Boise State has suspended all 52 sections of a required general education course on ethics according to Inside Higher Ed. The course has been running since 2012. It concerns ethics and diversity and challenges students “to inquire into key ethical ideas and values together, giving equal voice to all who are committed to the public good.” Individual course section topics differ and include moral problems, moral courage, censorship, the ethics of food, folklore, deviance, and human rights. Thirteen hundred students are enrolled and therefore affected by the decision. In an email, President Marlene Tromp wrote that “we have been made aware of a series of concerns, culminating in allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values.”
According to Inside Higher Ed, “One faculty member, who quickly deleted his comments, wrote on Twitter that he’d been told a student “taped a Zoom discussion on white privilege, in which apparently a white student was made to feel uncomfortable, and sent video to ID state legislature, who are ‘enraged.’ BSU suspended all UF 200 classes mid semester as a result.”
The professor said that he didn’t teach any of the diversity courses at Boise State, “but I’ve taught many like them before at other institutions and I know how valuable they are to students and campus community.”
He also said that the state Legislature and a group called the Idaho Freedom Foundation “have been requesting syllabi for years now, looking for something they can use to force the removal of anything related to [diversity and inclusion], and they think they have it.”
The Idaho Freedom Foundation said on its website Wednesday that “UF 200, otherwise known as Foundations in Ethics and Diversity, is among four mandatory general education courses that are infused with social justice, a toxic ideology that has captured many facets of life at Boise State.”
The state Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted earlier this month to cut $409,000 from Boise State’s budget, with members alleging that the university was pursuing an expensive social justice agenda.
On Wednesday, the state Senate passed a higher education budget including those cuts. Senator Carl Crabtree, a Republican, said during the vote that the budget will require state institutions to report all spending on social justice initiatives, and that “They’re going to get the message,” according to Idaho Ed News.
This comes after the Trump administration’s sustained attacks on diversity programming in state and federal programs, which left universities and colleges with a bit of a struggle. Most universities and colleges say somewhere in their mission or their goals that they are committed to inclusion and diversity, and here the past administration was trying to shut down the very programs devoted to that, with actual funding dependent on the results.
There has been a sustained attack on educational attempts to teach diverse viewpoints and include as many different people and perspectives for as long as those attempts have been going on. And according to the people who are a part of those attacks they are just protecting our students from indoctrination. These different perspectives are just leftist propaganda that socialists and elites are trying to force onto our kids.
We’ve talked on this podcast before about education and propaganda, but today I want to get a little more specific. What IS the ideology education is pushing? Why is it so scary to some people to have diverse perspectives in education? What’s all of this about?
I went to Texas A&M for my M.A. and my PhD. If you don’t know anything about A&M it’s a really good, really big school in a small-town kind of near Houston. Its world re-known for its engineering program, its football team, it’s cult-like devotion of the student populous, and it has a reputation for being a very conservative school. That reputation is well-deserved. The faculty are not necessarily right wing, though you may find some more conservative faculty there than at other schools because of the engineering and business schools, but the student body is decidedly conservative.
Texas A&M was founded in 1876 in Brazos County, TX, making it the oldest public institution of higher education in the state. (It’s not the oldest school, however. The school I went to for my undergrad, Baylor University, is actually older than the state of Texas.) In 1891 Jose Angel Ortiz was the first Hispanic graduate. In fact the first Aggie touchdown was scored by N. Valdez in from Hidalgo, Mexico, class of 1897. There was one Chinese student in 1913 and one Japanese football player in 1923. In 1925 a resolution against allowing women into the school was adopted. In 1956, after Brown v. Board, the Texas A&M Student Senate voted 24-7 “opposing segregation.” In campus-wide election on whether students were in favor or against segregation, Texas A&M students vote to continue segregation. In 1962, Texas A&M University System Board decided to “admit qualified students regardless of race” to Arlington State College to avoid threat of lawsuit for admittance by three African Americans. It was in 1963, almost 100 years after its founding, that three black men enrolled in Texas A&M. They were the first black students, though perhaps not the first students of color. They enrolled for the first summer session as “special students,” becoming the first Black students to attend Texas A&M: LeRoy Sterling, George Sutton, and Vernell Jackson. Later that year, the Board of Directors permitted women to enroll on “Limited basis.” In 1965 Texas A&M’s head football coach publicly stated that recruitment of African-American football players would create disunity on the team. He was responding to Southern Methodist University’s recruitment of Jerry Levias, the first African-American football player in the Southwestern Conference .Sallie Sheppard, Class of 1965, was one of the first women admitted to Texas A&M. In 1967 Clarence Dixon Jr., a graduate student, became the first African American to graduate from Texas A&M. In 1968 James L. Courtney and Leon J. Greene graduated in January, becoming the first African- American undergraduate students to graduate from Texas A&M. And in 1969 women were allowed to register at A&M freely. The story of diversifying my alma mater clearly goes on from there but I wanted to give you a glimpse into what it was like and how long it took for there to be any real change before I shared this gem with you – four or five years back in my political rhetoric class we were talking about school segregation and one of my students said, “I heard that there was a college in Texas that is still all white. Like, they don’t let any people of color in at all.” And I told her I was pretty sure that wasn’t accurate. And she said, “No, I heard about it! It’s called Texas A&M!” Now, I took that pretty personally because I would never have gone to an all-white school, but she didn’t know that. But what I wanted to impress upon her – the thing that surprised all of my students – is not only is Texas A&M not all white, it is actually more diverse than the northern state school where we all were. Texas A&M is 63% white. Brockport is 71% white. The point I was trying to make there is that we assume whiteness and masculinity are baked into some places. Like, oh, Texas, yeah, that place is just sexist and racist. And history bears that out. But if you stop there you might miss that fact that you’re sitting square in the middle of a pretty big field of whiteness, yourself. And if people aren’t aware that they are missing out on a lot of perspectives, they may not see the need for having those perspectives introduced.
