camps, their vision cramped by narrow anthropologies, fail to see the legitimacy of this resistance. To them, the resistance appears to be simply obscurantism. Hence they feel perfectly justified stamping it out by force.

And naturally, when they seek power, they both reach for the strongest of all social weapons in modern culture – science.

Say that you favor a given approach – in education, in politics, in culture – because it is best suited to the nature of the human person, or because it best embodies the principles and historic self-understanding of the American people, and you will struggle even to get a hearing. But if you say that “the science” supports your view, the world will fall at your feet.

Of course, this means powerful interest groups rush in to seize hold of “science,” to trumpet whatever suits their preferences, downplay its limitations, and delegitimize any contrary evidence. If they succeed – which they don’t always, but they do often enough – “the science” quickly ceasees to be science at all. That’s why “scientific” tyrannies like the Soviet Union had to put so many real scientists in jail – or in the ground.

This was, again, the original sin of Dewey and the whole “pragmatist” movement in early 20th century philosophy. The goal of that school was to undermine the philosophical structure of knowledge on which real science depends, so that they would then have a free hand to bend “science” to their will. I believe it was George Orwell who said that philosophical pragmatism amounts to saying that truth is determined by who has more guns.

But the liberal artists are no longer very much better. They didn’t used to flatten their understanding of a good education down to the level that could be measured “scientifically” on tests. But the imperative to seek power and crush resistance has driven them to that point.

How, then, do we escape from both aristocracy and mobocracy, and undo the tyranny of science? Stay tuned.

“Academics” and the “Practical” Part III: The Daleks Are Coming!

December 15, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This week Jay highlighted the fact that a study showing a positive correlation between test prep activity in the classroom and improved learning is being portrayed as having shown a negative correlation between test prep activity (“drill and kill”) and improved learning. At this point it’s not known (at least to me) where the error arose, and I don’t have anything to say about the question of who said what. But I think it illustrates how the whole subject of drillandkillaphobia needs to be revisited.

Lately I’ve explored in some depth how testing has come to be the focal point of the fight between the two great factions in the education space, the “liberal artists” and the “pragmatists.” Liberal artists have gradually come to invest all their hopes in standardized testing. Pragmatists have gradually come to invest all their fears in precisely the same thing. This is a mutually reinforcing circle – over time, the liberal artists increasingly think testing must be good because the pragmatists hate it, and the pragmatists increasingly think it must be bad because the liberal artists love it. So naturally the battle line over testing has become more and more absolute.

The problem, as I’ve tried to show, is that this dynamic causes each side to reject something that’s essential to good education. The liberal artists seek curricula (or standards that can only lead to curricula) that emphasize sterile head knowledge of facts to the exclusion of practical problem-solving. We don’t know how to test what Daniel Willingham calls “deep knowledge” of subject area content, and even if we did the tests would be almost infinitely vulnerable to manipulation if they were ever used for accountability purposes. But we do know how to create rigorous tests for head knowledge of facts, so the liberal artists define “subject area content” to mean simply head knowledge of facts.

The pragmatists do the opposite. And since I was pushing pretty hard last time to emphasize what I thought were the dysfunctions of the liberal artists, I’d like to balance the scales with something about drillandkillaphobia.

Merely mention the subject of testing and it seems that pragmatists instantly jump to the conclusion that you want schools to look like this:

Now the interesting thing is that these days, they will engage in the most hysterical drillandkillaphobia while all the time affirming that we need to keep standards high, content knowledge matters, etc. To some extent I think that must be intentionally tactical – P21 knows that its flavor of loosey-goosey crunchy granola doesn’t sell these days, since they’ve lost a lot of battles in the war of ideas. But I don’t think that explains all of it. Take another look at that Ken Robinson “Changing Paradigms” video, where he begins by saying that of course we don’t want to lower standards. Clearly he, at least, really means it. It seems completely obvious to him that there’s no contradiction between his attacks on testing and his affirmation of high standards.

