Republicans Are Channeling Tax Dollars to Right-Wing “Classical Education”

When Flagler College, a private liberal-arts school in St. Augustine (Florida), hosted a faculty senate meeting last fall, they discovered that the college administration had teamed up with their local legislator to create a new law. academic center The Flagler College Institute for Classical Education is located on campus. To administrators, it was an exciting prospect: the chance to receive $5 million from the state to shore up their “first year seminar,” a universal core curriculum for incoming freshmen intended to help students, particularly first-generation students, prepare for the rigors of college.

Some faculty members were concerned about the state of affairs, and they read between the lines. ground zero for the nation’s education debates — where Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump-style Republican with his eyes on the White House, has imposed gag orders and mandates on K-12 schools and described universities as “hotbeds of stale ideology” and “indoctrination factories.”

Flagler’s institute would, the proposal said, promote “free inquiry” and “critical thinking,” which struck some faculty members as a confusing restatement of what was already their primary job. Then there was the promise to promote “a balanced world-view,” “the value and responsibilities of citizenship,” or what the college’s president characterized as classical education without an “ideological slant,” which sounded like potentially coded language for the sorts of measures DeSantis and his allies had been promoting.

It didn’t help that one Flagler trustee perceived as being a key driver of the proposal, John Rood, a former ambassador under George W. Bush, also chairs the governing board of the Jacksonville Classical Academy — part of the nationwide charter school network created by Hillsdale College, a private Christian college in Michigan that has become a major player in America’s culture wars. To some faculty, the proposed institute felt like an attempt to “make Flagler College the Hillsdale of the South.”

Flagler’s vice president of academic affairs, Arthur Vanden Houten, said in an interview that while Rood had “enthusiastically responded” to plans for the institute, he wasn’t its only supporter or inspiration. If the proposal is ultimately funded, Vanden Houten said — it was approved by the legislature in March but still awaits DeSantis’ review — it will only help Flagler continue the work it already does.

Flagler’s outcome is still uncertain on many levels. However, faculty had legitimate reasons to be concerned considering the range of conservative attacks on public education, especially in Florida. At a number of prominent colleges and universities around the country, big-money conservative interests are proposing and creating a roster of educational centers dedicated to conservative ideology or laissez-faire economics, often wrapped in the language of “classical education,” “civics” or “freedom.” The concept in itself isn’t new; right-wing philanthropists have been creating academic programs in their own image for decades. The Republican-led legislatures have adopted the model, effectively using taxpayer money to implant conservative ideology into public institutions.

“It’s not that the faculty suspect the administration is scheming or duplicitous in any way,” said Flagler history professor Michael Butler, director of the school’s African American studies program. “The concern is that the culture wars of 2022 are moving into higher education, and we’re not sure what that means for Flagler College. This proposal does not come in a vacuum.”

Ron DeSantis and the Response to “Critical Race Theory”

Flagler faculty imagined what they wanted didn’t want the institute to become, they didn’t have to look far. Also included in Florida’s proposed 2022-23 budget — or, more specifically, in an education bill attached to the budget, which details how Florida’s new restrictions on teaching about racism in higher education should be enforced — is a similar proposal to create a think tank at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the state’s flagship higher-ed institution. In more explicit terms than the Flagler proposal, the “Hamilton Center for Classical and Civics Education” at UF would be dedicated to “the ideas, traditions, and texts that form the foundations of western and American civilization.”

This plan has not received much attention beyond an approving mention by conservative publications like Campus Reform Or the College Fix. Gov. DeSantis’ combative spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, has called it an important part of the administration’s crusade to foster “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity within higher education.”

According to the legislation, the center would be tasked, along with two other schools — the Florida Institute of Politics at Florida State University in Tallahassee and the Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom at Florida International University in Miami — with helping create materials for the state’s recently overhauled K-12 civics curriculum, whose stated aim is now to create patriotic, “upright and desirable” citizens.