But, honestly, I think it’s a little bit more pernicious than that. I think the relationship between whiteness and education is more than just “Oh, I didn’t know.” I think whiteness is at the heart of education. Diversity programming is a threat to it, and we know how power structures react when they are frightened. Whiteness runs through education like a spinal cord. And certain people see challenges to whiteness (and masculinity or heteronormativity) as possibly crippling.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I am going to refer to an article I published a while back in Comm Law Review. I’ll put the link in the transcript. Basically, I argue that the Brown v. Board of Education opinion fails as a piece of constitutive rhetoric because it speaks from a place of “color-blindness” which, in actuality, perpetuates white dominance. We don’t have to go through a lot of stuff about what constitutive rhetoric means, but what I do want you to understand is that whiteness is baked into the law, and the Brown opinion argues that education is supposed to be white, not so much equal.
Race-blindness, or color-blindness, does little to help race relations. It imposes a blanket identity on a group of people, which inevitably marginalizes those who do not conform to that identity. The idea behind such blindness is that race should have no real significance. According to Gotanda, it ignores the culture (and the problems) of a group of people, and assimilates them all into one category, which is inevitably the majority. In other words, it eliminates the means to effectively battle racism by ignoring that racism exists. In this way, race-blindness, or color-blindness, exacerbates the hegemony of white culture. The essential defect of any color-blind theory of racial discrimination is that it pre-supposes some utopia where race is inconsequential. As Gotanda argues, color-blindness only serves to advance white interests.
The Brown decision was color-blind in the way it did not acknowledge its own privileged beginning premise of whiteness. It assumed that equality meant “sameness,” not diversity, and therefore sought to impose the norms of white society on black school children. There was an undercurrent of thought that, as Gunnar Myrdal claimed, black people were just “white men with black skins.” This was the version of American identity that the opinion was striving to constitute. The opinion did not argue that it would impose whiteness upon black communities because whiteness is assumed as omnipresent. Brown implicitly argues that it is only the minority that can claim to be de-raced, while it is the majority’s racial features that constitute society’s norms.
The Brown opinion was specifically constructed to address the “separate” nature of segregation, not the “unequal” nature of so many segregated school districts that the Plessy decision established as doctrine. In other words, Warren’s opinion addresses the intangibles. It operates from the assumption that the physical and measurable aspects of education were equal or were in the process of being equalized. What is left, then, is the “separate” nature of education itself. Part of that untouchable but essential component of education is the normative, civic function of education. Education, the opinion posits, teaches children how to be young Americans. White students were learning one version of American identity in their schools, while black students were learning a different understanding of “American.”
Earl Warren’s opinion argues that segregation which “was alleged to deprive the plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment,” was, indeed, a constitutional violation. The Fourteenth Amendment was the lynchpin in the opinion, and his attention to it was meticulous. At the time of Brown there was no legal precedent for including education under “equal protection,” so creating an argument based on the Fourteenth Amendment required a re-definition of certain terms. It assessed the Fourteenth Amendment as it related to education in terms of the Amendment’s ratification and in terms of the status of education in 1954 America. Warren turns to the history of public education in the United States to argue that it is American norms that are at stake in a segregated school system. Public education had gone from being an afterthought to being central to understanding American life, and so the law had to be re-imagined to reflect that change. Black children, by being educated separately, were learning a flawed version of American citizenship.
In two clear concise paragraphs the Court brings all of the components of the case together in a stunning statement on the nature of American identity:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.
