Published October 30, 2020
The campus free-speech crisis, kicked into high gear by the election of President Trump in 2016, has metastasized into the woke revolution of 2020, transforming American attitudes toward education in the process. A decade of educational culture wars running from Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in 1987 through Nathan Glazer’s We Are All Multiculturalists Now in 1997 gave way to roughly two decades of popular conservative apathy toward the schools. Indecipherable postmodern jargon was dismissed in those days as irrelevant. “How can something no-one even understands endanger the republic?” “They’ll settle down once they graduate and start paying taxes,” we were assured. No more.
Now websites chronicling daily campus outrages proliferate. Public esteem for higher education has plummeted. Campus-style accusation, intimidation, cancelation, and disruption have spilled into social media, workplaces, and above all, into our looted, burned-out, and riot-torn city streets. As a domino line of statue-toppling reaches the founders, grown-up campus cry-babies at the New York Times censor senators, defenestrate editors, and mangle American history into a Johnny one-note tale of white supremacy.
The most telling and fundamental difference between our two political parties now turns on the unfalsifiable claim that America is pervaded by “systemic” racism, a modern phlogiston theory once confined to the impenetrably jargon-laden and seemingly irrelevant corridors of the academy. Now, at last, conservatives—and not only they—cry, “the schools messed up! We must save the schools!” Indeed. But how? Is it too late? And how will this election set the task?
The Woke Platform
The answer to the latter question is blindingly obvious. On the one hand, President Trump has determinedly pushed back against “woke” educational trends, the more so as matters have deteriorated. His popular 2019 Executive Order on Campus Free Speech has been followed in 2020 by an Executive Order banning the use of Critical Race Theory, not only in federal training sessions but for federal contractors and grant recipients—very much including colleges and universities. This order has potentially profound implications for higher education that are only beginning to be recognized and explored.
The recent White House Conference on American History introduced a new strategy for restoring American history education that also has only barely begun to be appreciated and understood. The Department of Education’s recent challenge to Princeton University to explain why its confession of “systemic racism” should not disqualify it from eligibility for federal funding was another brilliant stroke. This simple question deftly exposed the emptiness and hypocrisy of the promiscuous racism accusations disfiguring our culture. Although the president has not spelled out a detailed education strategy for his second term, the drift is clear. He will fight at every turn against the depredations of the woke revolution.
In contrast, former Vice President Biden and his running mate Senator Kamala Harris have enthusiastically embraced the woke ideology of systemic racism, have largely adopted Senator Bernie Sanders’s socialist plan to massively expand our education system and direct it from the federal center, and have promised a series of culture-war initiatives from the Left that will further undermine principles such as due process, religious liberty, traditional understandings of family and sexuality, and the right of parents to direct the education and socialization of their children. In short, one side will oppose the woke revolution while the other will defend and advance it. It’s tough to imagine a starker choice, or a more consequential one at this moment of cultural crisis.
That is the bottom line, yet the fuller story is complicated by a critically important fact. Beneath their apparently unanimous opposition to the woke revolution, conservatives are divided, uncertain, and unprepared when it comes to pushing back. The starkest divide is between, on the one hand, the conservative base, which has plenty of enthusiasm but little money, organization, leadership, or planning on education issues, and on the other hand, the most well-funded, policy-savvy, and influential conservative education policy wonks. The gulf between the conservative establishment and the conservative base is nowhere more real, disturbing, or debilitating than in the matter of education.
Unless we understand this divide, and why neither side of it has been able to stop the woke revolution, we will continue to lose the cultural battle under either Biden or Trump. In particular, we need to read Joe Biden’s radically transformative education plans through the lens of the conservative education quandary. What seems like pushback against Biden’s overreach will fail unless we grasp the real meaning of the woke revolution and how Biden is likely to advance it.
Sleeping on the Job
The conservative education establishment is backed up by generous funding from businesses that would rather placate the woke than fight them—businesses that care more about opening up national markets than about protecting federalism and local control. Some funding for the conservative education establishment even comes from downright left-leaning sources like the Gates Foundation and the College Board.
