For reasons that may not be too hard to understand, Republicans and conservatives seem bent on turning their K-12 schools, colleges, and universities into plantations to raise a crop of ignorant and thoughtless students.
Donald Trump laid out the principle during his 2016 primary when he declared, “I like the low educated.”
In recent months, the right-wing assault on public education has intensified. The epicenter of the movement is Florida under Republican Ron DeSantis administration, where the faculty and course offerings of one of America’s leading liberal arts colleges, New College, have been evicted, ostensibly to stamp out what DeSantis calls “ideological indoctrination.”
The right has reduced CRT to an incendiary dog whistle.
Robin D. G. Kelly
The state’s K-12 schools have been given permission to supplement their curricula with animated cartoons developed by the far-right Prager University Foundation that blatantly distort America’s climate science and racial history to better promote fossil fuels , undermine the use of renewable energy, and paint a lily white picture of America’s past.
Then there’s West Virginia, which is proposing to close nearly 10% of its academic offerings, including all of its foreign language programs. The supposed reason is a huge budget deficit, the harvest of a systematic cut in government funding.
In Texas, the State Library and Archives Commission exits the American Library Assn.
In Arkansas, state education officials told schools not to award credits for the Advanced Placement course in African American history. (Several school districts said they would still offer students the course.) This is the course that earlier this year forced Florida to water down the College Board by falsely claiming it promoted “critical race theory.”
I should note here that I have doubts about this effort. On the one hand, an ignorant young electorate cannot be good for the republic; on the other hand, filling the workforce with graduates incapable of critical thinking and burdened by a distorted view of the real world will reduce competition for my children and grandchildren for jobs that require knowledge and brains.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these cases.
Prager University, or PragerU, is not an accredited higher education institution. It is a propagator of right-wing charlatanism founded by Dennis Prager, a right-wing radio host. The materials approved for use in the schools include a series of five to ten minute animated videos featuring the fictional Leo and Layla, school-going siblings who travel back in time to meet historical figures.
Read more: Column: Ron DeSantis and Whitewashing the Horrors of Slavery
A meeting is with Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist. The aim of the video is to portray “Black lives matter” demonstrations as uninhibited and violent – “Why are they setting a car on fire?” asks Leo as he watches a news report on television. The animated Douglass speaks out for change achieved through “patience and compromise.”
This depiction of Douglass leaves experts in his life and times mystified. Douglass consistently railed against such counsel. On the Compromise of 1850, which brought California into the union but strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act—perhaps the most abhorred federal law in American history—he stated that it illustrated how “slavery has left its leprous distillation by the lifeblood of the nation shot.” In 1861 he thundered that “all compromises are now but as new wine to old bottles, new cloth to old garments. To try them as means of peace between liberty and slavery, is like trying to undo the irreversible law.”
Patience? The video shows Douglass quoting from an 1852 speech to a Rochester anti-slavery society in which he said “great streams cannot easily be turned away from channels, which have been deeply eroded by the ages.”
But it contains no lines from later in the speech, reproaching his audience for prematurely celebrating the progress of abolition: “Your celebration is a sham; your boasted freedom, an unholy license; your national grandeur, swelling vanity; .. .all your religious parade and solemnity, … mere bombast, fraud, deceit, impiety and hypocrisy – a thin veil to obscure crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
Another video in the series reiterates the fossil fuel industry’s talking points against wind and solar energy: Standing over the corpse of a bird supposedly killed by flying into a wind turbine, the schoolchildren’s interlocutor says: “Like many people… you have been misled about renewable energy, and their [sic] impact on the environment… Windmills kill so many birds, it’s hard to keep track of how many… Wind farms and solar farms disturb huge amounts of natural habitat.”
Acid rain, pollution, global warming – those consequences of energy from fossil fuels are not mentioned. The video ends with a pitch for nuclear energy, let alone the unresolved question of what to do with the radioactive waste products.
PragerU’s zealous assault on renewable energy perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: One of the big donors is the Wilks family, which makes its fortune from fracking and who in 2013 made a $6.25 million “future payment” to PragerU approved.