Specifically, these centers will help develop a series of “oral history resources” called Portraits in Patriotism that will include, for example, videos of Florida immigrants who fled countries like Cuba and Venezuela, to impress upon students “the evil of communism and totalitarianism.” When DeSantis discussed the project with Fox News‘ Laura Ingraham in 2021, he suggested that this project would also serve as Florida’s response to “critical race theory.” It also seems these centers may become training grounds for Florida’s K-12 instructors; DeSantis has previously offered $3,000 grants to teachers who have been trained in the new civics standards.

All this, of course, takes place against the larger backdrop of Florida’s ongoing attacks on public education: Within the last year or two, DeSantis and the GOP-led legislature have enacted broad bans on teaching about racism and LGBTQ issues, barred Many materials for classroom use and empowered citizens sue schools they believe are “indoctrinating” students. While the first wave of that assault was largely directed at public K-12 schools, it’s increasingly expanding to higher education as well.

This spring, Florida’s public universities began conducting annual surveys of students and faculty to ensure that campuses contain sufficient “viewpoint diversity,” in accordance with a law passed Last year. DeSantis suggests that schools with conservative viewpoints seem to be lacking. may lose state funding. Students were also allowed to record lectures and classes by the same law. Other recent measures require faculty to undergo new reviews every five years to fight “indoctrination,” effectively ending Tenure system and require extensive documentation about resources used in course teaching and new complicated procedures for university accreditation.

In a strange twist, the last measure is seen as an attempt to protect the University of Florida from the negative consequences of its own defensive actions to restrict academic freedom. After the first incident, UF sparked a tremendous backlash. blocking three political science professors from testifying in a lawsuit about Florida’s new voting restrictions — their testimony, the university suggested, was contrary to the interests of the state — and then demanding that a professor revise a course that had the words “critical” and “race” in its title. Those incidents prompted investigations by both Congress and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which provides UF’s accreditation.

“Our university is well known for anticipatory obedience,” said Meera Sitharam, vice president of UF’s faculty union. Neither Sitharam nor two other faculty members at the university said they had been told much of anything about UF’s proposed Hamilton Center, but from the little they had learned, they also had concerns.

“There’s nothing particularly wrong with saying there should be more Western canon and classical liberalism in the classroom,” said Sitharam. “What I’m against is the idea that this should replace CRT. I don’t know what one has to do with the other.”

She expressed similar concerns with the plan for the institute to curate DeSantis’ Portraits in Patriotism series. “You can teach what the problems of authoritarian regimes are, but why single out the communist ones? Look at Pinochet, look at Argentina — there’s been more than enough right-wing authoritarianism in Latin America, even if we’re restricting ourselves to Latin America for some reason,” she said. “The one-sidedness is what’s problematic. They’re always seeing it from one side, then claiming they are the ones who are critically thinking.”

Malini Johar Schueller, an English professor who joined UF’s Coalition for Academic Freedom after last fall’s controversies, was more emphatic. “I think it’s thoroughly shameful of UF to accept an educational endeavor, if you can call it that, which is so blatantly racist,” she said. When it comes to terms like “Western civilization” and “American exceptionalism,” she continued, “We all know what those are about. Those are code words for people who feel they’ve had enough of books teaching the histories of minorities.”

What Does “Classical Education” Mean, Anyway?

Back at Flagler College, religious studies professor Timothy Johnson said that if Flagler’s proposal had been framed with such an explicit emphasis on Western civilization, there would have been even stronger pushback. “Not because we’re not in favor of Western education,” he said, “but because that comes nowadays with certain ideological baggage.”

But to a certain extent, added Butler, the Flagler history professor, “classical education” has become an equally loaded term. “Is the purpose of ‘classical education’ to teach the classic works of literature?” he asked. “Is it to return to ‘Western traditions’?” When schools like Hillsdale use the term, he said, “they make no bones about what they’re trying to accomplish.”

By strict definition, “classical education” refers to a series of liberal arts emphases on subjects like grammar, logic, rhetoric and math. There are many approaches to classical education, each with its own ideologies. In recent years, however, the term has taken on a new meaning in the United States. Right-wing publications, such as The Washington Examiner, National Review The American Conservative have all rolled out the phrase to mean the most conservative model of education or “the natural replacement” for “critical race theory and other liberal curricula.” Ryan Girdusky, founder of the 1776 Project PAC, which campaigns against CRT, suggested in the early months of the pandemic that conservatives should seize the opportunity of disrupted classrooms to remake education along classical lines, since that approach alone could offer “a perspective on history that doesn’t teach [children] that the American system of government is inherently evil.”

