This major essay by Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute and National Affairs comprises one of the concluding chapters in our new book, How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow's Schools. In it, Levin brilliantly—and soberingly—explains what conservatives have forfeited in the quest for bipartisan education reform. He contends that future efforts by conservatives to revitalize American education must emphasize “the formation of students as human beings and citizens,” including “habituation in virtue, inculcation in tradition, [and] veneration of the high and noble.”
—Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Public policy debates about primary and secondary education are oddly disoriented in our time. At almost any point in the 1990s or 2000s, it would not have been hard to say what these debates were about and what reformers were eager to achieve. Higher scores on standardized tests of math and reading skills were at the center of it all—whether they were understood as means of imposing accountability on schools, teachers, and administrators; as ways to measure racial gaps in educational achievement; or as a strategy to help America produce students and workers on par with its foreign competitors.
If scores turned out to be too low, in relative or absolute terms, an argument would emerge between the left and right flanks of the reform coalition about whether more competition might help or more money for public schooling could address deficiencies. There was much talk of “accountability.” But that debate happened within the framework of a broadly bipartisan coalition focused on quantifiable achievement scores. That coalition had opponents to its left and to its right, but it involved leading education experts in both political camps, and leading politicians of both parties were willing to play ball.
That era of the reform coalition did achieve some worthy, if modest, improvements in American education. Test scores increased some, especially early in that period. The charter-school movement is stronger, the idea of accountability for schools and educators is more widely accepted, and there is now a more equitable distribution of public-education funding within states—so that differences in local property-tax revenue are not as decisive as they once were. There is a fair bit for both the left and the right to appreciate in these accomplishments.
But the era of the reform coalition also exacted some real costs. Above all, it made American education policy awfully clinical and technocratic, at times blinding some of those involved in education debates to the deepest human questions at stake—social, moral, cultural, and political questions that cannot be separated from how we think about teaching and learning. This has meant less of a focus on public schooling as a source of solidarity in American life, which was once a powerful theme on the left in particular. And it has meant less of an emphasis on character formation and civic education, which were once fundamental to the right’s way of thinking about schooling.
Whatever its costs and its benefits, however, the era of the education reform coalition seems now to be behind us. The coalition broke down from both directions. The fight over Common Core drained it of energy from the right, as the case for accountability—which began as the predicate for school choice—came to be identified instead (rightly or wrongly) with an effort to consolidate and homogenize American education. Meanwhile, the resurgence of the teachers unions as a force to reckon with in Democratic Party politics undermined the reform coalition from the left. And the intense polarization of our political culture has increasingly made bipartisanship of the sort that characterized the reform coalition impossible to sustain. The reform era that lasted from the early 1990s through the beginning of the 2010s is therefore effectively over.
What will follow it as a political matter will probably at first be a period of gridlock and dysfunction. Much the same can be said about the politics of many other policy arenas. Our national politics, and even state-level politics in too many places, just isn’t focused on public policy for the time being. But what will follow the reform era as an intellectual matter—in the work of education reformers, and as preparation for the next constructive phase of education policy, whenever it might come—is a more interesting question.
Frustrated by the collapse of the reform coalition but also liberated from its constraints, the right and left will probably take somewhat different directions in education-policy thinking in the coming years. For that reason, it remains useful to consider education policy and politics in terms of left and right. In fact, it may be that the deepest differences between the most intellectually coherent forms of the American left and right actually emerge most clearly around questions of education, and not by coincidence. And for each camp, the concerns that were put aside for the sake of working together in the reform coalition seem likely to be those that now come to the fore.
Some reformers on the right would argue that full-bore school choice itself was put aside to make some bipartisanship possible. But that perspective may itself be a function of the intellectual inhibitions engendered by the reform coalition—it is effectively a way of seeing education policy as a set of questions about modes of accountability. Certainly, more could have been done to advance the choice agenda in recent decades. Especially at the national level, accountability was separated from choice, and the latter was often sacrificed for the former. Margaret Spellings was famously willing (even eager) to leave private-school choice behind in her negotiations with Democrats early in the George W. Bush years. But in the states and at the local level, the movement for parental control saw real progress. Both charter schooling and private-school choice remained—and remain—near the center of the conservative education agenda.
To see what conservative educational priorities were truly put aside in the era of the reform coalition, we would have to really put ourselves outside the accountability and achievement framework and remind ourselves that the emphasis on accountability was itself a concession of sorts. What really couldn’t be talked about in these decades was the role of schooling in the molding of the souls of rising citizens—rather than just the minds of future workers. Both civic education and character education were sometimes pushed to the side for the sake of more technocratic notions of the purpose of schooling, notions more in line with the economic logic of our meritocracy but less in line with the civic ideals underlying our republic.
If we are really to look beyond the framework of the achievement-scores agenda, and if we want to consider what conservatives can bring to the table now that has for too long been forgotten, we would need to look not just to the conservative wing of the technocratic reform coalition, but to the core of conservative thought itself, and the essential role it ascribes to culture, to moral formation, and therefore to education more fully understood.
