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February 2023

Living Not By Lies in Education

This essay was originally published on the website The Chalkboard Review on March 19, 2021. Sometime in 2022 the website was purchased by new owners who, without notifying me, removed all of my published essays. Given that the website operator has failed to respond to my inquiries about this removal, I can only conclude that my essays were deleted because of the philosophical or policy content. Therefore I am reposting these essays here.

Rod Dreher’s latest book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, warns of a “soft totalitarianism” slowly creeping into American culture. Unbeknownst to many, K-12 schools are actually the front lines for this effort to impose a radical ideology on society by making young people cheerleaders for the totalizing worldview of critical theory, or at least to make them too afraid to speak up against it.

              Dreher channels the famous Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in calling everyone, but especially people of faith, to prepare for this coming totalitarianism and resist it by committing to “live not by lies.” While Dreher discusses the K-12 education system only indirectly, teachers are well aware of how “woke” ideology is transforming what can be taught and even spoken in classrooms. Now is the time for the lessons of Live Not by Lies to be explored in the context of K-12 teaching and learning.

              I don’t intend this article to be a full review of Live Not by Lies. Others have done that already (I recommend this review by classical educators Ty Fischer and Joe Gerber). Rather, after briefly summarizing Dreher’s thesis, I’d like to offer some reflections on what it might mean to “live not by lies” as an educator, or as a student or parent of a student in K-12 schools.

              For those unfamiliar with Rod Dreher’s writing, their first reaction to his suggestion that totalitarianism is right around the corner is probably to scoff and declare, “That can’t happen here.” Anticipating this reaction, Dreher draws from numerous interviews with survivors of former Soviet bloc countries who see what is happening in American and recognize a pattern. They see how every apparatus of government, culture, and commerce is slowly being adapted to serve a specific ideology: a pseudo-religious political progressivism that demands total allegiance or, at least, silent acquiescence.

              This ideology is driven largely by critical theory, a set of assumptions about society and human persons that suggests one’s identity group defines their power status. Critical theory rejects objective truth and claims there are only subjective, personal “narratives,” all of which serve to reinforce one’s role as victim or oppressor. Critical theory is totalizing, trampling over moral ambiguities and declaring each person good or bad, every idea as noble or evil, depending on the extent to which the idea conforms with critical theory’s own assumptions.

              While these ideas were once known only among the far fringes of the political Left, they have become the operative philosophy of most American universities, and Dreher argues that this pseudo religion now occupies center stage in our political debates. Corporate America has embraced progressive ideology as well, with big technology companies routinely censoring users whose opinions deviate from approved points of view.

              It is in this way that Dreher says the coming totalitarianism is “soft.” Unlike the “hard” tyranny of the former Soviet or Nazi regimes, it is unlikely that dissenters in America and Europe will be hauled away to gulags any time soon. But they won’t have to be, as the combination of state, media, and social pressure will drive anyone who questions the new orthodoxy to silence and submission. Fear of losing one’s job, being punished at school, being pilloried in the media, or denied access to both social and fiscal capital (as is already the case in China) will ensure that resistance is futile.

              Dreher is writing primarily to a Christian audience. People with traditional religious beliefs are likely to be key targets of soft totalitarianism because their commitment to the idea of objective truth, allegiance to a power bigger than the state, and heterodox views on marriage, the family, gender, and a host of other topics puts them outside of the “progressive” mainstream.

              But Dreher’s warning is relevant for anyone who cares about intellectual freedom, open and honest debate, and respect for diverse opinions – all key values of what was once considered a classical “liberal” worldview. And Live Not by Lies is an especially important book for those who care about K-12 education and its role in shaping culture. Anyone who is in even casually observing primary and secondary education can see the growing presence of soft totalitarianism, often dressed in the noble-sounding garb of “anti-racism” and the war over what gets taught – and how – in our schools.

              Let me be clear: there are long-standing racial disparities in education that should be of grave concern to everyone. Achievement gaps and lopsided student discipline data based on race are genuine problems that deserve serious, collective investigation. The lack of diversity among the teaching force probably aggravates these problems in ways we’ve not yet begun to understand.

