Neoliberalism Paved the Way for Book Banning to Take Hold in US Schools

The rising movement to ban booksInstall surveillance cameras in classrooms and delimit the boundaries acceptable language and ideasSchools across the United States are being forced to limit the intellectual autonomy and suppress critical thought. It is a glimpse at a future of fascist miseducation.

Many of the local school districts’ attempts to ban books are failing. astroturfed — seemingly grassroots movements that are in fact funded by wealthy organizations — or knee-jerk reactions to the increasingly fascist politics of the far right, an authoritarian slide steered by the sensationalism and fearmongering of conservative media. Fascism, political theorists have shown us, is in dire need of an emotional spectacle, which generates fear, distraction and xenophobic sensations of encroaching menace.

However, fascist politics as a result of the current assault on education have no future. They only wish to relive simpler pasts of unity, purity, and simplicity that never existed. Advocates of book bans and other repressive education legislation have fantasies about controlling those who are unable or unwilling to deal with the overlapping crises of the time, the possibility of progressive change, and even the possibility of a better tomorrow. Their politics is strictly reactionary and evinces a desire to maintain inequality, hierarchy and oppression, as a world promised by centuries of violence and theft.

But, it is impossible to say that fascist miseducation does not have a future. The groundwork for fascist miseducation is being laid ideologically, and through what Yale Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy Jason Stanley calls “fascism’s legal phase.” And though the foundations for meaningful, critical education have been weakened by decades of privatization, the inability to offer a positive vision of the future indicates a significant vulnerability at the heart of the far right’s fascist politics.

The immediate threat to books that promote critical thought about various histories of oppression as well as progressive achievements in matters of class and race, gender, and sexuality is the repressive assault against educators’ intellectual capacity. The well-known lesson that fascism first targets is almost universally shared by historical analyses of fascist political history. intellectualsThe left. There is no reason for us to think that the current movement of banning books and instilling fear in teachers, who are already in a precarious position in the wake neoliberal austerity. This movement aims to destroy education and to expel schools of critical educators. They are among few public workers whose job it is to inspire curiosity, expose youths to social criticism, and foster a collective spirit for dissent in the face injustice. Fascism doesn’t need intellectuals. Only ideologues are needed.

For those who perceive the truth that critical thinking is intrinsic to freedom, the banning of books, lists of which grow by the day, along with the outlawing of specific words and ideas, and the repression of teachers’ autonomy, is obviously distressing, a dangerous turn not without its own long history in U.S. schools. These acts threaten an already threadbare social fabric, auguring a future of fascist miseducation, in which the act of teaching itself — but not ideological enforcement, the very fear projected by the right — becomes an increasingly dangerous endeavor.

The fascist right wing, which in recent decades has sought to abandon public education to privatization and austerity (though not without the consent of many liberals), is back with a vengeance. It now aims to control schools through draconian legislation and neoMcCarthyist surveillance, and authoritarian impositions of fear. These grim predictions about the future of education show that those who remain in school authority will be ready for fascist collaboration and ready to evade intellectual or moral responsibility to become agents for miseducation.

The U.S. has become a place of fascist miseducation. Since the Reagan administration, public educators have been slowly stripped from their intellectual roles. Teachers have been deskilled and depoliticized through high-stakes tests, corporate profiteering, and the instrumentalization teacher education programs. These programs increasingly avoid exposing future educators to pedagogical approaches that foster curiosity, empathy, and inquiry in students. Instead, they favor reductive approaches that do not challenge or question existing systems of domination. Education, in this neoliberal formulation, constitutes a “dead zone of the imagination,” where the flourishing of ideas is a threat, not the aim.

The conservative movement to ban books has the potential to be effective because the neoliberal approach to educational reform has been so successful in reframing public education as a private good to be consumed, and subsequently transformed into “human capital,” which supposedly allows individuals to seek their own success in capitalism’s supposedly meritocratic but empirically unequal and alienating labor markets. This reform movement’s dominant ideology suggests that schooling should be reconstructed as a marketplace, an atomized market place for consumers (for individuals, but not for the whole society), that is free from egalitarian social, political, or cultural purposes.

Of course, the economization of schooling has historical roots that pre-date neoliberalism’s rise, but in the face of resurgent fascist politics, its neoliberal articulation has proven largely compatible with the advance of and entrenchment of white supremacy, ethnonationalism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. When parents view themselves strictly as proxy consumers of education for their children, and legislatures, the state and school administrators, in turn, tolerate such views, public education’s democratic potential is thwarted, falling to individualism that is designed to preclude the ability to comprehend the social, environmental and political forces that produce social conditions, an analytic ineptitude that paves the way for fascist politics to spread.

