Radicals believe schools are instruments of power, but such schooling is false and a corruption of the thing itself. Radical schools are not bad schools; they are ideological shams pretending to be schools. Genuine schooling is oriented toward truth and cultivates wisdom and virtue.

According to Russell Kirk, “to the radical—communist, or fascist, or socialist, or any sort of radical ideologue—the school is an instrument of power;” it is “a means for indoctrinating the young with what the radical believes to be the concept of the good society.”[1] Kirk does not here reveal a secret truth about radical ideology and tactics. What Kirk condemns, the radical mostly admits, without irony, as accurately representing, not only his theory of education, but the way of the world, at all times and in all places.

Kirk’s observation might be most clearly and explicitly iterated in the espoused view of a major French communist, Louis Althusser, for whom the school instills a belief system designed to preserve the existing political and economic structure of society. More than developing useful skills, schools make both the oppressed and the oppressor believe the kinds of things that will maintain their exploitative relationship: “the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression.”[2] In Althusser’s Marxist jargon, the school is an “ideological State apparatus” (because ideologues like acronyms as much as they like cant, call it an ISA), a tool used by rulers to maintain their hold over society. Indeed, it is a tool of such importance that it occupies “the dominant position in mature capitalist formations.”[3] Put differently and simply, the school is the main tool by which a modern nation is brainwashed, and, thus, the power of its rulers preserved.

For Althusser, schools are essentially—and inescapably—ideological and political, whether they are used for ill or for good. The school is not oriented toward truth, even if some truth may be learned there, but toward expedience, advancing the ideals of the ruling elite. Accordingly, teachers are “intellectuals employed in a given education system and subject to that system, performing, as a mass, the social function of inculcating the ‘values of the ruling ideology.’”[4] Teachers are not truth-seekers and truth-tellers; they are functionaries and propagandists.

The power of schooling cuts two ways for the radical: When power is in the hands of the enemy, the school is an instrument of exploitation; when in the hands of the revolutionary hero, emancipation. Thus, the radical ideologue should seek to gain control, not of this or that classroom or school, but of schooling itself. A usurped system of education can transform society by making people think “rightly,” which is to say in alignment with the radical’s ideology. Ultimately, the school returns to being a tool to preserve social order, but no longer an oppressive one. The purpose of the school is indoctrination in the service of power, whether that power be conservative or revolutionary. The school is, in either case, always an instrument of power, one employed to maintain or gain control over the whole of society by shaping thought itself.

It is true that radicals believe schools are instruments of power. It is likewise true that a whole system of education, of schooling, can be appropriated for ideological purposes. But such schooling is false; it is a corruption of the thing itself. Radical schools are not bad schools; they are ideological shams pretending to be schools. It is an error of radicalism to consider schooling ideologically and instrumentally; it is, thus, a great evil to deploy schools as such.

Genuine schooling, at whatever level, is oriented toward truth—scientific, historical, moral, political, aesthetic, philosophical, and theological. It does not inculcate ideology or advance a political agenda, a five-year plan. Indeed, truth can only be pursued in earnest where ideology and politics are excluded, not necessarily as topics of inquiry, but as forces of influence. Students may, for example, benefit from learning about Marxism, particularly if they are studying modern history, but students should not be taught to think and act as Marxists, not only because Marxism is both scientifically and morally wrong (it surely is), but also because indoctrination is contrary to the principle of schooling. If students emerge as Marxists by their own choice and after learning the truth about Marxism, alongside serious and accurately-presented political and moral alternatives, so be it. I would lament such an outcome, but, as long as the study was truly unencumbered by political and ideological motivation, it is an outcome consistent with the nature of schooling. Proper study does not prevent young people from making mistakes, after all, though a good education should minimize those mistakes, while also increasing the chances that errors are corrected in due course. Schools depend, as the name suggests, on skole, leisure, freedom from the material exigencies of daily life, what Josef Pieper refers to as the workaday world [5]; to be free from material exigencies is also to be sheltered, albeit temporarily, from political, ideological, and economic influence. When it is not squandered, such freedom allows one to pursue truth for its own sake.

If schools are not tools, what is their proper goal, their telos, their purpose? Kirk puts it simply: “the essential aim, and chief benefit, of formal education is to make people intelligent and good. Schools cannot, wholly by themselves, make people intelligent and good; natural inclinations and disinclinations, the family, and the community have a great deal to do with whether young people are wise or foolish, good or bad. But schools can help in the process.”[6] The purpose of schooling is to cultivate the minds and moral characters of students individually, not as a mass, to assist persons in becoming wise and virtuous—or, at the very least, less foolish and less vicious.

