The United States is at War with Itself, and Education is one of its latest casualties. The institutions that are essential for creating informed, engaged, and critical citizens are under attack. One consequence is the disappearance of the language of democracy and the institutions and formative culture that make it possible.
These signs are everywhere. Jim Crow politics are back and stronger than ever. The Republican Party, both during and after Trump’s presidency, has abandoned any pretense of democracy in its affirmation and embrace of authoritarian politics.This is evident in their weaponization and support for discriminatory policies of exclusion, their construction of a Wall that has become a resurgent symbol nativism and the internment of children at the southern border separated from their undocumented parents.
The rush to construct a home-grown form of authoritarianism is also clear in the passing of a barrage of voter suppression laws introduced in Republican-controlled state legislaturesAll of them were based upon baseless claims about voter fraud. Voter suppression is now the currency of a rebranded form racialized fascist political ideology. As of September 1, 2020, 361 bills had been introduced in 47 states. Meanwhile, 33 laws have been passed in 19 states that make it more difficult for Americans to vote, especially poor Black citizens. Neoliberalism’s survival-of-the-fittest ideology has turned even more toxic. The right-wing appetite for maliciousness and cruelty now translates into a form of learned brutality—allowing people to think the unthinkable and embrace the tenets of white supremacy.
Voter suppression laws feed white supremacy and fit well into the racist argument whites are under siege, namely by people of color trying to dethrone or replace them. In this case, such laws, along with ongoing attacks on equality and social justice, are defended by right-wing extremists as justifiable measures to protect whites from the “contaminating” influence of immigrants, Black people, and others considered unworthy of occupying and participating in the public sphere and democratic process. Similarly, voter suppression laws are defended as legitimate attempts to provide proof of “real Americans,” code for defining people of color as “counterfeit citizens.” In actuality, these laws are not only racist in intent, but are also meant to enable permanent minority rule for the Republican Party, the end point of which is a form of authoritarianism.
White supremacists use the attacks on critical race theory to try to define who is American. This long-standing legacy has made those groups not eligible for citizenship disappear. The language of historical pedagogical erasure covers the genocide perpetrated on Native Americans through the horrors and Jim Crow laws, as well as the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII and the rise and fall of the racialized carceral nation. This is not just about the whitening collective identity, American history, and the public sphere. There are invocations of whiteness, as Paul Gilroy suggests, that enhance “the allure of [a] rebranded fascism.”
The Republican Party’s labeling of critical race theory as “ideological or faddish” both denies the history of racism as well as the ways in which it is enforced through policy, laws and institutions. Many Republicans view racial hate as a way to prevent students from learning about the many ways that racism continues in American society. For example, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has stated that “There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” DeSantis has not only labeled critical race theory as “false history,” but he has also extended the discourse of his virulent attack on any vestige of critical education and critical race theory to almost unrecognizably repressive lengths. As Eric Lutz points outDeSantis won the
culture war a step farther, signing laws that will require students and staff at public universities to be surveyed on their political beliefs; bar higher education institutions from preventing access to ideas students may find “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive;” and force-feeding K-12 students “portraits in patriotism” that contrasts America with communist and totalitarian regimes.
Apartheid pedagogy is updated to include historical cleansing. The call for racial justice is equated with a form of racist hatred, leaving intact the refusal of the public imagination to acknowledge, condemn, or confront the persistence of racism in American society. Apartheid pedagogy makes criticisms of racial injustices and structural racism a violation of law and an object of state oppression.
Critical race theory is being attacked. It restricts what educators can teach and say in the classroom, and invokes the language of fear and retaliation. As Heather Cox Richardson points out in her October 16, 2021, newsletter, teachers who refer to the work of Frederick Douglass, the Chicano movement, women’s suffrage and equal rights, the civil rights movement, Indigenous rights, and the American labor movement all run the risk of losing their jobs in states such as Texas. Many teachers are not just confused about what they can and cannot say in the classroom about social justice issues but also live in daily fear over the consequences they may face “for even broaching nuanced conversations about racism and sexism.” Such fears point to more than the curtailing of freedom of expression and the idealizing of history by whitewashing it. They also identify America’s slide into a re-branded fascist politics that is difficult to ignore. This type of indoctrination and intrusion into shaping the curriculum makes it clear how right-wing Republicans view what it means to be a “patriotic American.” The threat of white supremacy has even been acknowledged by President Joe Biden in a speech he delivered marking the Tulsa race massacre. Biden warned that U.S. democracy was not only in danger but that Americans had to recognize and challenge the “deep roots of racial terror.”
