A conversation with the Fordham Institute’s Chester E. Finn, Jr. (Part 1 of 2)

Mar 24, 2021

The education scholar, activist, and philanthropist talks to Michael E. Hartmann and Daniel P. Schmidt about his mentor Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the current state of conservatism.

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. William 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. The 12-and-half-minute video below is the first of two parts of our discussion; the second is here. In the first part, we talk about his mentor Moynihan and the current state of conservatism.

“I spent 15 years of my adult life in the shadow of Pat Moynihan, and it was a worthy shadow to be in. I learned a lot and with every passing day as I watch the goings-on on Capitol Hill, I miss him more and more,” Finn tells us, typically jauntily. “He was a believer in getting things done, in actually sometimes compromising without compromising your principles. He reached across the aisle all sorts of times, and he was also thoughtful, smart, well-read, and learned.”

As for conservatism today, “populism has overwhelmed” it, Finn says. “I joke [about] having in my lifetime now been abandoned by both parties—first by the Democrats, more recently by the Republicans, he laments. “I don’t think I’ve changed much over this period of time. They just each abandoned me. …

“I yearn for a proper conservative party—a compassionate conservative party, if you will,” he continues. “We don’t have one right now in America ….”

In the conversation’s second part, 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.