Greg Forster, Ph.D. | October 6, 2020
The educational roots of injustice
We employ millions of people and spend billions of dollars a year on K-12 schools and higher education. Yet those schools have been extensively colonized by pedagogical quackery and political claptrap connected to the radical left, and our society has failed to reproduce in its young people a commitment to even its most basic civilizational ideals. Through universal school choice, we can return control of K-12 education to families. And we can call halt on our ruinously expensive regime of college subsidies, which only incentivizes schools to keep jacking up tuition rates and feeds money and legitimacy to the broken multiversity model.
I live about five miles from the area of Kenosha, Wisconsin, that was recently devastated by rioting. The human cost of unjust and unlawful violence in our community, which has come from radical rioters and from abusive police and vigilantes, simply won’t go into words. What will go into words is the long-term educational problem represented by a society that has failed for generations to reproduce in its young people a commitment to even its most basic civilizational ideals: equality under the law, and respect for other people’s rights.
Our educational failure feeds injustice on both sides of the aisle. Here in Kenosha, the recent violence seems not to have been much perpetrated by the local citizens who were protesting peacefully during daylight hours against police abuses. When night fell, the protesters almost all went home, and out-of-town “violence tourists” of both the left and right came out to wreak their terrible havoc.
What’s more troubling than the violence itself is the glamorization of it, or at least the failure to treat it as clearly wrong, by so many in the culture at large. The culture-war divide has crowded out our commitment to the basic moral foundations of our civilization—equality under the law, and respect for human rights. My side’s abuses are to be celebrated, or at least tolerated; your side’s abuses are abominable, not so much because they violate a shared set of rules that apply to everyone as because they were committed by your side. They prove how right we are to hate and hurt you.
Of course, there was never a golden age without injustice and violence. And for a long time, the rules of our civilization were unfairly enforced. Abuses against some kinds of people, especially people who were the “wrong” color, were permitted and even celebrated.
Our Lost Moral Patrimony
But to say that the rules were not fairly enforced implies that there were rules. And there were. Our civilization, for all its failures, had a moral patrimony. And far from being a special possession of the political right, it was a bipartisan patrimony. Even the sharpest critics of our injustices, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, valued the American political tradition that was committed, in principle, to equality under the rule of law and respect for human rights. They valued it so much that they took their stand upon it, making their case against our injustices in the name of our own principles.
“Even the sharpest critics of our injustices, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, valued the American political tradition that was committed, in principle, to equality under the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
Who believes in any of those principles now? There is lots of moral talk on both sides about “justice” and so on, but it no longer involves much notion of respect for people who disagree or are different (except in the ways your own side happens to approve of), much less of treating those across the divide from you as your equals. When was the last time you heard either side invoke the sanctity of the law as our only political safeguard for equal human dignity and respect for our rights? When was the last time you heard either side even show signs of having thought about equal human dignity and respect for human rights outside their own partisan loyalties?
What the two sides have in common is not simply that they fail to apply our shared moral rules to their own side, but that they do not speak in terms of shared moral rules at all. That is, unless you count the law of the jungle as a moral rule. The moral patrimony is no longer a patrimony, for we have failed to pass it on.
We employ millions of people and spend many billions of dollars a year on K-12 schools and higher education, but the most important lessons aren’t being learned. They haven’t been for generations. That educational failure is behind the loss of shared moral rules in the culture, which in turn puts the gasoline into the rioter’s Molotov cocktail, and takes the handcuffs off bad cops and vigilantes.
There is no road back from the abyss except by a return to the patrimony. Only equality before the law and respect for human rights can provide a morally justifiable framework for people with deep differences about what is good and right to live together without constantly abusing and oppressing each other. And since life in Friedrich Nietzsche’s nightmare world is not deeply satisfying in the long run, there is good hope we will eventually rediscover the patrimony—even if we exhaust all other alternatives first, and turn to it only in desperation after many years of violence and horror. (We would hardly be the first to discover it on those terms.)
That means we eventually have to deal with the educational problem. And here we must be careful to avoid quick fixes and over-simple solutions. A culture war to seize control of the schools and use them to indoctrinate students in our side’s loyalties instead of the other side’s would not restore the patrimony. It would only perpetuate the same Nietzschean nightmare that is destroying the patrimony.
“The ‘university’ became the multiversity, with no coherent vision of what education was for.”
Yes, the schools have been extensively colonized by pedagogical quackery and political claptrap that are both connected to the radical left. But the key thing to understand here is that the capture of the schools by the left is not itself the real problem, it is a symptom of the real problem. To root out pedagogical and political leftism from the schools and replace them with pedagogical and political rightism, even if it were possible (which seems doubtful), would only swap one set of symptoms for another. The disease would remain.
This is clear enough from the test cases we have seen in higher education. Setting up right-wing colleges that teach a right-wing version of the patrimony does not seem to produce many conservatives whose real commitment is to the patrimony. Tribal loyalty to the political right, not moral loyalty to the patrimony as a shared possession that protects all citizens equally, is what these schools mostly seem to be producing.
Our Impoverished Vision of Education
Our schools were ripe for capture by ideology because they were first civilizationally bankrupted by a great narrowing of their purpose. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we stopped thinking of schools as extensions of the family, cultivating human beings for a life that would be whole and meaningful. Instead, we began thinking of schools primarily as extensions of the economy, training workers, and of the state, indoctrinating citizens into values chosen for them by their rulers. Quackery and claptrap rushed in to fill the educational vacuum created by this impoverished notion of what education is.
At the K-12 level, the great narrowing came when a big left/right coalition came together for government monopolization of schooling. On the left, social planners wanted to facilitate centrally controlled industrialization by herding students into schools that would hammer them into compliant drone workers for the factories. On the right, nationalists wanted to stamp out religious and cultural diversity by herding students into schools that would hammer the children of immigrants into the moralistic legalism of mainline Protestantism, and conformity to the cultural forms of the WASP elite.
The failure at the university level was more internal. Changing ideas in philosophy and theology removed the old expectation that all kinds of knowledge could, and must, cohere. This led to hyperspecialization, with each discipline and subdiscipline pursuing its own monomaniacal intellectual interests in greater and greater isolation from the others. The “university” became the multiversity, with no coherent vision of what education was for. This internal breakdown was externally abetted, however, by large government subsidies for higher education that were justified in terms of economic outcomes, without reference to any liberal or humane standard of learning.
A full restoration of education into the patrimony must await the reemergence of a deep and stable bipartisan social consensus that educating children into the patrimony would be desirable. However, in the short term, we can take important first steps toward it (and accomplish many other important goals) by removing the policy conditions that structurally reinforce our impoverished vision of what education is. Through universal school choice, we can return control of K-12 education to families, which would start rewarding schools for providing an education that serves the whole person, not just the selfish interests of factories and factions. And we can call halt on our ruinously expensive regime of college subsidies, which only incentivizes schools to keep jacking up tuition rates (undermining the goal of making college more affordable) and feeds money and legitimacy to the broken multiversity model.
These changes would not only remove some of the most important structural supports of the impoverished educational model. They would also open up a national discussion of what we, as a people, believe and want to pass on. In the realm of politics, that national discussion is stymied by culture-war deadlock. In education, knowing that the lives and happiness of our children are at stake, we might actually step back from angry passions and think rationally about moral foundations. It’s an opportunity we can’t create soon enough.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book is Economics: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2019).