Legalizing Racial Oppression and Apartheid Education
The United States is witnessing an increase in racialized fear, intimidation, censorship. This is evident in the fact that 27 anti-Critical Race Theory bills (CRT) have been introduced in or passed in 27 states across the country. These bills are designed to restrict or limit teachers’ ability to teach about the history of slavery in America and racism in American society. These reactionary attacks against critical thought and emancipatory forms pedagogy echo an earlier time in American history. Such attacks are reminiscent of the McCarthy and Red Scare period of the 1950s when heightened paranoia over the threat of communism resulted in a slew of laws that banned the teaching of material deemed unpatriotic, “and required professors to swear loyalty oaths.”
This kind of repression is a sign of ignorance. Right-wing attacks against critical race theory ignore all work by prominent Black scholars, ranging from W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Y. Davis, Audre Lord, and James Baldwin are not mentioned. Even Derrick Bell, who was the founder of critical racism theory in the 1980s, is not mentioned. Nor is there room for complexity, evidence or facts, just as there is no room for either a critique of structural racism or the actual assumptions and influence that make up CRT’s body of work. These attacks raise fundamental questions regarding the purpose of higher education, and the role of academics during times of increasing authoritarianism.
This is especially true in a time when higher education has become a source of derision and censorship. It also serves as a way to demonize faculty and students who critically address issues of racial inequality and social injustice. Let’s be clear. The Republican Party views higher education as a battlefield for conducting a race battle in the spirit of Confederacy. It is conducted through the twin registers, censorship and indoctrination. Right-wing politicians now use education as a weapon to discredit any critical approach to dealing with the history of white supremacy and racial injustice. They undermine and discredit critical faculties that are essential for students and other people. to examine history as a resource in order to “investigate the core conflict between a nation founded on radical notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, and a nation built on slavery, exploitation, and exclusion.” In this context, the language of history appears frozen, stripped of its critical insights, and reduced to a weapon of miseducation. History does not teach us how to resist tyranny or what the ethical grounds for resistance look like. It doesn’t teach us lessons about how to act. Ignorance destroys civic culture, undermines democracy and eliminates a informed public capable of understanding the forces that impact their lives.
Apartheid pedagogy promotes disavowal, erasure, and disappearance. It encourages a manufactured ignorance that serves civic death and a flight away from ethical and social responsibility. The right-wing attempt to impose “patriotic education” on educators is part of a longstanding counter-revolution that conservatives have waged since the student revolts of the 1960s. Liberals and conservatives considered the 1960s student call to democratize university and make it more accessible to students of color a dangerous expressions of dissent. In one famous instance, this was duly noted by ruling class elites such as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in the Trilateral Commission of 1973 who complained about what was called the “excess of democracy” in the United States. This counter-revolution also led to the corporatization and exploitation of the university. Business models dictated how the university was run, which resulted in students being seen as consumers and part-time workers and faculty being reduced. A Board of Trustees has attempted to remove faculty from decisions about administrative governance, faculty appointments, tenure, and who decides who. In addition, many Republican-led states are not only making decisions about what books can or cannot be taught — a decision that should be left up to teachers — but are also calling for what they call teaching opposing views in classrooms. One example: A Texas school district administrator was in charge of curriculum. informed a group of elementary school teachers that “if their classroom libraries included books about the Holocaust, students should also be steered toward books with ‘opposing views,’” as if there were a legitimate opposing view to counter the death of 6 million Jews and others.