To see what this might mean, we should ask a couple of questions that seem almost as foreign to this moment in our politics as the idea of earnest policy innovation. They are questions that could hardly be more important to the right in the age of Trump, but that don’t come naturally: What really is conservatism? And what does it have to offer?
There are, of course, a near infinity of ways we might go about answering these questions, and distinguishing the left from the right. But there is one particular approach that can help highlight the implications of these differences for education. The left and right both have something to teach. Each wants to make sure our society doesn’t take something for granted, and so each tries to remind the rising generation of something it might otherwise neglect. But each has something distinct in mind.
The left wants to be sure we do not take injustices in our society for granted—that we see the ways in which the strong oppress the weak, that we take them seriously, that we never walk by them and pretend they don’t exist. A huge amount of progressivism’s cultural and intellectual energies is directed to this fundamentally educational cause.
The right, on the other hand, wants to be sure we do not take social order for granted—that we see the ways in which our civilization protects us, enriches us, and elevates us, that we never imagine that this is all easy or natural, and never forget that, if we fail to sustain this achievement, we will all suffer for it. A huge amount of conservatism’s cultural and intellectual energies is directed to this fundamentally educational cause.
These two different sets of concerns suggest that left and right begin from different assumptions about the human person and society—different anthropologies and sociologies. Briefly (and, so, no doubt crudely) summarizing these could help us think more clearly about the role of education.
American conservatism has always consisted of a variety of schools of social, political, and economic thought. But they are nearly all united, in a general sense, by a cluster of anthropological assumptions that sets them apart from most American progressives and liberals. Conservatives tend to see the human person as a fallen and imperfect being, prone to excess and to sin, and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation.1 This fundamentally gloomy conception of humanity sets conservatives apart from libertarians and progressives alike, and sits at the core of most conservative thinking about society and politics.
It leads, to begin with, to low expectations of human affairs and away from utopianism. Conservatives expect the most profound and basic human problems to recur in every generation because they are intrinsic to the human condition—a function of our permanent limitations that must be acknowledged, counterbalanced, mitigated, or accommodated but that can never really go away.
The fact that these limits are inherent in humanity also leaves most conservatives persuaded that the experiences of different generations will not be fundamentally different—or, as some have put it, that human nature has no history. This leaves conservatives not only resistant to the lure of utopias, but also far more concerned about the prospect of social and cultural degradation than they are confident about the prospects for enduring progress.
Regardless of how much intellectual and material progress a society may make, every new child entering that society will still join it with essentially the same native intellectual and biological equipment as any other child born in any other society at any other time in the history of the human race. Raising such children to the level of their societies is a prerequisite for any form of progress. But a failure to initiate the next generation of children into the ways of our civilization would not only delay or derail innovation, it would put into question the very continuity of that civilization. This is a crucial reason why conservatives care so deeply about culture.
And this same assumption, rooted in low expectations, also often leaves conservatives impressed by, and protective of, enduring, successful social institutions. The fallen character of man means that, left to itself, the default condition of the human race is more likely to be miserable than happy, and that failure in society is more likely than success. Conservatives are therefore often far more thankful for success in society than we are outraged by failure. Progressives tend to feel differently because their expectations are much higher: They assume social order is the easy part—and that any deviation from equality and justice is therefore an intentional result of acts of malice by those who are strong in our society and who choose to use their power to oppress the weak.
This difference of expectations is at the center of a lot of our most divisive political debates. It shapes how conservatives and progressives understand the nature and sources of the problems that American society confronts. If you assume that dangerous chaos is our default condition while social order is a hard-earned achievement, you will tend to see society’s problems as resulting from a failure to form fallen people into civilized men and women. You will assume, as has been well said, that “man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” and will see politics as a struggle to sustain institutions that might make us capable of some balance of freedom and order in a hard world. If you assume that equality and order are the human default, however, then you will see social iniquities and dysfunctions as resulting from intentional misbehavior by people in power. You will assume, as has also been well said, that “man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” and will look at politics as a struggle to liberate individuals from structures of oppression.
As the economist Arnold Kling has noted in his important book The Three Languages of Politics, this means conservatives tend to view political controversies as involving a tension between civilization and barbarism, while progressives view such controversies as involving a tension between oppressor and oppressed. Think about how people on the right and the left talk about immigration, for instance, or urban policing, or almost any of the most intensely debated cultural and political controversies we face, and you’ll get a sense of what Kling’s framework can show us.
The implications of all this for education are enormous, of course. It means that conservatives place heavy emphasis on sustaining the institutions necessary for moral formation and social peace, while progressives tend to emphasize liberating individuals from the oppressive burdens of a social order steeped in injustice. As a result, progressive education wants to liberate the student to be himself or herself, while conservative education wants to form the student to be better suited to the responsibilities of citizenship.
This points not so much toward different curricular choices in character and civic education as toward a far greater emphasis on both of those disciplines on the right and an inclination to discount or avoid them on the left—or to replace them with an ideal of education as liberation from injustice.
