DeSantis exposes how the right has twisted an argument for public schools



Ron DeSantis is a darling of the conservative world — except perhaps for Donald Trump — after his smashing reelection victory on a night when Democrats otherwise did fairly well. Conservatives were already favorably inclined toward DeSantis because he has leaned into the culture wars, especially in education. While some of his efforts have generated major headlines, one has flown below the radar. On Nov. 7, public school students in Florida joined students in four other states — Utah, Texas, Alabama and Virginia — in memorializing “the 100 million people who have fallen victim to communist regimes across the world.”

This state-mandated mourning came in recognition of Victims of Communism Memorial Day timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Trump administration created the holiday in 2017 at the request of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC), a right-wing nonprofit organization.

The effort spotlights how an argument used by advocates of public schooling to build support for universal public education has become a potent weapon for conservatives to push their cultural agenda on American children.

In the early 19th century, advocates of public education, like Horace Mann, argued that schools would be a setting to cultivate a shared national identity. Mann and other common-school reformers who promoted universal childhood education argued that schools were essential for democracy because they could instill a shared “Americanism” in the hearts and minds of the country’s next generations. Beyond teaching literacy and math, they would socialize children and prepare them to be productive members of their communities. In this way, schools would develop citizens who could find common ground in a diversifying — but still prominently White, Christian and patriarchal — society. This potential meant that schools promised to be the cure for a long list of social ills including poverty, alcoholism, joblessness and other “vices” stereotypically ascribed to Catholic, Jewish and non-White immigrants.

Nationalism was reformers’ foremost argument for institutionalizing public education, as historian Cody Dodge Ewert has written. Public education was (and is still) under the purview of the states, but framing public schools as a nationalist cause made the idea popular at a time when the rapidly developing country was searching to stake out its own identity.

However, in “making schools American,” advocates of public schooling politicized them in such a way that it benefited cultural and social conservatives who wanted to ensure that the national identity remained rooted in White Protestant patriarchy. Right-wing opponents of liberal democracy thus pounced on the idea of compulsory education to promote their preferred visions of patriotism and nation-building.

As the United States became more industrial and less agrarian in the late 19th century, compulsory education meant that children would be spending most of their days with their teachers, rather than with their parents and other adults in their extended families. In this context, White Americans in the West and South accepted schools as institutions and they trusted White teachers to preserve and promote a culture of European Protestant-derived manners, customs, literature, history and religion. And as Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe increasingly flocked to Northern port cities, wealthier Protestant Northeasterners (whose own White children were often taught by hired tutors) were also attracted to free public schools as assimilating institutions that would promote their traditions of Protestantism and patriarchy among poor immigrant children.

By the 20th century, historian Adam Laats explains, “other school reformers” — those on the right such as the Ku Klux Klan — latched on to schools as cultural unifiers that could inculcate their values in the next generation. The Klan, for instance, supported English-language-only instruction. Not long after, White evangelicals joined the campaign to weaponize curriculums against their enemies: atheism and communism. In the 1920s, battles between educators and right-wing Christian groups made national news, such as in the infamous Scopes trial over evolution’s place in science curriculums.

After World War II, schoolwide recognition of patriotic holidays became an essential part of the academic year. Throughout the 1950s, teachers led children in celebrations of Columbus Day and Veterans Day, recitals of the Pledge of Allegiance (incorporating the new phrase “under God” in 1954), and in singing patriotic songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America (My Country ’Tis of Thee).” Public colleges even required oaths from their faculty and students, who swore they were loyal Americans and not secret Soviet agents. Through these activities, public K-12 schools and colleges required students to define themselves as patriots and Christians, drawing a clear distinction away from secular communist enemies of the time.

By the 1960s, cultural and social conservatives attempted to legislate mandatory K-12 courses on the differences between “Americanism and Communism,” and sought out legislators from both major political parties to sponsor their bills. Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), which served as a political nursery for many on the VOC’s leadership in their youth; the American Legion; Veterans of Foreign Wars; the conspiracist John Birch Society; and other right-wing and military groups circulated petitions of support for the mandatory course. These groups also heralded the presence of ROTC and JROTC recruitment and training centers on college campuses and in K-12 schools during the Vietnam War. Such efforts demonstrated the right’s willingness to promote militarism from kindergarten to college to enforce their anti-communist ideological vision.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, conservatives continued to fight to keep schools from moving away from values steeped in Christianity and White culture. They protested a wide range of things, from bans on school prayer to the creation of ethnic studies programs to sex education. In the 1990s conservatives called for an all-out culture war (derived from the German Kulturkampf, a bitter struggle between church and state) over these and other issues they deemed antithetical to being an American.

By the 2000s, conservatives’ perceived inability to control curriculums and policies so enraged the right that many withdrew their children from public schools entirely. The GOP’s endorsement of voucher programs allowed right-wing evangelical parents to instead enroll their children in Christian academies, charter schools and co-op home-school programs that were not beholden to state boards of education (despite accepting the publicly funded vouchers).

Today, the right’s major grievances with schools are largely based in imagined and unjustified fears that derive from a resistance to anti-racism and LGBTQ inclusion. The right now calls for book bans and other restrictions, especially in history and literature courses, when topics run counter to conservatives’ preferred narratives.

In the modern context, the right argues that the nation is under “attack” as historians challenge the right’s favored tales of American exceptionalism with facts about the past. When historians highlight racial, gender and economic injustice, the right reflexively balks that doing so is un-American and divisive. True unity, the right claims, is achieved by elevating stories of American greatness and promoting conformity to White, Christian, patriarchal norms of the past. So they promote much of the same vision for education as conservatives in the 1950s and ’60s — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) recently proposed history and social science standards would have kindergartners learn patriotism — including the flag salute.

Devoting school time to recognizing Victims of Communism Memorial Day is another instance of Christian nationalists and others on the right using propaganda to further their goals in public education. It also foreshadows the political futures of GOP stars with presidential aspirations, like DeSantis, who are all too willing to advance right-wing political narratives over historical truths.

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