How to Educate an American is a collection of essays edited by Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr. that embraces a serious task. The subtitle set out its goal – The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools.
Unfortunately, this book cannot deliver something that does not exist. There is no unified conservative vision for our beleaguered education system. The phrase that kept running through this reviewer’s mind was “tinkering around the edges.” Too many of the book’s contributors are unwilling or unable to go far enough to slash the Gordian Knot that is American education.
Veterans of Many Campaigns
The essays’ authors – including three former U.S. Secretaries of Education – write with authority. The biographies of the twenty-three contributors read like a guidebook to establishment conservatism. Both editors are associates of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The others are connected conservative think tanks – the Hoover Institution, American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, or the staff of National Review. Most have worked in this field for decades.
Thus, the writers are sober, intelligent people with much experience and insight. However, their efforts at reform have not been crowned with great success.
This book contains many valid points. Among them are these quotes:
- [O]nce groupthink has taken hold, those who are caught up in it don’t recognize the problem…You will imagine that anyone who disagrees with you is a bigot or tool of nefarious interests – a fool or a fraud. – Robert P. George
- As a foundation for citizenship education, schools should begin with the positive and emphasize reasons for caring enough about our society to participate in it and try to improve it. – William Damon
- Self-control is essential for functioning in modern society. If it hasn’t been learned at home, schools must be all the more insistent in demanding it in the classroom. – Heather MacDonald
- American hyperindividualism conflicts with any notion of education as a structured transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. – Kay S. Hymowitz
- [P]rogressive education wants to liberate the student to be himself or herself while conservative education wants to form the student to be better suited to the responsibilities of citizenship. – Yuval Levin
The Progressive’s Pawns
However, there are weaknesses in the book’s approach. This can be seen in its treatment of Common Core. Its criticism of the disastrous program is muted. Those authors who discussed Common Core presented it as a conservative vision commandeered by the progressives.
William Bennett described his view of the process. “A conservative consensus…sought to create high standards, measure performance against those standards, and take meaningful action when performance failed to measure up. What ended up as Common Core began as part of this sound, fundamental effort…. Yet this effort went awry…mostly because Common Core was wrongfully appropriated, distorted, and effectively turned into a federal quasi-mandate.”
However, a more in-depth analysis shows that Common Core was always radically progressive. Its academic goals reflected the thought of progressive educator John Dewey. It always placed “critical thinking skills” over content knowledge. It used the language of accountability as a bludgeon to force school districts and teachers into Deweyite methods of instruction and evaluating students.
Why Did Conservatives Fail to Reform Schools?
The book also outlines conservative attempts to reform education. There is much to celebrate. Conservatives did, for example, did make American education less of a socialist monopoly. They advocated charter schools, where quasi-public schools operate independently of the local public school system. Some pushed the use of vouchers that would allow parents to use some “public money” to send their children to private and even religious schools. These proposals showed much promise.
However, none of the essay writers contemplates rolling back the pernicious effects of “the father of progressive education,” John Dewey. The core of his progressive thought still dominates American education. Any conservative vision needs to denounce Dewey.
The only mention of Dr. Dewey’s name in the book appears when Jonah Goldberg quotes Thomas Sowell. “John Dewey saw the role of the teacher not as a transmitter of a society’s culture to the young, but as an agent of change – someone strategically placed with an opportunity to condition students to want a different kind of society.”
Dr. Dewey’s ideas have all but destroyed American education. They are so “baked” into the system that few educators – even conservatives – can imagine discarding them.
The New Traditionalists
Fortunately, there are a few who reject John Dewey’s ideology. Perhaps they are better referred to as traditionalists. They can be found among those who champion a classical education where moral formation is emphasized. Three characteristics distinguish the true traditionalist.
First, traditionalists know that there is absolute truth. The great truths reflect a human nature created by God and are valid for all times. A hallmark of a traditional classroom is its rejection of relativism, in favor of a strong emphasis on Christian morality, habits, and ethical behavior. This includes a focus on strict individual accountability for both grades and conduct.
Second, traditionalists see objective facts as the cornerstone of learning. They reject all attempts to teach critical thinking skills until the students have a set of facts upon which they can base their thoughts. Thought without facts only produces unfounded opinions of no real value.
Third, traditionalist teachers know their proper role in the classroom. They were hired because they know more than their students. They should actively share their superior knowledge with students. They are not, as the progressives would have it, “guides from the side,” training students to develop opinions based on disjointed pieces of information.
The shibboleths of John Dewey’s educational philosophy must be extinguished. Only then will American education become what the contributors to How to Educate an American desire. Schools must become, first and foremost, centers for learning – not laboratories where leftists try out social theories on students as though children are guinea pigs.