An emphasis on the quantifiable in education, which has been the organizing principle of the reform coalition for more than two decades, tends to downplay both of these ways of thinking about curricular content and emphasis. That is not to say, of course, that this has been a period devoid of struggles about curriculum. Nor is it to suggest that character education has been altogether absent from the national debate. An emphasis on character has been important to the success of some of the most prominent choice experiments and charter programs serving disadvantaged students, for example.
But in putting accountability, achievement gaps, and international competitiveness at the forefront, the reform coalition has deemphasized the formation of students as human beings and citizens. This has succeeded, in part, in shielding the politics of primary and secondary education from the very worst ravages of our increasingly intense culture war—at least until recently. But it has also kept out of bounds some essential tools and ideas that could play important roles in strengthening American education, including in closing achievement gaps and helping students learn the basics.
Any idea of education that is not connected to an idea of formation—of habituation in virtue, inculcation in tradition, veneration of the high and noble—is unavoidably impoverished. And in the wake of the collapse of the education reform coalition, conservatives are well positioned to help it become less impoverished.
That doesn’t mean that all conservatives could agree on a precise curriculum in these areas, or that they need to use state power to impose it. But it does mean that it is now incumbent on us to make education-policy debates less technocratic, and thus more suited to the particular kinds of challenges that America confronts today.
The last few years of our politics have shown us that our country is living through a serious social crisis. Many Americans are alienated from our core institutions and distrustful of them, and we seem to have less and less recourse to any foundation of mutual commitments. At the same time, an epidemic of isolation and estrangement is breaking down the lives of millions, leaving them disconnected from sources of belonging and meaning. And we are witnessing the loss of a common civic vocabulary, which is leaving us less capable of defining our Americanness in positive, rather than just negative, terms. These are obviously connected problems, and they relate as well to the tendency of all of our major institutions to shirk the task of moral formation in favor of moralistic performance and virtue signaling.
It should be obvious that there is a crucial role for schools in addressing these problems, even if it is not obvious exactly what it would mean to play that role effectively and responsibly. The question should be how, not whether, to place a greater emphasis on character and on civics in American education.
This is so partly because education is inherently formative, so that to keep character and civics out of the equation is implicitly to tell students that they do not matter. If we organize our schools around the premise that math and reading scores are what education is about, we effectively tell our children that math and reading are the essence of what the civilization they are inheriting has to offer them. And we can’t really believe that’s true.
But there is another, less obvious reason why a formative idea of education would have to be at the center of a broader social renewal. Key to the reason why our mediating institutions—institutions of family, community, religion, and civic life—have lost some of their ability to bring us together and shape our character for flourishing is that they have lost some of their practical purposes in our lives.
The logic of the welfare state and the logic of the market economy (which are far from the enemies or opposites they are sometimes thought to be) have both expanded their reach in the past half century so that, between them, they now penetrate into every crevice of our common life. For good and for ill, this has meant that many Americans are less dependent on sources of help (in the family and community) that might demand something of us in return, or might offer us a place and a connection. And it has meant that local civic and charitable groups, religious institutions, and fraternal organizations simply have less to do, and therefore fewer ways to attract people out of isolation and into community. The character of modern markets and the character of modern governments have both enervated our traditional mediating institutions.
Yet these kinds of institutions and the connections they offer are still essential to our building relationships and attachments. They are vital to our psychic and social well-being. But we cannot expect them to remain strong if that is all they do for us. As Robert Nisbet put it more than half a century ago:
Family, local community, church, and the whole network of informal interpersonal relationships have ceased to play a determining role in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution. Yet despite the loss of these manifest institutional functions, we continue to expect them to perform adequately the implicit psychological or symbolic functions in the life of the individual.2
This tendency has only grown more acute since then, so that one crucial way to understand the social crisis many Americans confront is that the institutions that have provided us with moral formation and social connection as their secondary purposes have been robbed of their primary purposes, and so are struggling to function.
But schools are an exception to this pattern. They remain essentially local institutions, and we still need them to perform an absolutely necessary function—educating the young. That means they can still successfully play a further formative function, and to a degree that few other mediating institutions can. We must therefore demand that they take that formative role seriously, and so we must put it at the center of how we think about education.
Needless to say, all of this adds up to a controversial understanding of the purpose of primary and secondary education, and one that will tend to fan the flames of our culture wars. Whether we like it or not, the next phase of conservative education-policy thinking will need to be willing to do that—not to the exclusion of emphases on core math and reading competencies, on school choice, and on accountability, but alongside them.
Over the last few decades, our approach to education became highly technocratic for reasons both substantive and political. But in the coming years, conservatives will need to find appealing, responsible ways to return to our roots and remind ourselves and the country of just what children need from schooling, and what an ideal of education more thoroughly rooted in an ideal of human flourishing could have to offer.
Character formation, civics, and the inculcation of the best of our traditions are inseparable from any meaningful idea of education. Conservatives will now have to press that case—and to help our fellow citizens see its promise.
1. Russell Kirk, “Ten Conservative Principles,” The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, accessed October 17, 2019, https://kirkcenter.org/conservatism/ten-conservative-principles/.
2. Robert Nisbet, “The Problem of Community,” in Communitarianism: A New Public Ethics, Markate Daly, ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1993), 143–144.