Unpacking 7 Myths About Education

Over the years, there have been a handful of books about education I find myself recommending over and over, like E.D. Hirsch's Knowledge Matters and David Didau's What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong. A third at the top of my list is Daisy Christodoulou's 2014 book, Seven Myths About Education, which I reviewed here.

I recently had the great honor of being a guest on the Freedom in Education Founders Podcast to discuss the enduring relevance of Seven Myths About Education. Freedom in Education is a new grassroots organization, which, according to its website, is dedicated to "restoring parental rights, high-quality education, and civic virtue to our public schools by enhancing and improving content transparency, curriculum quality, learning options, and equipping parents to act." I love what Freedom in Education is trying to do, and so I happily agreed to chat with co-founder Beanie Geoghegan about the book.

Our conversation covered two podcast episodes. Watch the first here:


And the second here:


I hope many more educators and parents discover Seven Myths About Education and change the way they think about teaching and learning.

Educating for Wisdom

SteinerLate last year the Imaginative Conservative published my review of David M. Steiner's recent book, A Nation at Thought: Restoring Wisdom in America's Schools

I argued that even though Steiner makes an excellent case for an education system based on classical purposes, I am skeptical that such an approach can work in a secular school environment. An excerpt:

There is much to admire in David M. Steiner’s prescription for American education. Most of his platform already constitutes the focus of America’s revival of K-12 classical education, a phenomenon that is almost entirely taking place in faith-based private schools and public charter schools.

Steiner, however, seems most interested in the implications of teaching for wisdom in traditional public schools, and believes his agenda is appropriate for the kind of diverse, multicultural constituents served by these secular institutions. “The elements [of my proposal] are meant to inclusive, acceptable to those whose politics or beliefs would otherwise divide them,” Steiner writes.

It is not clear, however, that this is the case. As much as we should hope that public education in America would embrace academic rigor and the ethical and aesthetic formation of children, the moral relativism of many of our citizens – and their children – make it hard to imagine a public school district adopting Steiner’s program. Steiner says that teaching phronesis is not the same thing as the amoral “values clarification” programs or bland, content-free “character education” programs of previous decades. But one can imagine the angry school board meetings where parents of various ideological camps demand to know “whose” virtues represent the standard to which students should be trained.

Read the full review here

Conservatives, Liberals, and the Purpose of Education


Yesterday I posted about my recent speech "A Conservative Reclamation of Education." At least part of that talk was inspired by my reading of Yoram Hazony's 2022 book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery. I wrote about this book for the website Imaginative Conservative back in March 2023. An excerpt:

Of course, an appreciation for individual freedom is also a premier value to conservatives of the Anglo-American tradition, but for them personal liberty is situated into a larger framework of sometimes competing social obligations and purposes for government.

According to Dr. Hazony, “Many of us learned something like this view of the political world from our parents and grandparents, or from the Bible and religious community to which we belong,” though not likely from our education in secular, government-run schools (p. 101). But if civilizations, including those that value freedom and democracy, are to persist across the ages, children must learn to honor the past that gave rise to those values in the first place.

Honor is a concept that appears across all human societies, Dr. Hazony argues, and “We find that there can be no conservative society – by which I mean a society capable of conserving any teaching or text, institution or form of behavior, so that it persists from one generation to the next—unless it is permeated throughout by a concern and regard for honor” (p. 118).

This begins with helping children learn to honor their actual, biological parents, as the family is “the training ground for one’s participation in all other hierarchies, whether one has joined them by consent or not” (p. 131).

Read the full essay here.

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.

Is it time for "nationalist" education?

Virtue of Nationalism

Over the last few months I've been pleased to publish a series of essays at The Imaginative Conservative website. Some of these, including "Memory and Hope: Restoring the Teaching of American History" and "What is Patriotic Education?" have been amalgamations of pieces originally published on this blog arguing for a revitalization of social studies education through an explicitly patriotic lens (see related links below).

My latest essay, "Is it Time for 'Nationalist' Education?," builds on these previous articles by applying the lens of nationalism, as presented in Yoram Hazony's 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, to the question of what American education, and especially the study of history, should seek to accomplish.