The Court has proclaimed that education is not simply a privilege, but an essential responsibility of the government because it unifies Americans in their understanding of national identity. Warren feels he can make such a claim because we provide the proof of our value of education with attendance requirements and the amount of money spent on education at the state and local levels. It is not just a matter of private concern anymore, but as a nation, Warren claims, we have decided that education is essential to our democracy. Education is where American identity, as undefined as it is in the Brown opinion, is normalized. It is, he claims, the primary place where children learn shared cultural values:
It [education] is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.
Education, he continues, is not just valued in an abstract sense, but it is absolutely necessary for the American experience. Education creates a bond among us of normative, cultural values, and prepares a child to grow up and take part in the American experience. Education helps us to adapt to our particular American environment and helps us maintain it as well. It is not just the tangibles that equalize education; it is the social experience of education that weaves a whole society. So, a child who does not have access to the same education as her or his peers is denied the opportunity to succeed in general. It “must be made available to all on equal terms.” Warren has equated education to cultural norms, success, and the American experience at large. This leads the Court to the question before them: “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?” The SCOTUS answers unwaveringly, “We believe that it does.”
Education, according to Warren, was where American children learned the fundamentals of being an American. Having separate educations means having separate understandings of citizenship. Segregation was not unconstitutional because schools were unequal, but because separating children by race meant that black children did not have the opportunity to learn those fundamentals. And, he claims, it is specifically the minority group that is in danger. Integration means bringing the minority group into the fold of the majority so they may learn the same notions of American identity and citizenship. Education provided the “cultural values” that unified America. Separate educations meant that groups were receiving different understandings of “cultural values.” Integrating education, specifically by giving the minority groups access to what the majority had, would unify the nation.
This understanding of whiteness enshrined in the desegregation case played itself out in the practice of integration for generations to come, as integration as it was enforced through the United States operated to protect whiteness. As Stokely Carmichael observed in the 1960s integration was largely a practice of black bodies being moved in white spaces (1966). White bodies were protected from being moved or made to dislocate. White bodies were able to maintain their space as much as possible and were never asked to enter Black spaces. Blackness was dispersed while Whiteness remained whole if penetrated. Integration in that way protected Whiteness by allowing white people to maintain their comfortable spaces but demanding that Black folks leave their space and acclimatize to new norms.
My point isn’t to say that Brown v. Board was a bad thing. Integration was the right call. What I’m saying is that even when we set out to integrate, we couldn’t think of a way to do it without privileging whiteness. We couldn’t get away from the idea what white wasn’t just better, it was right and normal, and Black is deviant, even when we were dismantling the structures that separated them. And that is built into our education.
So Whiteness is an assumed part of our education. Our entire system is predicated on that. We teach whiteness from the moment our students enter into their first days of pre-k and kindergarten all the way through upper education. That’s why people freak out about diversity credits. Because they run counter to the hidden curriculum.
And that hidden curriculum has done a great job of supporting the powers that be for generations. People who benefit from whiteness benefit from a system that teaches whiteness. They support each other.
So it makes sense that people who benefit from empowered whiteness, which let’s face it, is all white people, might be frightened by programs that teach something other than that program of whiteness. Education is, and has always been, designed to support whiteness. And systems of gender and class. And these systems create hierarchies in politics, in business, in the home, and in culture that set up boundaries for anybody who isn’t white (or otherwise buoyed by the educational ideological system). So for some people these diversity programs seem legitimately dangerous. They threated a way of thinking. A way of life. A way of seeing and operating in the world. They threaten the structures that have kept them safe and empowered for years.
Hence these sustained attacks on classes that address gender, race, and class. When you start to look at gender, race, and class from multiple perspectives suddenly the structures and the patterns we have embraced for years suddenly look very different. It’s not just that this isn’t the only way to see the world, it’s that this is an oppressive way to live. And we’ve been taught that it is the only way to live.
So don’t think you can get away from this. If you are an educator, you are part of the narrative of whiteness. If you aren’t an educator, you were a recipient of that narrative.
If you are an educator, it’s time to take stock. A lot of people think, well, my class doesn’t really have anything to do with issues of diversity or inclusion, so it doesn’t affect me. Ask yourself – is that the whiteness I have become accustomed to talking? Am I just re-affirming a story that has been told before because I haven’t bothered to consider other perspectives? And what would another perspective of my class sound like? Where are the non-white or non-cis-male or non-straight voices that have something to say about my subject? If you honestly can’t answer, then you know you have work to do.
And if you aren’t an educator, it’s time to ask yourself what kind of education you got. Was it a white one? Did you pay attention when somebody tried to broaden that, or did you blow it off? That’s a pretty big privilege. How did you benefit from a myopic education like the ones we get?
So when schools like Boise cut ethics classes that deal with diverse perspectives for political reasons, it’s not a matter of stopping indoctrination – it’s a matter of continuing it. And making sure that the right people stay in power because of the right cultural narrative. We literally learn it in school.