How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, Michael Petrilli and Chester Finn, Jr. (Templeton Press, 304 pp., $24.95)

In the 1980s, then-Education secretary William Bennett called for a conservative curriculum centered on the values of choice, character, and content. For the most part, though, progressives have led educational movements, overhauling school-district curricula, rewriting American history, and distorting younger students’ notions of virtue and tradition. A new book of essays, How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, calls for a return of character and content to the forefront of education. In essays edited by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli and Chester Finn, Jr., writers address educational themes touching on civics, discipline, and family.

The essays review the failures of America’s education system in fostering civic engagement among citizens. In “Irradiating the Past,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Jonah Goldberg laments that roughly a third of Americans can’t name a single branch of government; hardly more than that percentage can pass a U.S. citizenship test. Goldberg attributes this trend to the absence of a historical narrative that “deepens our appreciation of our national identity;” instead, we breed ignorance and apathy. Schools should teach history that addresses America’s sins while also urging gratitude for the ideals and practices that made the nation’s prosperity possible.

Progressive educators have done a number on the virtues of discipline and responsibility. In her essay, “Race, Discipline, and Education,” City Journal contributing editor Heather Mac Donald argues that educators reverse cause and effect when discussing the “school-to-prison pipeline.” In 2014, President Barack Obama’s Education Department issued a guidance letter advising school administrators to avoid purportedly racially discriminatory disciplinary practices. In response, many educators refrained from expulsions and suspensions. Research indicates that black students reportedly committed disorderly acts—both violent and nonviolent—at higher rates than white and Asian students, but progressive educators feared that punishment would perpetuate racial achievement gaps. Such troubled students require more, not less, guidance and discipline in school and at home to restore order and virtue. Respect for authority and personal responsibility, Mac Donald notes, are imperative to attaining success.

Striving for excellence in the home is crucial as well. Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep, argues for embedding family values into America’s education system. Rowe points to the correlation between family breakdown and children’s health and educational attainment. In New York City, where he operates a charter school, the distinctions between the city’s most vulnerable and most financially secure districts are stark. South Bronx’s Hunts Point, for example, had a high school graduation rate of 37.2 percent and a math state-test passage rate of 12.1 percent. Meantime, the Upper East Side—the lowest-risk community district—had a high school graduation rate of 81.1 percent and a math state-test passage rate of 71.1 percent.

Family composition plays a significant role in such differences, Rowe observes. Hunts Point had a teen birth rate of 28 percent, compared with a 3.8 percent teen birth rate in the Upper East Side. In addition, 60 percent of children in Hunts Point grow up in single-parent households, while the Upper East Side’s rate is 13.9 percent. A single-parent household, on average, has higher rates of adverse family experiences, such as community violence and drug abuse. This disproportionately affects black and Hispanic households, perpetuating the racial achievement gap. Rowe believes that the solution to this gap requires teaching students the value of the “success sequence,” in which individuals finish high school, secure employment, and marry before having children.

In another essay, Mona Charen, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, offers more support for this approach. She observes that 97 percent of individuals who follow each step of the success sequence avoid poverty. Black parents who married before having children were twice as likely to earn incomes in the middle or upper tiers than black parents who had children first. Both Charen and Rowe believe that delivering this message to low-income and minority communities is vital to securing financial success.

In addition to discipline, disparities, and family orientation, How to Educate an American explores the balance between free thought and moral formation in schools. “We need to consider what role an excessively individualistic pedagogy plays in the coming apart of American society,” writes Kay S. Hymowitz, contributing editor at City Journal. Johns Hopkins University’s Eliot Cohen argues that a patriotic understanding of history “is a kind of glue for an extraordinarily diverse republic.” In his essay on illiberalism, Princeton professor Robert P. George discusses the ideologically motivated disinvitations and firings that increasingly occur on America’s progressive college campuses. Intellectual humility, George asserts, is necessary for acknowledging when one has erred. Educational spaces must permit students to engage with ideas from across the spectrum. Intellectual freedom is critical to the pursuit of truth.

If a consensus among the essayists exists, it would be for an “ordered educational pluralism.” How much order remains unclear. The tensions in education between the preservation of freedom and the ordering of individuals toward the common good reflect a broader debate between classical liberalism and traditional conservatism. The importance of values in education will remain prominent in that debate. In this respect and others, How to Educate an American offers insight into what the relationship between conservatism and American education may look like in the future.

Photo: Jittawit-Tachakanjanapong/iStock


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