(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!]