For decades, this conservative education establishment has attempted to forge a center-Right/center-Left coalition for “education reform.” To make that alliance work, conservatives downplayed educational content in culturally critical areas like history and literature, concentrating instead on basic skills like reading and math, with tests keyed to national standards and designed to hold schools and teachers accountable for success or failure.
This bipartisan centrist movement gave birth to the Common Core. Yet as Common Core emerged, our cultural polarization increased. The “bipartisan” K-12 reform coalition increasingly took direction from the Left, which had long since consolidated control through its takeover of university schools of education, and of higher education generally. In consequence, misguided progressive teaching methods led to a decline in reading and math scores, history got short shrift, and such history as was taught sang from the same far-Left hymnal. Instead of leavening this coalition with a powerful alternative perspective, in practice establishment conservatives provided a de facto movement of the Left with political cover.
In short, the bipartisan, business-allied strategy of the conservative education establishment has been a disastrous failure. It gave up the game from the start by sacrificing the critical cultural battle over curriculum content in exchange for limited influence over skills-based standards and testing. In the end, the leftist takeover of higher education doomed even this highly circumscribed ambition.
In the meantime, precious decades were lost that could have been spent fighting back against the Left’s takeover of curriculum content at both the K-12 and university levels. The conservative base went off to fry other fish, abandoning what seemed like a hopeless and in any case unnecessary battle against an academy protected by tenure, massive government subsidies, indecipherable jargon, and apparent irrelevance. The end result was 20 years during which the expanding grip of the cultural Left over both K-12 and higher education received virtually no systematic pushback.
Shrink Higher Ed
What, however, has been driving the woke revolution? The mere absence of conservative pushback does not explain that revolution’s success. The key to the woke revolution is the decline of the traditional family and the local, national, religious, and civilizational communities that families once knit together. In a world of atomized individuals, crusades around our moral bottom lines of opposition to racism and genocide are all that remain of collective meaning and purpose. In an increasingly tolerant society, such threats must be ginned up or invented outright to feed moral fervor. (I’ve explored this phenomenon here, here and here.)
Our education system has contributed to this dynamic not simply by way of its content, but by delaying family formation through ever-more extended years of training. Family formation anchors communities, encourages religious practice, and pushes parents toward conservatism to boot. The massive expansion and extension of post-secondary education since World War II has helped to hollow out the family, and with it, modern culture.
All this means that the only way to reverse the woke revolution is to shrink the higher education sector. Americans need other, less expensive and time-consuming ways to train for rewarding careers. So long as higher education enjoys a de facto monopoly as the entry point to middle-class and upper-middle-class employment, reform will be impossible.
Now that conservatives and others have awakened to the dangers of campus indoctrination, there is an entirely justified impulse to shrink the government subsidies that keep colleges and universities fat and happy. Yet so long as there is no real alternative—such as an apprenticeship system geared toward upper-middle-class as well as blue-collar jobs—attempts to shrink higher ed will fail. Conservative parents will protect their children’s ability to enter the upper-middle class, even as they grouse about course content.
Biden’s higher education plan is the polar opposite of a strategy to shrink the sector. Biden takes it for granted that college is the key to economic advancement and effectively adopts Bernie Sanders’s socialist program for massively expanding public higher education. Although Biden doesn’t say so directly, his proposals will result in ever more Americans spending ever more years not only in undergraduate but in post-graduate training, subject to woke indoctrination all the way.
As more people are drawn in by free undergraduate education—even those less suited to college and more likely to flourish in the private sector—the feds will likely force a leveling of quality by demanding high graduation rates in return for subsidies. Employers will come to doubt the value of degrees, and graduate education will become the preferred way of distinguishing yourself from the crowd. Free undergraduate education also means that more people will be able to afford a post-graduate degree. Biden’s plan thus spells an enlargement and extension of the higher education sector on a par with the GI Bill after World War II or the infusion of the baby boomers in the years of post-war prosperity.
To be sure, it will all be unsustainably expensive and will effectively federalize public universities, likely damaging private institutions in the process. Conservatives may rejoice at the hits to private colleges and will seize on periodic opportunities to enact federal laws or regulations that irritate the politically correct powers that be. Yet this will be the illusion of influence. Since the classroom will still be protected by academic freedom, and since the higher education sector will have been expanded and extended far beyond its current reach, the forces driving the woke revolution will be strengthened, not weakened.
