Are You an Educational Conservative?

Mark Bauerlein defends what he calls “educational conservativism”:

What’s an “education conservative”?

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. Yes, additions and subtractions take place in the materials, but in a gradualist process. Education conservatives don’t accept new things or drop old things without a fair degree of circumspection. They reject criteria of “relevance” and political correctness; they regret the hasty adoption of contemporary offerings and the loss of longstanding ones (e.g., the disappearance of Dryden is, to me, a painful development).

They also limit the choices students have in their coursework. Too many electives and too few core classes, they believe, not only grant too much discretion to 18-year-olds who haven’t the wisdom to make the right choices. They also disperse the learning outcomes, creating a cohort of young adults without a common intellectual formation. To education conservatives, a fragmented curriculum leads to a fragmented society.

Opponents have obvious objections. Multiculturalists ask, “Who’s to say what should make up the core? We can’t stick with WASP-y stuff.” Progressivist educators say, “Look, we don’t teach knowledge—we teach children” (that’s a direct quotation from one meeting I attended). Fair enough on both, and if only those debates did in fact proceed we might find conversations in education circles a lot more enlivening than they really are. Most of the time, from what I’ve seen, people have given up debating what should be the core and instead have developed standards and policies that either ignore it or leave it up to individual school districts and teachers.

Education conservatives run into trouble not only with folks on the left, but with many on the right as well. Education conservatism squares nicely with cultural and traditionalist conservatisms, but not with libertarian conservatism and social conservatism. Libertarian conservatives consider a core curriculum—or at least the premises behind it—too prescriptive. They prefer a more open marketplace of past and present materials. Social conservatives don’t like the core because too many of its items run against social conservative ideology. Education conservatives might very well insist on assigning portions of The German Ideology, Howl, and John Dewey.

Read the rest here. Bauerlein argues that educational conservatism is quite compatible with political liberalism.

The more I think about Bauerlein’s post, the more I think I am an educational conservative. There is little I disagree with about this post. At the college where I teach, students are required to take a General Education core, but they have so many choices within that core that common learning is very difficult. In fact, students are required to take only one course in which common learning, with common texts, takes place. They take this course in the second semester of the first year and they complain about it endlessly. After all, what college student today would want to read Augustine, Plato, John Henry Newman, J.R.R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Paul when they could be sitting through powerpoint lectures!

OK–I will stop the sarcasm before I get myself into trouble.