The word "nationalism" has a public relations problem of course, because it has been associated in the popular mind with bloody racialist and imperialist movements from the Twentieth Century like Nazism. But as Hazony explains, imperialism and nationalism are in fact direct opposite concepts. Nationalism posits that the best political order is one in organized around free and independent nation states.

Imperialism, on the other hand, is the idea that all nations should be united under a common state. This was the aspiration of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. While these blatantly evil forms of imperialism were defeated in 1945, a similarly dangerous form of imperialism has emerged in which "globalists of various sorts have sought to curtail the autonomy of national states through the imposition of a “new world order” of transnational economic and political structures."

The United States is perhaps the most successful nation state in the history of the world, and in this essay I argue that a healthy nationalism should also be at the heart of the American education system. Ideas that flow from this view include the following:

  • Governments arise not from social contracts but deep, pre-political bonds of mutual loyalty.
  • Individual rights emerge from a larger framework of social duties and responsibilities.
  • There is no such thing as a "neutral" state.
  • Multiple nations can be welcomed within a national state - the concept embodied in our national motto e pluribus unum, from the many, one.
  • Nationalism makes us humble, eager to learn from the experiences of other nations and respectful of their differing experiences and traditions.

As we seek to unify the United States following another bitter presidential election, these concepts and their education implications may be more important than ever. Read the full essay here.

Related posts:

Two books help fight back in the war on history

War on history
Though he remains little known outside of Leftist and some social studies education circles, I first discovered Howard Zinn when I was an undergraduate in college nearly 30 years ago. Long before most Americans had heard of Bernie Sanders, and when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was still in diapers, I was a proudly self-proclaimed "democratic socialist." And Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was quickly attaining scriptural status as a Marxist retelling of our nation's history, firing up our demands for a total revolution in America's political and economic system.

I went on to renounce my youthful dalliance with socialism, but Zinn's book continued to grow in popularity. A People's History has made an enormous impact on a generation of history and social studies teachers and has come to represent one of the most egregious examples of the Left's desire to paint America as a uniquely depraved and oppressive regime. 

Two new books take aim at both Zinn's inaccurate, biased presentation of the American story and the larger "war on history" itself. Jarrett Stepman's book takes this phrase as its very title, The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America's Past. Stepman's book is paralleled in many ways by Mary Grabar's Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History that Turned a Generation against America, but her focus is more on Zinn himself, his Marxist agenda, and his unethical and factually incorrect and incomplete work as a historian.

DebunkingBoth books take on some familiar ground that Leftist revisionists have used to incorrectly claim that America is a uniquely racist and unjust society worthy of revolutionary political and social change.

Of course, Americans do have deeply troubling parts of our past too, from slavery and its legacy to the marginalization of women and indigenous people and the mistreatment of immigrants and various religious and ethnic groups. Stepman and Grabar never ignore of minimize these aspects of American history, but neither do they treat these as the sum total of our national story nor as elements that definitively condemn our ancestors and the political, economic, and social system they have left us, which is exactly what the Howard Zinnites in today's university cancel culture, the violent aspects of Black Lives Matter, the historically flawed 1619 Project, and other radical elements of the American Left explicitly try to do.

Some of the favorite targets of these warriors on history include Christopher Columbus, the early American colonists and the pioneers of Westward expansion, the Founding Fathers and their ideals, and even Abraham Lincoln, whom they insist was a racist himself. They paint anyone associated with the Confederacy as moral monsters, including the once highly-regarded Robert E. Lee, and condemn America's ascendency as a world superpower to raw imperialism and capitalist greed.

