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How to Educate an American:
The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools
Edited by Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn Jr.
(Templeton Press, 2020)

From the 1990s through the early 2000s, conservative governors, justifiably alarmed about poor or dysfunctional public schools, were in the forefront of K-12 education reform. Right-leaning political and thought leaders even managed to win some liberal support for increasing school choice and bolstering accountability for students and even teachers, despite intense union opposition.

The federal government assumed a prominent role in these efforts as well. In 1995, the Clinton administration provided start-up subsidies to bolster charter schools. In 2002, President George W. Bush and the late Senator Edward Kennedy collaborated on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

As NCLB became problematic because of its mandate that all U.S. public school K–12 students be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013–14 school year, Common Core Standards (CCS) began. CCS was originally a governors’ initiative to create standards that states could choose to implement. The Obama administration transformed CCS into a national project, offering a total of $4.35 billion to states that convinced the Department of Education that they had top-flight implementation plans.

CCS became controversial on both the left and the right, as parents and elected officials feared a national takeover. Despite fostering academic rigor in some states and locales, its impact has waned—as has the right’s appetite for public-education reform in general.

In retrospect, many 1990s–2000s reforms were only modestly successful or failed outright. NCLB had the unintended consequence of weakening civics and history instruction through an overemphasis on literacy and mathematics. Expansion of educational freedom is the notable exception. Thanks mostly to conservative leadership, approximately 20 percent of students around the country are escaping failing traditional public schools. In addition to public charter schools, voucher programs and other private alternatives are also steadily increasing. Approximately 2.5 million students are now homeschooled.

But school choice is only a means to an end. The times increasingly call for conservatives to rethink school reform and propose new alternatives. How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, edited by Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn Jr., should help to start this process.

No Walking Away

Conservatives are aware that many U.S. public schools are academically mediocre or worse. Building affinity for vital political and social institutions is also absent. Why not simply walk away? Petrilli and Finn’s answer is that traditional public schools are “the schools that most young Americans attend, and it’s fruitless—bloodless too—to assume these schools will just evaporate.” The coeditors realize that not remaining in the public education arena is to acquiesce to the left’s agenda, which promotes social justice and neglects education’s fundamental purposes: the transmission of knowledge and the creation of virtue.

Petrilli and Finn enlist a distinguished and diverse array of twenty contributors, including former secretaries of education in Republican administrations, distinguished academics, and media and think tank pundits. Virtually all believe that historical and civic illiteracy is a profound problem. A few pieces of evidence suffice: a 2017 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey indicated that only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government, while more than half could name at least two of five cartoon Simpsons characters. Just one respondent out of more than a 1,000 in a Freedom Forum survey could name all five First Amendment freedoms. A Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation survey indicated that only 36 percent of Americans passed a set of multiple-choice questions derived from the federal citizenship test for immigrants. Even worse, the results starkly differed by age—74 percent of people sixty-five and older passed, in contrast to only 19 percent who were forty-five and younger.

This ignorance is the culmination of developments dating back more than a century. Progressive leaders like Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey viewed history and civics education as tools to promote utopian versions of democracy rather than teaching the principles that undergird the republic. For more than fifty years, a “New Class” of academics, journalists, and educationists, incentivized to critique American society, has promoted ideas that encourage illiberalism and thought suppression—first in colleges and universities, later in public schools.

Educating the Whole Person

In the 1960s and ’70s, relativism and scientism weakened educators’ view that the young need explicit instruction in the differences between right and wrong. Human beings are not shaped only by subliminal emotional desires, early experiences, and past traumas; they are also driven by what they believe in. Good education means teachers helping students find inspirational purposes that motivate them for a lifetime. In many schools, patriotism is a politically incorrect term conflated with intense nationalism. Consistent reiteration of the argument that citizenship plays out on the local or national level and not on a global stage is a blueprint for returning to civic reality.

To improve the educational and moral lives of children, especially poor youngsters, despite risking seemingly inevitable charges of racism, conservatives must initiate frank conversations with parents, law enforcement, and community members on the irrefutable data that African American students act out in schools at disproportionate rates. Social justice politics motivated the Obama administration to threaten legal action based on the concept of disparate impact when school officials suspended or expelled larger percentages of African Americans than other cultural and ethnic groups. Currently, the U.S. Department of Education has signaled that it won’t enforce these policies. For the sake, most of all, of inner-city school students who want to learn and obey the rules, disparate-impact policies should be abolished.

Most public schools also underemphasize individual effort, creating the misperception that teachers are primarily responsible for student learning. Cultivation of individual dignity and agency is essential for mental and physical health, but inadvertently schools often don’t promote these important messages for most students.

Decades-old glorification of college, finally, is not very relevant to the three quarters of Americans who don’t begin or complete four-year degrees. Innovative schools already exist that provide high school students with meaningful alternatives to college. They should be systematically nurtured.

Millennials’ and postmillennials’ lack of so-called soft skills, such as respect for authority, effective collaboration, and perseverance, is likely an unintended consequence of the often-laudable American devotion to individualism. Schools stress personalized learning and give short shrift to whole-class instruction.

Schools should also be responsible for life advice that dramatically increases an individual’s chance of rising to or maintaining middle class status. Twenty-seven years ago, Brookings Institution scholars Isabell Sawhill and Ron Haskins identified three behaviors now known as the Success Sequence: finish at least high school; get a full-time job; wait until age twenty-one to marry and have children. Powerful evidence proves Sawhill and Haskins’s advice was correct.

Many educators enthusiastically follow the first two items but are silent about the third. Conservative pushback is needed to fill this silence. In-depth consideration of a family structure’s effects on educational outcomes is so controversial, no federal or state department or agency responsible for educational research (in stark contest to public health agencies) even collects systematic data on this variable. Solutions to problems often begin with candor and courage.

The old reform coalition is dead. The left’s increasing emphasis on equity and social justice seems clear. Because of the decline of a concept of accountability so narrow that only math and literacy were deemed worthy of attention, conservatives are freer now to offer definitions and fight for civic, character, and content-rich education. Strong conservative voices need to articulate counterarguments to the left’s obsession with using the schools to allegedly define and then end negative human behaviors by helping young people better understand human nature, appreciate the preciousness of American institutions (however imperfect), and understand that destroying a civilization is easier than building one.

Petrilli and Finn are realistic reformers. In the volume’s conclusion, the two do not underestimate the difficulty of fighting the K–12 establishment’s resistance. Yet the coeditors capture the spirit and direction of the volume in their conclusion, which boils down the book’s purpose to three critical themes: fostering informed citizenship based on history and civic knowledge; restoring character, virtue, and morality as important for all schools; and building an education system that confers dignity, respect, and opportunity for every student. Those who want to strengthen the school’s role as a critical mediating institution that transmits the best of our culture to future citizens are advised to read and ponder this volume.

Lucien Ellington is UC Foundation Professor of Education, director of the Center for Reflective Citizenship, and director of the Asia Program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.” Subscribe to Modern Age »