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FRONT ROYAL, VA — Dr. Richard Bishirjian serves as president of Yorktown University, an outstanding online graduate school. An advocate of innovative education for years, he recently shed light on a long-standing mystery: why don’t “conservatives” in Congress have more success in fighting the government education monolith?
Bishirjian tells the Rubble that, “in 2006 and later in 2009, when we faced regulatory issues that only Congress could resolve, we found that most members of the Education committees of Congress were left of center on issues most important to us.”
Bishirjian credits Yorktown University trustee and former Congressman Bob Schaffer for the explanation.
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During his time in Congress, Schaffer served on the House Education and Workforce Committee. “The assignment is not ideal for conservative Republicans,” he observed, “because the committee doesn’t attract donor support. Teacher unions reward Democrats who serve on those Education committees, but Republicans are more attracted to supporting Members serving on Defense, Ways and Means, and other committees where their interests are directly affected.”
And where there are more Republican donors, of course.
Rep. Schaffer’s candor pierces the bipartisan fog that usually surrounds discussions of education. It also makes sense historically.
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As president, Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education [DOE] as a reward to the school unions (I hesitate to call them “teachers”), which had become increasingly politicized during the early 1970s.
Then Ronald Reagan disappointed millions of conservatives when he failed to shut down DOE in the 1980s (however, on his first priority, he won – specifically, the Cold War).
Bill Clinton’s support earned him the National Education Association’s “Friend of Education” award. And ten years ago, George W. Bush actually compounded the problem further with No Child Left Behind.
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Rep. Schaffer’s insight applies to a much wider swath of the GOP than membership on a congressional committee. At a meeting of Paul Weyrich’s “Coalitions for America” when “No Child” was introduced, virtually no conservative leader expressed support for the bill.
Yet, the groups they led were focused on other “single issues”; and they thus failed to put up a common front opposing the government education forces.
The Lure of “Free Federal Money”
There are other reasons for the collapse of educational quality and the takeover of government schools by the Left. One of them has received relatively little attention: the Catholic bishops and Catholic colleges and universities.
These leaders might have been at the forefront of defense of independent quality education across the board, had they not begun seeking government funding themselves.
In 1967, leaders from Notre Dame and other (but not all) Catholic universities signed the “Land O’Lakes” document, a declaration of independence from the church and its authority in the name of “academic freedom.”
Years later, Father Ted Hesburgh, longtime president of Notre Dame, was more candid in his memoirs. Briefly put, “we needed the money.”
That money came from LBJ’s Great Society, which offered to fund just about anything – as long as the money introduced government control into the institution.
Not surprisingly, once the money started flowing, the school unions hitched their wagon to the feds. And so did the Catholic bishops.
Ironically – perhaps even tragically – the growing reliance of formerly independent Catholic schools and charities on such funding weakened the resolve of the bishops to combat the increasingly anti-Catholic hostility of federal agencies.
Instead, in Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s phrase, they wanted to become government’s “cheerleaders.”
The impact on education was profound: while Catholic colleges and universities renounced the Vatican’s influence on their operations, they were more than willing to conform to every line item detail demanded by federal bureaucracies handing our grants and contracts.
Bigots And Their Discontents
It’s tragic because leaders of Catholic institutions of higher learning could easily have learned from their own professors how rife with anti-Catholic bigotry the government school tradition in America actually was.
For example, in the 1860s, John Swett, an anti-Catholic activist, declared that “children belong to the state,” not to their family.
John Swett was California State Superintendent of Public Instruction after the Civil War. A Unitarian, he had only contempt for Catholics and families – especially parents – so he opposed local control of schools.
“The vulgar impression that parents have a legal right to dictate to teachers is entirely erroneous,” Swett complained. Parents should have no right to review the performance of teachers in their community, nor should parents intrude in the education of their children. “[T]he child should be taught to consider his instructor, in many respects, superior to the parents in point of authority,” he insisted.
And who’s going to teach him that? Certainly not his parents.
Today, California’s largest school union hails Swett as its founder. Given his principles, it is no surprise that the union’s educational track record is one of the worst in the United States.
As school union power rose in Washington, Swett’s anti-Catholic sentiment became translated into public policy, even as educational quality declined.
California is not alone. High-school graduates nationwide are increasingly, and often woefully, unprepared for rigorous college work, no matter how good they feel about themselves.
According to the ACT testing service, “eighty-nine percent of high-school instructors described the students who had completed their courses as ‘well’ or ‘very well’ prepared for first-year, college-level work in their discipline.”
Unfortunately, however, “only about one-quarter of college faculty members said the same thing about their incoming students.”
As Congressman Schaffer observes, there is no one on the congressional education oversight committees – or anywhere else in Washington — to advocate for the student. Instead, the union-backed members smile as education increasingly resembles a parody of radical banality.
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, reports that “the campus Left has found in the conceit of teaching students to be ‘citizens of the world’ a new way of fostering a soft disdain for the American civic tradition.”
Mr. Wood helpfully sifts through this feel-good chaff. “That disdain is now disguised as magnanimity,” he writes. “Students are enticed to feel open-hearted, broad-minded, and gently virtuous.”
Bishops To The Rescue?
Even though they are faced by a government onslaught threatening Catholic institutions and families, America’s Catholic bishops seem helpless to counter this trend.
For one thing, they are busy sending lobbyists to Congress advocating both funding for their operations (they receive several billion dollars a year in taxpayer funding) and adoption of their welfare-state agenda.
Secondly, they often agree with the Left’s criticism of American life and culture as well.
The disdain of Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles for the virtues that Tocqueville found central to America’s unique blend of liberty and democracy is hardly “soft.” He celebrates a “Next America” that will leave American individualism, the rule of law, and self-reliance in the dustbin of history.
For the future, Gomez advocates a strong infusion of “Hispanic” values to supplant the American tradition. It is thus no surprise that he leads the Catholic Left in its campaign for amnesty for illegal aliens.
Archbishop Gomez avoids discussion of amnesty on its merits, implying instead that its opponents are immoral, while its supporters are virtuous.
Wood zeroes in on this focus on feeling and its companion rejection of thoughtful reflection as a central ingredient of American intellectual and educational decline.
His analysis resonates what Hannah Arendt observed long ago: “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”
It would be tragic indeed if the Catholic Church in America were to join in on this downward spiral.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.