Between The War on History and Debunking Howard Zinn, Stepman and Grabar take on all of these mischaracterizations of America's history and heroes. Among the points extensively discussed by one or both books:

  • While Christopher Columbus was not a successful administrator of Spanish settlements in the New World, he was a fantastic navigator who expressed deep concern for the native people he found in Hispaniola and admonished his subordinates to treat them with dignity and respect. His motivations were largely religious in nature, rather than monetary. He cannot be held accountable for atrocities committed by those who followed him, and the net effect of his work - the opening up of the Western hemisphere to the most dramatic expansion of economic flourishing and, in the United States, freedom, is vastly positive. 
  • Slavery was practiced in every culture throughout human history. There is nothing uniquely American about it. Many of the Founders were ardent abolitionists or people who were deeply torn morally and philosophically over the issue. The groundwork they laid in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution made it impossible for the country to continue slavery indefinitely and provided the ideals that motivated its end and the ongoing work of ensuring civil rights for all.
  • Most of America's great leaders have been extraordinarily...human. Stepman devotes an entire chapter to Andrew Jackson, one of the most reviled American presidents by many on the political Left. Stepman does not sugar coat his presentation of "Old Hickory." He was, by Stepman's telling, arrogant, abrasive, sometimes dangerously impulsive, and the architect of some policies that led to great tragedy, most famously the "Trail of Tears" migration of Cherokees from the Southeast to Oklahoma. But Jackson was also an amazingly brave and effective war hero who, by leading American success at the Battle of New Orleans, definitively saved the republic from the ever-present shadow of foreign invasion and resubjugation. And Jackson's views on Native Americans was far from hateful. He believed relocation of the Cherokees would protect them from rapacious white settlers and even adopted a Native American child and raised as his own son.
  • Robert E. Lee picked the wrong side in the Civil War, but Stepman shows how Lee's greatness is due more to his leadership after the war, when as the most popular figure of the Confederacy he championed reconciliation instead of on-going war and conflict.

Grabar's Debunking Howard Zinn covers similar material, but also includes chapters on the Marxist distortion of many of the events of the 20th century, including the so-called communist witch hunts and the Vietnam War. While Joseph McCarthy did falsely accuse some people, the truth is there was a massive infiltration of devoted communists in virtually every sector of society and at the highest levels of power deliberately trying to undermine the American regime and bring a Marxist revolution to the U.S. heartland.

Howard Zinn was himself, Grabar argues, one of those Marxists. She documents the considerable evidence that Zinn was an active member of the Communist Party (something he never renounced) and his efforts to influence young civil rights activists toward Marxist thinking and strategies. 

But it wasn't just Zinn's radical beliefs that make his book A People's History so deeply flawed and problematic. Grabar shows the countless instances in which Zinn essentially plagiarized other scholars' work or engaged in gross editing of original sources to fake history according to his own radical narrative. Zinn's work isn't just wrong from a political and moral standpoint; it is also just bad historical scholarship.

Sadly, Zinn's influence is far greater than most Americans even know. Grabar also documents this pervasive influence, including the millions of copies of A People's History that have been sold, the vast educational "resources" based on his work that are being used in schools, and the failed attempts to challenge the use of the book in both higher education and K12.

I've been writing all summer about the need for parents, policy officials, and educators to take a deeper look at how history is being taught in our schools and to insist on a more comprehensive and truthful presentation of America's past (see related links bel0w). The War on History and Debunking Howard Zinn are powerful tools for supporting this effort.

Related links:

Fighting racism; rejecting critical theory

Cyncial Theories

Update, 10/1/20: A revised version of this essay has been published by The Imaginative Conservative.

Most Americans are largely unfamiliar with critical theory (also sometimes referred to as critical race theory or critical social justice theory), but this philosophical perspective is now part of the professional, cultural, and political air we breathe. And it is doing terrible damage to social cohesion, and particularly to meaningful efforts to address racial disparities in education, policing, and social mobility. Especially in education, we need now more than ever to understand and respond to issues of racial and socio-economic equity. But doing so actually requires us to reject critical theory and replace it with more constructive, unifying, and inquiry-driven approaches.

What is critical theory?

Critical theory emerged out of the postmodern intellectual movement of the mid-twentieth century that rejected core ideas of the Enlightenment and posits that truth, rather than being something that can be discerned via reason (or religious revelation), is in fact entirely a social construction. Post-modernism was eventually wed to Marxist theory through the work of scholars like Herbert Marcuse, and stakes the claim that, rather than objective truth, there are only stories that we tell ourselves. And those stories generally are designed to justify or perpetuate power structures between oppressor and oppressed. 

