Ep. 255: Big Ideas – “A Tale of Two Educational Traditions” with Rita Koganzon

June 15, 2021

Rita Koganzon—associate director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy and assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia—joins us to discuss her recent essay, “A Tale of Two Educational Traditions.” We discuss the Republican and Liberal traditions, alternatives to state run education and more.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick director of policy at EdChoice. And this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m delighted to be joined once again by Dr. Rita Koganzon an associate director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy and assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia. She is also the author of an essay in the spring 2021 edition of National Affairs titled, “A Tale of Two Educational Traditions,” which is the subject of today’s discussion. Rita, welcome back to the podcast.

Rita Koganzon: Thanks for having me back.

Jason Bedrick: This is a very interesting essay. You’re looking essentially at some of the arguments that have been made in recent years, pushing for essentially more state control over education. And that is essentially trying to delegitimize outliers or groups that are trying to provide alternatives to state run education. Whether it’s private schooling or homeschooling. I’m thinking of, you mentioned in your essay, Elizabeth Bartholet from Harvard who had this essay recently calling for a presumptive ban on homeschooling. You mentioned Shawn Peters and James Dwyer.

Jason Bedrick: They have a book out Homeschooling: The History and Philosophy of a Controversial Practice, where they essentially argue that the American tradition from the colonial era is that the state has primacy when it comes to child rearing, not parents. And so let’s get into that. Does this idea actually have roots? It sounds in some sense, I think to a lot of people today that does not sound very American. On the other hand, you have a lot of people saying, no, no, no public education is the cornerstone of democracy. This is the primary American intellectual tradition when it comes to education. Do they have a leg to stand on here?

Rita Koganzon: Well, they do. I think that in the case of Peters and Dwyer they vastly overstate the case that they’re making and they draw on really some questionable sources to support it. But I think that if they were to look elsewhere, I think that they would find that there is what I call the republican tradition in American education, which is not Republican in the sense of being related through a Republican party. But republican in the sense of being centered around institutions.

Rita Koganzon: And that when you look back at the founding era and the constitutional ratification era, especially, you get a lot of these educational treatises written by really important people. I mean, we’re talking about like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, people like that, arguing for the creation of at least state-based if not even national public schooling. And that was a real consensus position at the time in the 1780s and 1790s, there are very few people arguing for anything other than state run schooling and state funded schooling.

Jason Bedrick: It’s a consensus of position to an extent among the founding father elites, but by and large, they didn’t actually make that practice in the States at least yet. Right?

Rita Koganzon: Right. We didn’t have the state capacity to do that in the 18th century. And they weren’t arguing to make it compulsory or anything like that. They just thought we need to have a system of public schools available in order to create republican citizens for this new republic. We need to be able to have people develop the kind of camaraderie and social ties that are going to be necessary, especially across the divisions of the time, which were largely sectarian divisions. And we need to get them to be literate and able to earn a living and be economically independent, which is another really important tenant of American republicanism. They had to be available.

Jason Bedrick: You still hear this argument today, right? You said it was mostly bridging a sectarian divided at the time. But the idea that when people say that public schools are the cornerstone of democracy, it’s usually followed up by a statement like this is where people of different colors and creeds and backgrounds all come together to learn together and learn how to cooperate together in a pluralistic diverse society. Right?

Rita Koganzon: Right. Yeah. I mean, that certainly has antecedents, even as far back as the 1780s and 1790s. Though, at the time, it was more like the Baptists and the Unitarians, but similar reference.

Jason Bedrick: Right. And so you said they wanted to impart basic knowledge and also vocational skills. You quote Benjamin Rush saying that the purpose of these schools is to, “convert men into republican machines.” And by that you mean people who are politically competent, which is necessary for self-government and also economically independent. And that this was the key to maintaining a free society. You needed an educated populace as a bulwark against tyranny. So really it was about freedom. Right?

Rita Koganzon: Right. Yeah.

