The Awful, Totalitarian Specter of Public Education

The slow but steady abandonment of public education by conservatives gains a little more momentum every day. The idea that the government has no enduring role in K-12 education (beyond providing subsidies for private schools) is dancing in the background of voucher proposals and the conservative wing of the movement to gut Common Core. But it’s very rarely articulated, presumably because The Public School remains an icon, albeit a tarnished one, of American culture.

But coming right out and articulating dangerous premises with the self-confidence of a solipsist is what National Review‘s Kevin Williamson is all about. So naturally he’s penned an article attacking the State of Connecticut for seeking to regulate homeschoolers and quickly pivoted to an assault on “government schools” as some sort of totalitarian novelty.

Now I would presume Williamson is at least dimly aware that this country currently makes more provisions for non-traditional and non-public education than it has since the early part of the last century. Compulsory education laws used to be strictly enforced. Outside areas with significant Catholic populations, virtually everyone attended public schools until the “segregation academies” associated with the backlash to school desegregation popped up overnight in the South. So it’s more than a little weird to be shrieking right now about Big Government “coming for your children” as another example of state socialism taking over American life. If you want to abolish “government schools,” make your case; but don’t pretend they are new and scary; that’s about as credible as claiming Republicans were the Party of Civil Rights in 1964.

But as I am beginning to realize, there’s an M.O. to Williamson’s provocations, other than the satisfaction he presumably gains from his colleagues’ belief that he’s getting under the skins of the liberal enemy. As I suggested recently in commenting on a conference on liberalism at Heritage in which Williamson was a conspicuous participant, positing counter-cultural motives to “government” and/or totalitarian motives to “relativists” is a good way to build bridges between libertarians and the Cultural Right. The former can be led to believe non-state authorities like God, the Church, the patriarchal family, etc., are a bulwark against tyranny, while the latter can indulge their already strong inclination to view government as the Devil’s Anvil for breaking down souls. All it takes is the solvent of exaggeration and hysteria, and next thing your know, the ancient and venerable tradition of American public education is converted to evil people stealing children.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.