By: Sara Robinson
“The Conservative War On Education continues apace, with charters blooming everywhere, high-stakes testing cementing its grip on classrooms, and legislators and pundits wondering what we need those stupid liberal arts colleges for anyway. (Isn’t college about job prep? Who needs to know anything about art history, anthropology or ancient Greek?)
Amid the din, there’s a worrisome trend: liberals keep affirming right-wing talking points, usually without realizing that they’re even right wing. Or saying things like, “The education of our children is a non-partisan issue that should exist outside of any ideological debate.”
The hell it is. People who say stuff like this have no idea what they’re talking about. The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives — because every educational conversation must start with the fundamental philosophical question: What is an education for? (N.B.: terminal preposition SIC)
Our answers to that question could not be more diametrically opposed.
A Question of Human Nature
Our beliefs about the purpose of education are rooted in even deeper beliefs about the basic nature of humanity.
All conservative politics springs from one central premise: they believe that human beings are essentially fallen and deeply flawed. Human beings are swayed by uncontrollable passions, we make consistently bad choices and we are incapable of governing ourselves. Given our basic depravity, civilization can only work if we submit ourselves to the external guidance of society’s appointed authorities, and stay on the straight and narrow path our betters have clearly marked out with rules, oversight and punishments. Without those constraints, we cannot be trusted: our own perverse natures would inevitably lure us into ruin.
George Lakoff pointed out that in this worldview, children are born evil, and it’s the duty of the Strict Father to beat it out of them. For their own good, kids must learn to accept the boundaries and order imposed by the authorities who’ve magnanimously consented to responsibility for their wretched and unworthy souls. The main imperative of education is to break the child’s will, force him to conform to society’s expectations, make him an obedient and compliant employee, and prepare him to survive in a hostile and competitive world that will cut him no breaks. Nobody’s going to protect you; for good or bad, you’ll only be given what you earn. What kids need most from school are hard skills and marketable credentials that will enable them to find a stable place in the hierarchy, thus securing their futures.
Libertarian education critic John Taylor Gatto has rightly pointed out that the “hidden curriculum” of public schools is designed from the ground up to reinforce these deeply authoritarian lessons. According to Gatto, the student is trained to eat, sleep, excrete, and think by the bells — no daydreaming about history during math class! She also learns to accept the judgment of teachers, peers and other worthies who are entitled to evaluate her worth; it’s beyond her pay grade to assess her own performance. This lesson fosters a lifelong dependence on external authority, and further quashes self-assessment and critical thinking. High-stakes testing is an artifact of the conservative belief that education is about acquiring a required body of knowledge that’s been determined by experts. If it’s not in the book, you don’t need to know it. And the ultimate outcome — the purpose of this whole process — is to graduate with a credential that will certify your acceptability to the established hierarchies of the economic world.
In the conservative model, critical thinking is horrifically dangerous, because it teaches kids to reject the assessment of external authorities in favor of their own judgment — a habit of mind that invites opposition and rebellion. This is why, for much of Western history, critical thinking skills have only been taught to the elite students — the ones headed for the professions, who will be entrusted with managing society on behalf of the aristocracy. (The aristocrats, of course, are sending their kids to private schools, where they will receive a classical education that teaches them everything they’ll need to know to remain in charge.) Our public schools, unfortunately, have replicated a class stratification on this front that’s been in place since the Renaissance.
Gatto argues that this kind of regimented education is profoundly inappropriate in a democracy. If you teach a child that he is incapable (and intrinsically unworthy) of governing himself — a central assumption of conservatism — then how on earth can he participate in governing his country?
The answer, of course, is that he can’t. And indeed: that is the whole point.
A Democratic Education
Democracy begins with the premise that most people are intrinsically decent and good, and that they can usually be trusted to make the right choices for themselves. Without this humanist belief in people’s essential moral and intellectual competence, a system of universal citizenship and collective governance would be philosophically unthinkable — and functionally impossible. This assumption also has profound implications for education.
Among liberals, the ultimate purpose of both education and parenting is to bring forward the best that lies within us, with the ultimate goal of maximizing the unique potential of each child. The stronger each of us is individually, the stronger civilization is as a whole. Education should, above all, foster self-knowledge and self-discipline, equipping us to make the best possible contributions to the collective — and to pursue life, liberty and happiness wherever those pursuits may take us. It’s hoped that they will take us on many unforseeable adventures — adventures for which we will need to be ready.
Central to this preparation is the development of our own internal authority and judgment, which we rely on to guide us through life and make us thoughtful, moral citizens. It’s assumed that people who are accustomed to this kind of personal freedom will also fiercely resist authoritarian leaders, whom we know we can never trust as thoroughly as we trust ourselves.
Our system relies on citizens who can think critically and clearly about any new situation they’re facing, and reason out solutions to problems without input from others when it’s necessary. And in today’s economy, it will often be necessary. We’ve known for 25 years that the old paternalistic workplaces — the ones with rigid hierarchies, where people could spend 40 years at the same plant — are gone. Most workers these days can expect to change careers two, three or four times over the course of what may well be a 50-year working life.