Jason Bedrick: And yet you point to what you call the liberal anti-institutional tradition that has and in many cases similar aims. Their main goal was also freedom, but very different means to achieve those ends. What was the liberal tradition? Again, should not be confused with liberals today. We’re not talking about Democrats and Republicans here. We’re talking about two different intellectual traditions that cut across today’s party lines. Go ahead.

Rita Koganzon: Right. The liberal tradition here, I’m thinking of more as a individualistic position versus the republican position, which is more institutional. And the liberal position originates in educational thinkers of the 17th and 18th century, mostly in Europe, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith who start writing the things that are quite skeptical of schools when they write about education and their concern with schools is that schools are kind of conformism factories. And that if you’re concerned with the liberty of the mind or liberty of thought, freedom of thought, then there’s a great danger in putting children into institutions that are overrun with other children. Because children tend to be very tyrannical to one another and tend to demand a degree of conformity, especially intellectual conformity that would then deform the mind and prevent the children as adults from being able to think for themselves.

Rita Koganzon: And so Locke writes that schools have some advantages, but ultimately they’re not worth it. You should hire a tutor or teach your child yourself at home. And Rousseau and Emile give a similar model, both for a Emile and Sophie at home, certainly not sending them to any institutional schooling. And then you see this in Smith, it’s a little bit more truncated by that point. He accepts local day schooling, but it’s very suspicious of sending your child to a boarding school where they’ll be too far away from the influence of the family. And that influence will be watered down. And then in The Wealth of Nations, he argues for institutional schooling for the poor, charity schools. But the rich, he says, have it already taken care of with their tutors and we don’t need to worry about them.

Rita Koganzon: And so that tradition comes over to America, but in a really modified way, because that concern is still there. That if we put children together in schools, they’re going to tyrannize one another. They’re going to force each other to conform totally arbitrary things. And they’re going to eclipse or even prevent individual thinking from occurring. But we don’t have the means to do the individual tutor at home on your country estate, that Locke and Rousseau and Smith are describing because we don’t have an aristocracy.

Jason Bedrick: Before we get into the, what we actually did. I want to dwell for a moment on Smith because you have this great quote from The Wealth of Nations, which really echoes in a lot of the debates over schooling today, where Smith says, “Those parts of education, it is to be observed for the teaching of which there are no public institutions are generally the best taught.” In other words, he’s arguing that when parents aren’t directly paying the salary of the teachers and at some other government entity that is doing it, that it attenuates the relationship between the parents and the teachers and it diminishes the incentive to perform well. And the accountability is now no longer directly on the parents. It’s now to some other body. And so that when he looks around and he sees parents hiring tutors, he sees relatively high quality education. And when he sees a government body running a school, he sees that the quality is greatly diminished.

Jason Bedrick: And there’s actually a lot of research on this. We had James Tooley on the podcast recently when he was going around the world, looking at private schools in the poorest areas. Areas where people were living on just a few dollars a day, and yet they’re paying for private education. Why? Because they know that the teacher is going to do a good job if they’re paying. But if they send them to the local public school, which is free, even though they’ve got pennies, they know that the teacher is not going to do a good job. There is an argument to be made there, but you say that in the American context, it was not as practical as the European context to actually have everybody either homeschooling or hiring a tutor directly. Why?

Rita Koganzon: Yeah. I think the example of this and really the person who synthesizes the American liberal approach to education is Franklin. And he exemplifies this problem, which is that there are 17 children in his family and his father is a candle maker. There is no possibility that he is going to have a private tutor or that his father is going to have any time to be teaching him himself. And so he does get sent to school for a year to a formal school for another year to sort of secretarial school. But his father can’t afford anything else. And so he gets pulled out after two years and apprenticed to his brother. And that’s sort of the American situation, which is that we don’t have an aristocracy. We don’t even have very many people wealthy enough not to have to work. And as a result, children need institutional education. They need some other way of getting the education because parents can’t provide it, because in the middle, I mean, this is Tocqueville’s view this isn’t all middle-class society. But an all middle-class society means a society where everyone works.

