Education and the Conservative Mind, Lost in the Wildnerness

How can reformers change the status quo when the populace is looking through rose-colored glasses at the schools of their youth? If only everyone would stop clinging to schools as they are, thinking that’s how they’ve always been, so that real improvements can be made to America’s school system.

I suspect the average American doesn’t resist change to the structure of schooling out of nostalgia so much as out of a refusal to accept dictation from others beyond the local community. Whether it’s court-imposed change (see posts on busing in Boston here, and Raleigh, here) or “experts” berating school district inefficiencies, local residents respond, “No thank you. We’ll take care of ourselves.”

High School in New Hampshire, ConVal Regional High School, Peterborough, NH: 3/23 & 3/24, 2009, Phil Brand, Capital Research Project

In the 1950s and 60s Conservatives could be very open about all sorts of things. They could be almost as racist as they liked, and because “what’s good for business is good for America” as pro-capitalism as imaginable. If you were against them, they had a ready charge that seemed to disable everyone: “Communist!” The Soviet Union made that difficult to counter.

In the 1970s things began to change and by the time Reagan was elected Conservatives had learned to be more cautious. Instead of open racism, they sold all sorts of coded racism. The key to success in the Civil Rights movement was Federal intervention. Conservatives championed ‘local control.’ They couldn’t call minorities uncivilized, but they could talk about the loss of “values.”

All the talk of values had a class and gender side too. It’s not just minorities that have lost their (white, middle class) “family values,” it’s also the poor, and a lot of women, and homosexuals. This was so successful that Clinton used it to get himself elected twice, and he followed the conservative agenda in several directions, not the least of which was the “end of welfare as we know it.”

Since the cold war was over, all sorts of things starting popping up, like liberal mushrooms, so conservatives began more and more to focus on fear-mongering and outright crime. Bush steals the first election, 911 happens, and suddenly everything seems to change. Bush steals a second election but by the time it’s time to replace him, the entire ugly angenda seems to have lost force.

All those liberal ideas, popping up like mushrooms again. The final straw was the collapse of the economy under the weight of sheer conservative stupidity. The combination of fear and the market can’t quite do it anymore. Since the start of the Obama administration the conservatives have really been lost in the wilderness. Greed is obvious, racism is becoming a taboo.

In education, their last hope seems to be this notion of local control (ironic, given their love of No Child Left Behind) and a kind of anti-aspirational rhetoric. “That less than 60 percent of incoming college freshman nationwide graduate after six years, said English teacher Tim Clark, is perhaps a sign that we are pushing too many kids toward higher education.”” Stay where you are, please.

Not surprisingly they suspect job security, especially tenure. “On the level of school structure, Gagnon had doubts about teacher tenure. You need to be a good teacher no matter how long you’ve been teaching, she said.” And the loss of family values: “They say the hierarchical relationship between teacher and student has been replaced by an egalitarian one.””

Too much democracy has caused all sorts of other problems. “Taken collectively public schools may reflect society overall, but looked at individually our schools reflect only their own neighborhoods, which means they reflect our society’s social divisions by wealth and by race.” Brand is mystified by it all. How did we get to this point where inequity is so obvious to everyone?

This segregation might be natural. “Charles Murray at the American Enterprise Institute contends that residential and school patterns reflect a form of social sorting by intellectual ability.” Or, not. “Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argues that self-segregation is a defense mechanism to protect “social capital,” the common knowledge that builds trust and reduces conflict in communities.”

Or, it might be that white, middle class families, worried about their economic status and convinced by a white supremacist culture that minorities, certain women, and homosexuals, were a threat to their “way of life” long ago built ethnic enclaves as big as entire neighborhoods, and now many feel they must defend them at all costs.

This seems to be the new, softer side of Conservatism as we enter the first year of the Obama administration. At some level they must suspect that the ongoing attacks on the public schools and the teachers won’t quite hold water. People are often sentimental about the 1950s, for example, when Jim Crow was at its height. So we get a much quieter rhetoric, seemingly wiling to listen to all sides. Don’t believe it for a minute.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Post Navigation