“It’s tricky to know what’s going on because classical or liberal arts education is not merely an ideological project adopted by the American right,” said Lorna Bracewell, a political theorist at Flagler. “I understand myself to be involved in classical and liberal arts education, and I’m basically an anti-fascist lesbian. So I don’t think it’s only code, or only a dog whistle. And yet, because there has been this concerted effort by the American right to appropriate that language, it makes one wary.”

But for most of those who’ve turned “classical education” into a buzzword or a franchise in recent years, it basically means exalting Western civilization, American exceptionalism and the notion that America was founded on “Judeo-Christian” principles. Hillsdale College’s classical education offerings, for instance, include its “1776 Curriculum,” a right-wing answer to the “1619 Project” that declares the U.S. “an exceptionally good country,” casts slave-owning founding fathers as covert abolitionists and calls progressivism “a rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as well as the form of the Constitution.”

Hillsdale has helped establish some classic charter schools. proclaim Their uncompromising focus on the works and contributions of white men is what they believe to be the best of Western thought. They are also said to be the foundational heritage of all American students, regardless of their ethnicity or racial background. At the Jacksonville Classical Academy (overseen by one of Flagler’s trustees), the mission statement emphasizes a vision to “train students to be stewards of the Western Tradition and the pillars of a free society.” The largest classical charter school network in the country, the Texas- and Arizona-based Great Hearts America, was engulfed in scandal in 2018 after one of its public charters directed students to balance the “positive” and “negative” aspects of slavery.

“What they’re trying to do is stop the clock on what counts as ‘canon,’” said Bethany Moreton, a historian at Dartmouth College who has written extensively about the right and is author of the forthcoming “Perverse Incentives: Economics as Culture War.” The enshrinement of a core “Western canon” to represent classical education, she notes, is not some timeless tradition, but a relatively recent creation born in the 20th century with the goal of assimilating new demographics of university students into a common national culture. Today’s renewed conservative focus on the model, Moreton continued, has similar aims. “This is not an innocent selection of the greatest that was ever said and thought. This is an identity project in itself.”

“A Separate Patronage System” for Right-Wing Thinkers and Activists

In early April, Christopher Rufo, the right-wing activist and Manhattan Institute fellow widely credited with driving the right’s crusade against “critical race theory” (CRT), delivered a speech at Hillsdale College, calling on conservatives to “lay siege to the institutions.” While the most headline-grabbing aspect of his speech was Rufo’s admission that the best way for conservatives to lure people away from public schools was to surround them with endless controversy — over CRT, pandemic health measures, LGBTQ students and whatever else — a brief aside during the Q&A session was arguably just as important.

Rufo suggested that the right fight back against the widespread belief that liberals are winning culture war, regardless of what happens in Washington. Specifically, he said, Republican state lawmakers should dedicate public funds to establish “conservative centers” within flagship public universities. These could serve multiple purposes, he said, acting as “magnets” for conservative professors, creating right-leaning academic tracks that would influence incoming generations of students and, not least, founding “a separate patronage system” for conservative thinkers and activists.

“Some people don’t like thinking about it that way,” Rufo continued. “But guess what? The public universities, [diversity, equity, inclusion]The public school bureaucracies and departments are, at the end, patronage systems for left-wing activists. And as long as there’s going to be a patronage system, wouldn’t it be good to have some people representing the public within them?”

That may be a fair description of UF’s proposed Hamilton Center. But it’s not the only example.

2020 will see the Florida legislature become a state legislature. created The Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom, Florida International University, Miami. Headed by former Trump official Carlos Díaz-Rosilla, the center’s stated mission includes studying “the effect of government and free market economies on individual freedom and human prosperity,” especially in the Americas.