Journalist Andrew Sullivan, in summarizing the arguments of Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay's new book, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, explains it this way:

Beginning as a critique of all grand theories of meaning—from Christianity to Marxism—postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture. The entire concept of reason—whether the Enlightenment version or even the ancient Socratic understanding—is a myth designed to serve the interests of those in power, and therefore deserves to be undermined and “problematized” whenever possible. Postmodern theory does so mischievously and irreverently—even as it leaves nothing in reason’s place. The idea of objective truth—even if it is viewed as always somewhat beyond our reach—is abandoned. All we have are narratives, stories, whose meaning is entirely provisional, and can in turn be subverted or problematized.

Analyzing how truth was a mere function of power, and then seeing that power used against distinct and oppressed identity groups, led to an understandable desire to do something about it, and to turn this critique into a form of activism...After all, the core truth of our condition, this theory argues, is that we live in a system of interlocking oppressions that penalize various identity groups in a society. And all power is zero-sum: you either have power over others or they have power over you. To the extent that men exercise power, for example, women don’t; in so far as straight people wield power, gays don’t; and so on. There is no mutually beneficial, non-zero-sum advancement in this worldview. All power is gained only through some other group’s loss. And so the point became not simply to interpret the world, but to change it, to coin a phrase, an imperative which explains why some critics call this theory a form of neo-Marxism.

The “neo” comes from switching out Marxism’s focus on materialism and class in favor of various oppressed group identities, who are constantly in conflict the way classes were always in conflict. And in this worldview, individuals only exist at all as a place where these group identities intersect.

Critical theory is flawed, on multiple counts

Despite the fact that critical theory has come to utterly dominate the thinking of academic elites and universities, most people are not cultural and moral relativists. Most people - including me - believe there is, in fact, such a thing as objective truth, unchanging and applicable for all times, which is discernible through reason, divine revelation, scientific inquiry, or some combination of all of the above. Oppression is sometimes a real social phenomenon, but just because someone feels oppressed, it is not necessarily true that they are (it is also not necessarily true that they aren't oppressed; the point is that there is an objective reality to the question that is bigger than one's feelings).

And while power dynamics are readily observable in groups of all kinds, humans and their interactions are not reducible to power dynamics alone. As Pluckrose and Lindsay write on the website Aero:

The Critical Social Justice metanarrative (roughly the right side of history) is a ludicrously simplistic framework, centered on a cartoonish understanding of privileged and marginalized identity groups, whose relative statuses are believed to be maintained by the ways in which people talk about things. These group identities are understood to dictate individual members’ experiences, knowledge and relationships to power in predictable ways. However, both individuals and social reality are actually considerably more complicated than this, as most of us know from observing our fellow humans as we go about our normal lives.

One of the biggest problems with critical theory is that, based on the logic of critical theory itself, its assumptions and claims cannot be challenged. If you question a critical theorist, you are merely proving how deeply you are in denial of your own privilege and power. In an essay for New Discourses called, "No, the Woke Won't Debate You - Here's Why," Lindsay elaborates:

Debate and conversation, especially when they rely upon reason, rationality, science, evidence, epistemic adequacy, and other Enlightenment-based tools of persuasion are the very thing they think produced injustice in the world in the first place. Those are not their methods and they reject them. Their methods are, instead, storytelling and counter-storytelling, appealing to emotions and subjectively interpreted lived experience, and problematizing arguments morally, on their moral terms. Because they know the dominant liberal order values those things sense far less than rigor, evidence, and reasoned argument, they believe the whole conversation and debate game is intrinsically rigged against them in a way that not only leads to their certain loss but also that props up the existing system and then further delegitimizes the approaches they advance in their place.

But, at least in my opinion, the single most worrisome aspect of critical theory is where it leads us. If everything is ultimately about exposing power (the bad guys) and giving it to those who are supposedly without power (the good guys), then how is that to be accomplished if the powerful won't simply step aside? Ultimately coercive measures are required to create not just equality of opportunity, but the equality of outcomes, which is the end goal of critical theory. And that portends a massive central power with the authority to silence those who dissent and redistribute wealth and privilege to those it deems worthy - in other words, an Orwellian Marxist regime, which was the ultimate aim of critical theory grandfathers like Marcuse and Michele Foucault. And as history tells us, such regimes murdered over 100 million people in the twentieth century seeking to create their egalitarian utopia.


