Bush and Booker T. Washington's 'Compassionate Conservatism'

By Kikas, Gabriel | Contemporary Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Bush and Booker T. Washington's 'Compassionate Conservatism'


Kikas, Gabriel, Contemporary Review


IN 1999, a year before the last Presidential Election, George W. Bush introduced the rather novel idea of 'Compassionate Conservatism', which is based upon the profound belief of 'social progress through individual change'. Bush very much questioned the 'new culture' that states that 'every problem' such as crime and poverty requires solely a 'government solution'. After the United States Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, it made little effort to aid 'organizations with strong track records in fighting alcoholism, drug addiction, or motivating ex-convicts to avoid new trouble'. These laudable efforts are best accomplished, observed Bush, 'by churches, synagogues, and charities that warm the cold of life'.

There is a plethora of admirable precedents to this form of conservatism. Marvin Olasky, who is a staunch advocate of Compassionate Conservatism and adviser to Bush, has written much about how nineteenth-century philanthropic and spiritual organizations 'waged a war on poverty' in 'revitalizing urban communities' across the United States. Jean Bethke Elshtain contributes to the literature with a 'new interpretation' of Jane Addams' work in helping 'Chicago's needy' live up to 'their potentialities'. Bush's thinking behind the idea of Compassionate Conservatism has been adapted from the works (and writings) of Booker T. Washington. Washington, a late nineteenth-century African American social activist, contributed to the building of the Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) in Alabama. Under Washington's guardianship, the Tuskegee Institute perceived industrial education (coupled with the important promotion of 'social captial') to be a panacea to the economic and social plight of the average African American citizen. The more interesting point here is this. Bush's Compassionate Conservatism possesses certain interesting parallels to Washington's overall educational philosophy in 'that you can be what you want to be, and achieve what you want to achieve, so long as you are willing to work hard and earn it'.

An interesting parallel between Bush and Washington is aiding society's disadvantaged to be economically autonomous. A place to start would be for America's many social institutions to help promote the very much needed art of reading. When he was Governor of Texas, Bush aggressively pushed this skill as the 'new civil right' to fight for. Bush equates the art of reading to Washington's conviction of 'relating education to life'. In his autobiography A Charge to Keep, Bush describes the frustration of a high school teacher in Houston, Texas, Nelson Brown who lamented that his students' most difficult scholastic impediment was illiteracy. Those without this important proficiency are unable 'to read the textbook; too often they cannot understand oral explanations, and they cannot take any worthwhile notes'. 'Illiterate students', Bush further argues, 'face a life of frustration and failure on the fringes of society. Large numbers turn to crime and wind up in prison. Many others eventually join welfare rolls'.

Washington also demonstrated an avid interest in alleviating 'the cycle of dependency and despair' for nineteenth-century African Americans. Washington asserted that African Americans' flight from their dreary past would mean very little unless they obtained from social institutions an education of 'practical value'. Washington's concern was 'that slavery had left the [African American] ill-prepared to care for himself'. In Washington's opinion, African Americans needed skills that would help them be 'better prepared for the duties of citizenship'. The feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a contemporary of Washington) shared (to a certain degree) his educational sentiments. In her 'Solitude of the Self' speech, for example, Stanton laments that there will be periods of 'great crisis' in which women will 'have only themselves to rely upon, and yet are not trained to fend for themselves'. …

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Bush and Booker T. Washington's 'Compassionate Conservatism'
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