Genuine schools do much else besides cultivating wisdom and virtue, like developing skills beneficial to civic and economic participation, but such “lesser aims,” as Kirk calls them, must always be undergirded by a fundamental commitment to wisdom and virtue.[7] The development of useful skills is not decisive. The school is oriented toward the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, or it is no school at all. That useful skills may also be acquired is salutary, but only on condition that the promotion of practical outcomes neither trumps nor detracts from the fundamental goal of schooling. There is no harm in a young person learning to be an accountant in college; indeed, there is much good in it. In contrast, there is great harm if that accountant also learns nothing about God, nature, or human being. Schools may train, but they must also educate.

Schooling does not preclude error. Certainly, a teacher can be wrong or teach the truth badly. Certainly, students can fail to learn the truth being presented to them. Schools can fall short. They can aim at intelligence and virtue, but miss the mark. In contrast, wherever the truth is not the objective of education, the school has failed, not merely in practice, but in principle, in its very reason for being. Whether it hits it or not, an ideological school aims at the wrong target. On its own terms, it will succeed when it accomplishes its end: propagandizing young people. We should work diligently to bring about successful schools, understanding that, since humans are imperfect, we will always fall short, at least a little. We should hope and pray that ideological institutions pretending to be schools fail catastrophically, that young people do not accept being brainwashed.

A radical school does not fall short by letting ideology and utility seep in, promoting them as lesser aims, so to speak; it is a false school because it is organized around the negation of the basic underlying principle of schooling: learning, free from ideological and utilitarian contamination. To learn means to come to believe—and eventually understand—true things. Strictly speaking, one cannot learn something false. One can, of course, be brought, through supposed education, to believe false propositions, but this process only resembles learning. 2 + 2 = 5 cannot be learned; it can only be believed by someone who has failed to learn some truth, namely that 2 + 2 = 4, always and necessarily. Indeed, the student who has failed to learn the truth is more susceptible to being persuaded by the corresponding error.

It is not impossible that students in radical schools might come to hold some true beliefs as a result of the supposed teaching that takes place there. Even students taught by communists can learn some math: 2 + 2 should be 4, even for them. But such beliefs are either secondary or subordinate to the substantive end of promoting the radical’s theory of society; truth is advanced, if at all, only to the extent to which it supports the radical’s two-part agenda of transforming the basic structure of society to suit his utopian vision, and then preserving that structure once transformed. The radical school is an anti-school, trucking in anti-education. It is an error to consider radical schools as bad—or, much more egregiously, as good—iterations of proper schooling. They are fake, not failed, schools.

No one denies that schools can be ideological tools. Few conservatives deny that they have become so in too many instances. How far does the problem extend? And what is to be done about it?

Let me not oversimplify and, in so doing, exaggerate the problem. It is not the case that every school is an ideological tool, and, thus, fake. There are, no doubt, some genuine schools left, even among the universities, where radical politics determine many pedagogical and administrative decisions, and have for decades. Anyone fortunate enough to work in a genuine school should do everything they can to preserve the basic mission of schooling where they are; they must endeavor to form young people well, governed by the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and informed by appropriate techniques for teaching, which is to say techniques fitted to the purpose of promoting intelligence and virtue; they should also ensure that radicals—and enemies of truth of all stripes—are not employed, neither as teachers nor as administrators. When such schools fail, as they inevitably do to some extent, the task is to correct error, in both content and pedagogy, without undermining the school’s purpose.

Moreover, it is likely not true that any school outside of an avowedly communist state is entirely and irredeemably ideological. Even a poor specimen will have some teachers who actually pursue the truth, whose scholarship and teaching are leisured in the right way. Althusser seems to admit a similar point when he acknowledges that there are some revolutionary heroes in capitalist schools, despite teachers as a group being apologists for the status quo. In his view, however, a few transgressive teachers make little if any difference to mass indoctrination.[8] I suppose he is right: It is unlikely that mass indoctrination will be undermined by small doses of counter-indoctrination; it might be, however, by small doses of truth-telling. There are truth-seeking and truth-telling heroes in fake schools, and these heroes make a real difference in combatting folly and vice. A few good teachers cannot make a fake school real, but they can create the space for some individual students, some actual persons, to become less foolish and less vicious.