American Enterprise Institute Fellow Jason Delisle is the foremost conservative critic of the Biden-Sanders free college plan, and his approach reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the conservative education establishment. Delisle cannily shows that the Biden-Sanders plan represents a vast and unnecessary government expense, sure to increase federal meddling and likely to undercut its own intent. While the cost of college has rapidly expanded, Delisle establishes that most students from families with incomes under $125,000 a year already receive sufficient relief from various government and private programs that college for them is surprisingly affordable. Yet these are the students who would attend college for free under the Biden-Sanders plan.
Delisle goes on to show that, like all socialist plans, free college leads to rationing, often resulting in the admission of fewer rather than more low-income students. He cites England, which abandoned free college in the late 1990s after rationing prompted an increase in admissions standards. Once English colleges resumed charging tuition, access for students from less affluent backgrounds actually increased. Delisle suggests that policymakers consider as an alternative to the Biden-Sanders plan an increase in tax credits to the levels originally proposed by the Obama-Biden administration, yet never fully adopted by Congress.
There are problems with Delisle’s critique. The English retreat from free college came decades ago at a time when universities there were relatively immune to political correctness. In the current environment, disparities in college admissions under a free college program are sure to bring calls for a relaxation rather than a tightening of admissions standards, likely accompanied by charges of “systemic racism.” The feds will have the power to enforce a lowering of standards by then. And how will the federal government pay for an expanded higher ed sector? Sanders is betting that an ever-more-woke electorate will bow to the required tax increases once the decisive battle comes.
In any case, Sanders’s ability to move the Overton window in the direction of free college means that conservative education policy experts now float proposals that even a Democratic Congress in the first year of the Obama-Biden administration found far too expensive to approve. The larger cultural issue is lost amidst arguments about relative cost, regulatory burdens, and unintended consequences. The important point is that whether higher education vastly expands under a socialist free college scheme, or rebounds to about where it is now once that scheme implodes, nothing in the culture will have improved.
The only way to combat the woke revolution is to actively shrink an already bloated higher education sector. And the only practical way to do that is to build up a competing, quicker and cheaper apprenticeship sector that serves the upper-middle class as well as blue-collar workers. Unless conservatives grasp this point, even a successful battle against a socialist free college scheme will do little to reverse our cultural decline.
The absence of campaign debate over the Biden-Sanders free-college plan holds another lesson for conservatives. Consider this stunning bit of sleuthing from Rob Berger. Berger shows that Biden wiped the estimated cost of his college plan off his website shortly after adopting the gist of Sanders’s free-college stance. Instead of posting a new estimate based on Sanders’s calculation of his own program’s cost, Biden has refused to put a price on his proposal.
Berger suggests a possible reason: Sanders’s estimates are wildly off. The real cost of Biden’s free college plan is vastly greater than either he or Sanders is willing to admit. Sanders’s plan to pay for even his low-balled free-college cost-estimates already included heavy taxes on the middle class. So an honest account of Biden’s free-college plan would force him to admit that he is going to raise middle-class taxes in a major way—precisely what Biden says he will never do.
Obviously, this deserves to be a campaign issue. Yet we have heard nothing of it so far. Nor have Delisle’s important arguments gotten much play. The reason is likely that Republicans are afraid to attack Biden’s promise of free college. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that promise polls relatively well even among Republicans, especially among voters young enough to take advantage of it.
Conservatives convinced that the higher ed sector must be cut down to size would do well to keep this in mind. Cruising the web for the latest viral story on campus indoctrination can be misleading. Yes, there is a real opportunity now to shrink state and federal support for higher education. Yet it cannot be done without nurturing a competing apprenticeship sector that creates a faster, cheaper route to high-quality employment.