And that’s the problem. It seems so obvious to him that he fails to even take the question seriously. (That was one of the key points in Willingham’s stimulating critique of Robinson’s video.)

If the liberal artists need to get over their testophilia, the pragmatists need to get over their drillandkillaphobia. I’m not aware of any hard evidence linking test prep to worse outcomes. Sure, lots of people are really convinced that it must be the case, but that’s hardly a solid ground for making policy. (The floor is open in the comments section if you have some hard evidence you want to share.) And it’s not like this is a new question. I’ll admit that I haven’t done an exhaustive review of the research (again, if you have, the floor is open) but Jay and I conducted a study a while back showing that attaching rewards and penalties to a test doesn’t change the results; that would seem to speak right to the heart of drillandkillaphobia. This new Gates Foundation study, finding a positive correlation between test prep and learning outcomes, would seem to be another piece of evidence against it.

People can’t learn what Willingham calls the “deep structure” of practical problems until they’ve learned what he calls the “surface structure.” You can’t get from the pool deck to the bottom of the pool without passing through the surface of the water; similarly, you can’t get to deep (i.e. practical) content knowledge without first getting shallow (i.e. factual) content knowledge. If you like, it’s “merely” or “sterile” head knowledge. But head knowledge it is and head knowledge it will remain, even after you add the “deep” part.

People learn head knowledge by memorization. And any kind of memorization will appear, to those who wish to stigmatize and delegitimize it, to be “merely” “rote” memorization. You can call it “regurtitation” when people know facts, and in a sense you’re right – but people do need to know facts and be able to summon up that knowledge as necessary, whether you call that “regurgitating” or not. And for everyone but the real genius students, gaining head knowledge of facts will involve some kind of “drill.”

As the pragmatists themselves never tire of reminding us, real learning is hard. Well, yes it is. You can’t learn if you don’t memorize stuff. Memorizing stuff is hard and unpleasant, and it’s a lot more so for some kids than for others. That’s the world; deal with it.

I fully admit that if you really want to learn you are never just memorizing. You must be trying to understand the facts you absorb – understand their significance and the connections between them. But while it must be more than memorizing, it is never less than memorizing. Of course, if it must be more then by definition it can never be less.

Take that great, perennial boogyman of rote memorization – historical dates. People whine, why does it matter in what year a certain event occurred? Well – why does it matter? If you stopped and seriously asked that question and sought out the answer, you might . . . well, you might learn something.

The great irony, of course, is that at the same time the pragmatists are pushing this new bout of drillandkillaphobia, they’re working hard to impose a federal-government controlled system of national testing – excuse me, a totally “voluntary” system of “common” “assessment” that has nothing to do with the federal government, nothing to see here, move along, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. That really is an attempt to handcuff real learning and turn us all over to the benevolent dictatorship of soulless men in white coats who must be trustworthy because, after all, they’re scientists. And that, of course, was always the original sin of the Progressive movement, in its educational form as in all other forms. Handing over all power to a tiny priesthood is the very epitome of “democracy” as long as we’re careful to call the priests “scientists.” But now I’m broaching a whole new and much deeper subject, one that will require another post to handle with any justice.

“Academics” and the “Practical” Part II: Neither Just Skills nor Just Facts

December 1, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Picking up (after a month of constant travel) on my effort to build a unified field theorem of education reform, I want to respond to a strong challenge Jay issued to my use of the word “skills” in my original post.

I used the term “basic skills” to refer to the three Rs, without even thinking about it. I didn’t even stop to define it; after Jay challenged me I thought he had misunderstood what I meant by that term, so I went back and posted a clarification. But it turned out Jay had understood me perfectly well. He just wanted to challenge that use of the term.

I think this is likely to be a crucial issue in my effort to reconcile the legitimate interests of “liberal artists” with the legitimate interests of “pragmatists,” so it’s worth pausing to hash it out.

Jay pointed me to this article by Daniel Willingham: “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” I haven’t had nearly enough time to digest it fully, I’m afraid, but I’ve digested enough of it to offer what I think is a useful next step in thinking about this issue.

