Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Self-Delusion of Conservatives and Classical Education

Conservatives love so-called "classical education." They constantly rail against the teaching of "politically correct" history. They don't want the inclusion of black or women writers into the canon. They believe post-modernism is the devil (never mind that the Bush presidency basically operated on post-modern principles of constructing truth). They think that higher education as presently constructed seeks to destroy conservative values and brain-wash young people with liberal doctrine.

Their solution is often to stress the classics. Sandy Levinson points us to this interesting op-ed about the Texas State Board of Education endorsing classical European thinkers as proper for our students to learn about, as opposed to, say, Cesar Chavez.

Of course, the Texas BOE members have never read Voltaire or Rousseau or Aquinas themselves. But they are convinced about the benefits of a classical education for creating young conservatives.

But is there any evidence for this? I'd say it's rather the opposite. For instance, conservatives love St. John's College, alma mater of Lyrad and many of our commenters. When I went to Lyrad's graduation, the conservative columnist John Leo was the commencement speaker and he droned on about the values of a classical education. For Leo, St. John's was a tool in the culture war. But knowing Lyrad and his friends as I do, I wouldn't exactly say that they became conservatives.

Perhaps they will care to speak about this more.

Now, the St. John's College style of education certainly is racist, sexist, and Euro-centric. There's no question that in that superficial sense it serves the larger political goals of conservatives. And I think that's a huge problem with that style of education. However, actually reading Rousseau and Aquinas doesn't seem to lead to the results that conservatives think.