Jason Bedrick: Right, so in other words, if you have an aristocracy, you can actually have the liberal tradition because the aristocrats don’t have to work, they can afford to spend their time educating their children themselves, or they can afford to hire tutors. But in America, because the vast, I mean, some parents still do that today, they find ways of making it happen. But for a lot of families, economic pressures mean that’s not an option. Doesn’t that mean that the republicans win on this, that we need institutions, that the only way to have a free society with an educated populace is with institutionalism?

Rita Koganzon: Yeah. I mean, they win in a way. Franklin shows how they win, which is that he himself ends up supporting public schooling. He donates a lot of money to schools, he ends up setting up the grammar school that’s attached to the University of Pennsylvania. But if you read his autobiography, the most significant factors that he doesn’t go to school, he’s self-educated. And all he’s teaching you in the autobiography on every page is how to do what he did yourself. How to educate yourself without the help of an institution. And so there’s an obvious tension there. Here’s a guy who at least publicly isn’t saying anything about supporting schools, but is actually doing it. And he describes that he did it in the autobiography, but is giving an actual education to the reader in how to evade or replace, substitute for the education of institutions.

Rita Koganzon: And so that becomes, I think the liberal position in America, which is that we accept schools, we accept the need for schools. And it becomes clear in the autobiography why. Which is you see it through Franklin’s friends, Franklin is enormously successful at educating himself. And he doesn’t say, well, it’s because I’m a genius. But in a sense, that is kind of why. But he has these other friends who are equally intelligent, he claims in the autobiography, who just destroy themselves. Who are in the same position as him. Their families are not looking out after them. They’re very independent in Boston and in Philadelphia. And they turn to the temptations that cities offer independent young men, which is drink, gambling, things like that. And their lives are sort of ruined by it. And so you see in the autobiography, why institutions could be helpful.

Rita Koganzon: Because in a sense, they just are a holding pen for boys who would otherwise, if they’re just like left to roam cities are going to destroy their lives. But real education doesn’t happen at the school. It happens for Franklin, with his friends, outside of any institution. It doesn’t happen in a garret somewhere either. That’s also not the American version. The American version is outside of school with your friends. And he starts literary and debating society. The Junto when he’s in Philadelphia and he calls it the greatest school of morals in the province. It’s not a real school, it’s a club. He sees that as the solution. We want actually to encourage schools because the economic situation of the colonies and then subsequently the new republic is such that we don’t have any other way of educating children reliably. But we are not going to allow schools to be the totality of education in the United States.

Rita Koganzon: And we’re going to have these kinds of counter pressures against them. What we’re going to do is culturally glorify self-education and time spent with your friends and all the things that take place outside of schooling. That is what I think becomes the liberal tradition in America. Whereas in Europe, it’s really a kind of anti-institutional argument, schools corrupt the intellect. In the United States that’s not an option. Even if school has corrupt the intellect, we need schools. But we can find ways to compensate for that corruption by downplaying the importance of schools in the larger understanding of education.

Jason Bedrick: So, Franklin’s compromises, as you put it, is essentially, it’s not that the republicans win or that the liberal position is abandoned. It’s that the republicanism manifests itself in the actual traditional, formal schooling. But at the same time, the culture pushes against it, glorifies, you cite the Tom Sawyers, the Huck Finns, the education that takes place outside of the school. That’s the way that we blend these two traditions into what you think is actually the real American tradition.

Rita Koganzon: Right. And I think, if you look at the 19th century, you sort of fast forward from Franklin and you look at when the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are being written, it’s actually being written during the period of the common school movement. That’s sort of the next step in the Republican tradition if you think of, well, Jefferson, Webster and Rush are the beginning, and they’re just writing these sort of treatises describing what a good school system would look like, but it’s nowhere near actually being implemented by the mid 19th century. It is, or has managed really setting up a system of public schools in Massachusetts and other States are copying this.

