Education Conservatives and Political Liberals

by Robert Pondiscio
April 28th, 2010

Education conservatives and political liberals are — or at least ought to be — natural allies, writes Mark Bauerlein at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog. 

“Education conservatives believe that liberal education should be centered on a core body of knowledge. In the humanities and “softer” social-science fields, all students should study a set of books, ideas, artworks, theories, events, and personages more or less stable over time. Those items are chosen on a variety of grounds: aesthetic excellence, historical impact, intellectual brilliance, ethical positions, etc. They may contradict one another and represent vastly different people and places and outlooks. The important thing is that the learning of them produces a thoughtful, informed, and responsible intelligence.

Education conservatives catch a lot of flack from both the left and the right however “one ideology does jibe nicely with education conservatism,” Bauerlein notes, ”political liberalism.”  This is a point that’s at the heart of E.D. Hirsch’s work, and indeed Bauerlein quotes from Hirsch’s most recent book, The Making of Americans, to explain the natural alliance:

“I am a political liberal, but once I recognized the relative inertness and stability of the shared background knowledge students need to master reading and writing, I was forced to become an education conservative.  The tacit, intergenerational knowledge required to understand the language of newspapers, lectures, the Internet, and books in the library is inherently traditional and slow to change. Logic compelled the conclusion that achieving the democratic goal of high universal literacy would require schools to practice a large measure of educational traditionalism.”

“To Hirsch, educational conservatism is the best curriculum for ensuring the kind of social mobility and access essential to liberty and equality,” writes Bauerlein. ”One way to keep low-income and disadvantaged youths in that downward place through adulthood is precisely to deny them the knowledge that would allow them to enter and remain in college, and to join middle- and high-income spheres that do, indeed, demand a certain level of cultural literacy,” he concludes.


  1. Do education conservatives get a lot of flack from political conservatives? I know a lot of political conservatives and I would say they certainly don’t ascribe to a progressive educational philosophy. True, the libertarians don’t like the idea of the government telling schools what to teach through national or even state standards. But the ones I know still are in favor of having a strong curriculum centered on teaching “the classics”. They just think the decisions on exactly which classics to teach should be made on a classroom-by-classroom or school-by-school basis. I don’t know any libertarians who are in favor of “constructivist” or “child-centered” education.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — April 28, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

  2. I am a socialist, but educationally conservative. I have no interest in teaching a leftist, PC, anti-sexism/homophobia/racism curriculum. That’s shallow. A robust liberal arts education is so much more interesting, important and mentally nutritious. I suspect that a lot of teachers opt for the PC curriculum because they’ve been deprived of a grand liberal arts education. I just got out of a meeting with my colleagues that made me want to cry –it’s so clear that they have no idea about the ideal that animates people like me. They mean well, but they seem to want to make school a giant counseling session for kids. It’s hard to be optimistic.

    Comment by Ben F — April 28, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

  3. @AI My long-standing (but rarely invoked) policy on moderating comments is this: You may post vitriolic rants and call people names. You may post anonymously. But you may not do both.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 29, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

  4. The piece by Mark Bauerline I think is well intended, but misses the point when it talks about the supposed list of ‘books, ideas, artworks, theories, events, and personages’ advocated to be more or less stable over time.

    Let alone the fact that it’s one thing to talk of studying a predetermined set of theories, and a different one to talk of a predetermined set of ideas. Ideas have a free-form quality and an instantaneous, incandescent nature that cannot be prescribed.

    And to prescribe a set of theories is not the same as prescribing a set of books, whereas in what regards books it is one thing to read them, another to be familiar with them, and yet another to understand the book within the historical context it was written in.

    No, this prescriptive goal as described is misleading. The problem is creating structure in the school curriculum, so the various disciplines can be aligned to support and reinforce themselves. The idea is to be able to study the literature of the Enlightenment at the same time with the American and French revolutions, with the painting and the architecture of the era, while studying Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 Eroica. I am exaggerating here a tad, because the subject matter details do not have to necessarily be these, and do not have to include this particular Beethoven Symphony.

    The choice itself is not as much important as the fact that there has to be a pre-agreed choice, because on one hand the schools themselves and the school districts do not have the academic expertise to make the curriculum aligned and exhaustive, on one hand, and on another hand the literature, history, art, music are taught by different teachers in different years, and additionally quite number of students switch schools in the middle of the sequence.

    To not make any choice for fear of offending this or other group, or for fear of narrowing the breath of studies is a grave intellectual error. E.D. Hirsch is making precisely this point in his Making of the Americans… It is perhaps the most important line in his book.

    The opposition presented in Mr Bauerline’s piece between a so-called set curriculum vs a multicultural curriculum is patently false. No. The opposition is between a structured curriculum, where you can build knowledge pyramidally and you can ensure by design that the curriculum is multicultural and covers all bases – as opposed to the free-form curriculum, where anything goes, which is multi-cultural only to the limit and extent of the inclinations of the teacher or the school district, and you can’t rely on where the students are coming from or where they should be going to.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — April 29, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

  5. @Ben F “a grand liberal arts education. I just got out of a meeting with my colleagues that made me want to cry –it’s so clear that they have no idea about the ideal that animates people like me. They mean well, but they seem to want to make school a giant counseling session for kids.”

    St.John’s College in New Mexico, in the US, has a really great curriculum…plus they give you a list of the great books and stars to navigate by…

    here’s their website:

    Comment by Louise — May 1, 2010 @ 7:06 am

  6. I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Bauerlein’s contention that “education conservatives and political liberals are — or at least ought to be — natural allies.” As an inner city principal who finally managed to gain access to and implement the most legitimate data on reading instruction, I found myself personified as heretical to the core principals of holistic theology and somehow “in bed with the far right.” In my mind it is counterproduc- tive to even discuss politics and ideology in relation to the issue of teaching kids to read.
    As I write in the book, Leaving Johnny Behind,

    “What difference does it make if a Democrat or a Republican, a Protestant or Catholic, a Sunni or Shiite, chooses to advocate for or practice any particular type of reading instruction? That issue is irrelevant. The only question one needs to ask is, ‘Does it work?’ Does it make any sense whatsoever to disregard valid scientific evidence on the basis of party affiliation or religious preference? It’s neither politics nor religion that is at stake here. It’s children and their futures.”

    Tony Pedriana
    Leaving Johnny Behind: Overcoming Barriers to Literacy
    and Reclaiming At-Risk Readers

    Comment by Tony Pedriana — May 2, 2010 @ 10:54 am

  7. Ben F. I know exactly how you feel. I just got done with a staff meeting where the majority of us are supporting the continuation of a “personal growth” program designed to motivate students through fun activities that make them want to come to school. These efforts take up an enormous amount of time and energy, they step on instructional time, and they often have the opposite of their intended effect. Students mock them. I also think people support this kind of program because they really have no conception of what a legitimate, serious academic program would look like. Chances are their own education was nothing of the sort. Because we have lost sight of the true purpose of education–preparation for citizenship in a democracy–, and the means for achieving it–a traditional liberal arts curriculum–, we frantically lurch from magic bullet to magic bullet. People do mean well, I don’t doubt that. But teaching core academics well is a tall order; when we try to fix society at the same time, we end up failing at both. It is hard to be optimistic. Trying to blend progressive and traditional approaches creates very real practical problems. The only solution I can see is for like-minded people to get together and create alternatives to the progressive mainstream.

    Louise, thanks for a glimpse of what things might be like. It is good to see this work being done.

    Comment by Robert Fauceau — May 2, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

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