Read more: Column: Attempts by the Red State to keep their universities stupid will cause a brain drain
As for New College, its trials under the DeSantis regime have been documented by, among others, my colleague Jenny Jarvie.
In short, the Sarasota institution had a well-earned reputation as one of the country’s excellent havens for talented, independent-minded students. Then came DeSantis. He summarily replaced the board of trustees with a group of right-wing henchmen, including Christopher Rufo, who was known for fabricating the “critical race theory” panic out of thin air and then marketing it as a useful culture war weapon for unscrupulous conservative politicians. like DeSantis.
Rufo and his comrades fired the president of the university and installed a junior-level GOP time server, Richard Corcoran, in her place. Teachers and students have fled. Students who stayed behind and were busy putting together their schedule for the coming year discover at the last minute that the courses are no longer offered because their teachers have been fired or quit.
Instead of ambitious scientists committed to an open investigation, Corcoran has recruited athletes to fill the student body, even though the university has no athletic fields for many of them to play on. According to USA Today, New College now has 70 baseball players, nearly twice as many as the University of Florida’s Division I NCAA team.
More to the point, average SAT and ACT scores and high school averages have dropped from pre-Corcoran levels, while most of the school’s merit-based scholarships have gone to athletes. In other words, New College has evolved from a top liberal arts institution to a school that puts muscular underachievers on a pedestal. DeSantis calls this “succeeding in his mission to eradicate indoctrination and refocusing higher education on its classic mission.”
Read more: Column: To give in to black history right, the college board gives a course in cowardice
Finally, West Virginia University. Under President Gordon Gee – who previously practiced his dubious magic at Brown University and Ohio State University, among others – the school built lavish facilities despite declining enrollments. The land grant university construction program contributed to a $45 million shortfall for the coming year, with it expected to rise to $75 million by 2028.
But the main problem was one shared by many other public universities: the erosion of government funding. As the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy points out, “If West Virginia lawmakers had simply kept funding for higher education at the same levels as it did a decade ago, West Virginia University is estimated to receive an additional $37.6 million in state funding. have for FY 2024. the bulk of this year’s budget deficit.”
The decision on which programs to close at WVU highlights a shift in how public university administrators see the purpose of their schools, in an effort to align them more with the economic goals of local industries, rather than on the goal of providing well-rounded education to students of a state. Trustees in some states, including North Carolina and Texas, have injected themselves into academic decisions traditionally left to administrators, often for partisan political reasons.
When it comes to interference in education policy by conservatives, such as what has happened in Florida, Texas and Arkansas, there is no justification for taking these measures on the face of it – that is, as attempts to “indoctrinate” the schools to delete. The truth is that the right-wing effort serves the purposes of white supremacists and anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination advocates—they proceed to inject indoctrination more in line with their own ideologies.
Take the attack on “critical race theory,” or at least the version sold by Rufo and his ilk. “The right has reduced CRT to an incendiary dog whistle,” noted UCLA black scholar Robin D. G. Kelley, caricaturing a four-decade-long scholarly effort to analyze “why the anti-discrimination law not only fails to address structural racism but further entrenched racial inequality” in “a racist plot to teach white kids to hate themselves, their country, and their ‘race’.”
(The inclusion of Kelley’s work in the AP African American Studies course was cited as a “concern” by Florida officials in their rationale for declining the course; Kelley’s work was suppressed by the College Board in its effort to make the course more acceptable to the Department of Education.)
These attacks are encapsulated in the vocabulary of “parents’ rights” and student freedom, but they do not serve the students at all, nor do they promote the rights of parents interested in a good, comprehensive education for their children, as opposed to one dictated by the most narrow-minded ideologists in their state.
Where will it end? Florida’s blunt education policies won’t produce graduates with the intellectual equipment to succeed in legitimate universities, let alone the world at large. The one college that many will be qualified for is Prager U, and that’s no good for anyone.
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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.