Let me also warn against oversimplifying in the other direction: Conservatives are not all exceptional. Conservatives are not all getting it right, swimming against the ideological current nobly, with truth evidently on their side. Some are, to be sure, but not all, and not as fully as possible. There are ideologues on the right, too, while others are busy acquiescing to the radicals, if not fully appeasing them. If there is something wrong with the schools, and I believe there is, it is not because my friends and I are not getting our political way; it is because the schools are, frankly, far too political, and they are so because they are not directed at the true end of education.

Shall we fight instrumentalist fire with instrumentalist fire? No. A school with a good instrumental end is still a fake school. We need true schooling, not politically more defensible indoctrination. A conservative ideologue lecturing students is an activist, not a teacher. We cannot rightly use the school to advance a social ideal, however superior that ideal might be. We can, however, rightly undermine the presumption to advance the radical’s ideal. Doing so is more fitting than trying to deploy the school as a tool to advance a conservative ideology. We do not need a better instrumentalist end for schooling; we need schools that are not instrumentalist, that boldly yet humbly aim at intelligence and virtue. We should not want false schools that serve our political goals; we should want, and strive to bring about, genuine schools. Because good schools promote intelligence and goodness, they also promote good, truthful, and healthy political association. The conservative gets his way by not trying to get his way.

The best way forward would be to build new schools, not conservative indoctrination camps, but places of leisure, educational institutions that are decidedly not instruments of power. Although I suspect the model remains too instrumentalist despite rightly rejecting leftist-ideological homogeneity, something like Warren Treadgold’s proposal in The University We Need is a step in the right direction for colleges and universities: a school that exclusively employs top-notch scholars, which is to say scholars who make positive contributions to knowledge, not ideologues whose supposed scholarship simply regurgitates, misapplies, and re-misapplies fashionable nonsense.[9] I would add that universities need great, which is to say truth-seeking and truth-telling, teachers even more than they need top scholars. These two sets overlap, but they are not identical. At the K-12 levels, enrollment in classical education schools is booming, with more schools opening all the time, but we need more of them, particularly in places, like my home country, where they are rare or non-existent.

For most of us, however, founding a new school is simply not a practicable solution, both because of the tremendous resources needed to do so and because building a school from scratch takes much time. I would support any such initiative, but we ought not to wait until proper schools happen to open up in our neighborhoods before doing something. In the meantime, we need to cultivate learning, even where we are actively discouraged from doing so.

Parents should pull their kids from any supposed school that fails to keep ideology and radical politics out. Find a good school, even if it is some distance away, or homeschool, instead. I know that can be very challenging and costly, but your children’s intellectual and moral wellbeing is too important to keep them in fake schools, hoping that somehow they will not be corrupted by the poisonous ideas propagated there. They might not be, but they also might be; that risk is far too great.

Young people should choose their colleges and universities prudently, on the basis of commitment to truth rather than institutional reputation or perceived return on investment. A degree from a reputed place is not worth four years and, potentially, hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted. The promise of a good job, which may not be a reliable promise these days, is not worth any amount of intellectual and moral corruption. There are real colleges; find them and go there. Or don’t. It is possible to live a good life, and a gainfully employed one, without a college degree.

And teachers must, so long as they can, do the exact opposite of what fake schools espouse: We must deny the instrumentality of the school; deny its supposed power; eschew indoctrination of all types; reject the claim that the perfect society is possible and that the schools must bring it about; search for truth even when we don’t find it; strive to help the individual student, not the mass; improve intellectually and, if we are fortunate and decent enough ourselves, morally. Put differently, those of us inside fake schools should foster institutional failure by creating spaces of leisure in which young people might actually come to pursue the truth without being directed and determined by ideological and utilitarian concerns.

The goal of all these suggestions is radical in a sense, albeit an old-fashioned and conservative sense: to prevent the propagandizing of our young people. The only way to do that is to eschew completely the radical notion that the school is an instrument of power.

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[1] Russel Kirk, Concise Guide to Conservatism (Washington: Regnery, 2019), p. 73.

[2] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), p. 89.

[3] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” p. 103.

[4] Althusser, “Lenin and Philosophy,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), p. 42.

[5] See Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, including the Philosophical Act, translated by Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009).

[6] Kirk, pp. 71-2.

[7] Kirk, p. 71.

[8] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” p. 106.

[9] See Warren Treadgold, The University We Need: Reforming America’s Higher Education (New York: Encounter Books, 2018).

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