My brilliant, Hillsdale-educated husband explained to me in our many conversations following the election one conflict between political philosophers Leo Strauss and Russell Kirk: broadly speaking, Strauss would say politics shapes culture, while Kirk would say culture shapes politics. We think there's some transference there (some permeable cell membranes, if you will), as laws certainly shape culture, but agreed over dinner last night that we tend to side with Kirk in thinking that if we had to pick a chicken or egg, we'd go with the culture as the initiator and driver of politics.
That thought has led several here and elsewhere to call for conservatives redoubling efforts to change cultural institutions. Anne Pierce put up a beautiful, true post laying out some of the problems with a central American institution, K-12 schools. They are heavily progressive in structure and philosophy. Certification requirements for all teachers amount to progressive indoctrination. You've seen the consequences. It's helpful to see such problems. But what can and must we do about them? How are we to begin an American Renaissance? Here's one idea: start a public school.
Consider the European Renaissance, circa 11th through 16th centuries. It's a huge academic argument how it started, but it's undeniable that considerable activity was propelled through universities, which were largely sponsored by the church and wealthy noblemen. In those days also, any "K-12" education (basically reading and writing) took place in churches.
So we see a confluence of religion, wealth, and education. Let me suggest one avenue open to conservatives now because of a remarkable bipartisan convergence around one policy: charter schools.
Forty-one states allow charter schools (42 if the vote counting in Washington state goes well). These are fully public schools, so they charge students no tuition, but they can offer widely varying and usually much better curriculum, hire non-certified teachers (the research actually shows certification does not improve teacher quality one whit), arrange their finances as they like, and be independent of the usually union-dominated local school district. In an irony of ironies, President Obama is a big fan, and so are a lot of progressive Democrats, because charters respond to the obvious destitution of U.S. schools without going so far as vouchers.
Who can start these schools? In most cases, it can be a group of likeminded citizens who band together to form their own board. There are also top-of-the-line companies that run such schools across the U.S., such as National Heritage Academies, BASIS, and Core Knowledge.
There is a movement afoot to offer classical charter schools, which reverence American history and principles; pursue content-based mental rigor that eats alive weak-minded, opinion-based, progressive pedagogy; and pursue the work U.S. schools once did -- inculcating a common American culture and knowledge among its future leaders and voters. The best research also indicates that this sort of education is the best for impoverished children because it gives them the information building blocks without which they cannot "construct knowledge," which progressives demand they do with no materials (for in-depth analysis on this, read anything by self-described liberal E.D. Hirsch, starting with Cultural Literacy).
If you think you could get a group of friends together to pursue this in your local community, keep thinking that. And then do it. If you're not sure you can, get in touch with some of these charter companies or that awesome teacher friend of yours who is sick of the system. It will take a thousand points of light to dispel this darkness. The best time to begin was 50 years ago. The second best time is now.
Here are some resources to get you started. For an overview of what classical and charter schools are (and some morsels of hope for our country), check out this story I wrote this summer. Listen to a podcast where I interview a fellow on "How to Start a Charter School." There are charter school organizations in every state that exist to support startups. Contact them. Hillsdale College holds a classical charter school symposium every year for folks like you. We've got some freedoms we can use. Let's exercise them while we still can.