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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Leadership Opinion

Education Is Looking a Lot Like Cambridge, Mass.

By Rick Hess — November 30, 2020 4 min read
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For a number of years, I lived in Cambridge, Mass., the progressive bastion where wokeness is a way of life and where Elizabeth Warren is deemed a common-sense centrist. The thing I always found most striking about Cambridge, the Harvard-centric fiefdom on the edge of Boston, was the self-assured naiveté born of its insularity. In Cambridge, Obama is remembered as a conservative, big-government never went out of style, and churches are festooned with placards full of progressive nostrums. This monoculture has consequences—the denizens of Cambridge are frequently puzzled as to why their favored candidates lose statewide and their enthusiasms are mocked beyond the boundaries of the fiefdom.

This all came back with a rush over the past week or two as the education world responded to Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential contest. I was struck by how uniformly Biden’s win was cheered by people who are putatively interested in education rather than partisan politics. They seemed to perceive Biden’s modest victory as a Democratic sweep, even as Republicans unexpectedly registered substantial gains in the House, fought to a near-draw in the Senate, and gained seats in statehouses. And they clearly thought that a Biden win was, by definition, good for education—there was no ambiguity and no doubt. It felt like Cambridge.

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s daily newsletter blandly reported, “In sharp contrast to President Trump, who spent much of the past four years attacking higher education, Biden—whose wife, Jill, is a longtime community-college educator—has signaled his support for the sector. His extensive Plan for Education Beyond High School promises to ‘strengthen college as a reliable pathway to the middle class.’ ”

My inbox was filled with cheery missives from purportedly nonpartisan outfits. The Emerson Collective, bankrolled by multibillionaire founder Laurene Powell Jobs, blasted out Jobs’ statement celebrating Biden’s “remarkable breadth of support from across the nation” and announcing that now “we will let out the breath we have been holding in for so long.”

The Nellie Mae Foundation intoned, “Democracy has spoken—voters have selected new leaders to move us forward to a better future.” The foundation explained that, “The current administration has sought to institute ‘patriotic education’ that whitewashes and misleads our young people,” but promised, “We remain committed to standing up and behind our partners in the fight against white supremacy and anti-Blackness, especially in our education system.”

The Leadership Academy, the New York City-based school leadership training program launched by Chancellor Joel Klein as a resolutely nonpolitical entity, wrote, “The election is over. In about 10 weeks, we will have a new President and Vice President—the first woman and woman of color in that role, a Black South Asian daughter of immigrants—who seem to be more aligned to The Leadership Academy’s work and organizational values. Rather than taking a colorblind approach to governing, their proposed policies suggest the importance of using critical race theory to identify and dismantle racist systems and structures that undergird our nation.”

In any other context, having leaders, advocates, funders, and pundits routinely say such things would seem astonishingly ideological or tone-deaf—but the culture of education today is such that they are regarded as unexceptional.

This matters. As I related over at Forbes shortly before Thanksgiving,

It means that much of the edu-sphere is often out of step with large swaths of the nation without ever realizing it. This is how the education community can be consistently surprised that things it imagines to be obviously unobjectionable—like the “1619 Project’s” insistence that the U.S. is a “slavocracy"—are deemed kooky and extreme by many outsiders. This is a recipe for frustration whenever one ventures beyond the bubble, especially when seeking to drive change in red states, purple states, or a federal government under anything other than iron-clad Democratic control.

It’s also produced an embarrassing naiveté. Expecting that Biden’s win will usher in a new era of radical change and transformative lawmaking, the edu-sphere is primed for disappointment. Ignoring Biden’s narrow margin in key states, Democratic losses in the House and their resulting wafer-thin majority, and the likelihood that Biden will be the first new president in decades to lack a Senate majority, they talk as if Biden had claimed the sweeping victory that many had anticipated. This is reflected in the vilification of Mitch McConnell, the casual depiction of Republicans as hateful bigots, and a seeming disinterest in understanding Republican principles and priorities.

All of this pretty much ensures that the education vanguard will be bewildered and embittered by the unexpected resistance they face from parents, policymakers, and others who live outside the educational bubble. It’s ironic to hear so many in K-12 and higher education complain that Republicans have become more hostile over time. It’s more accurate to say that the world of education has positioned itself as a fortress of progressivism, and the right has responded in kind. Welcome to Cambridge.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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