No Parent Left Alone
For the rest, Biden’s higher education proposals are sure to set off a series of culture war battles. Biden promises to restore Obama-era guidance on Title IX, stripping male students of their due process rights and subjecting them to expulsion after hearings before campus kangaroo courts. If Democrats manage to pass the Equality Act, transgender students will win dorm assignments and compete in college sports based on their chosen gender identity rather than their biological sex. Privacy and basic fairness for female students will be a thing of the past. Faith-based institutions will be thrown back on the courts for protection. That protection will surely fail should Democrats pack the Court.
Biden’s college loan forgiveness plan is an affront to his own progressive principles. Under Biden, the majority of Americans who are without a college degree end up subsidizing college-educated borrowers. Yet those who are subsidized will ultimately enjoy higher incomes than the blue-collar folks doing the subsidizing. When you consider that college-educated voters tend to support Democrats, this bit of Robin Hood in reverse makes perfect sense.
Better still, borrowers who go to work for non-profits dedicated to “community service” will get tens of thousands of dollars in additional loan forgiveness. This fulfills the Obama administration’s long-held goal of stocking leftist “community organizations” with college graduates paying off their loans. This is yet another way in which the Biden higher education plan serves to lock in the woke revolution.
On K-12, I’m at least as concerned about what Biden doesn’t say as about what he openly promises. Remember, the Obama-Biden administration imposed Common Core on the country via a Rube Goldberg mechanism designed to circumvent the prohibition on federal curriculum controls. That mechanism was powered by money tucked away in the stimulus package and passed without debate. Obama hadn’t run on Common Core, and there was no national consensus in favor of it. Instead this ill-conceived experiment was imposed by stealth with the help of massive funding from the Gates Foundation, various businesses, and an education bureaucracy decidedly at odds with parents and voters.
There is every indication that this process is about to repeat itself under a Biden administration—this time in the culturally critical area of history and civics standards. The effort to create a civics version of the Common Core will be made by the “bipartisan education reform movement,” regardless of who wins in 2020. Before turning to that, however, let’s have a look at Biden’s public K-12 promises.
Biden pledges to massively expand the education system, not only on the post-secondary level but early on through universal pre-K as well. Universal pre-K has been a Democratic rallying cry from Obama, through Hillary, to Biden. Conservative critics point to studies showing no significant positive effects of preschool on children’s long-term outcomes. Many liberal scholars agree. Older studies that seemed to have established a relationship between preschool and positive childhood outcomes turn out to have relied upon a specious correlation. The real cause of childhood success was caring parents, who were more likely to send their children to preschool than parents who were less involved. Control for that parental variable, and preschool turns out to provide no significant boost to educational or psychological outcomes.
Why, then, would Biden commit the country to a massive and hugely expensive expansion of pre-K, thereby distorting the market and driving out private providers who offer parents genuine choice? The generous interpretation is that Democrats are motivated by a desire to compensate for disrupted parenting in communities beset by family decline, evidence against the effectiveness of pre-K notwithstanding. The cynical interpretation is that Biden wants to expand the membership of teachers’ unions, enlarging the Democrats’ political arm with a vast legion of employees newly dependent on federal largess. But who wants to be cynical?
True, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force emphasizes the importance of unionizing the many early childhood educators newly minted by the Biden plan. And in addition to a massive army of pre-K workers, Biden’s pledge to triple federal Title I funding for schools with low-income populations will double the number of school-level psychologists and social workers, all to be trained at schools of education (perhaps the most leftward-leaning province of an already leftist academy). Surely that training will include Critical Race Theory along with the usual progressive panoply.
Again, the generous interpretation is that this infusion of social workers and health professionals will lighten the load of teachers forced to deal with the consequences of poverty and family decline in at-risk communities. The more cynical interpretation is that this multitude of social workers and psychologists will overmedicate their charges, deploy intrusive psychological evaluations prone to mislabel children (the results of which could follow a boisterous 8-year-old for the rest of his life), diminish parents’ control over their children’s socialization, and engage in various forms of leftist indoctrination.
We saw a foreshadowing of this debate in Christopher Lasch’s famous 1992 assault on Hillary Clinton’s academic writings in support of “children’s rights.” Lasch argued that Clinton would actually harm children and parents by intruding clumsy bureaucrats armed with questionable theories into the sphere of the family. With the mass expansion of a fully unionized and “progressively” educated bureaucracy trained to intervene in family life from birth—including frequent home visits—Hillary’s dream will be realized.