Six years earlier, in 2014, Florida’s legislature also funded a professorship at Florida State focused on “economic prosperity.” That one position has since been transformed, with the help Private donations from the network of right wing libertarian mega-donor Charles Koch were transformed into a full-scale institution: the L. Charles Hilton Jr. Center for the Study of Economic Prosperity.

“It’s funny” that the right claims a need to create a separate patronage system for conservative academics, said Bethany Moreton, “because they’ve been doing this since the mid-1970s.” For decades, right-wing donors have soughtto establish beachheads in colleges across the nation, which they hoped would create an academic foundation for conservative or libertarian policies.

In her 2017 book “Democracy in Chains,” Duke University historian Nancy MacLean chronicled the creation of the first such center, founded at the University of Virginia and later moved to George Mason University. This landmark program, which was nurtured by right-wing economist James Buchanan but later enriched with Koch foundation funds, inspired conservative funding of academic departments and endowed chairs at more than 300 universities over the decades.

Institutes like George Mason’s Mercatus Center today serve as “nerve centers” for conservative policy agendas, said MacLean, and also as talent pipelines, allowing funders to boast that they are rearing the next generation of staff for conservative think tanks and advocacy groups. And that’s by explicit design.

A 2018 report by the progressive organization Unkoch My Campus describes Charles Koch’s conviction that right-wing donors should focus less on targeting unreliable politicians to enact a pro-business agenda and more on building support for their ideas through donations that could trigger a long chain of outcomes. In a 1974 pamphlet, “Anti-Capitalism and Business,” Koch wrote that conservative philanthropy should aim to achieve a “multiplier effect,” and that for that purpose, “education programs are superior to political action, and support of talented free market scholars is preferable to mass advertising.”

That perspective was elaborated by Koch’s key adviser, Richard Fink, then the president of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, in a much-referenced paper from 1996 entitled “The Structure of Social Change.” Fink argued that grants to universities to support the work of economists committed to radical free-market capitalism could inform policy proposals from conservative think tanks. This work would in turn inspire advocacy groups (either grassroots, or astroturf), who create the appearance that there is broad public support. This eventually leads to politicians passing laws that defund the welfare and deregulate capitalism.

“They see it as this industrial process where they fund all four stages and the end product is social change,” said Ralph Wilson, founder of the progressive watchdog group Corporate Genome Project and coauthor of the recently-released “Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War.” Wilson began researching the impact of the Koch network on education years ago while a student at Florida State, which made an unsavory deal Koch donors were allowed to take their money in return for them having a say in curriculum and hiring decisions. At one point, a Koch-funded economics program created pro-capitalism lesson plan for both college and K-12 instruction. (One product of that agreement, Wilson noted, was a K-12 curriculum called “Common Sense Economics,” which included, incredibly, a paper titled “Sacrificing Lives for Profit,” which argued, “Corporations routinely sacrifice the lives of some of their customers to increase profits, and we are all better off because they do.”) Within that process, Wilson said, “the university is recognized as the key first stage of investment for social change, so the more they can capture universities, the more successful their political program will be.”

MacLean added that this model works in tandem to the gradual defunding of higher education over many decades. “As taxes are driven down by the same [conservative] elected officials, school administrators are just desperate for funds,” said MacLean. “So they become a willing audience, and in some ways even accomplices, to this expansion of right-wing influence in higher education that has not been earned on the merits of any intellectual argument or research.”

Bron Taylor, a religious studies professor at the University of Florida recognized this pattern. Taylor said he personally believed that “teaching the history, philosophy and religion of the so-called Western world is something we should be doing, and doing well,” and worried that certain traditional subjects had fallen so far out of fashion that students might graduate without a strong grounding in basic civics. He also said that he believed outside funding could distort the educational mission if it was attached to strings.

“When big money comes into a university, of course the university tends to welcome that. It’s one of the ways they accomplish things they want to accomplish,” he said. “But it’s also the case that in an institution that’s supposed to be run by faculty governance, you end up with administrators whose status and prestige interests are served by raising money, and the donors then can exercise undue influence on the priorities of the university.”

