What is Education Really For?

On Fostering a New Elite

What is the purpose of education in America? That is a question being asked—a battle being fought, really—across ideological and partisan poles right now. The inquiry gets at fundamental socio-political questions. My interest lies with how the right answers the question because the left’s answer is already patently obvious. But the right is confused and delusional insofar as the predominant answer to the inquiry enjoys purchase on the right.

You will hear ostensibly right-wing figures bemoan “indoctrination,” appealing, as a supposed antidote to left-wing curricular domination, to pure, non-partisan, apolitical education, as if the two were meaningfully distinguishable. In reality, there is no such neutral educational nirvana. As I’ve argued before elsewhere, all education is necessarily indoctrination. There is no view from nowhere. Whatever the polemical force of pushing neutral education—and we should, admittedly, not discount the incremental, provisional, and strategic force of that—it is ultimately hollow and bunk. In other words, the neutrality approach participates in paradigms designed for our failure. They are a one-way ratchet, as with most post-war liberal structures.

But there is something more, deeper about education that the ruling class left has long recognized and perpetuated that the right almost always misses. The primary function—and we are doing functional analysis here, and ignoring questions of content which are secondary—of education is socialization. Let me explain.

We should think of both primary and secondary education as the conveyers of “status rights.” That is, the right of full social and civil participation and the enjoyment of intragroup preference. Peter Cookson and Caroline Hodges Persell, in their 1985 study of elite prep schools, Preparing for Power, refer to educational institutions as “status seminaries” for this very reason. Quoting sociologist, Randall Collins, they note that “the most fundamental purpose of education is to prepare students for social and cultural positions within society.” Or as E. Digby Baltzell explained in The Protestant Establishment, elite schools are distributors of status.

The loser mentality that characterizes most of the right prioritizes technical abilities over social abilities. Hence, public schools are judged according to an objective standard of production, like a factory, a standard constructed by elites for reasons that will become clear. Whereas elite schools are more akin to a club than a factory. The “product” is relationships and networks. The environment is that of part long-term screening process and part extended cocktail hour. No assembly line is present except for those working in the kitchen. In the elite mindset, the winner mentality, the desired “outcome” is associations, not product. This outcome is produced through the facilitation of formative experiences designed to foster relationships and homogeneity. Baltzell again explains (Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia): “The character of American upper-class institutions has usually been more a product of interpersonal networks than of ideological affinities.” (Niall Ferguson has more recently highlighted the same perennial phenomenon in The Square and the Tower.)

The reigning elite need no instruction in provisional political principles like No Enemies to the Right. It is instinctive to a conscious class. Their pedagogical process teaches members how to play the game according to the rules constructed for them.

The fixation on adolescence in post-war society is often criticized, usually by conservatives, for prolonging or delaying maturation. But the intermediate phase is designed exactly for class reproduction, for an adequate trainee period, as it were. The problem is that it has been artificially reproduced at scale, forcing pan-class participation. And, of course, the larger problem has to do with the nature of the class this model serves, but we will get back to that presently.

In a nutshell, education is about producing aristocracy, a class of “shared belief and shared lives” that is necessarily insular and exclusive. These things are much more important than raw wealth or intellect; they are prerequisites for the exercise of power.  

None of this means that learning does not take place. Indeed, prep schools not so long ago were champions of what has now been commoditized for the general public as “Great Books” programs. Entry requirements are still steep. Smart people still go to elite schools. All this is necessary, even at this late date, to develop a sense of qualification that justifies entitlement. Kings are made, not born, but not everyone is born to be made a king. Rigor is necessary but insufficient in this context.

But that is not the point, the socio-political, functional point. The real instruction, the instruction for success, is wrapped up in class markers, that of manner, disposition, and etc., a way of being in the upper echelons of the status hierarchy. And again, membership in elite educational clubs is mostly about the membership itself. It matters where someone goes to school not because of any given institutional quality, but because the where determines with whom attendees will associate.

Other clubs, groups, and associations can produce similar outcomes, but in America the predominate pathway has run through elite schools and colleges, as evidenced by the elite clubs attached to those schools and colleges that follow alumni post-graduation.

The right, especially the Christian right, should follow suit. We cannot exactly replicate adverse processes and structures, but the general elements in play above are essentially universal. The crippling, neurotic anxieties that marked our incumbent elite for some time should not be replicated. But something of their sensibility should.

The right needs to think of education in a “total institution,” a “total education” mindset, an elite mindset, if we want to win. By this I mean what I have already said, the right needs to think of education in elitist terms and not be sucked into the low-status, loser framework of “debate” that conceives of education in terms of pure curriculum. Education should indoctrinate. The only question is what kind of indoctrination. But more than that it should socialize. It should prepare elites. Our elites. It should confer status through association.

This process necessarily requires exclusion, privilege, and discretion, all practices from which the liberal mind is conditioned to recoil but that are indispensable to the construction of an aristocracy—a class and function everyone from Aristotle to Russell Kirk has recognized as inevitable and, in fact, favorable. Affiliations derived from educational institution are about gaining cultural capital. Of this the right is in short supply, but desperately needs to generate. It is a process that requires self-confidence.

How do we do this?

As a preliminarty matter, it requires Christian on the right to recognize their ostracization from incumbent elite circles. They must stop bending the knee to them. That’s the initial exit. Now to the direct action plan.

First, we must recognize and adopt aligned institutions. A block of uncompromising, aligned, Christian primary schools and colleges must emerge. This will happen, over the coming years, organically most likely out of pure survival instinct. It must be embraced. Consolidation must follow. Like the Ivies, the array of acceptable, prestigious institutions must necessarily be limited. The members of this cadre will emerge in short order by process of natural self-selection. It only remains to notice them.