First off: In a discussion of the controversy between teaching the three Rs (and all the other things liberal artists want) and teaching critical thinking (and all the other things pragmatists want), why did Jay challenge my conception of what it means to teach the three Rs and then, to back up his challenge, point me to an article on critical thinking? Why not an article on the three Rs?

Because this is, really, an article on the three Rs, and on the whole liberal arts agenda more generally, disguised as an article on critical thinking. Presumably that’s how he got it published in American Educator – an organ of the AFT! It’s the educational equivalent of the Sokal hoax. Willingham has a bunch of pragmatists – teacher union pragmatists, no less – publishing liberal artist propaganda. It’s a brilliant practical joke.

…or so I thought when I first looked at it.

But the more I look at it, the more I think the joke is as much on us liberal artists as it is on the pragmatists.

Willingham’s thesis in a nutshell:

First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically(to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice.

The idea that critical thinking isn’t a skill is the real core of the article:

Critical thinking does not have certain characteristics normally associated with skills—in particular, being able to use that skill at any time. If I told you that I learned to read music, for example, you would expect, correctly, that I could use my new skill (i.e., read music) whenever I wanted. But critical thinking is very different. As we saw in the discussion of conditional probabilities, people can engage in some types of critical thinking without training, but even with extensive training, they will sometimes fail to think critically. This understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital. It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.

Rather, critical thinking is what emerges when you do a good job of teaching content. That’s because learning “to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time” only happens when you learn a specific field. You don’t learn the scientific method by studying the scientific method (which is what is implied by calling it a “skill”). You can learn about the scientific method that way; that is, you can acquire “head knowledge” of facts about it, facts that could be regurgitated on a test. But it doesn’t make you any better at actually using the scientific method. Studying biology, on the other hand, will make you better at the scientific method because you’re actually using it. It will even make you better at using the scienfic method in all other disciplines, even the ones you haven’t studied. That’s because in your study of biology you’re learning 1) knowledge of the “deep structure” of problems in that field, and 2) “contextual cues” in that field that signal you when to do what. That knowledge, and not “the scientific method” learned as a skill in its own right, is what helps you figure out “deep structure” and “contextual cues” in other fields.

So the pragmatists, who want to focus on “critical thinking” as such, have it all wrong, and the liberal artists, who want to focus on teaching content, have it all right. Right?


Throughout Willingham’s analysis there is an emphasis on how critical thinking emerges from learning these content-specific disciplines in practice. You learn “deep structure” and “contextual cues,” not by studying deep structure and contextual cues as such, but by learning specific disciplines like biology. However, you learn deep structure and contextual cues in biology, not by reading books about biology, but by doing biology. You conduct experiments, you do field research, etc. You go out and solve problems and create knowledge.

Look again at one particular phrase in my description of Willingham above: studying the scientific method as such wouldn’t make you any better at using the scientific method, but it would give you facts about it – the kind of thing you could regurgitate on a test.

And there’s our problem. We liberal artists really do have a strong tendency to reduce content knowledge to “head knowledge” of facts. If you can pass a test on a subject, you know the subject. But – and here we are hoist on Willingham’s petard – that is not the kind of content-specific knowledge that leads to good critical thinking.

Obviously we need to have head knowledge. Students need to learn facts. That’s vital. In particular, for all the reasons outlined in my original post, I think the emphasis on standardized testing emerged for good reasons, and standardized testing needs to remain an important part of our educational landscape.

And I’m not giving up my position that the pragmatists, in their zeal to equip students with critical thinking, creativity, the entrepreneurial mindset, etc. have historically sought these qualities at the expense of, rather than in addition to, content knowledge – and that this has historically had devastating effects.

But I’m also sounding a red alert that we liberal artists have gone just as far wrong in allowing our zeal for accountability – which in practice has come to mean “testing” for too many of us – to drive us into a reductionistic approach to what content knowledge really consists of.

