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Teaching Profession Opinion

A Conservative Teacher’s Take on ‘What Is Wrong With Our Schools’

How one educator found an alternative to progressive education
By Rick Hess — March 02, 2023 7 min read
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Daniel Buck is a middle school English teacher in Wisconsin who’s recently published his first book, What Is Wrong With Our Schools: The Ideology Impoverishing Education in America and How We Can Do Better for Our Students (John Catt Educational, 2022). When he’s not working on lesson plans, Buck is a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute and has contributed to outlets like the Wall Street Journal, National Affairs, National Review, City Journal, and RealClearEducation. Buck is one of the most prominent conservative teacher voices in education today. Given that, and the fraught climate of schoolhouse politics, I thought it worth chatting with him about his experiences, perspective, and new book. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Dan, so you’re out with your first book. What’s it about?

Daniel: It’s a polemical book with a rather simple argument: All of the trendy debates about education ranging from funding to class size or even school choice miss a foundational flaw in our system. We have built schooling on incorrect first principles and faulty ideas about how students learn. I trace out the competing ideologies in American education through an intellectual history and then dive into more specific debates about curriculum, instruction, behavioral policies, and others.

Rick: What prompted you to write it?

Daniel: A publisher reached out and asked me to. The more interesting question is why I started writing. I was in grad school, encountering these radically progressive and politicized ideas about education, and I needed an outlet to process, contend with, and make sense of it all. As I wrote, more and more teachers and parents reached out asking me what were the alternatives to John Dewey or Paulo Freire—veritable educational saints—and I didn’t always have a succinct answer. If not project-based learning or critical pedagogy, what else? This book is my attempt at answering that very question.

Rick: Can you say more about the “ideology” that you reference in the title?

Daniel: Really, I should have made the title plural, referencing instead “ideologies.” There are two. At the turn of the 20th century, progressive education was the pedagogical philosophy du jour. With its roots in European romanticism, progressive education holds that society and its traditions are corrupting. In the spirit of Rousseau, any imposition of traditional academics or rote learning merely snuffs out a child’s inherent goodness. As such, no content is worth learning in itself but only that which naturally appeals to the child.

The second ideology is critical pedagogy. It goes a step further, following the work of Paulo Freire. It suggests that not only should we keep society and traditions from molding the child—we should encourage children to mold and remake society. It’s overtly radical and the reason we see so much politics creeping into American classrooms. As an educator and observer of education, I see progressive pedagogy as apolitical albeit painfully mediocre, critical pedagogy as self-consciously radical and destructive.

Rick: I’m sure plenty of readers push back when you say that. I suspect many tell you that anti-racism and DEI are just a healthy, necessary response to real problems. How do you respond?

Daniel: The most frequent contention I see is that anti-racism, DEI, CRT, or whatever trendy acronym is just the teaching of “accurate history.” Well, they’re not. I’ve taught the beautiful poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, evils of chattel slavery through Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, reality of redlining and segregation through A Raisin in the Sun, and trials of the civil rights movement through Martin Luther King’s letters and speeches. But in teaching these units, I always emphasize that these historical crimes and evils occurred in spite of American ideals, that our improving political equality is a fulfillment of our founding documents, not a repudiation of them. DEI and anti-racism aren’t teaching accurate history; rather, they use history as a cudgel to condemn classical liberalism and our exceptional American system.

Rick: In the book, you talk about some of your own formative classroom experiences. What are one or two that loom particularly large when you think about your own evolution?

Daniel: My first year teaching was particularly formative. I did everything that I learned in university. My students designed their own behavioral rules, they chose their own books, I formulated my lessons based on their interests, I built relationships, and still everything was chaotic. Progressives like to prattle on about emotional safe spaces; my classroom was bordering on physically unsafe. There were no fights inside it, but it certainly got close a few times. It wasn’t until I learned to assert some healthy adult authority in the room and guide the classroom through great literature that things slowly came into order. I saw that progressive education wasn’t working and started to look for something else.

Rick: It can feel like our debates are stuck in a doom loop right now, where we just talk past one another. Have you found thinkers or colleagues who see issues differently but with whom you’ve still been able to constructively engage or find points of agreement?

Daniel: Unsurprisingly, to me at least, I’ve found a lot of teachers both online and in person agree with me. They want to keep Shakespeare on the curriculum and dole out consequences to kids who misbehave. It’s administrators, professors, activists, and journalists with whom I have the most ideological clashes. When it comes to in-person conversations, such disagreement has proved tense but remains civil. Online, it’s hopeless.

Rick: I feel like I don’t read much that’s written by right-leaning teachers, even though polling tells us there are plenty of them. Am I just missing it?

Daniel: In every school that I’ve taught at, there have always been a handful of teachers on the political right. We speak in whispers behind closed doors. There are plenty, but many just don’t think it’s worth the professional or interpersonal strain that comes with speaking out. We have to work with our administrators and want cordial relationships with colleagues. Picking political fights in the teachers’ lounge jeopardizes that professional peace. That being said, as I mentioned before, most teachers have many values that are traditionally associated with conservatism—local control, smaller bureaucracies, classically influenced curriculum, strict discipline structures—even if they don’t identify as conservatives per se.

Rick: What are a couple of the practical things that you think schools are getting wrong right now?

Daniel: In particular right now, I think the movement away from punitive discipline and consequences will prove most immediately disastrous. Based on the progressive notion that discipline and consequences are oppressive, this puts classrooms at risk for serious disruptive behavior. Schools in chaos cannot function no matter how exquisite their curriculum.

Rick: If you could recommend a couple specific changes to teacher preparation or professional development, what would they be?

Daniel: The reading lists in university preparation programs need an overhaul. Progressives like John Dewey and critical pedagogues like Paulo Freire or Henry Giroux dominate education school curricula. They’re the equivalent of homeopathy or chakra enthusiasts on medical school websites. If any educational conservatives like E.D. Hirsch gets mentioned in these programs, it’s usually with derision. Getting more cognitive science or even a single conservative into the hands of prospective teachers would be a major win.

Rick: What’s surprised you about the reception to your book?

Daniel: Many have been quick to criticize it or me for various reasons: They think the subtitle is too long or that I have an insufficient number of years in the classroom to speak with authority. It’s rarely an argument and more a thinly veiled ad hominem. The irony of it all is that none of the criticism comes from folks who have read the book. Every review or comment from someone who has actually cracked a page is positive.

Rick: Looking ahead, what’s next for you?

Daniel: Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to best build educational alternatives and more substantively replace the dusty progressivism in our schools. That could mean staying in the classroom, writing full time, returning to the schools of education that I so loathe, working for an existing organization, helping craft a good curriculum, or who knows what else. So, I’m trying to figure that out myself.

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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