              But as I wrote last year for the Imaginative Conservative, the presence of these inequalities does not mean they are explained wholly by racism and oppression. Certainly, bias on the part of educators or within the society at large may be a contributing factor. But only an ideological fanatic could conclude that eliminating racism (a worthy but entirely unrealistic goal) would solve all of these problems.

              Sadly, though, that is exactly how so much of the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” activities carried out in schools are being conducted. “Anti-racism” training and discussion groups are being mandated for school faculty, often using books like Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist as manuals. These books and associated training sessions promote the idea that victim and oppressor status is written into the skin color of every person, including children themselves. The great creed of the American civil rights movement, that no person should be judged or limited by their skin color, has been completely replaced with its exact opposite, and attached to a political agenda that demands not equality of opportunity, but an actual equality of outcomes that requires a revolutionary reordering of society and a rejection of the core principles of Western Civilization.

              Teachers who would object to these programs face the serious risk of being labeled a racist themselves. But this is precisely where Live Not by Lies serves as an inspiring prescription as well as diagnosis of what is happening in American schools.

              Dreher tells the stories of numerous dissidents who survived communist totalitarianism by refusing to give inner or outer submission to the lies their overlords insisted everyone live by (the title, Live Not by Lies, is taken from a 1974 letter by Solzhenitsyn). This was dangerous business, of course, as resisting could lead to imprisonment, or worse. But sometimes even small, prudent acts of resistance could serve as the inspiration to others.

              Teachers and students should refuse to take part in any “diversity,” “equity,” or “anti-racist” initiatives that treat the assumptions of critical theory as truth, rather than simply as one perspective on a complex set of issues. When they are able, educators, parents, and students should challenge these initiatives openly, exposing their underlying ideology for the extremist, anti-American, anti-liberal agenda that it is. School communities should be made aware of the presence of these programs and demand their school boards provide fair and reasonable oversight.

              At the same time, educators must model strategies for taking racial inequalities in education seriously. We can ask ourselves hard, demanding questions about our own internal biases and practices that may have a disparate effect on different groups of students without succumbing to the totalizing assumptions of critical theory. We stand to actually generate far more effective long-term strategies for addressing disparities in this way.

              Educators, parents, and students must also refuse to live by the curricular lies that are increasingly being told within our schools. Leftist, critical-theory propaganda like the 1619 Project are problematic, not because they tell the “other side” or “rest” of the story of American history, but because they promote outright falsehoods about the American people and their founding. It is simply not true, as the 1619 Project and other efforts at revisionist history hold, that the preservation of slavery was the central reason for the American Revolution. It is ridiculous, but also false, to suggest that math and science – that even finding the correct answer - reflects “white supremacy.” And yet these are the kinds of lies that are being told more and more often in K-12 schools. Again, educators must expose and resist these ideologically-driven curricular ideas and programs whenever they arise. We must insist that the way we teach history, in particular, is both factually accurate and refuse the false dichotomy that understanding and appreciating the past precludes being both critical and patriotic.

Finally, educators, parents, and students must insist their K-12 schools be centers of intellectual diversity and freedom. Universities, which used to play this role, have already by and large submitted to the soft totalitarianism of woke ideology. K-12 schools, which are supposed to be locally controlled and reflect the values of the communities they serve, may be the last bastion for defending the classical liberal ideas of free speech and freedom of conscience.

Refusing to live by lies in today’s education environment is no small thing. For teachers and administrators, it might even involve risking one’s career, and certainly brings the risk of being ostracized and mistreated by colleagues, supervisors, and sometimes even students and parents. But this risk illustrates exactly why all of us who value open debate and intellectual diversity must commit to challenging every policy, program, and ideology that would impose any kind of soft totalitarianism in our schools. Teachers, students, and parents who object to what is happening in schools need to know they are not alone.

America’s Founders understood that democracy – not understood necessarily as majority rule but as a system that limits the power of central authorities over every group regardless of its number – was dependent upon a well-educated citizenry. That democracy is under threat like never before, and K-12 schools are increasingly its battleground. Let’s make sure they remain places that are safe for dissent and intellectual debate.