“In this kind of case the devil’s in the details,” Taylor continued. “Who is going to decide the shape and priority of this institute? Will the donors have any say in who is appointed to lead it?” Under current conditions at UF, he said, “DeSantis doesn’t have to say, ‘If you do X, we’ll cut your funding,’” because administrators already know. “There’s always this Damoclean sword hanging over the university, that if you stray from their political agenda, you’ll be looked at disfavorably when it comes to budgets.”

Wilson, who helped found Unkoch My Campus in 2005, has been focusing his attention on academic centres funded by private donors for the last ten years. This trend has been well documented. Students and staff have resisted attempts to build or expand Koch-related centres at various schools. recent effort Brown University will create a Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics that is free to the public.

The right now has a new strategy: Leveraging direct funding from the state governments.

“Using state legislatures as an avenue for the creation of these centers seems to be a new tactic,” said Wilson, which can expedite the entire enterprise. “There’s no decision-making process that involves a faculty legislature” if state governors and lawmakers are making the decisions. “It removes any avenue for students, faculty or administrators, for that matter, to have a say in the creation of these centers.”

“A Late-Stage Example of Corporate Capture of the State”

That’s largely what happened in Arizona five years ago, when the state’s right-wing legislature poured millions of dollars into transforming two “freedom schools” at Arizona State University, initially created with funding from the Koch network, into a new program, the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, which was deemed necessary because, according to a group of conservatives hired to develop the program, ASU suffered from “conformity of opinion” and “lack of debate.”

“The legislature basically held the university hostage to force them to create tenure-track faculty lines for the freedom center,” said MacLean. MacLean wrote in the Washington Post, Matthew Garcia, the former director of the school’s historical, philosophical and religious studies department, argued that what had once been two conservative centers subject to the normal process of faculty oversight and hiring procedures became an unaccountable institution exempt from normal governance, which spent lavishly on first editions of “foundational” books and subsidized international trips for its students, and where a university official allegedly said the program “would never hire anyone that Koch doesn’t approve.” Garcia resigned, and now teaches at Dartmouth.

Wilson stated that ASU now receives such a large amount of direct state funding that it has been difficult for the Koch network to withdraw its support. Both ASU’s new center and another Koch-backed “freedom” center at the University of Arizona have been called upon to develop the state’s K-12 civics curricula. In January, Arizona Republicans proposed their own “Portraits in Patriotism” oral history series, much like Florida’s, as a requirement for high school graduation.

“This is a late-stage example of the corporate capture of the state,” said Wilson. “As these donors are trying to gain intellectual and cultural influence for their ideology, they’ve been frantically trying to set up shop in universities that will help legitimize their movement.” In states like Arizona, Texas and Florida where far-right donors have amassed considerable political influence, “they have so much control that they can start implementing their agenda from the top down. They can use the state to help them further capture the state.”

A flood of similar proposals have been made to create new conservative centers at the flagship public universities following the ASU changes.

Last year, Texas saw a new state initiative that was championed in Texas by Lt. Governor. Dan Patrick, allocated an initial $6 million to create a think tank at the University of Texas at Austin, “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets” and envisioned as a $100 million public-private partnership modeled on Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Documents obtained from the Texas Tribune made clear that university administrators worked closely with Republican lawmakers and school donors who saw the center as a means of bringing “intellectual diversity” to the campus.

One such document describes the institute’s mission as educating students “on the moral, ethical, philosophical and historical foundations of a free society” and included plans to create a related civics course for high school students, much as in Florida and Arizona.

Another document noted that the center was necessary because a “growing proportion of our population lacks a basic understanding of the role liberty and private enterprise play in their well-being.” What “liberty” and “free society” mean in this context may be clarified by the involvement of private donor Bud Brigham, a libertarian oil tycoon who blames academics for fostering the “global warming scam” and funded the production of not one but two movie adaptations of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

The Liberty Institute at UT Austin was controversial right from its inception. It had student government. calling administrators to decline the offer, and faculty to express frustration at the lack of transparency. The documents were obtained by Texas Tribune also suggest that some of the project’s supporters called for the institute to be exempt from the university’s normal governance process, with its own budget and the power to appoint its own faculty.

