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Crossing the Rubicon on the Politicization of Education
In their war on ‘wokeness,’ conservatives are unleashing forces that will come back to hurt us all
The central conservative agenda in the media today is not lower taxes or an assertive American foreign policy. Instead, it is to seize control of public education in an attempt to prevent the propagation of ideas that they regard as hostile to their values, which they lump together under the vague catch-all of “wokeness.”
This is being done at the state level and attempted in some places at the school board level, but nowhere is it being done more systematically than in Florida, where it has become the defining cause of the governor and faces little effective opposition from a moribund state Democratic Party.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has adopted this “anti-woke” agenda largely in an attempt to out-Trump Donald Trump. It isn’t quite working—DeSantis has been fading in the polls for the Republican nomination—but he is likely counting on the possibility that either Trump’s health or his legal troubles might prevent him from receiving the nomination next year, and DeSantis will be waiting in the wings as his most prominent successor.
Whether any of this works as a political ploy, it is instructive because DeSantis is showing us what the new nationalist conservative agenda really means. The nationalists are a subgroup of conservatives who reject the principles of classical liberalism, such as freedom of speech and viewpoint neutrality, in favor of imposing their own agenda. They are the “extremely online” base DeSantis has been courting by actually putting their ideas into practice as government policy in Florida.
In the process, he provides us with some warnings about the future the nationalist conservatives are working toward. The hallmark of that future is the relentless politicization of education in a way that is new because it is conscious, overt and declared. This is bad enough in itself, but it will also unleash forces DeSantis and his nationalist cheerleaders will not be able to control.
The Heckler’s Veto
The most notorious aspect of DeSantis’s policies is the purge of school libraries that he enabled. A Florida law he championed created a kind of universal heckler’s veto, in which citizens can file complaints against any book they regard as inappropriate, and the schools are required to remove it until it can be officially cleared. In effect, every book is considered guilty until proven innocent.
In The Daily Beast, author Jodi Picoult describes the process by which many of her own novels were removed.
[A] parent can challenge a book without having to identify the alleged inappropriate material—or without having even read the book. After doing so, the principal has 15 days to review the book and speak to the challenger, and then the Director of Curriculum and Instruction has 15 days for review, and finally after 45 days the school board makes a decision on the book. However, submitting 92 books at once ensures chaos, as principals do not have the time to do their job and read all that challenged material—which is exactly the point.
Among the targets is anything that mentions sex, particularly even the slightest mention of the existence of homosexuality. Also targeted, under the guise of fighting critical race theory, is discussion of the history of segregation and slavery. Hence, one Florida school district canceled a screening of a film about Ruby Bridges, the first Black student at a previously segregated school in New Orleans in 1960. The reason? One parent complained that “scenes of white people threatening Ruby as she entered a school might result in students learning that white people hate black people.” But the existence of such racial hatred in the past is both an undeniable fact and the whole reason to teach this era of history—to prevent it from repeating itself.
But nationalist conservatives have become the new snowflakes who have decided that they can ban anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, whether it’s homosexuality or the history of slavery and segregation.
We see the same principle at work in a recent exposé of how Florida is pressuring textbook makers to alter standard school textbooks in deference to the same kind of highly defensive sensitivities. Here are some examples from that report, which describes how a right-wing activist group, Florida Citizens Alliance, has been put in charge of vetting textbooks for the Florida Department of Education. Among the infractions the group told textbook publishers to remove were “photos of ‘non-traditional families’”; a reference, in a book for middle-schoolers, to Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin as “the first lesbian elected to the Senate”; and a reference to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the rights of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding—which was tagged as offensive because it references gay weddings.
All this takes “don’t say gay” to a new level. Under the guise of blocking left-wing propaganda about sexuality, Florida’s church-lady caucus has been empowered to expunge all mentions of the mere existence of homosexuality.
Even worse, they have decided that the uncomfortable history of racism must be expunged. An image flagged as violating “the statute relating to guilt of future generations” is the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England. It was a popular image among abolitionists, showing a Black man in chains, captioned with the plaintive question, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Ironically, this image was specifically intended to awaken its viewers’ religious conscience. But portrayal of this history is now being targeted in an attempt to purge textbooks based on a partisan ideological theory.
Nowhere is this clearer than in DeSantis’ takeover of Florida’s New College, a small and affordable public liberal arts college intended to attract honors students. DeSantis appointed a new majority of conservative trustees who promptly fired New College’s president in a bid to make it “a Hillsdale of the South,” in the words of Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz. Hillsdale is an ideologically conservative, Christian private college in Michigan.
