Editors’ note: Last fall, the Buckley Program sponsored an essay contest open to student Fellows and others within the Yale community. The topic, tied to our annual conference, was James Burnham’s 1964 book, Suicide of the West. Judged by three Yale professors, the following essay was written by Thomas Hopson, a Buckley Fellow and rising senior in Trumbull College. He won the second-place prize of $500.
When most Americans discuss education reform, they use the language of economics. Their goals are quantifiable: higher test scores, more scientists, better factors for future growth. Their means are commensurate: more testing at younger ages, a rigid national curricula, and greater “product supervision.” As such, although their proposed reforms are well suited to increasing productivity, they otherwise ignore student’s personal prosperity.
There is more to the human experience than facts and figures. When Thomas Jefferson drew up a curriculum for Virginia’s grammar schools, he recognized that a complete education must also address what it means to be a friend, a member of a community, and a citizen of the United States.[i] Today, conservatives must ask, what changed?
Much of the story has to do with the doctrines of relativism and materialism. One of Richard Weaver’s key insights is that, “in everyday speech, the world fact has taken the place of truth.”[ii] Whereas the ancients were comfortable debating and pursuing all truths that are the case, modern man is only comfortable with those truths he can verify empirically.
The trouble is, facts leave an imperfect picture. The Cartesian approach to philosophy—starting from a skeptical egoism and demanding “proof” of all subsequent beliefs—neglects man’s abilities to have faith, experience wonder, and feel love; it simply lacks the means to explain those phenomena. As such, teaching children to focus exclusively on facts leaves them with no basis to evaluate or reflect upon central elements of their lives.
The fact-exclusivist view also contributes to a vapid political culture. In 1948, Weaver bemoaned how the phrase “’it is a fact’ [had] become a categorical assertion,” seen as sufficient proof for winning a normative argument.[iii] It is not hard to find that fallacy today. Progressives regularly assert that, if only conservatives accepted the fact of rising CO2 levels, they would ipso facto support a pre-packaged response to climate change. However, debating the wisdom of a carbon tax also requires weighing economic costs and resolving complicated normative questions, e.g. how does a state weigh the claims of the living versus its obligations to future generations? Only then can one reach the truth of the matter.
To both meaningfully engage in political life and to grasp the deeper elements of the human condition, children must be comfortable talking about truths as well as facts. A good educational system should accordingly address both kinds of knowledge.
And yet, many skeptics respond that the state should not be responsible for teaching moral lessons; schools, they claim, must be value-neutral. This response errs on three fronts. Firstly, facts are only neutral in a vacuum. As the climate change example illustrates, they evoke normative content whenever they are employed for a purpose. Secondly, all policy choices have moral content. In deciding whether to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, schools make value judgments about the rightness of that action—they cannot simply avoid the question.
The biggest fault with the skeptic’s argument, though, is its presumption that education is the sole province of the state, specifically of a bloated and anonymous bureaucracy. In reality, children learn first and foremost from their communities. As youths, we emulate those around us, the people we respect, the people who we want to be. Whether those people are our neighbors, our fellow churchgoers, or our Little League coaches, they play as meaningful a role in our development as our formal, salaried teachers.
In articulating this sentiment, conservatives should turn to Alexis de Tocqueville and his description of the New England townships. The townships were stores of value in early America, centers from which “local interests, passions, rights, and duties” were taught and communicated.[iv] They were schools of democracy, such that “town-meetings [were] to liberty what primary schools [were] to science… they [taught] men how to use and how to enjoy it.”[v] For this reason, Tocqueville concluded that the health of the Republic depended on the health of its townships.
The same is true with our local communities today. Students should not only read Shakespeare, Locke, and the Federalist Papers, but also grapple with the works in light of their own lives. This type of inquiry is unsuited for a national curriculum, as the perennial questions of philosophy can never be reduced to standardized tests. Instead, it must be part of a broader, community-centric project that recognizes the values of introspection and debate outside of the classroom.
Realizing this vision will require state school boards to take a step back, ceding some authority to those local actors who better understand the particular needs and goals of their communities. At the same time, it does not preclude all top-down regulations; statewide standards for inherently technical subjects, like mathematics, are still good policy.
In closing, it is important to note that this approach would also complement the economic ends of mainstream education reform. Teachers often complain that their students are not interested in learning, but perhaps they miss the point; perhaps their students are simply uninterested in factual material sans the context that gives it meaning. If students were given a chance to tackle more meaningful content—if they could engage with and sincerely answer the question, “why are you here?”—I suspect that progress in the more quantifiable aspects of our system would follow.
[i] Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, in Writings ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 365-372.
[ii] Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 53.
[iv] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (Project Gutenberg, 2007), Chapter II, Part II.
[v] Tocqueville, Chapter V, Part I.