Rita Koganzon: This is actually a period of immense growth in, especially what we today call elementary schooling. And the books that are being written for children at that time are all about how … We’re cutting school and we’re playing out in the woods and everything that we really need to learn about the world we learn from each other, outside of school. And so you can see even in 1860s and the 1870s, when these books are being written, the kind of divergence between what’s happening institutionally and politically with the massive expansion of public schooling. And what’s happening culturally with these children’s books. There’s also, you can think of Little Women as the version for girls. These children’s books that are essentially glorifying the opposite of going to school. That all education really takes place outside of and against school.

Jason Bedrick: And who’s the late 20th century, Tom Sawyer?

Rita Koganzon: Ferris Bueller. Ferris Bueller, who gives you a beautiful picture of what school is like. You go to school because you got to learn to read and even Huck Finn thinks the school that he goes to, he thanks his teacher for teaching him how to read. And that seems to be about it. That’s what the school did for him, it taught him how to read. And beyond that, everything significant that you learn about life and the world and other people is learned outside of and really against school. So, you get this picture of Ferris Bueller’s cutting school, he’s hanging out with his friends and he’s having this amazing adventure while what’s taking place in school is Ben Stein, the history teacher droning about monetary policy during the new deal.

Jason Bedrick: You don’t get much into this into the essay, but I think policy-wise, it’s a little more complicated than even that. There’s obviously the centralizing push toward public schooling. The common schools eventually what we call public schools today. But at the same time you do have this tradition of homeschooling, one that always existed, continued through the 19th century, 20th century into today. Although obviously there was starting, I think around the 60s, 70s, you had this like re-emergence of homeschooling as a movement. And then just in the last year with COVID, I think we’re seeing an emergence, again, more people coming into homeschooling that wouldn’t have considered it before. There was the institution of schooling, but we always have allowed at least at the margins for this pluralism in terms of individualism and liberal tradition of homeschooling, right?

Rita Koganzon: Yeah. And I mean, you see it in Little Women, one of the sisters is being homeschooled because she’s too bashful as the book explains to go to school. I mean, obviously it’s a longstanding tradition, but it is marginal. And I think that what you see in the late 19th century and the early 20th century that almost a centripetal force of centralization. That once you get the common schools, then you get the advocacy for compulsory education. Common schools are optional. You don’t have send your kids to them until States pass compulsory schooling laws, and then they’re required up to a certain age, then the age gets extended upward. And then there is a push in the 19 teens and 20s towards creating a totally centralized nationalized education system that you cannot opt out of.

Rita Koganzon: And there’s a very strange coalition that’s behind that push. I mean, that’s kind of a coalition of progressive’s and nativists, and the KKK basically. Who are involved in trying to, this is obviously an anti-Catholic initiative. We want to prohibit parochial schooling and push everybody into the public schools. And so if you think of that as like the kind of consummation of the republican tradition, which is universal compulsory, no opting out of the public schools. And that is shut down by Pierce v. Society of Sisters. It never goes beyond just there’s compulsory schooling, but you can go to other schools, you don’t have to go to the public schools.

Jason Bedrick: That decision is the one where basically the KKK had persuaded the legislature in Oregon to outlaw private schooling. And I think it was a unanimous decision of the US Supreme Court said, no, the child is not the mere creature of the state. You cannot outlaw private schooling. You don’t have to fund it, but you can’t ban it. That did prevent the republican tradition from going too far. My question is, where do you think we are today? Which is the stronger tradition and what’s their trajectory? Which direction are we going?

Rita Koganzon: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s important to see that it doesn’t make sense to say, which is the stronger tradition, because both traditions always exist simultaneously in sort of different domains. Policymakers, journalists, educators, they’re all republicans, according to my categorization, because they’re invested in institutional schooling. And the people who are the exponent of the liberal tradition are writers, artists, filmmakers. It’s a totally different kind of, it’s a different set of actors really. And they’re both gaining steam at the same time. They’re both popular at the same time. And you can see this, I think really clearly in this idea of like adolescent rebellion, that’s sort of the last stage of the liberal tradition is what happens when there is compulsory public schooling for everybody. And then what does Tom Sawyer mean to anyone anymore? It’s like a nice daydream.