Opposition to conservative calls for depoliticizing education, it is important to recognize that education is inherently politically. It is a mode of cultural activity through the which different visions and futures of society are explored, challenged, and analyzed. For most conservatives, but also for many liberals, the perceived value of depoliticizing educational is in the supposed necessity of it being neutral and the idealization objective facts that are free from moral or political referents. It is important to recognize that the fact that education is fundamentally politically does not mean that it will compromise the objectivity and critical faculties of interpretation that should be found in scientific and humanistic inquiry. Conversely, the denial of education’s political character neutralizes its ability to foster critical thought, or to generate new ideas, cultural and aesthetic forms, and visions of alternative futures.

It is only by recognizing education’s inherently political nature that societies can imbue it with democratic force and, in turn, cultivate the agency of populations to act transformatively. History is wiped out by the pernicious imposition social amnesia (which McMaster University Professor Henry A. Giroux, a public intellectual, calls it). organized forgetting. This is a process that robs us of our future prospects by destroying our capacity for reason and suppressing knowledge about the causes of suffering. Fascist miseducation creates a society that is erased from history and imprisoned in a prison where authority and hierarchy reign and where opposition is met with violence. This is how fascism looks today.

It is indicative of the perverse psychology behind fascist consciousness when its advocates rail against the supposed authoritarianism that lies behind the idea of freedom as an indelibly collective concept that must not be held across differenceInstead of being imposed via exclusion. Within the schema of fascist politics driving the book-banning efforts, it is not merely the abstract threat of ideas but the concrete threat of thinking itself — conceived as critical engagement with the ideas of others, especially those that challenge established forms of power, tradition, authority and hierarchy — that must be neutralized. Fascist consciousness defines a good society as one that is dominated by undifferentiated, unified people who are immune to critical thought and marching backwards toward a mythic past that has never been. Fascist politics is a view of the future that only focuses on maintaining and achieving stasis.

While there is some hope to be found in the notion that fascist miseducation’s repressive tactics bear the seeds of its undoing, the immediate and long-term violence it portends must not be underestimated. Book banning and educational surveillance are just three of the most important elements of a coordinated push toward fascist education. They ride a wave that has grown in speed over decades of privatizing public schools.

Collective resistance must consider the insidious ideological support rightwing fascist politics has received from the economized language that is neoliberalism. When conservatives declare “parental choice” regarding what their kids study in school, they lay unjust claim to the right to strip education of its role in social, cultural and democratic life. Choice, which is economically defined as the ability and decision of acquiring commodities and previously public services, is paraded as a fundamental marker of freedom. This hides the fact, however, that consumers in the privatized realms of public goods and institutions become an integral force in creating inequality and curtailing democracy.

In this neoliberal logic, when individuals make “educational choices,” such as refusing to allow their kids to be exposed to curricula that interrogate the sources of inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, or ecological crisis, their decisions are presumed to be beyond reproach because they are perceived (falsely) as democratic acts. Reactionary groundswells in schools, municipalities, or states can lead to the banning of specific books. This dangerously legitimizes what are, in reality, fascist acts. Social and cultural analysis can be lost in the absence of shared language of critique or faculties of interpretation. Fascist politics may be able to move quickly, but they can also plant seeds that might prove difficult to remove once they have grown.

Fascism’s absence of a vision of the future offers a compelling reason to resist it immediately because any society without viable visions of the future is doomed. Recognizing that education has a unique relationship with the future is key to resistance efforts. This is made more important by the looming threats to the left, marginalized groups, and humanity as a whole as a planetary society. Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher, understood this concept with the concept of natalityShe defined the word “in” as The Human Condition as the “central category of political thought.” For Arendt, natality signals humanity’s inherent capacity to create novelty in the world through conscious action that could yield futures free of domination.

Education is essential to developing the potential inherent in natality. But the fascist miseducation pursued by the far right aims to destroy its relationship to natality and offer only dystopian repetitions as we spiral toward destruction and collapse.

The moment to resist fascism is always before its emergence. As the radical historian Daniel Guérin explained long ago, the moment any society “allows the fascist wave to sweep over it, a long period of slavery and impotence begins — a long period during which socialist, even democratic, ideas are not merely erased from the base of public monuments and libraries, but, what is more serious, are Developed from human brains.” This is no less true of fascism’s efforts to miseducate an entire generation in its quest to establish totalitarian rule, the potential fallout of which is difficult to calculate in both the short and long term.

The task ahead will be to resist fascist miseducation but also to envision and implement a different future. This task requires a sustained, collective engagement in history, culture, power, and politics. The left must fight the dystopian cynicism and relentless pursuit of fascist miseducation. They must also maintain an unwavering commitment towards critical thought, further integrating it into institutional struggles and movements, as well modes of counter-education.

To borrow from German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch’s utopian classic The Principle of Hope, the creation of something new can “begin only when society and existence become radical, i.e., grasp their roots. But the root of history is the working, creating human being…. Once he has understood himself and established what is his, he can make history. [sic], without expropriation and alienation, in real democracy, there arises in the world something which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been.”

Protecting education’s role in fostering critical thinking and democratic capacities must be at the heart of efforts to counter the far right’s slide toward fascist politics and to articulate liberated visions of the future if we are to have any future at all.