Slam Dunk by Jonah Goldberg

September 28, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jonah Goldberg lets fly today on NRO with an absolute slam dunk:

And yet when you listen to these endless seminars and interviews on NBC and its various platforms, I never seem to hear Matt Lauer or David Gregory ask “Isn’t the education crisis a failure of liberalism?” After all, liberals insist all social problems can be reduced to root causes. Well, they’ve been in charge of the roots for generations and look at the mess they’ve made. Look at it.

Largely because of the Iraq war,  Katrina and Bush’s unpopularity,  a host of liberal intellectuals pronounced conservatism to be dead. The decrepit state of American education is a far more sweeping, profound and lasting indictment of the very heart of liberalism and yet the response from everyone is “Let’s give these guys another try!”

HT Jeff Reed @ FEC

State, Nation, Culture, and Citizenship: Silent Cal Speaks Out

July 6, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

After publishing last week’s much-discussed post on schools, state power, culture and citizenship, I had two further experiences that I think are worth recording as a sort of appendix.

One clarification I want to add first, though – I should have bent over a little further backward to stress the distinction between “conservative ideas” and “ideas championed by conservatives.” I never denied – in fact I explicitly said – that the use of the government school monopoly to impose a moral order and civic culture on the nation is something some conservatives have advocated. What I deny is that the idea itself ought to be called “conservative.” If that’s a distinction we’re never allowed to make – which seems to be the position from which my post is being assailed – I can’t see any ground for even using labels like “conservative” at all, since they would have no meaning.

A few days after I put the post up, I was discussing Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom with a friend who is, not exactly a liberal, but certainly not a conservative. Hayek’s thesis was that the “soft” collectivist trends of the Anglo-American world mid-century were parallel in some very important ways to the “soft” collectivism of Germany after WWI – and that murderous totalitarianism was the logical endpoint of both trends. Not because the intentions of the soft collectivists were not noble and uplifting, and everything one might wish them to be; but because the unintended effect of their policies is to destroy the institutions and thought-patterns that obstruct totalitarianism, and strengthen those that give rise to it.

“Well,” remarked my friend,”it sure does make your job easier if you can tie your opponents’ position to Nazism.”

“Yes, it does,” I replied, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

The epigram to the introduction of Road to Serfdom, from Lord Acton, says it all: “Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas.”

I’m more than willing to have a civilized debate about the facts, provided I can find an interlocutor who’s interested in a civilized debate about the facts. Until I do, I think that’s pretty much all I have to say about this aspect of the controversy.

Then, over the weekend, I ran across Calvin Coolidge’s speech on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The speech is very, very good and I encourage you to read it all. His critique of Progressivism, which was then in the slow and painful process of receding from the height of its power and influence, is simply devastating:

If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

The more I learn about Coolidge, the more I think he’s known as “Silent Cal” primarily because he only spoke when he had something worth saying.

But in light of the topic I posted on last week – the contrast between the progressivism that sees the diligent exercise of state power as the grounding of a strong moral culture and civic identity, and the conservatism that trusts in our strong moral culture and civic identity as the grounding of state power – I couldn’t help but notice Silent Cal made the same point very well (and far more succinctly). Much of the speech is devoted to the idea that free political institutions ultimately derive from a culture that loves liberty, and cannot survive in its absence. After discussing the historical origin of that culture and some of the social institutions that maintain it, he remarks:

Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.

Wish I’d said it that neatly.

But then, how many hits did Cal’s blog have?

And how did I run across this speech? It was linked in The Corner by…Jonah Goldberg. Small world!

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!]

NR’s Must-Read on Big Business and Big Government

March 27, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Folks, you simply must read Jonah Goldberg’s cover story in the new NR on how big business loves big government.

I know, I know, to most readers of JPGB it is not likely to be news that big business loves big government. But the article contains a whole slew of fascinating information that I never knew before, covering everything from a hundred years ago to the present day. And it’s very powerfully presented and argued – better than I’ve ever seen on this topic. The article is as delightful to read as it is informative.

There are revelations in the article about Upton Sinclair and the creation of government regulations for the meatpacking industry, and about how TR reversed his position on “trusts” after he left office, that floored me. Back when his book came out, Goldberg said he had to cut huge swaths of the original manuscript – I forget how much he said, but if I recall, it was definitely more than half – because the book was just too long. He was lamenting how much fascinating, little-known historical stuff wouldn’t go into the book and hoped that it would eventually be useful elsewhere. I think he’s getting some of that good stuff into circulation with this article.

Here’s a sample, from the opening:

Honesty and marital necessity require me to state that everything I know about prostitution I have learned from a distance. That said, based on what I’ve gleaned from reading and from films of dubious artistic value, it seems to me that the farther you move up the prostitution price range, the more elaborate the lies become….The relationships grow not only more complex but more reciprocal — and, most of all, the real lies aren’t what the hookers tell the johns, but what both parties tell themselves.

That’s something to keep in mind as we watch the spectacle of American big business and the Democratic party seducing each other once again.

It’s for subscribers only, alas. His syndicated column today takes on the same subject but is much, much less interesting – there’s not much in it that JPGB readers won’t already know. Besides, online subscriptions to NR are cheap and you should have one anyway.