3 min read

The education scholar, activist, and philanthropist talks to Michael E. Hartmann and Daniel P. Schmidt about the current states of philanthropy, school choice, and history and civics education.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a man who speaks with the wisdom of decades of experience in public policy, with youthful exuberance. One can learn much from, while having much fun with, him.

Finn is a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the respected education-policy think tank. He is also president emeritus of its affiliated Thomas F. Fordham Foundation and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Finn has been a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the Hudson Institute, a founding partner and senior scholar at the Edison Project, a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, and Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education under Sec. Bill Bennett, as well.

Before all that, Finn earned his doctorate at Harvard University under the direction of Prof. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then worked for Moynihan at The White House under President Richard Nixon and when Moynihan was U.S. Ambassador to India and then a U.S. Senator from New York.

Nixon and Moynihan

Finn is the author or editor more than 20 books, most recently including How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools (edited with current Fordham Institute president Michael J. Petrilli) and Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement (written with Andrew E. Scanlan).

Finn has served on many boards, including the National Assessment Governing Board (which he chaired), the Maryland State Board of Education (of which he was vice chair), and the Philanthropy Roundtable. He currently serves on the boards of the National Council on Teacher Quality and the Core Knowledge Foundation, among others.

Finn was kind enough to speak with us last week. In the first of two parts of our discussion, which is here, we talk about his mentor Moynihan and the current state of conservatism. In the second, almost 14-minute part below, Finn addresses the current states of philanthropy, school choice, and history and civics education, along with his doctoral dissertation on education policy in the Nixon administration.

Schmidt and Hartmann (top row) and Finn (bottom)

“Think if Irving Kristol were alive today. He would say, Let’s straighten up and fly right, conservative philanthropy,” Finn tells us.

The battles that you were waging 10 and 20 years ago, progress was made, but the battlefield is not being abandoned by the other side … Progressivism is alive and well and kicking hard, and conservatism, if there is such a thing today, needs to push at least to start in the other direction ….

As for school choice, “If you just look at your numbers, it’s looking good in terms of the numbers of charter schools, the numbers of voucher programs, tax-credit programs, state by state,” Finn says, as well as “new forms of school choice that kind of materialized during the covid” shutdowns.

“We now have a whole lot of democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives on the warpath against charter schools,” however, he warns—which they weren’t 10 years ago. Charter schools were the quintessential bipartisan education reform.”

On history and civics education, “I see the fundamental mission of schools, and the immigrants understood this,” is “to create citizens, to form American citizens,” Finn says, and

forming citizens involves teaching things like history and civics, and modeling things like history and civics in the school. …

We need to understand these things in order that you can be a good citizen when you grow up. That’s not happening. Instead, we’re arguing over, you know, is it 1619 or 1776 in the history curriculum? … We’re fighting over the wrong things in history and civics, instead of instead of saying, What does it take to build a citizen for tomorrow?

We need to tell “people’s stories, including immigrant stories,” he continues. “Those up-by-the bootstraps stories are worth telling here, if people are still willing to learn from examples ….”


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