The cultural contradictions of American education

This essay was originally published on the website The Chalkboard Review on February 19, 2021. Sometime in 2022 the website was purchased by new owners who, without notifying me, removed all of my published essays. Given that the website operator has failed to respond to my inquiries about this removal, I can only conclude that my essays were deleted because of the philosophical or policy content. Therefore I am reposting these essays here.

In the Winter 2021 issue of National Affairs, Manhattan Institute fellow Kay S. Hymowitz explores what she calls “The Cultural Contradictions of American Education.” This contradiction is driven largely by middle class parents who have a fixation both on celebrating children’s individuality and on training students with the values, skills, and dispositions they need for employability and effective socialization.

Hymowitz accurately identifies these two goals as being in paradoxical tension. You cannot easily affirm a child’s right to “be themselves” and simultaneously tell them to curb their impulses for the benefit for others. Thus, we have an American education system in a perpetual identity crisis. Parents, teachers, and students are unclear as to the core purpose of education, and students from working class families wind up being the most perpetually underserved.

  Hymowitz, who has written extensively about the impact of changes in family life, traces the origins of this contradiction back to uniquely American patterns of childrearing, starting in infancy. Citing various ethnographic studies, she contrasts parenting techniques in France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Japan, and China, all of which emphasize training the child’s naturally selfish impulses toward manners, structures, routines, and social norms, with the middle-class American tendency to overemphasize each child’s uniqueness. The impact on schools is evident even to a casual observer.

“American education institutions—led by professionals, many of who are parents themselves—inescapably reflect those same cultural norms,” Hymowitz writes. “One example is the dogma that classrooms need low teacher-student ratios,” perceived as allowing for richer, individualized student-teacher interaction. Besides a wealth of research data suggesting that smaller classes do not actually yield substantive and lasting improvements in student learning, Hymowitz notes how this American attitude contrasts dramatically with those of educators in other cultures who worry that small classes do not give children adequate opportunities to learn to function in large groups.

The middle-class American fixation on the individuality of the child doesn’t just differ from other cultures, though. It also often differs from those of working-class Americans who may practice a much more traditional model of authoritative parenting and expect schools to train up their kids to work hard even when life isn’t entertaining, learn a well-established body of knowledge, and follow the rules.

But American education, from the so-called progressive ideas of John Dewey forward, has clearly been arranged to reflect middle class cultural values. Hymowitz points out how a plethora of educational theories and practices have all but defined our collective philosophy of schooling in this country, from the “whole language” (now repackaged as “balanced literacy”) approaches to reading instruction that suggest students can just absorb the rules of language through exposure to books, to the most-viewed TED Talk of all time, the late Sir Ken Robinson’s diatribe against schools’ tendency to “kill kids’ creativity,” to our current preoccupation with various forms of technology-driven personalized learning.

Meanwhile, says Hymowitz, parents – and many educators – also want schools to “instill in every study a set of distinctly middle-class values—accountability, diligence, civility, and self-control—that are often in direct tension with students’ autonomy and individuality.” Not only does the contradiction mean that many students are often not receiving the content-rich, teacher-directed instruction they need to be successful, but schools also typically approach the development of virtue in their students as an afterthought or with a haphazard mishmash of “soft skills” training.

None of this works out particularly well for the children of working-class families, Hymowitz argues. A century of what she calls “self-centered pedagogies” has failed to put a dent in income-based achievement gaps. Meanwhile, educators, college admissions counselors, and employers routinely lament how unprepared even upper-income students are for life after high school.

