A More American Conservatism

Larry P. Arnn
President, Hillsdale College

Larry P. ArnnLarry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American EducationThe Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution; and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.

Trump has addressed this problem more directly than anyone since Ronald Reagan—in some ways, more than anyone including Reagan. He would drain the swamp. He would abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education. He has rallied the people in direct opposition to their governing elite. He has appealed to the people directly in opposition to their government. And what has he achieved?—from nothing, a constitutional majority that controls all the popular branches at the federal level, soon to have a profound effect on the judiciary. In addition, his party advanced from a strong position in state legislatures and governorships. The party of Trump, if the Republican Party is that party, is in a position to make changes, as good or better a position as it has enjoyed since the Great Society.

Moreover, Trump ran in utter defiance of the political correctness that enforces this new system of government. He did not bend his knee to identity groups. He claimed to represent all “citizens,” a favorite term, by which he means citizens who hold that status under the law. He said he would represent their interest and their country, which he will make great again, and not the interest of any others. He did not care that this intention was conflated with racism. He saw that conflation as another sign of corruption, which it certainly is. Unless he is insensate, which he does not seem, Trump is possessed of moral courage as much as assertiveness, and his assertiveness is a sight to behold.

But can he do anything? Many conservatives have been doubtful of Trump and many others opposed. There are reasons for this. He is the first man elected president as his first significant public service. He is sometimes vulgar. He is a celebrity, star of his own show, which is playing wherever he goes. His is not the understated sort of elitism. Consistent with this, he is a populist: he likes ordinary folk, and they like him. This has made some conservative and libertarian people fear mobs with pitchforks. I fear them myself because I see them on so many college campuses, but not on my own, and not among the Trump supporters. I think these mobs are the product of modern liberalism and the bureaucratic state, not the product of Trump.

I prefer to be hopeful about the future, and I am hopeful about the Trump administration. His campaign and his appointments at this early stage give us some information upon which to speculate. Take one example about which I know something: education.

Trump has called for the abolition of the Department of Education, as did Reagan. By contrast, both Presidents Bush sought to strengthen that Department. Trump has nominated the splendid Betsy DeVos to be secretary of the Department, and she is a fighter for every kind of school choice. The federal government spends seven or eight percent of its money on education, and its method is typical of the federal intrusion into local matters: it gives money from the federal treasury to states and localities on condition. The conditions are myriad, confusing, and usually ugly when they can be understood. Title IV of the Higher Education Act governs federal student aid, and it numbers around 500 pages. A lawyer for our college told me once that I would be unable to read it, because he himself cannot read it, for which reason his firm keeps a specialist who is the only person he knows who understands what it says. For this reason alone, it would be a grand thing to get rid of the Department of Education.

There are also some excellent intermediate steps. If one changed the conditions of the federal education money that goes to states, localities, and schools, there could be an immediate influence. Education is one of those things that is easy enough to understand, but hard to do. The first thing to understand is that human beings are made to learn, and they desire to do it naturally. This means the job of teachers, like the job of parents, is to help children learn, not to make them or cause them to learn. Good schools are built around this fact. It also means that authority over the schools can best be exercised by those who are closest to the students. What if the federal government required states to pass charter laws that delegated wide latitude and real authority to schools, not to the Department of Education or to state departments of education or to school districts? What if it relied, not upon high-stakes centralized testing as in Common Core, but in the simple fact that parents and teachers are much more likely to care for students than strangers, even if those strangers are highly trained federal bureaucrats?

The chairman of our education program at Hillsdale College has written a series of standards that states might adopt for K-12 education. For each grade, they take up about half a page. But if a child can do the things on that half a page, the child has learned a lot. Here is a way for higher levels of government to be sure that any money they give to lower levels is well spent in education. It involves hardly any management of details. That is the constitutional model, the model that comes from our Founding.

To follow this practice would liberalize the system. It would mean that there would be plenty of bad charter schools, just as there are plenty of bad schools now. But it would also mean that there would be a proliferation of good ones. Hillsdale College has helped to found 16 charter schools, with more coming, and they are all doing well. Everybody wears a uniform and signs an honor code. Everybody—indeed everybody in kindergarten—learns to read. Everybody studies mathematics at least through pre-calculus. Everybody learns Latin, history, literature, philosophy, physics, biology, and chemistry. Everybody is admitted by a lottery system. For the inner-city schools, care is taken to advertise only in the immediate area, to make the opportunity available to the children who live in poor areas. The students in these schools make on the average excellent scores on the ubiquitous state standardized tests, and they do this without class time or curriculum set aside to prepare for those tests. They do very well even in relation to the legions of public schools that now take months to cram only for those tests, which means the students know little more than what is on those tests, and all the adults get raises and promotions if the students do well. That’s why there have been spectacular instances of cheating—by teachers and school administrators!—on those tests.

The kind of education going on in Hillsdale’s charter schools is not something that could be advanced nationally by a federal mandate. Key to the success of these schools is that the school leaders, the parents, and the teachers are all glad to be there and all help willingly to make it work. In other words, they are all volunteers. It is a partnership. Partnerships are cooperative, not imperative. If you force people who are unwilling to do something, they will not do it very well, which is the encapsulation of human freedom.

Nowhere is this freedom more evident than in the process of learning. At Hillsdale College the curriculum is rigorous and the standards of behavior are high. But they are not imperative. The ultimate penalty is simply this question: are you sure you want to be here, when there are so many other options, options generally not quite so difficult or strict? The student who responds yes to that question is self-governing, which is the aim. That is why we at Hillsdale would not support a national law that everyone had to do what we do. We know too much about human beings to think that would work.

Let us say that the Department of Education began to reform itself along these lines. It is in a real position to lead if it will do so, because it would be setting a profound example: it would be teaching the governments below not to give people orders all the time. It would be teaching them that parents do after all love their children in the great majority of cases, and that the strongest institutions are built on love. It would be teaching them that schools can do better without a national engineering project to take over their work, to set their tests, to prescribe their behavior. And this would lay the ground for the Department’s abolition.