How Conservatives Can Reshape Education
July 17, 2021, 3:00 p.m. ET
Credit...William Widmer for The New York Times
By Ross Douthat
After spending a few columns exploring current debates about history and race and education , I intended to step back and write about why the conservative effort to use state legislation to block new progressive educational theories is likely to ultimately fail.
But sometimes somebody writes a better version of your intended column first, and a few days ago Samuel Goldman, a professor at George Washington University and a writer for TheWeek.com, did exactly that . Invoking the long history of failed conservative attempts to fight liberal cultural shifts with legislative backlash, Goldman noted that in the case of education, “statute books are where conservative curriculum reforms go to die.” The problem isn’t just that the new statutes are too broad or too ambiguous. “It’s that they target ideas rather than the structure and personnel of educational institutions.”
By this Goldman means that it’s not legislators, but bureaucrats, administrators and ultimately teachers who really determine what gets taught in school — and so long as the institutions that train and represent public education’s personnel are dominated by liberals, ideological trends within those institutions are much more important than any attempt to legislate against them.
This doesn’t make backlash irrelevant, exactly. There is a lot of liberal skepticism about the wisdom of translating, say, the diversity training of a figure like Robin DiAngelo to K-12 education, and conservative backlash might stiffen the spines of liberal doubters. On the other hand, by associating those doubts with Fox News and Ron DeSantis, it could have the opposite effect.
But in either case the key deciders are establishment liberals, in negotiation with activists to their left, and the long-term evolution of the system is beyond direct conservative control.
Could it ever be otherwise? Goldman imagines two ways that conservatives could directly reshape American education. The first is a more dramatic version of the school-choice movement, a shift toward educational pluralism in which more public money is made available to private alternatives, enabling conservatives (and others) to dramatically scale up existing alternatives to public schools and the educational bureaucracy.
The second is an attempt at a “long march through existing institutions,” in which conservatives “devote themselves to influencing public schools in every capacity and at every educational level,” embracing often-uncomfortable careers within a liberal educational establishment, creating a Federalist Society for educators and sustaining an activist mentality across the years and decades required for permanent influence.
The problem with the first model is the status quo bias of most American parents, who are happy enough with their own public schools to be skeptical of seeing their tax dollars spent to dramatically diversify the system. The problem with the second idea, as Goldman dryly puts it, is that American conservatism is “temperamentally hostile to public employment, suspicious of formal institutions, and impatient with long-term planning.”
I have a third idea. In their widening conflict with an academic complex that’s become more uniformly liberal , Republicans claim that they are standing up for intellectual and ideological diversity. But their weapons are almost always punitive: the threat of firings or funding cuts, or else haphazard attempts to block specific hires, like the recent battle over whether the University of North Carolina should grant tenure to my colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones.
What if conservatives used the power of the purse to build instead and prove that their vision of academia is possible? Let DeSantis establish a new teachers college in Florida, with not just curricular but also hiring and admissions decisions supervised by a panel appointed by both political parties in the legislature. Or let the next Republican president create a group of national public universities with a similar structure, with governing boards appointed by Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, a core curriculum established by bipartisan academic appointees, admissions officers appointed by the same.
These ideas might fail completely. The idea of such direct political control over academic governance could inspire general boycotts, in the name of academic freedom, by potential liberal board members and academic hires, branding the new “public” schools as the equivalent of Trump University. Or maybe — as some liberal academics argue — there simply aren’t enough talented conservatives interested in academic life to staff such imagined universities. (I think the national university concept has other points in its favor, but I’ll return to those after my academic friends have torn this trial balloon apart.)
The point of pondering such ideas, though, is recognize that it’s not just conservatives who have an interest in breaking the multigenerational cycle that has handed liberals a series of cultural victories while also delivering a divided society, widely-distrusted institutions, and a flailing, demagogic right.
For the institutions that liberals currently run to command general support and respect, they need more conservative buy-in. For conservatives to buy in, the right needs some kind of guarantee of actual influence or power. And for that guarantee to seem credible, well, you might need to have a Republican president found some public institutions and see what happens next.
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