The Four Schools of Conservative Thought on Education

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is part of a longer essay published by The Heritage Foundation on the conservative policy response to COVID for higher education. The full essay can be found at The Heritage Foundation website.


The key to finding policies that can garner widespread conservative support lies in understanding the four schools of thought through which conservatives approach higher education policy reform. It is useful to keep in mind that this classification scheme is intended for conservative arguments, as opposed to individuals, because few individuals fall entirely within one school of thought.

Free Marketeers

This group believes that markets almost always work better than government control and that government should therefore be smaller and less intrusive in most areas of life, including higher education. This group argues that government taxation and funding skews incentives and the optimal allocation of resources, both from the distortionary taxes imposed to raise money and from special interest influence and political favoritism when the government spends money. They also worry that government control leads to the politicization of education. For this group, the less government involvement and interference in higher education, the better.

Chesterton’s Fence Brigade

The second school of thought is named after G. K. Chesterton’s famous quote:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” ~ G. K. Chesterton, “The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic,” 1929.

These conservatives view rapid change as dangerous because modern society is the result of hard-to-build, complex, and interdependent institutions. Thus, they argue, wanton dismantling would likely have severe unintended consequences that could not be easily or quickly reversed. As former House Speaker Sam Rayburn reportedly once said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” While this group may have objections to some aspects of higher education, they oppose radical change and instead gravitate toward incremental and gradual reforms.

Education Is Special

This group believes that markets generally work better than government control but will support government intervention when they believe there is either a market imperfection or a strong moral case. Education, they argue, has both. Education and research may have spillover effects that benefit the rest of society above and beyond the benefits that accrue to the students or researchers themselves. Economists call these spillovers “positive externalities” and note that markets tend to underproduce such goods and services. This underproduction can be remedied with subsidies, so these conservatives argue that positive externalities justify government subsidization of higher education. Another contingent of this group argues that education is so crucial in generating opportunities throughout life that it would be immoral to allow children from lower-income families to remain undereducated due to their inability to pay for college. For these conservatives, government funding for students, in general—and students from lower-income households, in particular—is justified in the name of increasing equality of opportunity and social mobility.

Ideological Siege Defenders

This group does not have uniform views on the scale of government involvement in education. However, they strongly object when they believe educational institutions are being used by progressives as re-education camps that aim to indoctrinate rather than educate the next generation. They look at higher education and conclude that it is being used as a weapon to wage ideological war on conservatives. For this group, either conservatives need to be reestablished within the higher education ecosystem to restore ideological balance, or failing that, the conservative movement should abandon existing higher education and build alternatives that are not so overtly hostile to conservatives.

To read the rest of this piece, visit The Heritage Foundation website.


Image: engin akyurt, Public Domain

Andrew Gillen

Andrew Gillen

Andrew Gillen is a Senior Policy Analyst at The Texas Public Policy Foundation.

One thought on “The Four Schools of Conservative Thought on Education”

  1. I would argue that all of this is actually on an underlying fifth axis — the quiet battle between pedagogy and psychology, between the traditional educators and the licensed psychologists.

    At its most basic is a philosophical difference between those who believe that education involves the nurturing of the intellect versus those who believe that children can be trained to run through a maze, much like lab rats in a cage.

    Like the proverbial camel, the psychologists first got their noses under the tent a century ago with standardized tests and introducing the field of psychometrics into education. That itself wasn’t inherently bad as long as they publicly released their instruments (exams) for public inspection afterwards — which for decades they did.

    About 50 years ago, when the mandate that “Special Education” (SPED) students be “mainstreamed” into regular classrooms, we let them attempt to teach the SPED students because we didn’t know how to — and I’m not sure that they do either, particularly when you look at the amount of money they’re spending in their attempts. (Most people don’t realize the percentage of the school budget being spent on the relatively few SPED students, but I digress.)

    Bill Gates became interested in education about 15 years ago, and while accounts vary, starting in 2009 he spent somewhere between $400 million and $2 billion to leverage of some $4 trillion in taxpayer funds — and ram “Common Core” down our throats. For more on that, see: https://thefederalist.com/2017/10/25/bill-gates-tacitly-admits-common-core-experiment-failure/

    The two things to understand about “Common Corpse” (aka “Common Core”) — beyond the fact that it is an unmitigated disaster — is that it (a) came from the Psychologists and (b) they operate behind a wall of secrecy. Only a licensed Psychologist (or grad student in an APA-approved program) is permitted to see their research and hence only they can evaluate their programs.

    This extended to the infamous PARCC exam where students were not permitted to know which questions they had gotten wrong — nor parents to even know what questions their students had been asked. While standardized tests before this, ranging from the SAT & LSAT to Massachusetts’ MCAS, had always been released after they were administered, the PARCC was to remain forever secret.

    It got worse — it was alleged that some of the questions had more than one correct answer. That’s easy enough to do, and the check against it is to publicly release the exam (and your “correct” answers) afterwards — and as a classroom teacher, I’ve had to give full credit for an answer that I intended to be wrong, but really wasn’t. On the larger scale, releasing the exams (and giving persons such as myself a chance to review them) gives them credibility.

    Even worse than this were the allegations of political bias and if the things I heard are true, those exams would not have withstood the light of public scrutiny. The same is true of a lot of the Common Core curriculum, particularly the “Social & Behavioral Learning” — and “Zoom School” is exposing parents to their children’s curriculum. My guess is that not all are impressed…

    It will be interesting to see how this shakes out — a lot of this has been done outside of the democratic process by unelected bureaucrats permitting behavioral and cognitive training to increasingly replace pedagogy — without the parents even knowing about it. Parents do have access to their state’s legislature, and that could well be the end run around the Psychologists.

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