Is This How to Educate an American?

Is This How to Educate an American?

Is This How to Educate an American?

What conservative thinkers are saying about the future of education reform.

A new volume edited by Michael Petrilli and Chester Finn titled How to Educate an American brings together numerous thought leaders around social policy to discuss the conservative vision of education reform. I was pleasantly surprised by this book because it does not simply rehash the same talking points but contains a number of interesting new ideas and clear expression of the themes that divide political conservatives and liberals when it comes to education reform. This is a book worth reading if one is interested in how to influence education policy in the US. What follows are some brief highlights from the book that I found interesting.

A core theme in many of the chapters was the idea of valuing history, civics, and what it means to be an American. Eliot Cohen’s chapter titled “History: Critical and Patriotic” in particular highlights the importance of academic history to be more aligned with public engagement for history as a field to be taken more seriously. Summarizing the argument of historian Jonathan Zimmerman, Cohen writes:

unless history departments, and university administrators behind them, begin to weigh public engagement as a useful academic function, they are likely to pull their discipline further into bitter irrelevance.

This insight is probably true not only for history but all academic fields.

Robert George, in his chapter titled “Illiberalism and Groupthink in Education” highlights how in co-teaching with his colleague Cornel West—who holds a vastly different ideological perspective—was critical to being able to have students engage with truly unique viewpoints. This is because, as he puts it: “Had Cornel not been there, even doing my best to represent his side, the point would not have been made.”

Rod Paige, in his chapter titled “Focusing on Student Effort” makes the important point that: “American educational practices rest on the assumption that the teachers’ role is to teach and the students' role is to sit there and let teachers bear primary responsibility for their learning.” He uses the example of weight loss to explain: “No matter how committed and talented the expert is, or how much expertise he or she possesses, the client’s goal of losing fifty pounds is not going to happen without substantial effort on the client’s part to control his or her diet, to exercise, and so forth.” This is a useful lens in that much of the discussion around education reform simply does not take into account the role of student characteristics in determining student outcomes. I’ve written about this with numerous colleagues, here, here, and here.

Both the chapter by Arthur Brooks and Nathan Thompson titled “From Help to Need: A New Education Agenda” and that by Ramesh Ponnuru titled "Rethinking the Mission of High School" highlight how higher education has become, in some ways, over-glorified.

Brooks and Thompson write:

College degrees are worthy aims for many and, on average, offer the surest path to self-sufficiency. But policymakers must be more attentive to the fact that equality of human dignity is not conditional upon college completion, and they must be careful not to build a system that fails to serve the majority of our citizens—who have not, and likely will not, attend college—because they have elevated a single ideal of a worthy life above all the rest.

Ponnuru writes:

Our debates over education policy are dominated on all sides by people who have college degrees and who expect their children to earn them as well. People whose degrees come from the most selective colleges have vastly disproportionate influence in those debates and do not always appreciate how few Americans go to such schools. These facts distort our thinking about education even though almost all these people have good intent. The distortion has become worse as the country’s social life has become more stratified on the basis of education. The policymakers, journalists, and think-tankers who talk about education have to stretch to imagine what the world looks like to people who do not share their educational goals and assumptions.

Yuval Levin, in his chapter “Back to Basics for Conservative Education Reform,” is impressively able to articulate in plain language not only his point of view but also the opposing point of view. Whether one agrees with his characterizations of the left and right, it is without question that these two political perspectives will have influence in education reform debates for years to come. Levin writes:

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.

If you’re interested in education policy and want to get a grasp on how conservatives view education reform, How to Educate an American is definitely a worthwhile read.


Petrilli, M. J., & Finn, C. E. (Eds.) (2020). How to educate an American: The conservative vision for tomorrow's schools. Templeton Press.

This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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