There is a popular talking point among critics of the woke ideology pervading American schools. They argue that schools should “get back to the basics.” Stick to the “facts.” Leave questions of value and morality to parents.
Take, for instance, a recent article by John Halpin of the Liberal Patriot. Halpin rightly notes that school administrators have used students as proxies for their own political battles, while neglecting to teach basic subjects such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.
As Halpin sees it, our top national priority should be that kids emerge from school “well-prepared to be good future workers, scientists, business leaders, public servants, military members, entrepreneurs, and good citizens.”
Or take Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, who recently removed a teachers’ manual that was circulating in the state’s pre-kindergarten schools. The book reportedly claimed the U.S. is a systemically racist country and that “LGBTQIA+ [people] need to hear messages that promote equality, dignity and worth.”
“Woke concepts that have zero to do with a proper education and that are divisive at the core,” Gov. Ivey said, “have no place in Alabama classrooms at any age level, let alone with our youngest learners.” Makes sense. But, she added, “we want our children to be focused on the fundamentals, such as reading and math.”
These comments aren’t outliers. For years, some conservatives have responded to morally toxic content in schools by implying that proper education should be morally neutral. The left has a campaign to “teach the whole child.” These critics counter by saying, “No, teach just a part.”
But education has never been just about “teaching the facts.” Education is about forming a student’s character—about cultivating certain virtues and habits.
“Basic” is a synonym for “fundamental”—as the quote above from Gov. Ivey makes clear. But forming good virtues and character is the basic purpose of education. It is fundamental. Meanwhile, these conservatives seem to use the word “basic” to mean something different, such as “the practical skills needed to get a job.”
Of course, one may grant the point that education must form a child’s character, but argue that that is the job of the family, not the school—that schools should stick to the practical stuff. And certainly parents are the primary caregivers and educators of their children. But children don’t have “fact” and “value” compartments that can be filled separately. Schools must cultivate and reinforce what’s taught at home.
As a critique of the malady afflicting public education, the “back to the basics” talking point is toothless. What is needed is a robust recovery of education in its fullness. We can begin by looking at how American public education started.
The “back to the basics” talking point would have seemed bizarre to the American Founders and authors of our early state constitutions.
For all their differences, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin agreed that a free republic depended upon the virtue of its people, and the virtue-forming role of religion. And they viewed education as a key part of passing on virtues to the next generation of citizens.
George Washington, in his First Annual Message to Congress, observed that “knowledge is the surest basis of public happiness.” Education helps sustain a free society by, among other things, teaching people “to know and to value their own rights” and to “discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last.”
Thomas Jefferson similarly observed that a key part of education is to “teach citizens about their rights and duties, as citizens and as men.”
Early state constitutions and governing documents reflected this view of education as well. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, for instance, included a provision for local schools since “wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 “forever encouraged” schools to promote “religion, morality, and knowledge,” which are “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.”
We could fill pages with such examples from the Founding generation. The point is clear: The Founders and early Americans saw a core part of education as cultivating virtues, morality, and religion—all of which sustain a free and prosperous society.
Early state constitutions made this goal explicit in their provisions for publicly funded schools. None claimed to limit education to “the basics.” Of course, taxpayers would want their money to serve the public good, and that would involve teaching subjects such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. But the Founders also recognized that for schools to promote the general welfare, they would need to form virtuous students.
The Founding generation wasn’t breaking new ground here. They were repeating the classical Western view of education.
As the 20th century French philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote in Education at the Crossroads, the primary aim of education is to shape the human person. A good education should equip the student with “knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues—while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heritage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved.”
The practical side of learning also matters. We want kids to have the basic knowledge and skills to get a job and make a living. But, as Maritain notes, this practical side of education should never trump the primary goal of forming the whole person. Besides, education is most likely to achieve these practical goals when it develops “general human capacities”—that is, when it aims for its primary end.
The Founders, too, knew that it’s not enough to simply fill the mind with data, guided by the “light of science.” Schools must cultivate in students the virtues and habits that sustain a free and lasting republic. Form the student properly, and good outcomes such as productivity and industriousness will follow. Focus only on the “practical skills,” by contrast, and you not only distort education, but will likely achieve weaker results.
The focus on teaching “facts not values” is not conservative at all, but utilitarian. C.S. Lewis, beloved by millions of conservative Christians, skewered this view of education way back in 1943.
