Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Is This The Conservative View Of Education?

Jay Greene (Heritage Foundation), having previously decided that the "culture wars" can be used to further the school choice movement, has been working to redefine what the choice crowd is really about, like maybe combating wokism.

His recent piece for the right-tilted Washington Times carries the exercise a bit further. I'm going to take a look at it because A) it's an interesting point in the ongoing evolution of pro-choice arguments and B) I'm quoted in it.

Greene's hook is his reaction to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona's set of ill-considered tweets, particularly, “Every student should have access to an education that aligns with industry demands and evolves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global workforce.”

This, he charges, is the progressive view. 

The predominant understanding of education on the left is that a human being is a tool, and education should shape that tool to be productive and serve the needs of others.

And this, he says, contrasts with the conservative view:

Conservatives approach education very differently. They begin with the belief that all human beings possess dignity — are created in the image of God, if you will. The purpose of education from this perspective is to cultivate and develop human dignity to serve what is sacred.

And he boils the contrast down to this:

If progressives want education to promote industry (whether collectively or individually owned), conservatives want education to promote virtue.

That whole construction is doing a lot of heavy, heavy lifting, some of which is wrapped up in the business of assigning team labels to particular ideas, which is never one of my favorite things. "To which team label shall we ascribe this idea" is far less interesting to me than "Is this idea any good." But Greene is not the first to try to weld education ideas onto political categories, because lord knows its way easier to say, "Mugwumps want this and we all know mugwumps are bad so this shall not stand" than "Here's my idea and why I think it's a good one." 

But Greene's parsing leaves a lot of people to account for who fall outside of his model, so he is going to No True Scotsman the heck out of this. (That's the fallacy where I say "All Scotsmen wear glasses" and you reply "But what about all these Scotsmen over here without glasses" and I reply "Well, they aren't really Scotsmen, don't you see.")

There are an awful lot of conservative people who have leaned awfully heavily on the idea of making useful meat widgets. Rex Tillerson, while he was Exxon CEO, characterized students as the product and "the business community" as the customer, and he was not any special outlier. We can go all the way back to Reagan's A Nation at Risk, which did not frame its manufactured education crisis as some sort of crisis of virtue. But Greene characterizes these people as people "who call themselves conservative education reformers" aka "you can call yourself a true scotsman, but I know better."

And Greene refutes these folks in a fairly awesome paragraph:

Big companies that hire large numbers of coders naturally want the education system to increase its supply of coders, but it is unclear why their desires should determine how we educate our children. This is especially true as companies frequently use the fresh supply of newly trained and cheaper coders to replace the older and more expensive people they are laying off. Corporate executives may similarly want there to be more finishing schools to increase the supply of trophy wives to replace their older spouses, but we do not cater to their every whim.

I am jealous in a Wish I Had Written It way of that trophy wives line.

On the other side, there were a plethora of people "who describe themselves as progressive education advocates" who gave Cardona hell for his tweet. This is the part where Greene quotes me (I don't describe myself as a progressive, but I understand why I might be seen that way): “Public education is not meant to serve the needs of employers, but the needs of students. Yes, students probably need a job. But a job training system is meager and narrow. Our children should aspire to more than being useful meat widgets.”

Now, watch this next part.

In their own way, this faction of progressive education supporters shares the conservative view that education should promote virtue. They differ only in their understanding of virtue. Conservatives may oppose the social justice version of virtue backed by these progressives and should fight the imposition of the social justice approach on everyone.

You may remember a time when the school choice movement was an alliance between free marketeers and social justice supporters, between "Competition will make education better" and "We need an alternative so we can rescue poor and minority students from failing public schools." But that alliance was all but obliterated under the Trump administration, and here we find folks interested in social justice relegated to the other side, a version of virtue to be opposed. 

Greene seems certain that given the chance to free themselves from "government-operated schools controlled by education-school-credentialed teachers," families will mostly chose "an education promoting a traditional view of virtue" over the social justice agenda.

What is the "traditional view of virtue"? There are certainly traditions that value honor, strength and integrity. Of course, there are also traditions that value women and people of color knowing their place and shutting their face (and LGBTQ people staying in their closets). There are even conservative traditions that value certain public institutions, like public school. 

The whole exercise in political bifurcation seems futile. All sides of every major education debate have included folks from across the political spectrum. Common Core, for example, was supported by people on the right and the left, just as it was opposed by people on the right and the left. And when it comes to corporate attempts to "reform" education-- well, some folks find green more compelling than red or blue. It tells us something about the pan-political forces behind education reform that the reformster baton could be passed back and forth from Democratic to Republic to Democratic administrations without losing a step. And all this talk of left and right skips over the neo-liberals, whose promise of big government social programs run by private corporate interests offers us the worst of both worlds.

Attempting to make the various threads of education reform line up with political identities is largely a snare and delusion. Almost anywhere you build your fence, you'll find a mix of people on all sides, so why bother to try?

But I don't want to leave the impression that education is entirely a Both Sides issue. There has been one political constant in the ed reform biz--the right has for decades worked to disrupt, defund, and dismantle public education (it does not follow, unfortunately, that the left has been equally dedicated to defending public education). And they have tried a variety of arguments. General declarations that public schools are failing. Creating an entire data system to "prove" that public schools are failing. Failing public schools are a national security risk. Charter and private schools will do better. Choice will better meet the needs of industry and employers. Choice systems will be cheaper and do more with less. Choice will rescue students from failing zip codes. Choice is a virtue in and of itself, regardless of the educational consequences. Freedom!

This is just the newest argument. Choice is necessary to restore traditional virtues. It will run until the next argument shows up.

Choicers keep changing the game and the playing field, but the goalposts actually stay right where they've always been--dismantle and privatize education. I'll continue to argue that this turns a public good into a private commodity, that it wastes public tax dollars, that it disenfranchises taxpayers, that it opens the door wide to fraud and waste, and that it ill serves the needs of students and society. I neither know nor care if that makes me a progressive; I'm far more concerned about the fate of public education than the logo on my jersey, which I suspect is one more thing I have in common with choice advocates. 

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