On July 10th Pres Trump tweeted “Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education. Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status… … and/or Funding, which will be taken away if this Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy continues. Our children must be Educated, not Indoctrinated!”
Where to even begin. There is so much going on in this tweet I don’t even know how to adequately organize my thoughts on it.
But let me put this into a pit of context. I am going to read to you a plank from the 2012 Texas GOP platform: We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
Yes, in 2012 the Republican party specifically defined themselves as being opposed to higher order thinking.
Look, there are a lot of jokes one could make, here. It would be easy. But the big concern is this anti-education and anti-thought sentiment that comes from the right. And they outline why for you in the platform – thinking might cause you to ask questions. And the GOP, at least in Texas, doesn’t want you questioning things. They want you settled in your “fixed beliefs” and never to challenge your parents. Which, let’s face it, it just a weird political position. And it is regressive. There can literally be no progress if we just accept everything as it is given to us and never try to move the needle on those ideas.
So this anti-education position has a wild past. And it is very much a partisan issue. Most Americans see college as necessary for success. But only half of American adults see colleges and universities as having a positive effect on society. 59% of Republicans say that higher ed has a negative effect on America. And 39% of Republicans have confidence in American higher ed as opposed to 62% of Democrats. 79% of Republicans think professors brining their politics into the classrooms is a major reason why education is headed in the wrong direction. But there’s an age gap there – 96% of Republicans 65 or older think professor’s politics are a major problem in education but only 58% of Republicans 18-34 agree. In short, the Right doesn’t trust education.
And this is beyond what goes on in the classroom. The GOP has a long-standing dislike of teacher’s unions and those who work for education in general. The GOP doesn’t trust teachers at all levels, so you get things like the Texas platform that is anti-education at all levels, not just higher education.
Now, look, it would be really easy to mock this. I could just make a crack about how the GOP wants to keep us stupid and call it a day. But I think this is way more complicated and there are some things that need to be addressed. The role of education in this country is really complicated and there are many reasons why Republicans SHOULD be in favor of education. So let’s talk about a few of those and then get to some big questions – some that Trump gets to, but from a slightly different angle.
One, I wouldn’t be the first to observe that for somebody who distrusts schools so much Trump is awfully anxious for them to open back up without any adjustments. If school is so terrible for America why is he, and so many other Republicans, pushing so hard for schools to be open completely?
The answer is pretty straight-forward: we’ve learned over the last few months that the economy in America DEPENDS on the public-school system.
It is no secret that America has a crumbling infrastructure. Well, we’ve figured out that the unseen infrastructure is non-existent. We’ve known for a while that there is a child-care crisis – but the extent of that has become PAINFULLY clear since March. Parents have been using school as childcare for quite some time. And because America has no system in place to support parents or children without school, those parents were forced to choose between children and work in a time of crisis. Basically, in America, you can choose to have a job or a child – but these days it is really hard to have both because we don’t provide support for families.
But consider how we prioritize things then – our economy is entirely dependent on the work of teachers. And when suddenly parents became homeschoolers a LOT of people suddenly appreciated what teachers did a whole lot more. This is kind of a double whammy – the job is particularly hard, and our whole economy is resting on those who do it. And yet in many states these people are criminally underpaid, and they have to have multiple jobs just to pay the bills.
We talk about job-creators in America, but we have never realized that TEACHERS are the most fundamental of those. They not only are imparting the knowledge that will one day lead to a workforce (neo-liberalization of education aside), but they provide the VERY OPPORTUNITY for there to be workers to begin with. There are no workers without teachers. If the education system is the backbone of the economy one would think it would get a but more support from the pro-business party.
And that’s the disparity we are seeing right now. We are getting on the one hand this anti-education rhetoric, but on the other hand this push to open up the halls of education. And they don’t seem to appreciate the irony.
The other reason it is surprising the Republicans aren’t more supportive of educations is because of the nature of education itself. They complain a lot about what kids learn, but the history of American education is pretty conservative. I mean, in the liberal hot bed of NY kids are required to learn patriotism. It is so important that even if you home-school you have to show you are teaching patriotism in order to get credit.
For some proof of this let’s turn to probably the most famous education case ever: Brown v. Board of Education. If you don’t immediately know what that is, it is the case that decided “separate but equal” was unconstitutional and set America down the road toward desegregation.
It may not be abundantly clear how this illustrates how education in America is inherently conservative, as that was a pretty progressive decision for its time but bear with me for a moment. Many of the ideas I’m about to share with you can be found in greater detail in my Brown v. Board article on Whiteness and Brown v. Board article at Communication Law Review. I’ll link it in the transcript.
