The Department of Education Is as Useful as a Screen Door on a Submarine

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Conservatives should oppose federal industrial policy on principle. But if they are to support it, there’s no reason it should involve the DOE.

My colleague Kevin Williamson has recently argued that the federal Department of Education could conceivably be a boon to the United States of America if only it could be put to better use. His argument is couched largely in terms of geopolitics and great-power competition: He notes that the U.K. has made scientific research and development central to its national aspirations, casts the customary anxious glance at China, and warns his readers that “the course of the future is going to be determined by artificial intelligence and advances in medical genomics, not by aircraft carriers.”

There’s a basic category error at work here. Neither of the two pieces Kevin has written on the subject add up to an argument for the Department of Education; they constitute an argument for a federal industrial policy — one that, as a good, upstanding libertarian, he has to make indirectly, by way of a nod toward Bismarckian reform of America’s schools.

The concrete examples that Kevin gives of good policy abroad have hardly anything to do with government education policy. Take the British government, for instance, which he correctly observes “is increasingly of the view that its standing in the world will depend much more acutely on its education and research capabilities than on such traditional British strengths as trade and sea power.”

The recent British prioritization of R&D is the brainchild of Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. Until Cummings was summarily dismissed recently for not playing well with others, his was the mind behind the techno-futurist Britannia that Kevin describes. During the British general-election campaign of 2019, Cummings shared an academic paper on his blog that he intimated would form a sound basis for policy aimed at improving “long-term productivity, science, technology,” and such. After the Tories won a landslide victory, Cummings had free rein to craft such policy. But did he do so through the Ministry of Education? No. As Kevin noted in the first of his two pieces, the Johnson government actually separated the heretofore-conjoined Departments of Education and Department of Scientific Research, giving the latter its own separate portfolio. This is because Cummings and his confederates rightly identified scientific research and development as encompassing nothing more or less than the key industries of the 21st century. It is industrial policy that the Tories are pursuing, not education policy. The academic paper that Cummings used as his manifesto said as much. Its author, Professor Richard Jones, even wrote ruefully that “the industrial strategy of the Conservative administrations between 1979 and 1997 was not to have an industrial strategy.”

Moreover, the current British policy stance toward these matters specifically downplays education as an area of concern. Jones, for instance, emphasizes that the U.K. already has a world-leading higher-education sector. What the British government is seeking to address are the country’s shortcomings in “translational research” — the process of turning the theoretical knowledge supplied by universities into innovation and enterprise. The British are not seeking to address any shortcomings in their education system with their R&D policies; they’re looking to take the already-excellent finished product of their higher-education sector — which, like the United States’, is much more independent of the central government than primary and secondary schools — and better parlay it into innovative products for sale in the marketplace. The Germans have an entire economic ecosystem built around this idea of translational research, which they call “the industrial commons.” The whole thing has very little to do with the country’s education ministry.

The United States could follow Britain’s example, and enact the kinds of policies Kevin proposes, without involving the federal Department of Education. The British government is perfectly content with the raw material of market innovation that the country is getting from its top universities. The U.S., with at least twice as many world-leading universities as Britain, should be even happier with the raw material its own higher-education sector generates. Once again, this is about industrial policy, not education.

“But doesn’t the success of British and American higher education say something good about the two countries’ centralized education bureaucracies?” some might ask. No. There are mountains of data to show that the educational theories that are being foisted upon American teachers and students from Washington are an active hindrance to successfully educating the next generation. American universities succeed in spite of government-run K–12 schools, not because of them.

But if, in places such as Germany and the United Kingdom, the quest for a techno-futurist industrial commons leaves education policy largely untouched, why should the same hold true in America? Wouldn’t the U.S., by putting the Department of Education to these ends, get a leg up on its European neighbors? Well, in a word, yes. Of course America can direct the children in its schools toward collective national ends, training them up for technological combat with the Chinese and foisting upon them preordained careers that suit and serve the interests of the federal government. But this would be mad, bad, and fundamentally un-American. Our children have suffered enough from progressive theorists’ love affair with the 19th-century Prussian educational model. The last thing they need is for conservatives to come around to the same position.


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