Tmost recently, right-wing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his administration blocked proposed advanced level Black Studies course for high school students, and announced policies that would to brake public universities from teaching programming about racial diversity, equity, and inclusion, or so-called “critical race theory.” The moves follow Florida’s “don’t say gay” legislation last year, restrictive teachers from discussing sexual orientation.
DeSantis and other conservative politicians argue that they are saving America’s youth from leftist ideology and that students should instead receive a “civic education” that extols a patriotic vision of America. However, when DeSantis and his growing number of acolytes present themselves as advocates of civics education, they are actually undermining the whole point of civics education: not to make children “patriotic” or just fill their brains with facts (how many branches of government are there again?), but so that people can be fearless, critical citizens.
This enterprise is threatened by these systematic intimidation campaigns. In fact, DeSantis’ crusade against education is doubly authoritarian—most obviously in the use of state power to suppress ideas and information, but also in the more subtle assumption that teaching is ultimately about imposing doctrines.
It is an open question whether it will be College Board bowed to pressure from conservatives when they removed allegedly controversial material from a new AP African-American history course. It is also an open question as to how much civil rights lawyers and free speech advocates can stop DeSantis’ censorship laws in court. But one thing is clear: the damage to democracy in the US is already being done. Despite the courageous resistance, teachers and lecturers are generally intimidated. As we know from the rise of authoritarianism in other countries and in other periods, total repression is not always necessary: people comply in advance, make small adjustments, or leave the area altogether, where red lines that cannot be crossed are deliberately left vague. .
We also know from crusades against education disguised as culture wars in states like Hungary, defenders of academic freedom face a dilemma that is repeated in the US today. On the one hand, advocates may try to deny that anything they do is political at all. They may insist that education is a science and that children should be told what is what only in terms of facts.
Less obviously, they may try to avoid politics by emphasizing worthy enterprises such as “service learning.” However, community service, however valuable it may be to both students and society, cannot replace real political education, during which students learn to debate and, above all, to disagree. Like Johns Hopkins President Ron Daniels notedstudents are increasingly willing to volunteer, which is great (one might add, of course, volunteering always looks good on a resume, too), but less eager to engage in democratic politics more directly—and colleges seem to be complicit in this trend.
Teachers are rightly concerned that in an age of hyper-polarization, politics could cause an explosion in their classrooms; they also often lack the time, resources and skills to deal with what can be a lengthy and difficult process of teaching young people how to resolve their differences democratically. Add to that the feeling that we are behind the world in Stem and therefore should not be wasting our time on soft topics that will not help us compete with China.
But there is no way out: those who claim the alleged “educational institution“their enemies do not agree with statements that schools do not engage in politics. The likes of Viktor Orbán and his de facto disciple DeSantis will expose professors as purveyors of dangerous ideologies no matter what. After all, this is their political business model. Moral panics happens because political entrepreneurs want to sow panic; answers that boil down to “don’t panic!” or “let’s talk about something else” won’t work.
This is especially true of propaganda about pedagogy: schooling is so damn close to home, but not under the control of those at home; appeals to deep concerns about what happens to children when they are out of our hands can be very effective. (It’s no coincidence that conspiracy theorists like QAnon use the quasi-natural resource of parental fears to create panic and hate.)
So should we just accept that it’s all politics, all the time, all the way, and that everyone is just spreading their ideology? Of course not. Education is political not because everyone can preach their politics on innocent charges, but because it is indispensable to democracy. How John Dewey, the greatest educational philosopher of the 20th century, said, “democracy must be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” So are countries with well-functioning democracies do well by civic education scores. But this is not only a question of knowledge about democracy, but to do a democracy that can be uncomfortable, even painful and guilt-inducing (feelings that the inquisitors of the Sunshine State are trying to express drive out by law from the class).
Good teachers will help students how think through questions; they are not told what think about problems. It is telling that some conservative crusaders – with a clear tendency to project their own approach onto others – cannot conceive of learning in this way. For them, education is a weapon; content should not be discussed, but imposed. It’s one thing to find fault with the specifics of the “Western citizenship”-style curriculum that DeSantis’ cadres want to do; it’s another to point out that the approach itself is a continuation of Trump’s unprofessionalism Commission of 1776who can regard history only as a means of increasing patriotic confidence, and indeed as an education.