The basic events of Brown v. Board itself are not particularly complicated. In 1950, the Topeka, KS branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) set out to construct a legal challenge to an 1879 law that segregated elementary schools. NAACP lawyers knew they needed to create a class action suit and not focus on just one family, so they gathered 13 different families with 20 children among them. The NAACP encouraged these families to try to enroll their children in “white” schools, and as they anticipated, all of these attempts were denied. Accordingly, as the case made it through the legal system and eventually came before the Supreme Court, the Court chose to consolidate a number of other cases dealing with similar issues under the Kansas case.[i] In February 1951, the Topeka NAACP officially filed their case, naming it after plaintiff Oliver Brown.
The Brown opinion, penned by Earl Warren, is fairly simple and forthright and was written to be short, accessible, and non-accusatory. It 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. 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.
Warren describes the state of public education at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment as abysmal by present-day (1954) standards, with a curriculum that “was usually rudimentary” and “ungraded schools” that “were common in rural” areas and a school term that “was but three months a year in many states”; with “virtually unknown” compulsory school attendance. As a consequence, it is not surprising that there should be so little in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment and its intended effect on public education.” (Brown, 1954, para 9). So, he reasons, it follows that there was no notion of the Fourteenth Amendment applying to education. Education was, for all intents and purposes, a non-issue for half of the country. There would not have been any notion of “equal protection” for access to education because education was not a part of American life in any standardized, state-enforced, or mandated fashion.
Warren’s history of education is not simply nostalgic musing but important background information for his ultimate reasoning. But there are multiple reasons for mandating education. Public education provides not just basic reading and math skills, but a civic education as well.
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. (Brown v Board, 1954, para. 13)
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. 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
The Court 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. (Brown v. Board, 1954, para. 13)
Education is an inherently conservative endeavor. It aims to teach a unified version of American identity. And we have to ask ourselves what is this thing that it is teaching? What is the purpose of all of this?
In my classes this leads to a conversation that my students often find kind of challenging – if schools are teaching Americanism, we have to acknowledge that education is specifically ideological. One of education’s intended goals is to indoctrinate a particular ideology into students. So the question that raises is, is education propaganda?
If education exists to imprint an ideology onto young minds what does that mean? If propaganda is a biased message that supports a particular political or ideological point of view, then education is pretty closely aligned to propaganda there.
So we have to ask about the Republican opposition to education, then. Why would Republicans be against a system that pushes pro-Americanism? This is complicated – the complaints against education seem to be that education is anti-American. But the whole point of education is that it instills American identity in students.
I think we can identify the problem here by thinking about education as propaganda – but the Republican objection to education isn’t that it is propaganda but that it doesn’t propagandize ENOUGH. Education, as we have designed it and have written it into the law, is supposed to support American identity, the American economy, and the American work force. It is supposed to make us all think THE SAME. It is supposed to unify. When education encourages students to question hegemony it is not that it is propagandazing, it is that education is not propagandizing in the way it traditionally has.
Some example of this are easy – we can look at the way K-12 history is taught in various parts of the country and see some narratives are pushed into students. For example, in the South for many years students were taught that the Civil War was about states’ rights. But there are more ubiquitous examples, as well. My students in recent years have expressed great distress over what they learned in later years about Christopher Columbus, for example. They are upset that they learned he was a hero when they were young but then when they were older, they learned about his many atrocities and that this caused this a lot of cognitive dissonance. They are always upset when they describe how they felt when they learned what the discovery of American entailed.
But “Wait,” I will say. “Pause for just a moment.”
“DID he discover America?”
And they’ll say “’What do you mean?”
And I’ll ask them how could he discover it if there were whole civilizations already there? And things tend to get really quiet. And inevitably someone will say they had never thought about it that way. And we talk about how we may acknowledge his atrocities now, but still our language erases whole societies of people. Our narrative of Columbus, even as we try to acknowledge the suffering of indigenous peoples, still manages to dehumanize them. It’s a completely Euro-centric narrative.
Or I’ll ask them about their high school economics classes. I’ll tell them if they had a really good economics class, they should be able to explain the difference between Keynesian economics and the Chicago school so they could decide what kind economic policies they want to support as an adult. And I’ll ask them who had a class that helped them do that. In many years of discussing these issues I have NEVER had a student tell me they had a class that explained these things.
Then I’ll ask them the big money question – did anybody have an economics class that explained any economics theory outside of capitalism? And a hush falls over the crowd. It has literally never occurred to them that an economics class would be anything other than the capitalistic economics class than what they learned.
So I’ll ask them – what does that mean for the ideology of your education? There are many countries out there that are much less capitalistic than we are. But it never even occurred to any of us because I was the same way as a student, that economics could be any different.
Because education indoctrinates us into a particular way of thinking about the economy. It doesn’t teach us “capitalism” or “Chicago theory” or anything like that – it teaches us “economics” – as if that is the only way there is to approach it. Economics classes are a prime example of how Americanism is instilled into students at many different levels
Literature is another example. What authors are chosen? What books? What emphasis is there on authors of color or authors outside of Great Britain or the United States? Some of my students come having read a wide variety of books in middle school and high school. And some come having read hardly anything outside the basic British and American authors – which is a pretty good way to center whiteness and capitalism. What makes a good author? What makes a good theme? What makes a good hero for a story? These all say something about the ideology your education wants to impart to you.
