Public schools are where young people encounter ways of being and thinking that may directly contradict those they were raised to believe; there really is no way around it. Schools are where future adults receive tools to decide which ideas and practices to embrace and which to reject for themselves. Schooling, done properly, is the opposite of conservatism. So is it any wonder it frequently drives conservatives berserk?
The panics have unfolded like clockwork, in just about every decade of the twentieth and twenty-first century. You can see it in the titles of books and pamphlets going back a hundred years: Hell and the High School (1923); They Want Your Child! (1948); Brainwashing in the High Schools: An Examination of Eleven American History Textbooks (1958); What They Are Doing to Your Children (1964); Is the Schoolhouse the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? (1968). Even the dry bureaucratic version propounded by Ronald Reagan’s most conservative cabinet member, Education Secretary William Bennett, sounded the same high-pitched culture alarms when it declared in a report on school performance that the United States was A Nation at Risk (1983).
Really, the only thing mysterious about this long tradition of backlash is why, every time it has happened in our own lifetimes, does it feel as though liberals are responding like it’s the very first time, with no effective playbook to draw on to fight back? They tend to respond, well, like liberals, with open minds: maybe these conservatives sort of have a point? So perhaps some good-faith negotiations are in order: maybe if we accept certain of their proposed reforms that seem sound, society and its schools will emerge even stronger, and then some of the acrid divisions will abate . . .
To understand the problem with this reasonable-seeming solution, consider a case study from more than forty years ago, with the cultural earthquake of the 1960s still visible in the rearview mirror and the Reagan presidency just over the horizon. It can help us understand how reasonable reform is never the goal of these crusades. Give them an inch, and they will take a mile. Because ultimately, what they’re after is crushing the power of their children—and all of ours—to choose their own life: to, in other words, acquire the ability to become free.