The Governor Kemp Problem

Recently in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp’s education office issued a draft of new English language arts (ELA) standards for public comment. Such efforts pop up every five years or so, and they’re not the kind of thing that gets much attention outside of education circles. The document itself is dry and technical. It looks and sounds like a regulatory notice that has little bearing upon important political and cultural matters of the day, just another paper from the educrat sphere. 

In truth, however, these ELA standards pose a blunt question about the future of conservatism and the nature of the Republican Party: Why would a Republican governor with national ambitions produce an education roadmap that is wholly devoid of conservative beliefs and goals? How did his administration come up with a pedagogy that maintains the very progressivist ideals that have dominated the public schools for decades and turned the youth vote into a heavily Democratic bloc? 

For those conservatives laboring in the field, it’s a perpetual frustration. I’ve seen it often. This time, after someone in Atlanta sent me a draft of the standards, I wrote an op-ed for the Atlanta JournalConstitution explaining the drawbacks. 

Here is my summary judgment: 

The document is exactly what we’ve come to expect from educationists and state bureaucrats: a bunch of basic verbal skills dressed up in pseudoscientific language, while the traditional content of English, the literary-historical knowledge that kids used to acquire in high school—some Shakespeare, the Great American Novel, etc.—is nowhere to be found.  

Georgia’s proposed standards contain lots of sensible talk about grammar and usage (in spite of the pompous idiom of “convergent and divergent thinking,” “deconstruct,” “making meaning,” etc.), along with unobjectionable notes on research methods, media and communication, and reading comprehension. But we get nothing on English and American literature, no mention of great writers and their creations. 

Common Core’s ELA standards included this for grades 11-12: “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature,” which Georgia adopted in July 2010. But that customary requirement, which I fulfilled in 11th grade back in 1976, is gone now. The whole thing sticks to skills, reading and writing in the abstract. No knowledge appears, no mention of tradition and heritage. The history of the English language is missing, and so are American dialects. That America has a literature that stands equal to the masterpieces of other nations is an idea that the designers of this sorry instrument never touch. 

In the old English classroom, you learned your verbal “Ps and Qs,” yes, and also a lineage of Shakespeare, Keats and Austen, as well as Hawthorne, Melville, and Frost. It was assumed teenagers should know the greats, that they stand in the shadow of Hamlet and Huck and “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” In civics class, they learned that American citizenship meant the First Amendment and separation of powers and equal justice. In English class, they learned that the American character wasn’t only Washington, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was also Hester Prynne, Henry Fleming (The Red Badge of Courage), and Jay Gatsby. To old critics on the Left and the Right, you couldn’t really understand American politics if you hadn’t read classic American literature as closely as you did Marx and Adam Smith. 

Education isn’t conservative unless it conserves. A set of ELA standards that makes no room for the past leaves the curriculum up to administrators and teachers who, as we see everywhere we look today, share an anti-conservative outlook. We know what matters most to them: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Tradition has a guilty meaning, and so do Great Books, Western Civilization, and the old literary canon. A knowledge-free roadmap of standards frees educators to favor contemporary literature and current social affairs—in other words, a Woke gospel that can be peddled to 15-year-olds who have no exposure to novels and poems that might reveal just how warped that gospel is.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of great literature and a great tradition to resist the blandishments of Woke coercion. Identity politics don’t appeal so much to a youth who has imbibed “Self-Reliance” and Walden, works that abhor group dynamics. Read Swift and Orwell and you immediately suspect an idealist who arrives with promises of radical change. The spongy idiom of political correctness doesn’t fly with a youth who likes the hard edges of Emily Dickinson’s verse. Victimology won’t please a mind that admires Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. The great heritage of the American short story from Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathanial Hawthorne to William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and John Updike lets students know that they have much to cherish in their own country’s past. 

Not here, not at all, and we know why the educators have kept it out. They wish to abolish the American Way, to deny the youth a glorious past so that those youths grow up with no inclination to defend their country. Why, though, has this proposal come from a Republican administration? Is Governor Kemp simply clueless when it comes to education? Has he turned the initiative over to the experts not realizing that the discipline of education went far left decades ago? 

As with so many Republicans, Brian Kemp made his name in business before entering politics. His biography on the state’s website highlights a political career spent cutting fees and taxes, reducing government spending, and promoting small businesses. Not one word of his profile suggests he has any idea of the role education plays in the political sphere. 

It’s the type of incompetence that the Left loves to exploit. Educationists can craft a pedagogy of skills that appears politically neutral and passes before Kemp’s eyes without raising any doubts. The governor fails to see that the absence of an English/American tradition is a hostile action. He doesn’t recognize the loss, the defeat. He hasn’t the background or experience that would enable him to prize literary-historical knowledge and conserve the American Way. He has no weapons to fight the culture war that is playing out in the schools. 

On this matter, he is weak, he’s incompetent. 

To measure just how poorly Kemp has performed in this episode, compare the new Georgia standards to what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ team came up with just two years ago. (I served as consultant on the project.) There, we have copious literary history added to the skills side, recommended reading lists and breakdowns of literary periods and their characteristic features. The document states that ELA “is not a discrete set of skills, but a rich discipline with meaningful, significant content” (p. 7), and the rest of the document makes clear that the content at hand is Greek drama, Shakespeare, Romantic poetry . . . 

The Florida standards are there for Kemp and other Republicans to emulate in their own states, though it may be too late for Georgia. This is but one more failure of Republican leaders to uphold the conservative values they profess. Once again, the leadership has betrayed the ones who voted for them. When Governor Kemp takes the next step in his political career and runs for the Senate in the state, let us be sure to remind voters in Georgia that when it comes to the education and culture issues that matter so much to conservative voters, the man is an empty suit.

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