And universities are hardly the bastions of liberalism where this ideology is questioned that the Right would have you believe it is. Business schools, the life blood of many universities, teach profit over justice and capitalistic ideologies that keep the school afloat and alums happy. In the current financial crisis that many schools are facing the first programs that are being cut are programs like Gender Studies, or African American Studies, or even English or Media Studies – those very places where the conservative narrative is questioned. At the first opportunity schools did everything they could to eliminate those programs that question hegemony
Universities are inherently conservative institutions. People may bemoan the liberal tendencies of professors, which are often overblown, but they ignore the Boards of Regents, the donors, and the upper echelon of administration, which are overwhelmingly conservative, and often made of business people or politicians, and not educators. Yes, there are individual classes that oppose the propagandistic narrative of the educational system, but that is not the systemic nature of education.
That is perhaps why there is little evidence to suggest that students leave college any more liberal than they started. Few students actually change their politics while they are in college, and if they do it is because of their peers and not because of their professors.
This tension between propaganda and education is old and perhaps best highlighted by something that happened during the Cold War that nobody talks about anymore, probably because it is really uncomfortable. Let’s talk a little about something called the Freedom Academy.
In 1951 Alan Grant proposed an institution called the Freedom Academy in which the average, lay-American would be taught the fundamental tactics of Soviet propaganda to be used in support of America and democracy.
Propaganda, supporters of this institution argued, was a weapon as powerful as any bomb, and would be the secret to winning the Cold War. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what weapons you used in favor of democracy, so long as you were in favor of democracy and capitalism. And propaganda wasn’t wrong if it was in support of a good cause. People needed to be guided into right thinking. It was a top-down approach to leadership. The idea was that people need not be left to themselves to make decisions be that they needed to be guided, or possibly forced, into supporting democracy and capitalism. The Soviets were using these techniques in favor of Communism to great effect, so we should be using them in favor of democracy and capitalism. Many supporters even admitted these were immoral or unethical tactics, but that war was immoral and unethical, so you used the weapons you needed to win in. Jesus wasn’t going to approve, anyway.
The Freedom Academy was debated until 1967, with both vehement support and opposition.
Those who opposed the Freedom Academy took issue with the nature of propaganda in a democratic society. They argued that if you were being coerced into believing something it wasn’t actually democracy. At the heart of democracy is choice and free will, and propaganda subverts that very fundamental. Propaganda is elitist – propagandists believe that a select few should choose what is right and wrong for the people and they can push those beliefs onto the people by indoctrinating them. Democracy is not meant to be elitist. It is not meant to be a rule by a domineering elite that chooses the way for the people who do not get to make their own decisions. And the fact that the Soviets were using propaganda was not a compelling argument. They idealistically argued that the whole point of democracy is that we were supposed to be BETTER than the Soviets. Otherwise what was this whole thing about? Ultimately, those who opposed the Freedom Academy did so on the grounds that propaganda was (or is) inherently anti-democratic. To create a propaganda institute would betray the very ideals America was fighting for.
And tangential element to this argument that came up over and over again dealt with education. On either side of the argument about the Freedom Academy was the question: what is an education for? What is the purpose of educating people? The Freedom Academy was an institution that was designed to create educational messages by lay people for lay people – so what kind of educational messages are we supposed to send?
Proponents of the Freedom Academy believed that an education is supposed to teach you what to think. An education is supposed to provide an ideology and you should accept it. An education is supposed to give you a framework through which to see the world and you don’t move beyond that. It is fixed and doesn’t alter. It doesn’t require any higher order thinking.
Opponents of the Freedom Academy believed that an education is supposed to teach you how to think. An education is supposed to provide you with the tools to make choices. It is supposed to help you assess information. It is to equip you to be your own person. It teaches critical thought and higher order thinking.
And THIS, my friends, is at the heart of Trump’s tweet.
Trump fears “radical left indoctrination.” But that’s not what is happening here. What is happening is some teachers diverging from the already propagandistic nature of education.
Nobody is indoctrinating students to the left. But people ARE adhering to the ideas that opponents to the Freedom Academy posited – that an education is not a top-down means of insuring compliance. That’s not doctrinaire. That’s deviating FROM established doctrine. But from the view from the hegemonic top that looks like radicalism.
So we are left with potent questions then. What is an education supposed to do? Is it supposed to create good Americans or is it supposed to create decision makers and thinkers? What does it say about us that some of us see those as mutually exclusive? I’m personally of the opinion that if more Americans were better thinkers and decision-makers we’d be in slightly better shape than we are at this particular moment. But maybe that’s just my leftist indoctrination coming through.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.