Rita Koganzon: I wish I could be out in the woods, but like ultimately I’m legally bound to be at school. And then you get in the early 20th century, a social scientific intervention from G. Stanley Hall who defines adolescence as rebellion against authority. And so you end up with a social scientific license to hate school because that’s what it means to be a moody teenager. It’s to be opposed to all the authority figures in your life. And the central authority figures are your parents and your teachers. It kind of gives license to this now social scientific license to the liberal tradition and sort of breathes new life into it. It doesn’t really make sense to say, well, which is stronger, because they’re both going on at the same time in different places. The Pierce decision was really significant and that it really stopped in its tracks, the continued centralization of education in the United States, which was really going quickly at that point. And created a kind of compromise situation for several decades of just, well, we’re going to have public schools, the high school movement begins.

Rita Koganzon: We’re going to set up high schools, but nobody’s going to be required to do this. And you can set up really, almost any kind of alternative institution. And send your kids to that. And then homeschooling enters the picture legally in the 1970s becomes a legal option in the sense that the States then pass laws saying it is permissible for you to take your child out of school. And we have all these procedures in place for that, and then homeschool your child. I think for a long time there was a kind of compromise, there were a kind of balance where most people, most parents in their own minds would believe both positions. They would say of course the schools are very important. My child’s school is excellent. Everybody believes that about their schools. But at the same time, a little bit of childhood rebellion is also healthy.

Rita Koganzon: And I don’t really trust the teachers, there’s a kind of, you can see this in studies of the opinion of teachers in the United States. We have a pretty low opinion of teachers compared to other industrialized countries in terms of their social status. They’re kind of both things going on at the same time, you respect the public school system, but you’re really suspicious of it. And that’s how I think most parents have felt for most of the 20th century. And right now we’re in a very strange moment because the school is collapsed for a year. And there were lots of people who really want to have faith in the public schools. And I think that faith was actually building in the few years leading up to this. And you had the teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019. There were a lot of public support for the teachers.

Rita Koganzon: And there’s a sense that the private schools increased inequality, exacerbate racial inequality. And so maybe we should be more suspicious of private schools. And the public school is this great melting pot where everybody is equalized. And then it turns out that the public schools really couldn’t maneuver around the pandemic. And it was private schools that reopened in the fall. And a lot of people turn to homeschooling because they were very dissatisfied with this kind of virtual schooling option that was done in a very ad hoc way by many districts. And now we’re in a very strange situation where I think, on the one hand it’s almost a partisan divide.

Rita Koganzon: The Democrats have a lot of faith in the schools and the public schools, especially. And republicans are very suspicious and looking for alternatives. And some of that has to do obviously with changes in the curriculum and the creation of equity-based curricula and things like that. And also just the response of the schools to the pandemic. It’s unusual, I think for this issue to be so divided along partisan lines, because if you look historically, love of institutions and suspicion of institutions kind of go together across partisan lines.

Jason Bedrick: That leads me to a question since you’re raising the idea of private education. Where do private schools fit in, in this model? Because they don’t neatly fit in with the Republican tradition and that they’re not run by the state or financed directly by the state. They are not uniform in any sense of the imagination, but on the other hand, they are institutions. They’re not exactly in the liberal tradition either. These are institutions maybe are private schools in some sense of compromise between these two traditions as well.