Continue reading "Fighting racism; rejecting critical theory" »

Memory and hope: Restoring temporal continuity in our teaching of American history


Update: I was delighted to have a version of this essay published by The Imaginative Conservative.

In my most recent series of essays (see links below) I've argued for a much more intentional and self-consciously patriotic approach to the teaching of American history and civics. I have repeatedly cited political scientist Eliot A. Cohen's essay, "History, Critical and Patriotic" as a key inspiration. Cohen argues that there is no contradiction between nurturing in students an appreciation for America's past and form of government and also acknowledging the failures of our past and our collective struggle to live up to the core principles of the nation's founding. 

Nevertheless, some social studies educators have reacted to my proposal with deep skepticism, insisting - often in direct contradiction to my own words - that I am seeking to indoctrinate students in some type of blind allegiance to America that denies her complicated and often morally messy past.

What is indoctrination, however, is the approach to American history that has pervaded our schools over the last generation, one that is so common many social studies teachers have taken it for granted as the American story and the way to teach it to students. This approach presents America in the worst possible light, distorting the full truth of our past and ultimately damaging our political health.

In my last post I cited Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen's essay, Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange, to support this concept of the critical patriot. I've taken further inspiration from another essay by Deneen, found in the same collection, Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents, called "Progress and Memory: Making Whole Our Historical Sense" (text of an early version, presented as a speech, can be accessed here).

In "Progress and Memory," Deneen argues that three key ideologies tend to dominate American political thought, each with its own distorted attitude toward time, particularly the past. Deneen identifies these maladaptive philosophies, which promote various kinds of disconnection between present, past, and future, as liberalism, progressivism, and nostalgism. He argues for the concept of "temporal continuity," which he associates with a healthy conservatism, that unites a "felt-presence of past and future in the present."

I believe that temporal continuity is precisely what is missing from our current approach to the teaching of American history and civics in many of our K-12 schools, primarily because of the dominance of liberal and progressive ideas within the education establishment. A restoration of temporal continuity could be a key to revitalizing history and civics education that forms young people who both appreciate the gifts of the past and also possess the capacity for independent and critical thinking, especially as they engage as virtuous citizens in our democratic republic.

Deneen argues that liberalism, which originates primarily in the thought of John Locke (but also proto-liberals like Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, and Hobbes), "begins with a radical critique of the ancestral:"

That which is bequeathed us from the past is understood to be a form of generational oppression...Liberalism inaugurates a project in legitimacy that can only be conferred upon a human institution when that institution has been chosen...The anthropology of liberalism divorces us from time past and time future. Humans are de-cultured and a-historical creatures: in the State of Nature there is only Now-time, absent culture or memory, history or planning...The claims of the ancestral - of the past - are to exert no preferential claim upon us.

I remember from my own experiences learning - and then teaching - social studies, that we took (and taught) the construct of the social contract as a given. That the purpose of governments was to secure maximum liberty, understood as the freedom to do as we please as long as we don't interfere with the "right" of others to do as they please. The liberal lens tends to see history as one long struggle to liberate individuals to pursue their own happiness in a realm of pure choice, free of the stifling restraints of family, religion, and societal expectations. 

So consider the common way the Pilgrims are now presented in American classrooms. They are not heroes of religious freedom, brave political pioneers whose Mayflower Compact helped lay the groundwork for self-government in America. No, the Pilgrims were intolerant theocrats who suppressed the religious liberties of dissenters in their midst and brought disease and destruction upon the Native Americans. That both of these things is, at least partially, true is too complex a picture for the liberal mind bent only on advocating for the perpetual liberation of the individual over the very society which forms him.

Meanwhile, progressivism is a form of liberalism that is utterly dissatisfied with the personal "liberty" liberalism alleges to have secured for us. It is not enough to be free, we must also seek a particular kind of justice. Simply put, the present is not good enough, and progressives fix their eyes on an idealized future.

