From Socialist Teacher to Conservative Professor

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Geographically, I have not traveled far as an educator. The university where I now serve as professor of education administration is in the same town where I began my career as a social studies teacher at a nearby middle school 24 years ago. I live just 25 miles from where I grew up, the son of an elementary school teacher who never anticipated his own career as an educator. I entered the profession as a socialist teacher and now work as a conservative professor, a rare breed. It was my time in public schools that instigated this change.

At a time when teachers unions and other voices pretend that educators are monolithic in their supposedly progressive political views, it is more important than ever to tell our personal stories of dissent against the myth that teachers all share common views of school choice, pension reform, accountability, or even the purpose of education itself.

With my factory worker father’s labor-focused life experience and my schoolteacher mother’s Civil Rights era progressivism, I inherited a ferocious left-leaning view of the world. In high school, I discovered a strain of socialism that pretended to be “democratic” and was soon a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. At that time, few knew who Burlington mayor turned congressman Bernie Sanders was; I did. I was reading Dissent, Mother Jones, and In These Times and writing screeds that I tried to pare down as op-eds for the college newspaper.

After a year of graduate school, I wanted a way to be more “in the trenches” serving “the people” while also devoting time to writing and activism, and that’s when I first considered becoming a teacher. A few semesters later I had turned a minor in history into a certificate and was teaching middle school.

A few factors influenced my turn from socialism. A well-read libertarian friend started poking holes in my socialist worldview and I picked up copies of Reason and Liberty magazine. The charismatic and well-spoken Harry Browne was the Libertarian Party candidate for president that year and he deeply impressed me. 

However, the most important factor in me giving up socialism was becoming a public school teacher. Even in my high functioning school, I saw the waste and inefficiencies of the system. I saw how many children were being poorly served. Despite the best efforts of many teachers, a government monopoly tends toward one-size-fits-all solutions that leaves untold numbers of kids behind. I saw how unprepared my training had left me, how weak and inconsistent the curriculum was across classrooms, and I saw incompetence that went ignored by school leaders and even defended by unions and professional associations.

I saw that the public school system was flawed. Its flaws mirrored virtually all of the bureaucratic, top-down, impersonal structures of socialism that were supposed to bring about equality of outcomes and peace on earth but never did. In fact, socialism has historically wrought misery.

Over the next decade or so I drifted from right-libertarianism to left-libertarianism and back. I loved the clean, logical consistency of libertarianism even though I knew well there wasn’t a single place in history where such a system could be found in practice. However, I was childless and busy building a career. I had little time for practical politics anyway. From teaching, I moved into school administration, eventually landing in a district-level role and earning a PhD along the way.

When I started a family, my views shifted again. I want to avoid over-generalizing but libertarianism is a philosophy that tends to assume humans are totally free and unencumbered individuals just sort of floating in space until they voluntarily choose to associate with others for mutual benefit, or until someone else’s will is imposed on them, which always involves violence and rhetorical allusions to slavery. I did not find that view particularly helpful as a parent. More than mutual benefit binds my family. Love, necessity, and nature unite us. We don’t choose our families, and it is these unchosen units that are the most basic structures of human society. 

Atomized individuals cannot raise kids well. Only strong, intact families within healthy communities can. Healthy kids need lots of people in their community to regularly attend churches that actually press them to become better human beings and not just feel good about themselves (what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” the de facto religion of most American Christians). Successful families also need strong neighborhoods, vibrant communities of voluntary associations like sports leagues, church youth groups, and civic organizations that engage people in service to and with their neighbors. 

All of these “intermediate institutions,” as the great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbett called them, have experienced enormous decay over the generations, and both the progressive expansions of government and individualist libertarianism have brought this about. I saw all of this first hand as a parent and as an educator. It didn’t happen overnight, but one day I woke up and knew I was a conservative in the sense that Russell Kirk understood the word. Tradition and values matter in preserving a civilization worth handing on to our children. 

Kirk saw conservatism as an attitude first and foremost but this conservative disposition has real policy implications. I saw those clearly in education. From the professional protection and distance of a tenured university professorship, I began pursuing education policy work, especially around the issue of school choice. These efforts led to my involvement as a policy advisor for state-level education reform groups and eventually to an appointment on the state board of education.

The education establishment in my state, desperate to maintain its monopoly, has ferociously fought back against any effort to expand education choice for families yearning to give their children a different option. Thus far school choice supporters have lost more battles than we’ve won, but every day momentum builds, especially as parents have become more aware of how their children are doing in school during COVID.

But conservatives have more to contribute to education policy than just school choice. The excellent collection of essays issued earlier this year, How to Education an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, makes clear that conservatives should care not just how education is delivered, but about its actual content.

In my own experience, far too many schools and far too many educators have implicitly or explicitly adopted the attitude that education is all about vocational preparation, training students in work habits that will make them productive contributors to the economy. This is an important goal for our schools, but it neglects the much older purpose of education, and one that is deeply connected to the cultivation of culture and the protection of our civilizational heritage. The first goal of schooling is to help families and communities cultivate virtuous citizens. The classical sense of liberty is to be free enough of selfishness that one can actually choose the good, the true, and the beautiful. And this should once again be the self-conscious goal of schools.

Along these lines, I have increasingly turned my attention toward the dearth of meaningful instruction in social studies, science, and the arts, especially in early grades—how standards and curricula in those subjects can be improved for all schools. I have argued that schools should not be shy about training students to be critical patriots, capable of loving their country even as they recognize and understand her many flaws. The battle for school choice definitely goes on but there’s a need for a curricular battle as well.

What seems clear to me is that for the most part, my values have not changed in all these years, but only the means by which I think we best get there. I maintain the same commitment to equality of opportunity as I did as a loud, young, socialist teacher, but now with a much greater appreciation for the role that robust institutions of family, church, local communities, civic organizations, and other structures of civil society play in accomplishing those goals – and a deep concern to guard them for the future generations.

Meanwhile my intellectual past gives me a common language with – and a great deal of understanding and compassion for – those who occupy the political and philosophical spaces I used to tread. Though we may differ about tactics, I still believe the vast majority of educators share the same goals for what our schools should accomplish, and so there is much work to be done through constructive disagreement, and I still welcome that conversation.

Dr. Gary Houchens
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, a former teacher, principal and school district administrator, is professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University. He has served as policy advisor for several education reform organizations and was a member of the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019. Follow more of his work at http://schoolleader.typepad.com

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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