Rita Koganzon: Yeah. I think that if you thought about it just at the highest philosophical level. No, and private schools are institutions, they suffer from all the same problems that Locke was concerned with. I mean, he was only thinking of private schools in his own day, as creating this intellectual conformity. But in the American case, it’s decentralization, that becomes really the … I mean, it is one of the kinds of liberal institutionalism. One of these sorts of compromises between the Lockean idea of liberalism, or at least with respect to education and the Republican tradition, which is centralizing, uniformizing and therefore really invested in public education. In the case of the United States, I think initially private schools were not thought of as especially different from public schools. But as the public school system becomes more powerful, more predominant than private schools are a form of the decentralization. But even the governance of public schools in the United States is very bizarre because it’s so decentralized.

Rita Koganzon: And I think that is also one of the vestiges of the liberal tradition that even to the degree that we want to have public schools, which we do, we don’t want them to be centrally controlled and we have resisted central control much more than every other industrialized country in the world basically. And it’s very inefficient. We’d be way better off from the perspective of efficiency, if we just had nationalized education. But we’d be much less liberal from the perspective of the liberal tradition. I think there are elements of our institutional framework that themselves are liberal, that are parts of this compromise between our fear of intellectual conformity and our need for institutions.

Jason Bedrick: I think that’s something that often Americans don’t appreciate is how unique our system is in multiple different directions. But there was like a, I forget his name. I think there was a French education minister who had bragged that at any time of the day, he knows exactly what every single child in the country is learning. And we have never gone in that direction. On the other hand, a lot of countries in the industrialized world have a lot more school choice than the United States in terms of money following the child, even into religious schools. That was the compromise in a whole bunch of different countries. And it wasn’t really so much the compromise here. We have in some sense, less choice than a lot of these other countries, but also more decentralization than a lot of these other countries as well.

Rita Koganzon: Yeah. I mean, we have more control. I guess, would be the way to put it. We have less choice in the sense that the government won’t pay for our parochial schooling as it does in Britain, for example. But if you’re paying for the parochial schooling, you control the parochial school that you’re paying for to a much greater degree than any Britain does in England.

Jason Bedrick: As policymakers are weighing these options that are ahead of them, trying to figure out how to redesign the education system in the post COVID world, or get us back to the system that we had before COVID. What can they learn from Franklin’s compromised and these two traditions?

Rita Koganzon: Yeah, I think the main policy lesson from the liberal tradition is the defensive decentralization and the cultivation of children’s lives outside of school or at least the creation of space for that, because that too has been threatened in the last several decades. Because of various factors, fears about safety, the lack of time that people have, their parents’ work schedules and things like that have made it more difficult for children to have robust socialize outside of school that are just uncontrolled by adults or unstructured by adults. And that’s a hard policy issue to deal with because it involves a lot of intervention in private life. But decentralization is a lot easier to deal with, which is that you just don’t push for more centralization and pluralism of the sort of educational landscapes.

Rita Koganzon: So, not just decentralization of the public schools, but the allowance of all kinds of educational alternatives to appear on the education landscape. Obviously the protection of homeschooling, but also just the encouragement of parents to educate their children in new or experimental ways. And I think we actually are going to see a lot of that. I mean, the law already permits it. And United States education law is among the most liberal in the world when it comes to deciding how you want to educate your children. I mean, there is a problem being able to pay for certain kinds of decisions, but in terms of what you’re permitted to do, you’re permitted to do a great deal. And I think that we’re going to see in the coming years, these conflicts over curriculum and the politics of curricula are going to create new coalitions among parents that are going to result, I think in the founding of new institutions that are going to be outside of what we have today and all of that should be encouraged.

Rita Koganzon: I think the liberal tradition should remind us that one of the goals of education is to try to create space that allows individual intellectual liberty. That it’s not just about teaching whatever set standards of or curricular standards are imposed on us. That it’s also about at least the goal of education beyond schooling is also about giving kids space to develop their own intellect. And that can’t really be done by institutions necessarily. Part of it is a humility about what institutions are capable of.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Dr. Rita Koganzon, associate director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy and assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia. The title of her essay in national affairs was A Tale of Two Educational Traditions. Rita, thanks again for joining us.

Rita Koganzon: Thank you.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at EdChoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website at edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.