Right-wing legislators also introduced legislation to limit funding for higher education institutions that teach critical racism theory. Sarah Fowler Arthur (Ohio Republican State Representative) introduced such legislation. a bill titled “Promoting Education Not Indoctrination Act”This threatens to reduce state funding by 25% for any Ohio public university that permits the teaching of critical racism theory. Arthur’s disdain for democracyIt was also evident in her efforts to eliminate from state-mandated Curriculum Guidelines any mention of the concept of common good. This view was in sympathy her repugnant views on racism and environmentalism as well as critical thinking. Ron DeSantis has passed legislation that mandates that Florida’s two public universities “use objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid” surveys to measure “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives” exist on the campuses. The law, which amounts to ideological surveys, also encourages conservative students secretly to record classes in case they file a lawsuit against the university. This is about more than censorship; it is about the whitewashing of history and education regarding any issue that is at odds with the right-wing’s notion of patriotic education. As the novelist Francine Prose argues:
If teachers are obliged to tell their classes that there is “another point of view” about whether the Holocaust occurred, must American history lessons now also include books asserting that the United States was never a slave-holding nation or that racism ended with the Emancipation Proclamation? If a class is led to believe that LGBTQ+ people are entitled the basic human rights, then must they be asked to seriously consider the opposite view. That is, that anyone who is not a heterosexual should be denied these rights.
Foundations such as Manhattan Institute and Heritage Foundation are funding such attacks. These foundations often rely on the endorsement by conservative scholars like Thomas Sowell. Some of most powerful enablers of the attack on “anti-racist programs” in higher education and elsewhere include such as organizations such as the Koch Brothers foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is especially pernicious as it serves as a template for anti-critical race theory bills, which are then used in many states legislatures. This is apartheid education with a vengeance.
Education Must Develop Young People’s Capacity for Democracy
The current generation of students, educators, and other professionals faces the challenge of addressing the question of what higher education should do in a precarious democracy. How can educational and didactical practices be linked to the revival of historical memory, new forms of solidarity, and broad-based struggles in the direction of an insurrectional democracies? How can education be enlisted to fight what the cultural theorist Mark Fisher once called neoliberalism’s most brutal weapon, “the slow cancellation of the future?”
This vision calls for the revival of a democratic project, which provides the foundation for imagining a life that transcends a social order characterized by massive inequality, endless assaults upon the environment, and elevates militarization and war to the highest and most sacred national ideals. In such circumstances education becomes more than an obsession about accountability schemes and market value, and an unreflective immersion with the crude empiricism in a data-obsessed, market-driven society. Education and pedagogy must provide the conditions for young people, not just to train workers, to think about how to keep a democracy alive. Yes, we must educate young people with the skills they need to get jobs but as educators we must also teach them to learn “to live with less or no misery [and] to fight against those social sources” that cause war, destruction of the environment, “inequality, unhappiness, and needless human suffering.” As Christopher Newfield argues, “democracy needs a public” and higher education has a crucial role to play in this regard as a democratic public good rather than defining itself through the market-based values of neoliberal capitalism.
Administrators, faculty, and students at colleges and universities face the greatest challenge of all: developing discourses that connect classroom knowledge and values with the larger society. Doing so will increase young people’s ability to translate their private problems into larger systemic issues. These transcripts can at best be used to generate public dissent, moments of rupture, or empowering transgressions. Democracy cannot work if citizens are not autonomous, self-judging, curious, reflective and independent — qualities that are indispensable for students if they are going to make vital judgments and choices about participating in and shaping decisions that affect everyday life, institutional reform and governmental policy.
Right-wing attacks on education are dangerously weakening the democratic and critical impulses of education. They are also designed to remove history’s most important and troubling elements. In doing so, they weaken the pedagogical possibilities for students to engage in free and open ideas exchanges while undermining conditions that encourage critical thinking, dialogue and civic engagement. This form of pedagogical suppression makes it impossible to discern truth, evidence, and reality. These actions set the stage to create a generation that is unable or unwilling to discern truth from fiction, unprepared to reject conspiracy theories, and unable to resist demagogic leaders’ false claims. This education prepares them for a world in which manufactured ignorance is the norm, and where repeating the worst aspects of the past becomes a common reality.
This sense of resistance starts with refusing to accept an abrasive functional view of education, which only values research, knowledge, teaching and learning that can generate a profit. We must reject educational views that place administrators, faculty, students in the prison of common sense and cynicism. We must reject attacks on teacher unions, and the reduction in knowledge, values, and modes of governance to managerial capitalism. We must not allow education to be used as a work station for right-wing ideology and white supremacy.Or into factories designed to domesticate thoughts and stimulate imagination. We must oppose the influence of bean counters to link educational research with data idolatry. This aims to limit the possibilities and promote a deadening instrumental rationality which suffocates the mind. We must resist the empirical frenzies, which make courageous ideas useless and ignore the shadow of fascist politics.