Hymowitz notes that all of this further aggravates the social fragmentation of American society. Affluent families supplement what is lacking in the curriculum or character education offered in their child’s school through summer camps, museum trips, and other activities that provide content knowledge in history, science, and the arts that many schools no longer teach in early grades. Students from lower-income families typically lack these luxuries at home and need to get more of it from school. Likewise, these students often benefit little from the occasional dose of middle-class “soft skills:”

Sure, [working-class] parents want their children to have good manners and to listen to their teachers. But in all likelihood those lessons have been delivered bluntly, with a hint of “life-is-tough” severity, and without concern for the child’s self-expression. Adults have likely not prodded those children to “use their words” or express their feelings, or asked them questions about what they thought about a story or what they noticed during a walk to the grocery store. They’re lacking the “cultural literacy” – to recall E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s invaluable term—to thrive in the contemporary progress classroom.

              This cultural contradiction in American education – and its devastating consequences for less-privileged students – is familiar to me as a former teacher and principal and in my current role as a professor of education administration working in and around K-12 schools.

              I believe that most teachers and principals greatly desire to help their students grow into effective citizens and contributing members of society, but I know of few traditional public schools that have an intentional, self-aware sense of mission about growing students in virtue. Formal character education, where it exists, takes a backseat to vocational preparation – making sure students turn out to be good workers and better test takers – and usually takes the form of some vaguely-defined leadership skill development.

              Social studies, science, and arts education in the early grades have nearly vanished while schools over-emphasize math and ill-conceived “reading comprehension” strategies. Education professors and school administrators make teachers feel embarrassed for using direct instruction methods, even though research suggests whole-class, teacher-led learning consistently works better for students from less affluent backgrounds. Deweyan progressivism, while perhaps not as universally dominant as many conservatives sometimes fear or suggest, nevertheless shapes the classroom experience in far too many schools.

              Hymowitz’s essay calls to mind sociologist Charles Murray’s 2012 book-length study, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Comparing demographic changes between working-class and affluent white families over a half-century, Murray found upper-class whites trumpeting the kind of me-first hyper-individualism that Hymowitz describes so vividly in America’s schools, while still insisting their own children learn discipline, commitment, and other essential social skills and virtues. Meanwhile, working class families have nearly disintegrated thanks to male under-employment, divorce and delayed marriage, drug abuse, and out-of-wedlock child birth. Elite whites refuse to acknowledge that they themselves still tend to live according to traditional values while insisting that judging others is the worst possible social sin and the goal of life is to just be happy. Their kids then mostly do okay, while working-class kids pay a terrible price.

              Our schools reflect the same contradiction, promoting content-light, student-centered pedagogies in spite of which affluent kids still manage to succeed. These same schools then fail to acknowledge that virtue is the ultimate goal of the entire educational endeavor – virtue that ultimately puts others before self, virtue that seeks to form and conform our lives to what Aristotle called the true, the good, and the beautiful.

              I believe it is time for American education to confront and seek to resolve its cultural contradiction. First, local boards of education, school councils, parents, teachers, and administrators should intentionally and self-consciously champion a clear purpose for their schools: that is, forming students in virtue, to which all other purposes, from career preparation to mastery of academic knowledge and skill, is ultimately directed.

Will this provoke pitched battles as competing interest groups struggle to define whose virtues and what methods for forming students in such virtues will prevail? Of course. But as Hymowitz’s essay points out, our schools are already molded in the assumptions and values of affluent, white, ideological progressivism. It’s time to challenge those assumptions.

              Then schools need to recommit to a content-heavy, literature-driven curriculum from the early grades onward. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., cited by Hymowitz, paves the way here with his decades-long promotion of cultural literacy, expressed in his numerous books including, most recently, How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation provides free curricular resources for schools that want to strengthen the content, especially in elementary schools.

              Finally, parents and educators need to rethink the hyper-individualist pedagogical assumptions that dominate instructional approaches in our schools. A good start here is the work of England-based educator David Didau. His book What if Everything you Knew About Education Was Wrong takes a deep dive into educational psychology to challenge many current education practices. As I described in my 2017 review of his book, Didau argues for a traditional model of instruction whereby the teacher as content-area expert explains new material, models new skill and application of knowledge, and carefully directs students through scaffolded levels of practice until independence is achieved. A good teacher is indeed the “sage on the stage” and students stand to benefit accordingly.

