The Conservative Case for Education: Against the Current, by Nicholas Tate

By

Ruth Mieschbuehler

Book Review

The Conservative Case for Education: Against the Current, by Nicholas Tate, Abingdon and New York: Routledge (2017). ISBN 978-0-367-18192-5

Having recently re-read Tate’s book The Conservative Case for Education, first published in 2017, I believe that it provides a much-needed addition to the Education Studies literature as it returns to the ideas of relevant but often neglected twentieth-century authors on education. Michael Oakeshott, Hannah Arendt, E.D. Hirsch and T.S. Eliot are not commonly read or studied by students or academics in education because their ideas are what Tate describes as ‘conservative’ ideas about education. They go against the intellectual dominance of so-called progressive ideas that have taken hold in the education sector most notably since the 1960s.

Tate starts his book by identifying the characteristics of progressive ideas about education, which he claims is the dominant liberal ideology, and by questioning some of the unchallenged assumptions of progressivism. He particularly draws attention to the desire to create a ‘new man’ that is linked to progressive ideas in education and which, he argues, has led to the contemporary school ‘abandoning its prime duty to instruct in favour of social engineering’ (Tate 2017: 5). Central to the creation of a ‘new man’ is the school involvement in promoting a certain kind of society, rather than the acquisition of subject knowledge that was central to the work of these forgotten
thinkers.

Tate ends his book by providing fifteen principles of a conservative case for education. But what the principles really sets out is a case for education without the conservative aspect in it. Tate’s first principle, ‘education exists for its own sake, as something of value in itself’ (Tate 2017: 221) illustrates what may be described by progressive educationalists as an old-fashioned view of education. This is why Tate refers to it as the conservative case for education, but what Tate is arguing for is really just education as opposed to education understood as a form of training that has social engineering at its heart.

Tate does admit towards the end of the book that the conservative case for education may also be referred to as ‘the case for liberal education’ in the ‘traditional sense of one that is non-utilitarian, that focuses on ’our formation as free beings’ and on the development of the individual mind and is based on the transmission of “the best that has been thought and said”’ (Tate 2017: 220). It is the kind of education Oakeshott, Arendt, Hirsch and Eliot are passionately and rationally argue for.

Tate also rightly points out that Oakeshott, Arendt, Hirsch and Eliot are not wholeheartedly conservative thinkers. Instead, what the four thinkers do have in common is that they found themselves on the educational margins with their educational views. These were often labelled by progressive educationalists as old-fashioned and outdated. But what may be seen by some as old-fashioned is, in fact, the truly progressive understanding of education. One that believes in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake without ulterior or utilitarian purpose. It is the education we owe to all our children.

Tate’s exploration of the view that education exists for its own sake, is why students and academics in education should read his book. Within academia and the education sector more widely the progressive view gets infinitely more attention than that of Tate’s forgotten thinkers. For an in-depth understanding of education, its purpose, meaning and approaches, intellectual engagement with these so-called conservative thinkers is essential.

A caveat. Before reading Tate’s book it is good academic practice to study the original texts and form your own understanding of Oakeshott, Arendt, Hirsch and Eliot’s ideas on education. Some scholars, and many students, shy away from reading original texts either because they think they are too hard intellectually, or because reading other authors’ summaries of the ideas of great thinkers is seen as a convenient shortcut. Neither is true. If you believe in education and want to learn about the subject, there is nothing like reading the original texts.

Mieschbuehler, R.(2023) Review of The Conservative Case for Education: Against the Current, by Nicholas Tate. Educationalfutures, [online] Vol. 14(1). Available at: https://educationstudies.org.uk/?p=20865 [Accessed 21 Jun, 2024].

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Volume 14(1) 2023

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