Sunday, March 26, 2023

What Conservatives Bring to the Education Policy Debate

I’m excited to see the launch of Project Forever Free. One of my favorite artifacts of American history is Fredrick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to a Slave is the 4th of July?” wherein he stated:

“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

The principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence⁠—that all men are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights, and that we institute government to safeguard those rights⁠—are under assault today. Principles are passé. Now politics, and our political debates, are all about winning.

But, to borrow from the Book of Matthew, what profits our politics if in the process of advancing it, we lose our souls?

We need to return to principles. That is why I’m excited to see a space where those coming from a more right-of-center perspective can discuss and debate education policy. I think that even those who do not share contributors’ politics can learn from them and can sharpen their thinking about the things that they hold dear.

What are some of these principles that right-of-center thinkers can bring to the table? I’d like to offer three:

1. Honesty about tradeoffs

At its core, to be conservative is to be anti-utopian. We emerge from the crooked timber of humanity and therefore will never have systems that work for everyone all of the time. There will always be some measure of inequality, some portion of violence and strife, and someone, somewhere, who is getting hosed by the system.

In hoping to improve the situation, we have to be honest about tradeoffs. More money for schools, for example, might come at the expense of money for healthcare. Instituting programs to recruit teachers for higher need schools might cause students in more well-off areas to be taught by lower quality teachers. Reforming school discipline to not exclude children so easily might lead to more chaos in classrooms.

Now, in each of these cases, the policy change might be the right thing to do. Perhaps education is a better use of state funds than healthcare. Perhaps the benefits for the students who would have better teachers outweighs the harms. Maybe the harms that are visited upon repeatedly excluded children is so great that a little more disruption in classrooms is worth it. I don’t wish to try and adjudicate all of those things here. Rather I’d simply like to make the point that in each of these cases we need to be clear eyed about both the costs and benefits of changes to policy and honest with ourselves and our communities about what they might entail.

2. Respect for the limits of our own apprehension

While there is some debate as to the exact beginning of the contemporary conservative movement in America, most trace its origin to the early years after the Second World War and the writings of the Austrian economist F.A. Hayek.

In a 1945 article in the American Economic Review, Hayek offered what has come to be known as “The Knowledge Problem.” As he put it:

“The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”

What is a good school? What makes a great teacher? How should a city organize its school system? What should children be taught? How should they be taught it? In what sequence should they be taught it?

These are questions whose answers are not held in some central repository that we just haven’t cracked the code to get inside of yet. There are lots of different answers to these questions for different people and in different places. Two teachers with vastly different backgrounds and styles and attitudes can both get the best out of their students. Two schools with radically different pedagogical philosophies can too. 

This should not lead us to nihilism. This is not an argument for simply writing blank checks to schools and districts and hoping that things work out. Rather, it is why conservatives tend to call on policymakers to leverage decentralized systems of accountability, principally families themselves, in whom the dispersed bits of knowledge reside. They cannot see things perfectly, but they can see them better than those who are farther away.

3. Respect for the accumulation of human knowledge

The English philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott said that to be conservative is “to prefer the  familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

Conservatives believe that wisdom accumulates, often in ways that we don’t fully understand. While progressives look to the next data set or regression model to tease out the exact causal mechanism for why things are the way that they are, conservatives are far more comfortable in accepting the fact that the current state of affairs is the result of thousands of years of trial and error and lessons passed down from parents to children, often in ways that are imperceptible to us today. 

Another Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, argued famously that before one decides to tear down a fence, he should know why it was put there in the first place. The same is true in education. There are lots of things that reformers want to change about the education system, and they may be right in wanting to change them. But, taking the time to understand why they are the way that they are can help better understand what that change should look like.

Change needs to happen. It is a part of life. But change for change’s sake or change that is ignorant of history and the lessons that it can teach us often results in cures that are worse than diseases.

Conservatives bring a sensibility, a set of intuitions, and principles to policy discussions. They aren’t always right, but they can help the generally left-of-center field of education guard against groupthink and ideological blind spots. I’m excited to see a space where such discussion can take place.

Michael McShane
Mike McShane is the Director of National Research at EdChoice.


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