The fallacy underlying Biden’s K-12 plan is a large-scale version of the specious correlation featured in those flawed early studies of preschool. Those studies seemed to confirm the positive effects of government intervention, when they were actually measuring the beneficial effects of parenting. Just so, the Left is on a futile quest to supply via government intervention what only families can provide for themselves. Over and above its prohibitive costs and ulterior political motives, Biden’s published K-12 program thus promises to accentuate our cultural decline.
The Real End Game
What about Biden’s unpublished education plan? The disastrous and discredited Common Core stealthily forced on the nation by the Obama-Biden administration now seeks resurrection in the form of a de facto national civics Common Core. The plan is about to be rolled out by the very same bipartisan education reform movement that created Common Core for math and reading. We got a preview of this in 2018, when some of the prime movers behind the current reform civics effort replaced history standards in Massachusetts.
The existing and excellent Massachusetts history standards carefully proceeded from the classical period, through European history, through American history. These were replaced by a “civic engagement” curriculum that highlighted the history of leftist protest movements and effectively encouraged students to engage in progressive activism.
The new civics Common Core promised by the education reform movement is supposed to be a “purple” curriculum, a blend of red and blue. In practice, this means civics classes that pair the Federalist with Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, then encourage students to launch BLM protests outside a police station. National civics standards will be sold to conservatives as a way to restore basic knowledge and unify the country. In reality, the civics version of Common Core will advance the woke revolution, not retard it, and with a sheen of establishment conservative legitimacy to boot.
Biden published his K-12 plan early on, when he needed the support of teachers’ unions to gain the nomination. At that point, he rejected the testing and teacher accountability framework of Common Core and promised a vast expansion of union membership instead. Even so, Biden still listens to advisors who backed Common Core. With or without high-stakes testing, adopting the new “purple” civics Common Core would lend a (false) sheen of “bipartisanship” and “moderation” to Biden’s far-left program, while institutionalizing progressive “action civics.”
The conservative education establishment will soon be making a play for its “purple” civics Common Core, no matter who wins the election. In his recent address at the White House Conference on American History, however, President Trump signaled a better way. He commended an effort to create a quality American history curriculum, untainted by “action civics,” and ready to be voluntarily adopted by states and school districts across the country, rather than imposed by federal pressure. This is the way to work for a restoration of conceptions of American citizenship endangered by the woke revolution. You won’t find the choice between a “purple” civics Common Core and a genuine restoration of American history education in either candidate’s published plans, but it is on the ballot nonetheless.
The Biden education plan’s parade of horribles goes on. He promises to restore the Obama-era prohibition on school discipline that disproportionately affects various racial groups, even when discipline is imposed in an equal and unbiased manner for the very same offense. The effects of such policies on schools have been disastrous. Biden also promises to resurrect Obama-era “desegregation” plans, which are in fact tax redistribution schemes designed to dissolve local control over suburban school districts. The Biden-Sanders Unity Platform also announces plans that would all but drive charter schools from the educational field.
Can Biden pull all—or even most—of this off? If the Democrats take Congress and end the filibuster, he most certainly can. And if the Dems take Congress and don’t end the filibuster, the Left will keep demanding that they do so. The only way to mollify them would be to enact a significant chunk of Biden’s agenda under current rules. Free college and universal pre-K would be easier to pass than the Green New Deal, and would thus likely be the bone tossed to leftists demanding that the Dems produce something. That something will very likely be free college and/or universal pre-K. A Democratic victory thus likely means a significant degree of success for Biden’s stunningly radical education agenda, whether the filibuster goes or not.
If Republicans in that case merely push the Overton window back to the Obama years and accede to a supposedly “purple” civics Common Core that is actually a deep shade of blue, the cultural battle will have been well and truly lost. Even in case of a Trump victory, the conservative education establishment’s civics-married-to-woke-activism strategy will need to be repudiated, and the challenging task of shrinking the higher education sector begun. Otherwise four more years will be but a temporary hiatus in a 50-year tale of civic and cultural decline.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.