Schools as Conservative Institutions

Over the years, I have written often about the contradictory obligations that U.S. public schools face. Since the origins of tax-supported schooling in the 19th century and its surging growth in the 20th century through immigration and national reform movements aimed at bringing schools and society closer, two competing responsibilities appeared time and again.

The first was to change students, imbue them with knowledge, skills, and values that they would use to gain personal success and make America a better place to live in. The duty of public schooling as an agent of individual and societal reform took off in the early 20th century as Progressivism and has been in the educational bloodstream ever since.

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

Often conserving such values can be seen in rules posted in nearly every classroom across the nation at the beginning of the school year. For example:


So here is a national institution that has had from its very earliest years conflicting goals–reform and conserve.

Most policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers are far more familiar with  efforts to reform schools over the past century than the persistent urge for conserving family, community, and national practices and values.

From the educational Progressives of the early 20th century to 21st century charter school and “personalized learning” advocates, beliefs that schools then and now failed their students and society and programs and practices had to (and have to) change. Even though there were splits among Progressives during their heyday of reform (1890-1940)–efficiency-minded and pedagogical wings–they sought and achieved major changes in what many reformers sneeringly called “traditional schools.”

Yet there were educational conservatives during these decades who insisted that traditional schools transmit a common curriculum of academic subjects through classroom practices to all children and youth. Such schooling had to remain the norm and not be changed.

Diane Ravitch in Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform resurrects critics William Bagley and Isaac Kandel who from the same pulpit as  Progressives William Kirkpatrick and Harold Rugg, that is, Teachers College, Columbia, voiced sharp objections to the mainstream Progressivism flowing through the nation’s schools. Bagley, Kandel and others wanted an academic curriculum that all, not just some, students took. They wanted children and youth, in Bagley’s words, to acquire knowledge and skills in “industry, accuracy, carefulness,steadfastness, patriotism, culture, cleanliness, truth, self-sacrifice, social service, and personal honor” (Ravitch, p. 285).

Historian of education, Adam Laats in The Other School Reformers points to what occurred in the Tennessee Scopes trial in the mid-1920s over the teaching of evolution in the schools, the struggle over Progressive social studies textbooks in the late-1930s, the battle over progressive ideology controlling district leadership in Pasadena (CA) in the early 1950s, and the conservative attack on school texts used to subvert community and family beliefs in Kanawha County (WVA) during the 1970s. Each episode, Laats asserts, reveals the strong countervailing effort by conservatives to slow down the steamroller of Progressive reform in the 20th century.

And those challenges persist. Today conservatives of all stripes, across ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic status challenge reform-minded boards of education, administrators, and practitioners about both the quality of the schooling their children receive and the values embedded in what their sons and daughters learn. Conservatives today seek more school competition (e.g., establishing charters, issuing vouchers) and transmitting a uniform curriculum (e.g., E.D. Hirsch’s “core knowledge”), teaching patriotism (e.g., controversy over Advanced Placement U.S. History in Colorado), and reduced federal intervention in education and greater role for states and local districts in managing public schools (e.g., Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015). In short, there are many strains of conservatism at play among and between reformers in 2019.

Educational conservatives of all stripes, of course, are not allergic to change. They seek stability and many realize that stability can be maintained only when some changes occur. Called “dynamic conservatism,” examples of cooperation between Progressives and conservatives then and now are evident. No Child Left Behind (2002) joined Congressional Republicans and Democrats to pass the first bill in President George W. Bush’s initial term. Introduction of Common Core Curriculum standards across most states (although many educational conservatives believed it had too many federal thumbprints on it) is another instance of achieving a common course of study for all students. Both conservatives and certain Progressives legislators and donors  have joined forces to expand parental choice (although many current progressives oppose vouchers). “No excuses” schools such as KIPP and Success Academies practice what conservatives have sought in traditional schooling for decades. And Progressive changes in classroom practices, that is, teachers shifting more instruction to small groups and independent work from whole-group teaching and increased use of technologies in classroom lessons, conservatives have embraced.

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.





Filed under Reforming schools

12 responses to “Schools as Conservative Institutions

  1. kesheck

    Okay, but E.D. Hirsch is conservative because he recognizes the importance of knowledge? To me, that’s just a sign of how confused most “progressives” are about education and how the human mind really works.

    • larrycuban

      Hirsch’s work had been embraced by William Bennett, U.S. Education Secretary in the elder Bush administration and characterized as conservative by contemporary progressive reformers. Also because he has attacked those reformers for ignoring, in his opinion, the importance of content knowledge in schooling, he and followers have seen themselves as conservatives. That his work has been used as one basis for Common Core curricula today must bring a smile to Hirsch’s face.Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Adam, for the list of other books I may have cited. I have used Herb Kleibard’s work and have read Cameron Scribner’s book. Should have mentioned it. Have not yet read Classroom Wars and will do so.

  3. David F

    Hi Larry—thanks for this. I attended a session at the last AHA convention on the history of conservatism and the general consensus of the panelists was that there is no such thing as “conservatism” as an ideological monolith. There have been consistent elements (the protection of private property, adopting generally pro-business policies, supporting individual rights (esp in the marketplace)) but in other areas not so much.

    I’d argue that “conservatives” in education swing from the privatizers who want to blow up public education for “market-based solutions” (ie school choice) to libertarians who want to push personalized learning (often with ed tech). Then there are those business conservatives pushing for more workplace ready skills who often get in bed with progressive reformers seeking to push generic skills-based competencies, while social conservatives see schools as a means to promote their own religious/cultural issues.

    For Hirsch, I think he’s more liberal than one might expect…Dan Willingham did a nice job parsing this in March:

    • larrycuban

      I appreciate your point, David, that there are all stripes of conservatives today (as in the past as well). Conservatism has never been one thing but a variety of positions as you describe in your comment. Thanks.

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