In his book The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that the education system of his time focused narrowly on the rational element of man to the exclusion of the spirited element—what Lewis likens to the chest. In this, Lewis relies on the classical understanding of the tripartite division of the soul into a rational element (associated with the head), a spirited element (associated with the chest or heart), and an appetitive element (associated with the stomach).
A popular grammar book in Lewis’s day, which he calls “The Green Book,” reduced statements of value to mere sentiment. The authors, who Lewis calls Gaius and Titius, claim that the statement “this waterfall is sublime” is merely an expression of the speaker’s feelings about the waterfall. Lewis contends that the student who reads this passage will conclude that all statements of value are simply about emotions, and that all such statements are unimportant.
Gaius and Titius may have managed to purge emotion from the minds of young people, but starving a student of proper emotion simply makes him easier prey to the propagandist, Lewis warns. The best guard against false sentiments is to cultivate just sentiments.
As Aristotle thought, the goal of education is to teach students to like and dislike what they ought. Some things, by virtue of what they are, merit a certain response in the beholder—be it praise, blame, awe, or disgust. The role of virtue is to order these affections properly: We learn to love objects in the way and to the degree appropriate. Education should cultivate in the pupil “ordinate affections” and “just sentiments."
Plato offered a similar vision in the Republic. He thought that schools should teach children early on, even before the age of reason, to delight in beauty and reject the ugly. A student so trained will embrace reason when it comes to him. He has been formed in habits and dispositions that incline his soul to know and love the truth.
In reducing all normative judgments about goodness, truth, and beauty to mere sentiment, modern educators create what Lewis calls “men without chests.” Men like Gaius and Titius might think they’re being clever with their narrow focus on reason, observable data, and “just the facts.” But this is not so.
Lewis recognizes that the split between fact and value proves artificial. Saying schools should just teach the “facts” suggests that we can only know what we can observe and measure, rendering values mere sentiments. But as Lewis makes clear, normative judgments—expressions of like and dislike, awe and disgust—also convey something real. To speak of the literary quality of a book, the beauty of a painting, or the justice of an act as a mere feeling and opinion is to offer a truncated vision of education, one that strips the student of his chest.
Lewis saw the contradiction. He wrote these words in a war-torn England when public schools were utilitarian and progressive. Yet his society still demanded those very virtues that issue from the chest. It wanted more dynamism, more creativity, more self-sacrifice. But, Lewis wrote:
In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
It is a bitter irony that some Americans on the right now invoke the very thing Lewis critiqued as the cure to the ideologies that have replaced progressivism—critical theory, gender ideology, and the like.
Solutions that narrowly focus on "the basics,” with the goal of churning out good future workers, distort the primary aim of education: to form the whole person.
Take Social Emotional Learning (SEL). This “holistic” approach now permeates much of public education. Its leaders describe it as “educating the whole child,” and seeks to cultivate soft skills such as self-awareness, mindfulness, honesty, integrity, and self-discipline.
Sounds nice. SEL is not rooted in the classic moral tradition, however, but in the worst ideas of the last two centuries, from Marxism to critical race theory. In teaching students “social awareness,” for instance, SEL trains students to see a world through the lens of systemic oppression, racial and class conflict, and so on.
Still, SEL satisfies something that has gone missing from American education: character development. Calling for “just the facts, ma’am,” as so many critics do, is reductive, not conservative.
In his book The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis concedes that a war or national emergency might demand more “practical training” in education. But no matter how dire the situation, it will never extinguish our desire for meaning. If we suspend seemingly “useless” subjects such as philosophy and literature to meet the demands of the moment, we’ve only replaced a better cultural life with a degraded one.
After all, students have to read something. “If you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones,” Lewis writes. “If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”
Sounds like 2023.
Nature abhors a vacuum, as does the school room. We cannot strip the classroom of a moral frame, nor should we want to. Such an effort leaves a void for vicious or false ideas to fill.
Critics of the current state of public education have two options: recapture it and replace the toxic moral indoctrination with a better alternative, or challenge the public school monopoly with universal education choice, such as universal education savings accounts—where dollars follow students, not systems. We should try to do both, at least in those pockets of the country where this is still possible.
Calling for schools to get “back to the basics,” however, amounts to surrender. Those who offer such half-measures misunderstand the nature of education. There is no such thing as a morally neutral education, in public schools or anywhere else. Let’s stop pretending it can be otherwise.
The author wishes to thank Rachel Alexander Cambre for her contributions to this essay.
This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative