Conservative Education | Letters | Chicago Reader

Conservative Education 

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Paul Pekin's faith in the current state of American education is touching, but unpersuasive ("Schoolhouse Crock," September 12). He's an expert writer (thanks, perhaps, to his old-style education), but a crude polemicist and no logician. His entire case is built on the claim that any information coming from conservative sources must be, ipso facto, false. This guilt-by-association ploy depends on a caricature of conservatives and their beliefs. I'd like to address Pekin's deceptive rhetoric and reasoning and offer a truer picture of conservative thinking.

Let's start with Pekin's methods. Consider his treatment of a study, or report, showing that the lower schools' main problems in the 40s were talking in class, running in the halls, chewing gum, etc, whereas today they are pregnancy, drugs, booze, assault, etc. He says this list of problems was not a proper study at all and was compiled by one T. Cullen Davis, who is (gasp!) a conservative. Ergo the comparison between the 40s and 90s is false. But Pekin went to school in the 40s (as did I). Is he prepared to argue that this list, whatever its origins, seriously misrepresents the dramatic increase in violence and social pathology in the schools over the last 50 years? For example, how many guns, drugs, and assaults did he encounter in his classrooms in the 40s? My own experience confirms the comparative mildness of disciplinary problems back then, and I find it suspicious that Pekin's memory runs to the contrary. But if he really needs confirmation by a sociologist, complete with charts and graphs, such studies aren't so hard to find. With all his fuss about the origins of this particular list, he hasn't laid a finger on its content.

Pekin meets every critique of the schools with the same denial mechanism: If it is offered by conservative thinkers, there's no way it could be true. Unqualified freshmen entrants? Students who write poorly? No-brainer college courses in Oprah-watching? Loopily rewritten history? Suppression of dissenting views on campus? Conservative stuff. Don't believe it.

This can only work if the reader's definition of "conservative" is something like "dyed-in-the-wool liar." Otherwise, Pekin still has the obligation, which he largely shirks, to show that conservative observations are false on their merits. He finds it easier just to claim that conservatives are the devil's spawn. They are people of wealth and power, he tells us, whose principal concern is to exclude minorities and immigrants from opportunity. Their professed desire to improve education and uphold standards of quality is simply a blind for their true agenda--confining the benefits of education to their own group. To do this, they would set up intellectual hurdles far beyond the reach (in Pekin's view) of minorities. Readers will note that these wealthy, educated, powerful people differ only in economic status from white-trash punks and skinheads--just a bunch of minority-hating racists. (Bill Bennett, shave your head!)

What this crude analysis fails to explain is how keeping minorities out of the work force and out of the middle class can possibly serve any conservative interest other than pure cussedness. Assume for the sake of argument that conservatives are just as selfish as Pekin paints them. They're still bright enough to see that the more educated and prosperous our poorer citizens become, the less threat they pose to the economy and to their fellow citizens via crime, urban unrest, environmental grunge, welfare costs, and similar burdens. Conservatives (as opposed to skinheads) value the order, civic virtue, and civilized conduct that education and advancement promote. Quality education for minorities promises more Colin Powells and fewer Al Sharptons--a blessing by any measure. Why on earth would conservatives desire a larger agitating underclass? As a pool of cheap but angry nannies and gardeners? It's easy to see that Pekin hasn't spent much time talking with real-life conservatives.

Moreover, thoughtful conservatism reaches well beyond self-interest. Conservatives want quality education for everyone as much as Pekin does--and maybe more. Where we differ is that he values education only in its credentialing aspect. The bottom line for Pekin is to grab that sheepskin and nail a better job. Or as he notes at one point, "Americans love education, especially graduation." Exactly. The quality of the pregraduation experience matters little in this view. If Oprah studies, twisted history, and other forms of pandering are what it takes to whisk large numbers through the system and slap a certificate in their hands, so be it. If, as college graduates, they still read at an eighth-grade level and think Aristophanes is a cold remedy, where's the harm? Cheat them to help them. Conservatives find that a very shortsighted view, both spiritually and economically. And as employers discover how little substance resides in many college degrees, conservative qualms are increasingly validated.

As your average American conservative (neither wealthy nor powerful, alas, nor racist, thank you), I'd like to offer a short primer on conservative educational thought (leaving a lot out for reasons of space). First, the educational problem starts long before college and must be addressed at its source. When large numbers of minority and poorer students begin leaving the lower schools fully capable of doing real college level work, the clash over entrance standards and affirmative action will simply evaporate. So will the need for remedial and bonehead college courses. Spending more on elementary and secondary schools can help in limited ways, but the most important thing is to establish an ethos in the lower schools, enforced by dedicated principals, that puts solid, measurable academic achievement ahead of empty self-esteem rituals and provides an orderly environment where learning can thrive. Equally important is a community ethos that holds education as a primary value, with parents encouraging their children to excel, enforcing homework requirements, and setting a strong example. Where these conditions already exist, minority students do succeed, often brilliantly. Replicate these successes on a large scale, and minorities will be as college-qualified as anyone else; colleges can go back to offering a genuinely "higher" education, and students who don't go on to college will still be qualified, by virtue of superior high school training, for a wide range of nonprofessional jobs. Everybody wins.

Obviously hearts can't be changed and aspirations elevated overnight or just by tossing large sums of money down unreformed rat holes. Whole books could be written (and have been) about how to get from here to there. Unfortunately, liberal dogma often stands in the way. For example, we hear a lot from that quarter about the unimportance of test scores and next to nothing about strategies for raising those scores. Why is that? Some liberals (perhaps even Pekin) seem to think that minority members just don't have the smarts for serious achievement and should therefore be forever sheltered from the hurdles of intellectual challenge. A lot of conservatives reject that patronizing view. We see the many minority members who have excelled, and we believe that countless others will join them if excellence is consistently held up as the idea. Judge for yourself whose position more nearly approaches racism.

Of course Pekin insists that nothing has been dumbed down and students are being better educated than ever. But there's an Alice in Wonderland quality to his argument. For if this is so, why does he turn around a moment later and denounce rigorous standards as something that can only interfere with credentialing the rich pageant of humanity currently marching through the system? He can't have it both ways. Either they are getting a rigorous education (which implies rigorous standards) or the relaxed standards he favors are in place, with educational results to match.

A couple of closing observations. Conservatives, like liberals, sometimes ride unproductive hobbyhorses and latch onto bogeymen. With conservatives it's often "look-say" reading and now, apparently, process writing. (With liberals it's inflated estimates of other people's sexism and racism.) I know enough about process writing from my years in educational publishing to know that it is no threat to literacy. In fact, process-writing programs are full of good ideas that can be terrific in practice. But like any other method, this one really depends for its success on the skills and dedication of the teacher who uses it. If teachers are not outstandingly literate themselves, no mere set of procedures will enable them to train skilled writers. It's too bad if some unsophisticated conservatives have demonized process-writing programs in the same way Pekin has demonized conservatives.

Finally, I'm glad that Pekin's wife's college freshmen can successfully add $1.95 and 60 cents and subtract the resulting sum from $3. But I'd be more interested to know how well they are meeting challenges above the third-grade level.

G.R. Paterson



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