If liberalism put all human institutions on the footing of choice - even family - Progressivism regarded all such institutions as fundamentally illegitimate, partial expressions of our true social and even "cosmic" consciousness. Thus Progressivism set in its sights all partial and intermediary institutions, whether marriage, family, church, fraternal association, neighborhood, partial political units such as the States, even and ultimately the Nation itself. In the end all such partial allegiances were to be dissolved in favor of the universal embrace of humanity itself, and thus - in the name of the Future - efforts to accelerate the dissolution of those partial associations were justified in the present...Egalitarianism is posited as a desirable future condition, an aspiration that justifies the beneficent and paternalistic rule of sufficiently progressed elites in the Present.

And thus, with the heightened presence of progressivism in our schools and culture, our education system has tilted even further toward a theory of history that encourages young people to seek out the villains, and to see the past and our collective political and social heritage as a collection of crushingly conformist and illegitimate institutions that must be eliminated in the name of equity, grievance, or restitution for past wrongs. Perhaps the best example of this attitude is captured in the New York Times' historically inaccurate 1619 Project, which has been adopted as a curriculum in numerous schools around the U.S.

Continue reading "Memory and hope: Restoring temporal continuity in our teaching of American history" »

The role of reflection in school principal effectiveness

Recently my colleagues and I in Western Kentucky University's Department of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research attended an event in San Diego as part of our Wallace Foundation grant-funded initiative to rethink school principal training for the 21st century. The event was hosted by the educational leadership department at San Diego State University, one of our Wallace grant partners, and spotlighted key features of their principal certification program.

Of particular interest to us was San Diego's emphasis on reflection as a key component of principal training and practice. We had the chance to do a "fishbowl" activity with several of their current principal candidates discussing their Reflective Leader Rubric, which is used to assess aspiring principals' capacity to engage in deep reflection on their practice and their learning experiences.

What we observed in San Diego resonated for me because it closely mirrors work on reflective practice my colleague Tom Stewart and I have done in our principal classes, with teachers and administrators in professional development sessions, and in our research on school principal leadership coaching. Our efforts have been inspired, in part, by the book Reflective Practice for Renewing Schools: An Action Guide for Educators, by Jennifer York-Barr and colleagues, which provides a theory of action for reflective practice captured in the image below. Essential to this model is the idea that reflection requires a pause, a deliberate effort to refrain from activity, both outward and inward, to see what is really happening. From that pause the heart and mind open, and new questions and perspectives can emerge that lead to fresh ideas and more effective action, which in an educational context we hope always pays off in enhanced student learning.

Reflective Practice Theory of Action

Several dimensions of SDSU's principal program feature components of this reflective practice framework. These were especially highlighted during the fishbowl activity wherein current program participants reflected on these elements of their experience so far. Among the themes that we heard were the following:

  • As the word itself implies, reflection is a kind of "mirror," giving the principal or principal candidate an opportunity to see themselves more accurately and clearly. My previous research collaborations around leadership coaching for principals reveals that, without structures for self-reflection, most school administrators lack the opportunities and routines in their daily work to observe their own thought processes in a critical, self reflective way.
  • Similarly, reflection involves deliberately seeking out diverse and even contradictory viewpoints and evidence to challenge our core, often unrecognized, assumptions about ourselves, our problems of practice, and our action strategies for addressing them.
  • Related to assumptions, like SDSU, WKU's principal program redesign will involve a much more intentional focus on equity. But so much of the equity challenge is bound up in our unrecognized biases and assumptions about ourselves, others, and how children learn. Reflective practices are essential for helping uncover and confront these biases and assumptions.
  • SDSU's principal candidates all acknowledged the challenge of making time for reflection, but as the York-Barr theory of practice makes clear, that time commitment is an investment. It takes enormous courage to set aside one's pressing work tasks to engage in reflection with the faith that, if one does it well, the payoff will be improved communication, greater awareness of self and others, and enhanced professional effectiveness.

The final thing that struck me about the SDSU principal candidates was their frequent use of "practice" language to describe their work. They clearly viewed leadership as a practice, meaning that it is a craft requiring a combination of skills, knowledge, and dispositions, and that as such their practice should be constantly growing and evolving based on new data and changing circumstances. Reflection is key to the process, and positive change is the fruit of reflection. As one principal candidate described it, "Reflection is not about what you've been doing wrong, but how you can keep getting better."