Second, the barriers to entry to these institutions, these colleges especially, must be steep according to Christian right priorities. In other words, our standards of leadership into which we wish to socialize future generations, conveying status and prestige to them. We must think in terms of association and creating tight, class-conscious networks.

In constructing a new elite—that is the ultimate inquiry here—we need not concern ourselves with “democratic” representation models or standards. The incumbent elite never have. Cookson and Persell note that nearly half of the elite prep schools in 1985 were Episcopalian whilst only three percent of the population shared the same denomination. Moreover, 70% of elite schools were on the eastern seaboard, nearly 35% were in New England alone, and each school averaged only 200 hundred students. We are talking about miniscule numbers here relative to the national population. A motivated minority always rules the day, as the gay lobby has demonstrated over the past few decades. Contra Baltzell, et al., the elite class of this country and its educational institutions fell apart when they bought into a democratic—in the literal sense—ethos and model of representation. But even if we were concerned with mapping the general population proportionally onto a new elite set of institutions, the Christian right has an advantage. Even in our late-stage republic the majority of the population still professes Christianity, a super majority, in fact. No shame is therefore required. This is all to the benefit of a new Christian, indeed, Protestant, elite.

But back to the schools. Aligned Christian schools should, of course, be rigorous. They should harken back to the curriculum of generations past. The classics, Great Books, scholasticism—whatever you want to call it. Forbidden knowledge should be their currency. This will become increasingly attractive. They will, obviously, not we beholden to post-modern garbage or laissez faire, choose your own adventure, grade-less, boring monotony. In part because it is good and in part because it “hacks the system,” aligned Christian schools that form the new elite will be “outdated” dinosaurs, conveying no “useful” information. They will, rather, convey superior, true knowledge. But more importantly, they will begin to distribute prestige. This can only come through fostering closed, associational networks that feature heavy in-group preference. Members of said networks will possess knowledge and learned that justify their new status, but they will also attain an in-group way of being appropriate of a new elite. Class virtue that just happens to coincide with Christian morality and relations—acquisition of taste—will be the order of the day.

Third, the environment. Aligned institutions should take architecture and, yes, vibes, seriously, especially offline. A distinctly American feel should be adopted. Think of Philips Andover or Deerfield. These are not impressive campuses by old world standards, but they are beautiful, stately, and American. For a few million dollars comparable digs can be easily acquired. The Darrow School used to be a mere Shaker village. The effect is to communicate seriousness to attendees, aspirants of the new elite. Architecture at serious, elite educational institutions—the distributors of status—must signal exclusivity and protection, the protection of superior knowledge and of privileged associations. Above all, everything must incorporate the Protestant worldview as the old campuses used to and do in spite of themselves.

Fourth, selection. While aligned schools should not select on arbitrary basis or irrational bias, controlling for class interests and seeking fitting new additions to the networks—which must necessarily discover newcomers for integration—yields a necessary degree of homogeneity. Constructing a new traditional, right wing, Protestant class requires this. Excellence is paramount, but so too is socio-political alignment. The liberals controlled for these factors for decades on end.

Fifth, partnerships. Aligned colleges must adopt feeder schools. I have so far been rather flippantly oscillating between primary, prep schools and colleges. This relationship must be tightened. Harvard funded the Roundhill School. Between 1768 and 1790, a quarter of Harvard students were Governor Dummer Academy alums. You see how this works. Day schools near Haverford College even today are named for the upper school they supply with students. And this requires entire communities formed around the colleges. In the nineteenth century, students used to board with local families aligned with the prep schools or colleges they were attending. Networks exceed the classroom, quad, sports teams, and dinning clubs students participate in. It is lifelong connections we are speaking of.

Sixth, and the most crucial aspect if we are to buck the system: employers, boardrooms, corporations. Few families, given the opportunity, will forego a chance to place their children with incumbent elite institutions because said institutions guarantee prosperity and security. If employers are not aligned, bought in, the entire system articulated above will fail to launch. At bottom, we need employers, aligned with a right wing, Christian, Protestant led vision to actively prefer graduates of favored institutions. This is how the incumbent elite has and does function. It cannot be combatted or dethroned without in kind action. A snowball effect is foreseeable, but the first initiative and risk must be taken. Anthony Esolen has described somewhere this dynamic, viz., the preference by high-level Christian employers for graduates of (by current standards) non-elite institutions to break the prevailing cycle. If circuit court judges can, with one word, humiliate Yale Law School by refusing their clerk applicants because of the school’s violation of liberal speech codes, so much more can Christians band together to preference their own. Desired traits, commitments, and character can and should be prioritized according to Christian aspirations for a future aristocracy. Again, this has been done. In 1984, per Cookson and Persell, a mere 13 prep schools educated 10 percent of corporate board members of the largest American corporations, and only one percent of the population attended those schools. Seventeen percent of directors of the same corporations attended the same schools. Profession politics was even more homogenous. The lesson is that the “resonating relationships” created early in life through educational institutions feed into the power structures. The right needs to think bigger.

Few of us, myself included, are equipped or able to begin constructing such a system… but someone should.

This will take time. As Baltzell surmised at a different time and for different aims,

“It will be the children (and grandchildren) of this young generation of leaders–having been schooled together in and around the nation’s capital, having gone away together to Exeter and Andover, Harvard and Radcliffe, and finally having intermarried–who will, in the long run, lay the foundations for a truly representative establishment in this country. This may well be the most important, if unplanned, consequence of the composition of the generation of New Frontiersmen. For an establishment is never created by revolution or deliberate design, but only through a slow evolutionary process over several generations.”

For who hath despised the day of small things?

Image Credit: Westerly view of the Colledges in Cambridge, New England, Paul Revere, 1767.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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