In February, the institute came into the news again in the aftermath of Patrick’s angry vow to eliminate tenure at Texas’ public universities following a resolution passed by UT Austin’s faculty council supporting scholars’ academic freedom to teach critical race theory. Patrick wrote back Twitter, “I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory. We have already banned it in publicly-funded K-12, and we will ban this in publicly-funded higher ed. That’s why we created the Liberty Institute at UT.”

Similar plans were also discussed in Tennessee recently. When Gov. Bill Lee delivered his “state of the state” address in late January, the biggest headlines were reserved for his announcement that Tennessee would partner with Hillsdale College to roll out more “classical education” charter schools, funded with taxpayer dollars, across the state. But Lee also said that the “informed patriotism” that characterized that endeavor “should stretch beyond the K-12 classroom and into higher education.”

“In many states, colleges and universities have become centers of anti-American thought, leaving our students not only ill-equipped but confused,” Lee continued. “But, in Tennessee, there’s no reason why our institutions of higher learning can’t be an exceptional part of America at Its Best.”

To that end, Lee announced, he was budgeting $6 million to create a new “Institute of American Civics” at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, which he said would serve as “a flagship for the nation — a beacon celebrating intellectual diversity at our universities and teaching how a responsible, civic-minded people strengthens our country and our communities.”

This was in response to pressureTennessee Republicans have announced that they will not address diversity at several state universities, including UT Knoxville (UT Knoxville) and the University of Memphis (UT Memphis). After students at Yale Law School, the April election was called off. protestedLee, a speaker from Alliance Defending Freedom (an anti-LGBTQ legal company), released a statement. statement saying that his new Institute for American Civics was designed “to be the antidote to the cynical, un-American behavior we are seeing at far too many universities.”

Are You Teaching History “the Right Way”?

At Flagler College in St. Augustine, it’s still not clear where the proposed Institute for Classical Education fits into this complex picture. Much of the faculty uncertainty or apprehension isn’t about what Flagler administrators have actually proposed but rather the context surrounding it: the coded meanings of “classical ed,” the updated model of state-funded university infiltration and the overall atmosphere of hostility to public education in Florida and around the country.

Flagler historian Michael Butler was scheduled to present a training seminar about the civil rights movement to elementary school teachers in Florida earlier this year. It was. canceled by local officialsThey feared that it might be subject to new prohibitions on teaching race. When he tells people he’s a historian these days, he said, they increasingly respond by asking him whether he teaches history “the right way.”

“The whole dynamic has to be understood in the broader context of what’s happening in Florida with regards to education and how people interpret that,” said Flagler’s Timothy Johnson. He doesn’t think Flagler’s proposal is a “Trojan horse” for a particular political project, he said, and if the state wants to support the school’s efforts to retain first-generation college students, that’s a good thing. If, however, he said, “the state of Florida wants to give $5 million to the college and dictate the concept and content of ‘classical education,’ then I completely oppose the initiative.”

Flagler’s administration has taken pains to distinguish their proposed center from the larger swirl of polarization, saying that any hiring or curriculum decisions would go through the traditional process of faculty oversight, not outside interests from either the board of trustees or state government. When eight professors, including Butler, Johnson and Bracewell, brought a resolution before the faculty senate in April, affirming that the center would remain “under the jurisdiction and control of the faculty,” it passed unanimously, with senior administrator Art Vanden Houten and the college president in support.

Whatever happens at Flagler, similar models and the associated controversy will be replicated elsewhere in schools with less supportive administrations, regardless of what happens. At the University of Florida, Malini Johar Schueller said the school’s failure to solicit faculty input about its proposed center was “quite in keeping with this administration.” She expressed little optimism that things would improve soon.

“This is going to continue, unfortunately,” she said. “All we can do at the university level is not be cowed down, do what we have to do and put up a good battle.”

“The right was thinking long-term when they started doing this in the ’70s, thinking ahead to a moment like this one,” said Bethany Moreton. “They do not support education as a good in itself, but as a means to an end that they should define. And the further you remove education from democratic oversight, the more likely it is that freestanding institutes like this become a way to have what they always dreamed of: a university without the disruptive forces of actual thought, contestation and new knowledge.”