Usual disclaimer: Views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else affiliated with Western Kentucky University (where I am professor of educational administration, leadership, and research) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I am a member and chairman of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Committee).

The false choices of "What School Could Be"

What School Could Be

Ted Dintersmith's new book, What School Could Be, profiles dozens of schools across the United States that are engaging students in rich, real-world learning, and contrasts their experiences with the vast majority of other schools. Dintersmith calls on schools to innovate in ways that closely parallel some of my own frustrations and desires for education in Kentucky and beyond. But unfortunately the vision of What Schools Could Be is wrapped up in a badly overstated diagnosis about what ails us. Dintersmith reinforces dangerous, false choices that all too commonly frame our debates about schooling and mostly obscure, rather than clarify, the path forward.

Dintersmith, an entrepreneur and former representative to the United Nations General Assembly under President Obama, is best known as co-author with Tony Wagner of Most Likely to Succeed and producer of the documentary film by the same name. Last year he was honored by the National Education Association with its Friend of Education Award, the group's highest recognition. What School Could Be extends the themes of Most Likely To Succeed, arguing that students are too often bored, that teachers focus too narrowly on annual test score increases, and that schools are failing to adequately prepare students for the economic and social realities of the 21st century. On all counts, I agree.

To look for alternatives, Dintersmith spent a year traveling to all 50 states, touring schools and conducting hundreds of interviews with students, teachers, parents, and education policy leaders. In every state he found exciting examples of schools taking students to a different place of learning, especially at the high school level, like the Big Picture Learning network of schools which focus on meaningful career preparation, the Albermarle schools in Virginia which are pioneering project-based learning as the focal point of the school experience, and the Eminence Independent Schools here in Kentucky, the state’s first officially recognized District of Innovation.

What unites these examples, according to Dintersmith, are a combination of factors he calls “PEAK principles:”

  • Purpose - Student attack challenges they know to be important, that make their world better.
  • Essentials - Students acquire the skill sets and mind-sets needed in an increasingly innovative world.
  • Agency - Students own their learning, becoming self-directed, intrinsically motivated adults.
  • Knowledge - What students learn is deep and retained, enabling them to create, to make, to teach others.

In addition to these PEAK principles, and the many school profiles he offers to illustrate them, Dintersmith makes some important points about how education in the U.S. has, in the recent past, over-emphasized the idea of college for all students with several detrimental effects, and suggests that popular, misguided policies like “free” college serve to reinforce those problems. In one short but potent chapter, Dintersmith also argues effectively that parents and schools have infantilized adolescence, babying our children in various ways and shielding them from the kinds of challenges and hard problem solving they will actually face in the real world. If nothing else, schooling should at least prepare students to be independent, self-sufficient citizens.

The arguments about college and creating more independent learners are valuable, if perhaps a little dated and argued more effectively elsewhere by other authors. The best part of the book, though, are the profiles of innovative schools, and had Dintersmith let that be his primary focus, What School Could Be would be a useful tool for practicing educators. Unfortunately, Dintersmith tries to make his book about education policy, seeking a bogeyman to blame for why schools aren’t what they could be and making an endless stream of poorly-supported claims and straw man arguments that distract immensely from the book’s usefulness.

Dintersmith wants to force educators and parents into a series of false choices, and framing the problems our schools face in these artificial binaries may actually undermine the long-term effectiveness of the innovations he longs to see enacted.

False Choice #1: Accountability versus Innovation

According to Dintersmith, the number one reason why schools aren’t what they could be is because of standardized testing. Such tests measure only a small portion of what schools seek to accomplish with their students, but because of accountability pressures teachers devote the vast majority of their time to low-level skills that, he claims, get the biggest test score increases, and neglect rich, engaging, real-world learning.

The author is not completely wrong here. The modern era of federally-mandated school accountability (which came into being with 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act) has caused an narrowing of curricular focus and a long-term neglect of the kinds of meaningful, whole school reform efforts that would make a sustainable difference in student achievement. But Dintersmith completely mischaracterizes the purpose of these accountability mechanisms and the long history of morally unacceptable achievement gaps.

Continue reading "The false choices of "What School Could Be"" »