Given this reality, the college-as-job-training model the conservatives are promoting looks patently insane. Subjects like logic and philosophy, anthropology and rhetoric, foreign languages and history provide the mental flexibility, deep perspective, and sharp critical thinking skills that allow one to make one’s own way on unfamiliar landscapes, a skill that’s useful when the world keeps changing around you. People with rich liberal arts backgrounds are also far better prepared for leadership roles, and better positioned to recognize and seize on whatever opportunities fate throws their way. And survival in the economy of the future is going to depend far more heavily on our ability to create and maintain strong, broad social networks — to make and maintain supportive relationships with people who understand your value.
It’s obvious that stripping these mind-expanding fripperies out of the curriculum — as conservatives are proposing, often with no push-back at all from liberals — serves the narrow, functional conservative view of education and citizenship very well. But we let them win this point at our peril. It’s not exactly accurate — but nonetheless true — to say that the reason we call it “liberal education” is that the more of it you have, the more liberal you’re likely to be. If we buy into the idea that critical thinking is somehow non-essential, we’re not only betraying the entire future of the liberal tradition in America; we’re also depriving future generations of the basic skills and knowledge they’ll need to defend their democracy from the plutocrats who are always standing in the shadows, determined to wrest it from them.
Getting Back to a Liberal Education
Once you understand how very different our underlying worldviews are, the things we need to do to preserve our idea of a progressive, empowering education become far more clear. And once we’ve gotten a firmer grasp on what our own values demand on this issue, the easier it will be to talk about our vision of what American education should be.
Tests are valuable. They give teachers useful feedback about where each kid is, and what can be done to improve his or her progress. But they are only a means to an end – and the end should be a comprehensive, appropriate education. Only totalitarians who reject our democratic goals and values can possibly believe that tests are ends in themselves. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all education, and no student’s potential can ever be described by a single number.
The same applies to teachers. In a democracy, we find competent people, and then we trust them to do the right thing until they’ve shown us they can’t. Teachers deserve at least this much from us. The grinding, constant oversight is an authoritarian response that de-professionalizes and demoralizes smart people. The metrics used to reward and promote them should reflect the full range of skills they bring to their work, and the actual difference they make in the lives of their students. Let’s make it easy for really talented people to love this job — and then let them do it.
The arts, crafts and humanities matter. From kindergarten through college, we’ve seen 25 years of deep cuts in music, art, lab science, foreign language, school papers, drama departments, sports programs, home economics, and shop class. All these classes have one thing in common: they’re the hands-on subjects where kids spend the most time thinking independently, exploring their own creativity, experiencing themselves as productive and competent, and gaining confidence in useful real-world life skills.
What they learn in these classes doesn’t show up in test scores. But these lessons yield adults who can take care of themselves in a wide range of situations. You may never use a quadratic equation again for the rest of your days, but no matter where you’re headed, your life will be forever richer if you know how to informally test an idea, play on a team, make a satisfying dinner, speak some basic Spanish, handle a wrench and a drill, and write an engaging narrative on a subject you care about.
Teamwork matters. The cooperative skills we learn while playing sports or doing a class project with friends are essential to economic survival in an increasingly interdependent world. High-stakes testing reinforces the conservative message that you’re on your own — and will rise or fall on your own merit, as defined by external authorities who grade the tests. But a truly progressive education focuses on teaching kids to work together, build relationships, and draw their sense of self-worth from their ability to make strong contributions to the group. In the years ahead, which one of these people would you rather be sitting across the table from at a city planning meeting?
College isn’t just about job prep. It’s about developing the leaders who will set the standards for our entire culture. When we short-change students on the liberal arts curriculum, we are dooming the next generation to be led by people whose perspective, vision, flexibility, insight, and compassion aren’t up to the highest standards. If we want our nation to be better, we need to train better minds — and for thousands of years, a firm grounding in the arts and humanities have been the main way civilizations around the world have always developed this talent.
Discipline is not about control or retribution. It’s about encouraging students to make better decisions, exercise some foresight, take responsibility, and recognize the effects their actions have on the larger group. If a disciplinary intervention doesn’t meet those goals, then it’s not effective, and shouldn’t be used.
Vocational ed is not for losers. Our country is a far better place when it’s well-stocked with tradespeople, factory workers, technicians, small business owners, and service providers who have mastered their fields, and take pride in their work. These people are the foundation of our economy, and the real wealth and job creators. When we short-change their training, we’re undermining our own future competitiveness — and cutting the knees out from under the next generation of the American middle class.
And finally: critical thinking is the birthright of every American. We should not aspire to a feudal society where only the elites are taught to think independently, evaluate evidence, weigh complex factors, and make informed decisions. But it will become one — in just a generation or two — if we stop making this thefoundational competence delivered by our educational system. A democracy in which a majority of people are no longer capable of basic critical thinking skills cannot remain a democracy very long.
Our educational system is a product of our deepest values. And the battles we’re having now are, very directly, battles over what we believe is possible in America, and what kind of country we want to be 20 years from now. The conservatives are not wrong: for 150 years, the schools have been the leading promoter and disseminator of progressive values. They are now doing their best to dismantle that system, and replace it with one that produces followers, subjects and serfs.
What is education for? We won’t even be a contender in this fight until we’re committed to our own clear, coherent, values-based answer to that question. How we answer it will shape the country’s future.