I wonder if it would help to go back to Aristotle’s concept of “intellectual virtues.” He classified the goal of education as imparting not skills or facts, but virtues. And alongside the “moral virtues” he put “intellectual virtues.” Indeed, he thought the two were not just equally important but interdependent; you couldn’t have one without the other.

He warned that a “virtue,” whether moral or intellectual, cannot be reduced to either just a personal characteristic we possess or a thing that we do. If a virtue is just a characteristic, then we’re “virtuous” while asleep or in a coma; if a virtue is just a thing that we do, then our “virtue” depends as much on circumstances outside us as on our character. Rather, virtue must be something that is both active and intrinsic.

Aristotle solved this problem by proposing that virtue is a habit. To possess a virtue means to be in the habit of doing the right things at the right times.

Now, I suppose (stretching just a little bit) that the reductionistic tendency of the pragmatists is to pursue their goals – critical thinking and so forth – as merely something they want students to do. They seek the activity but not the intrinsicness. And the reductionistic tendency of the liberal artists is to pursue their goals as merely something they want students to have inside them; they seek the intrinsicness but not the activity. It might help us to start thinking of learning as the imparting of good habits – to intrinsically possess the quality of being prone to do the right things.

But whether Aristotle helps or not, it seems to me that a recovery of good education must be neither a turn away from the practical toward the academic, nor a turn away from the academic toward the practical, but an acknowledgement that, by separating the two, we have really lost both.

Integrating “Academics” with the “Practical”

October 27, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Herewith I offer my first attempt at a grand unified field theorem of education reform. It’s a first attempt. Critique, suggestions, praise, horror, abomination, or testimonies of reveltory epiphanies are all equally welcome.

Most of the education space is divided into  two loosely congealed groups. There is a lot of diversity within each group, and sometimes there are nasty fights within the respective groups. But the big landscape is most fundamentally dominated by the dividing line between the two groups.

One group wants schools to focus on teaching basic skills first, and then a traditional liberal arts curriculum, to all students. The other group wants schools to be, in various ways, more “relevant to real life” – including everyone from down-to-earth, leathery-handed blue-collar voc ed advocates to pointy-headed, pie-in-the-sky, ivory tower touchy-feely progressives. Let’s call these groups the liberal artists and the pragmatists.

[Clarification: When I say “basic skills” I mean the three Rs.]

My formation and career have been entirely among the liberal artists. Ever since I read Dewey in college and recoiled in horror as if from the face of Satan himself – and indeed I can think of few intellectuals whose work has been more useful to Satan than Dewey – I have known that whatever else schools must be, they must not be what Dewey wanted.

But lately I’ve been increasingly worried about some of the stuff that leading liberal artists are embracing, and I’m losing enthusiasm for some of the core liberal artist commitments. And some of my pragmatist friends are hitting me with increasingly plausible arguments.

For example, most of what’s in this video seems to me to be not only true, but urgently needed:

And I found myself troubled by something in this exchange. Boiled down, it ran like this: Checker Finn sounded the alarm that P21, a key pragmatist organization that wants to destroy basic skills standards, even to the extent of suggesting that schools should really teach less algebra, was being incorporated into the push for national standards. Jay responded more or less with, “yes, and you should have seen that coming, because we told you so.”

Jay was, of course, right. But both Checker and Jay seemed to take it for granted not only that P21 wants to destroy academic standards, which it does, but also that the very idea of anyone wanting schools to provide practical applications, teach critical thinking or “instill an entrepreneurial mindset” is dangerous. That strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I want my daughter’s school to instill the entrepreneurial mindset.

And I don’t even buy the idea that applied or attitudinal outcomes are unmeasurable. We may not yet have an agreed-on way to measure them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not measurable. As Milton Friedman said, if you can measure it, measure it; if you can’t measure it, measure it anyway.

I think when Jay describes these things as “unmeasurable” what he really means is that they can’t be measured for accountability purposes, because that kind of measurement can be more easily manipulated. And there’s the rub; too many of us liberal artists have now reached the point where we’re only thinking about accountability, not about education.

Hence, my attempt to construct a grand unified field theorem.