              Resolving the cultural contradictions of American education will not be easy. In fact, doing so will be controversial and difficult. But as Hymowitz describes, our schools are adrift and conflicted in their sense of purpose, and in many cases failing to adequately educate our students academically or in virtue. The classical idea of “liberty” is not the freedom to do whatever we please, but rather having both the knowledge and the wisdom to freely choose the good, the true, and the beautiful. This more noble kind of individualism is what our children, and our world, is hungry for, and what our schools should, in collaboration with families and community, try to foster.

The privilege of serving doctoral students

Wku graduation
Earlier this week, my friend, mentor, and supervisor, Dr. Marguerita DeSander, director of the School of Leadership and Professional Studies, announced my appointment as new director of the Educational Leadership Doctoral program (EdD) at Western Kentucky University. I consider this a tremendous honor and look forward to serving WKU and the larger education community in this new role. Great things are coming for the EdD program in the near future!

Working with doctoral students has been one of the most gratifying aspects of my professorial career. In my soon-to-be 13 years of service at WKU, I have had the privilege of teaching six different doctoral courses and serving on the dissertation committees of 22 students who have successfully completed the program, including 10 for which I was chair or co-chair. My many wonderful experiences with these students motivated my calling to this new role as director of the program.

I want to extend my sincere thanks to the many great scholars who have previously served as director or interim director, including program co-founder Jay Fiene, Chris Wagner, Tony Norman, Lester Archer, Nicholas Brake, and Aaron Hughey. Dr. Margie DeSander has been a steady guiding force since the EdD program became a part of what was then the Department of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research in 2019 (now part of the School of Leadership and Professional Studies). All of these leaders and a host of dedicated faculty and staff members have helped forge an outstanding doctoral program that boasts distinguished graduates who currently serve as school district superintendents, principals, higher education administrators, and leaders in various businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Through our recent affiliation with the Carnegie Project on the Educational Doctorate, WKU is blazing new trails to distinguish the EdD as a distinct terminal degree for scholar practitioners working in education organizations. The curriculum for recent cohorts of P-12 education leaders has been organized around Improvement Science, which helps leaders identify vexing problems of practice in their real organizational contexts, deploy a cycle of interventions to impact the problem, assess the results, and plan for the future. These improvement science cycles of inquiry are captured in a dissertation in practice, a new form of doctoral capstone with far-ranging implications for practitioners and scholars alike. 

My first priority as director of the EdD program will be leading faculty and stakeholders in a full review of our course requirements and curriculum in light of the Improvement Science model. We want to make sure that course experiences are optimized to develop doctoral graduates' knowledge and skills in Improvement Science techniques, especially in P-12 education contexts. Special consideration will be given to our non-P-12 organizational leadership students and the utility of using Improvement Science in their varying contexts.

Admissions and advising processes will also be reviewed and updated as needed to make sure every student has the necessary support to be successful in the program. Renewed marketing and recruitment efforts will support our work to establish partnerships with key stakeholder organizations to ensure that the program not only grows, but flourishes and has a bigger impact on the constituencies our students serve. Our model for such initiatives is our ongoing partnership with the Kentucky Association of School Administrators to support cohorts of practicing and aspiring P-12 education leaders to earn their doctorate. We will seek similar partnerships with organizations in P-12 and other fields, and will organize an external advisory council to assist with outreach and provide input on continuous program improvement.

As many of you know, my own academic background is in the humanities, specifically history, philosophy, and religious studies. Leadership development is not simply a matter of acquiring a body of content knowledge or technical skills, although both are essential for effective leaders. Rather, leadership studies, like education in general, is about forming individuals in virtue, wisdom, and self-control, both for their own personal flourishing and for the benefit of the communities in which they serve. Disciplines within the humanities are especially well suited to exploring the questions and concepts that help form leaders in this way, and I look forward to bringing that perspective to our collective work on the overall design of the program and specifically to the leadership curriculum.

Please spread the word and help us recruit the next cohort of outstanding doctoral candidates. And please reach out to me with your questions and especially your ideas for how we can take a great doctoral program to the next level of excellence. 

Climb with us! Go Tops!