Review by Michael Merrick

12 Nov 2017, 5:00

The Conservative Case for Education by Nicholas Tate

As a (small-c) conservative in education, allies are few and far between, and you cling to them where you find them.

Those bold enough to enunciate the conservative vision are rarer still, so I wanted to love this book.

Tate sets himself a difficult task, presenting a case for a philosophy (a disposition?) that’s already so resilient to description, in the context of an educational culture in which it has been almost entirely vanquished.

It is this difficulty which causes him to reframe the debate under the book’s subtitle, ‘Against the current’. Accordingly, he offers up the pensée unique — meaning the contemporary, progressive, mindset that’s currently dominant in the academy and which, like all group-think, is “defended with self-righteous fervour and maintained regardless of the evidence”— as the hinge around which his thesis proceeds.

With this, Tate manufactures coherence using a selection of writers – Eliot, Oakeshott, Arendt, Hirsch – who might otherwise be considered odd bedfellows.

What unites these thinkers is not conservatism, but their ability to provide an intellectual reactive against this pensée unique, a commonality that gives us an important early glimpse at Tate’s real intention in writing this book.

Tate builds a jigsaw of juxtapositions against dominant presumptions

Eliot receives the bulk of the attention, as Tate builds a jigsaw of juxtapositions against dominant presumptions, including the thorny issue of what education should look like in a “plurally monocultural” society.

This includes a consideration of faith schools from which I find myself most distant, and where he admits his argument is “un-conservative”, even if one suspects it is not with Christian schools per se where his anxieties lie.

Oakeshott is also afforded substantial consideration, and Tate’s teasing out of the notion of schole is genuinely insightful. Through both thinkers, we also see a refreshing critical inspection of the principle of utility (for Oakeshott, “socialisation”), and its close kin, social mobility (for Eliot “getting on”).

Arendt and Hirsch receive a more cursory treatment, each parsed for the contributions they might make to the case against pensée unique; Arendt in her essay ‘The Crisis in Education’, and Hirsch in his reclamation of the knowledge agenda, each overlapping with conservative anxieties on concepts such as hierarchy, authority and cultural transmission.

Tate also regularly brings to light the work of various French thinkers, a real treat, and his careful research provides a feast of references and recommendations for further reading.

There remains, however, an underlying tension; Tate’s evident irritation with the direction of contemporary thinking, indeed culture, seems to hang over his work.

There is nothing wrong with this, and as Chesterton reminds us, “he is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative”. But the rebel must also be a romantic, and have a cause to sell. It is here that Tate risks reaffirming the caricatures of the conservative mindset – that it knows what it is against more than it knows what it is for.

One has to work too hard to piece it together from a book that ought to have done precisely this work for you

This is not to say there is nothing of the beauty, of the intellectually compelling case for conservativism present, but one has to work too hard to piece it together from a book that ought to have done precisely this work for you.

This is perhaps best summed up in the closing stages of the book, where Tate provides a list of 15 principles, the conservative case reduced to a sort of philosophical manualism. And even these fail to hit the heights, offering a list that is largely pragmatic, asserted and immanent.

And so, as a conservative looking for a bold articulation of the conservative case for education, one is left disappointed, as he instead offers the case against its ideological opponent. One might hack at weeds in the ideological garden, but unless one cultivates something to grow in its place, they will only grow back.

In the end, Tate teases the reader, leaving them ready for a revolution, but never quite telling them what it is they should be fighting for.

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