I still think the liberal artists have a powerful historical case against the pragmatists. To speak in a fairly broad generalization, in the 20th century, K-12 public schools mostly gave a traditional academic education to middle-class (and above) white kids, and all the other kids were barely educated at all (if they were even in school). That problem was bad enough in the beginning, but it actually got worse over time, not better, even as the rest of society did a better and better job of including marginalized populations. That’s primarily because the school system fell under the thrall of the pragmatists, who didn’t value traditional academic education, and were even actively hostile to it because they thought it was inimical to learning practical application, critical thinking, creativity, the entrepreneurial mindset, etc.

The practical result of such thinking has always been the same. In the white suburbs, parents are rich and powerful enough to place limits on how far the schools go in gutting the traditional academic curriculum. Fail to teach a rich white kid algebra, and his mom and dad will notice, and they will make their presence felt. But in poorer and darker-skinned communities, while parents may want basic skills education just as much, they have less ability to make their demands heard. So the kids didn’t learn basic skills, and as a result, nothing else the pragmatists tried to teach them worked either.

The rise of standardized testing was the revenge of the liberal artists. They wanted to force schools to teach basic skills to every child. And bully for them! They’ve accomplished much good in doing so.

Yet it doesn’t work in the long term. Yes, to some extent you need to hit institutions over the head when they misbehave. But that alone cannot make an institution work. You can hit some of the people some of the time, but you can’t hit all of the people all of the time – as NCLB has shown. And if you try to make the club big enough to hit everyone over the head all the time, you’ll be giving way too much power to the people who hold the club – who watches the watchmen?

What’s needed to make institutions work is intrinsic motivation. People have to want to do what they ought to do, not primarily because of some extrinsic reward or punishment but because they understand it to be good in itself. No extrinsic motivations are strong and consistent enough to keep people doing what they need to be doing day after day after day.

And on that score, we liberal artists are not offering what we need to offer. We’re just hitting people over the head with basic skills tests. Watch that video again – that’s the voice of the professional educator who wants to educate the whole child, and doesn’t understand what basic skills tests have to do with that. He even affirms his desire for “higher standards,” but doesn’t understand why standardized tests are necessary for that.

I don’t think his view is adequate by itself. I think he’s missing the value of traditional liberal arts education. But if we want people like him to adopt what we have, we need to offer intrinsic motivation for liberal arts education – and that’s going to mean connecting our concerns to their concerns.

I’ll cut out the rest of the verbiage and come to the main point: Education needs to integrate the legitimate concerns of the liberal artists – basic skills and traditional academics – with the legitimate concerns of the pragmatists – a focus on active problem solving, creative thinking, and entrepreneurial innovation.

There are two main obstacles:

  1. Liberal artists and pragmatists see each others’ concerns as mutually exclusive. To pragmatists, time spent on basic skills and liberal arts is time wasted pursuing a failed 19th century model of education, time that could be spent on teaching kids how to solve real-world problems and connecting with their real-world needs. Meanwhile, to liberal artists, time spent on all that practical stuff is time that will ultimately be wasted because it’s outside of effective accountability structures that will ensure the schools teach all children basic skills and traditional academics.
  2. Some people have discovered that they can get credit for talking about integrating the two concerns without actually integrating them. See for example P21, which has been making noises about basic skills and 21st century skills being a “both-and” proposition. So are they now prepared to state for the record that schools should teach more algebra, not less? Eh, not so much.

The answer? School choice, of course. It solves both the liberal artists’ problems (how do we force schools to teach poor black kids how to read, and raise standards across the board for all kids?) and the pragmatists’ problems (how do we create new models of education that will prepare kids better for real life?) without a naïve reliance on changing schools through brute force systems (the most widespread fallacy among liberal artists) or neglecting to hold schools accountable at all (the most widespread fallacy among the pragmatists).

Coming next: where fighting the unions fits into all this.

“No, I’m Not Going to Stand Somewhere Else.”