To underscore this goal, new trustee (and former Hillsdale journalism fellow) Christopher Rufo has been publicly declaring that the trustees will shut down whole departments and hire new faculty, with the goal that “the student body will be recomposed over time” as “we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.” He recently boasted that the university fired a professor because of his “left-wing” views—ironic, given the right’s (often legitimate) complaints of conservative professors facing ideological discrimination in progressive institutions.
DeSantis and his supporters justify the New College takeover by describing current colleges as engaged in left-wing indoctrination. But its new trustees’ answer is to demand “mission-aligned” students, faculty and curriculum.
Fighting the Bureaucracy by Giving It More Power
In trying to impose their own ideological bent on public schools, isn’t the right just fighting fire with fire? Haven’t many on the left already been politicizing education? Certainly they have. But the difference is how they have done it.
The left-leaning bias of schools has largely grown organically; it was never an openly declared goal of public policy. It is simply a bias shared by many people actually working in the schools, partly acquired through the educational institutions where they were trained. It reflects the prevailing intellectual trend of our era, not some nefarious “deep state” conspiracy.
To push back against it would require conservatives to develop and nurture their own intellectual movement and make it appealing enough to be broadly popular. Instead, they have largely abandoned that task in order to make a political end-run around educational institutions.
A few years ago, conservative academic Mark Bauerlein, writing in the pro-Trump blog American Greatness, declared that the politics of the culture war “is no longer a battle of ideas.”
Conservatives who appeal to liberal ideals in the context of existing institutions, be they the longstanding mores of cooperation in the Senate or academic freedom in the university, are beating their heads against a wall. . . . [P]olitics is now, first and foremost, a battle of persons, not ideologies.
This may sound like a call to battle, but in intellectual terms, it is a counsel of defeatism. The fastest way to lose the battle of ideas is to give up fighting it and bet everything you’ve got on the ups and downs of electoral politics.
Even worse is to bet it on bureaucratic politics. If the left is so dominant within the educational establishment, the fact that public schools are not supposed to engage in political propagandizing is the only thing that has been holding them back. I have kids in private school, and I can tell you from my own school search that if my primary concern were to avoid exposing my kids to left-wing politics (as opposed to giving them the intellectual tools they need to cope with whatever comes at them), then the public schools would be a better bet than many private schools. Without the expectation of being officially ideologically neutral, private schools are free to go way further left.
But if we seek to transform the public schools on the principle that they ought to be the instruments of an overt political agenda, in the long run this is a grant of power to the educational establishment, a green light for them to impose their own favored agenda whenever they feel they can get away with it.
The contradictory impulses behind this approach are summed up in Gov. DeSantis’ recent statement about the government agencies he would seek to eliminate as president, including the Department of Education. But then he adds, “If Congress won't go that far”—and they almost certainly won’t—“I'm going to use those agencies to push back against woke ideology and against the leftism that we see creeping into all institutions of American life.”
This is the foolishness of the nationalist conservative agenda. In seeking to use the state for their ends, nationalist conservatives will end up increasing the power of institutions they are unlikely to control for very long.
Whoever Wins, We Lose
The centerpiece of the nationalist conservative ideology is to reject the idea that law and government administration should adhere to “viewpoint neutrality.” The argument is that this neutrality is an example of how classical liberalism has failed to restrain the left. But in reality, the rejection of viewpoint neutrality recklessly tears down one of the restraints that has been holding the radical left in check.
The nationalist conservatives want to dismantle this protection so that there is nothing to restrain them from imposing their viewpoint on the schools, which is bad enough. But their foolishness is that this politicization of education opens up a struggle for power they are unlikely to win.
The thing about crossing the Rubicon—the fateful decision by Julius Caesar to bring his legions back to Rome and use them in a scramble for total power—is that it unleashes forces you can’t control. That’s something Caesar found out a little too late.
Making education openly and officially a tool of politics means that education will tend to be looked at only through that lens. Nationalist conservatives dress up their reform as an attempt to restore “classical education.” But classical education encompasses a wide variety of ideas that aren’t part of a narrow partisan agenda. If we view education as a political tool, then we can expect education to be reduced and dumbed down to a mere vehicle for political or religious propaganda.
Conservatives are crossing the Rubicon on education, and in the naked scramble for power that they are setting off, we can be sure of one thing: Whoever wins, we lose.