October 14, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Molly, if you’re reading this – you still have a choice. You can try to run away from what you know you’re called to do, but Victor Laszlo is right: like Rick Blaine, you’re trying to run away from yourself, and you will never succeed. Or you can rejoin the fight from wherever you are now; the Internet makes it possible to do your part to save the world from any computer station, anywhere.

In case you missed the news, Molly Norris, the cartoonist who came up with the idea for Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, was admonished by the FBI that she needed to erase her identity and go into hiding, and she has done so. As Mark Steyn and others have observed, it appears that the United States law enforcement apparatus is now, effectively, working for the other side. Terrorizing people into abandoning their freedoms is precisely what the enemy is trying to accomplish. Now the FBI is helping them.

This is not the same thing as doing this for a witness in a criminal trial. You send mob informants into hiding because for them, hiding is what they need to do in order to fight the enemy. You can’t testify against the mob if the mob can kill you before you get to the stand. And if they get to you after you take the stand, the next informant won’t testify.

But for people like Norris, not hiding is what they need to do to fight the enemy. If mob informants go into hiding, we win. If Molly Norris goes into hiding, the enemy wins.

Earlier this year, when Norris cancelled her proposed Everybody Draw Mohammed Day out of fear for her life, I expressed my disappointment and she showed up in the comments to ask where all the people who were supposed to be protecting her had gone. It was a very just question! And she was thinking only of politicians and intellectuals, not the police. Who knew, then, that even the police would turn against her?

Yet we can’t give up. We can’t become cowards just becasue the FBI has done so. We are still human beings, and there is no escape from responsibility.

That’s why, in the tradition of Fasi Zaka, I’m proud to nominate Wim Nottroth for this year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award.

The Gates of Vienna blog recounts the story:

Back in the fall of 2004, just after Theo Van Gogh was murdered, an artist named Chris Ripke painted a mural on a Rotterdam street with the text: “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. A scriptural quote, but universally accepted, one would think, and not at all controversial.

Needless to say, local Muslims complained, and the municipality ordered city workers to remove the mural. A video reporter [for a local TV station] named Wim Nottroth stood in front of the mural in an attempt to prevent its removal, but he was arrested by police.

The authorities also ordered all news videos of the operation destroyed, but at least one survived and was uncovered by the diligent detective work of Vlad Tepes.

The mural was on private property. The owner of the property had approved the mural. No laws were violated. But the police destroyed the mural and confiscated all videos of their crime (or so they thought) and erased them.

Four months later, it was revealed that an imam from the mosque that demanded the destruction of the mural was connected to terrorist organizations and inciting his followers to violence. He was deported for being in the country illegally.

Nottroth had been sent to the scene in his capacity as a journalist. His job was to film the police destroying the mural. But as the moment of destruction approached, Nottroth realized that although he was a journalist, he was a human being first. And nobody else was going to do what needed to be done by somebody.

So he went and stood in front of the mural. And he stood there until the police arrested him.

The translation from the Dutch is awkward in some places, but it’s impossible not to hear the courage and integrity behind the awkwardness: “We all do agree to that, don’t we? Thou shalt not kill, we all agree to, isn’t it?…If this goes away there will be more misery than there would be if you leave it.” He couldn’t have been more eloquent if he’d quoted Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration or Milton’s Aeropagetica.

This exchange encapsulates a lot in a short space:

Nottroth: It should be possible here in a democratic…

Policeman: You rather go stand there.

Nottroth: Well then, I will remain standing here.

Darn straight.

Each and every one of us must be ready to say that at any time, when our duty as human beings calls upon us. For reminding the world that standing for freedom, even against your own government when necessary, is every person’s responsibility, I nominate Wim Nottroth for the 2010 Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award.

Checker Finn, FREAK OF NATURE!

July 30, 2010


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Yet you can count the voucher programs on your fingers.

Wow! Checker Finn has TWENTY-FIVE FINGERS!

(P.S. Congrats to FEC on the rockin’ new website.)

[Update: Just realized I should have added a link to Matt’s outstanding demolition of Checker, below.]

Education and Citizenship on the Left and Right

June 29, 2010


(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!]