The United States is at war with itself, and education is one of its more recent casualties. The institutions crucial for creating informed, engaged and critical citizens are under siege. One consequence is that the language of democracy is disappearing along with the institutions and formative cultures that make it possible.
The signs are everywhere. Jim Crow politics are back with a vengeance. Both during and in the aftermath of the Trump presidency, the Republican Party has dropped any pretense to democracy in its affirmation of authoritarian politics and its embrace of white supremacy. This has been evident in their weaponizing of identity, support for a range of discriminatory policies of exclusion, the construction of a wall that has become a resurgent symbol of nativism, and under the Trump regime the internment of children separated from their undocumented parents at the southern border.
The rush to construct a home-grown form of authoritarianism is also clear in the passing of a barrage of voter suppression laws introduced in Republican-controlled state legislatures, all hinging on baseless claims of voter fraud. Voter suppression has become the new currency of a rebranded form of racialized fascist politics. As of September 1, 2021, 361 bills had been put into play in 47 states while 19 states have passed 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote, particularly poor Black people. Neoliberalism’s survival-of-the-fittest ideology has turned even more toxic. The right-wing appetite for maliciousness and cruelty now translates into a form of learned brutality — allowing people to think the unthinkable and embrace the tenets of white supremacy.
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Voter suppression laws fuel white supremacy and fit nicely into the racist argument that whites are under siege by people of color who are attempting to dethrone and replace them. In this case, such laws, along with ongoing attacks on equality and social justice, are defended by right-wing extremists as justifiable measures to protect whites from the “contaminating” influence of immigrants, Black people, and others considered unworthy of occupying and participating in the public sphere and democratic process. Similarly, voter suppression laws are defended as legitimate attempts to provide proof of “real Americans,” code for defining people of color as “counterfeit citizens.” In actuality, these laws are not only racist in intent, but are also meant to enable permanent minority rule for the Republican Party, the end point of which is a form of authoritarianism.
The attacks on “critical race theory” (CRT) are a barely disguised effort by white supremacist to define who counts as an American and has a long legacy in which those groups deemed unworthy of citizenship disappear. The language of historical and pedagogical erasure extends from the genocide inflicted on Native Americans to the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and includes the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War and the rise of the racialized carceral state. There is more at work here than the whitening of collective identity, the public sphere and American history. There are invocations of whiteness, as Paul Gilroy suggests, that enhance “the allure of [a] rebranded fascism.”
The Republican Party’s labeling of critical race theory as “ideological or faddish” both denies the history of racism as well as the ways in which it is enforced through policy, laws and institutions. For many Republicans, racial hatred takes on the ludicrous claim of protecting students from learning about the diverse ways in which racism persist in American society. For instance, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has stated that “There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” DeSantis has not only labeled critical race theory as “false history,” but he has also extended the discourse of his virulent attack on any vestige of critical education and critical race theory to almost unrecognizably repressive lengths. As Eric Lutz points out, DeSantis has taken the culture war a step farther, signing laws that will require students and staff at public universities to be surveyed on their political beliefs; bar higher education institutions from preventing access to ideas students may find “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive;” and force-feeding K-12 students “portraits in patriotism” that contrasts the U.S. with communist and totalitarian regimes.
In this updated version of apartheid pedagogy and historical cleansing, the call for racial justice is equated to a form of racial hatred leaving intact the refusal to acknowledge, condemn and confront in the public imagination the history and tenacity of racism in American society. Apartheid pedagogy transforms the criticism of racial injustice and structural racism into a breach of law and makes it an object of malignant state oppression and violence.
The attack on critical race theory restricts what educators can say and teach in the classroom and does so by invoking the language of fear and retaliation. As Heather Cox Richardson points out in her October 16, 2021, newsletter, teachers who refer to the work of Frederick Douglass, the Chicano movement, women’s suffrage and equal rights, the civil rights movement, Indigenous rights and the American labor movement all run the risk of losing their jobs in states such as Texas. Many teachers are not just confused about what they can and cannot say in the classroom about social justice issues but also live in daily fear over the consequences they may face “for even broaching nuanced conversations about racism and sexism.” Such fears point to more than the curtailing of freedom of expression and the idealizing of history by whitewashing it. They also identify the U.S.’s slide into a rebranded fascist politics that is difficult to ignore. This type of indoctrination and intrusion into shaping the curriculum makes it clear how right-wing Republicans view what it means to be a “patriotic American.” The threat of white supremacy has even been acknowledged by President Joe Biden in a speech he delivered marking the Tulsa Race Massacre. Biden warned that U.S. democracy was not only in danger but that Americans had to recognize and challenge the “deep roots of racial terror.”
Legalizing Racial Oppression and Apartheid Pedagogy
The racialized climate of fear, intimidation and censorship is spreading in the United States. This is evident in the fact that anti-critical race theory bills have been introduced or passed in 27 state legislatures across the country in order to prevent or limit teachers from teaching about the history of slavery and racism in American society. These reactionary attacks on critical thought and emancipatory forms of pedagogy echo an earlier period in American history. Such attacks are reminiscent of the McCarthy and Red Scare period of the 1950s when heightened paranoia over the threat of communism resulted in a slew of laws that banned the teaching of material deemed unpatriotic, “and required professors to swear loyalty oaths.”
Such repression is never far from an abyss of ignorance. Right-wing attacks on critical race theory also ignore any work by prominent Black scholars ranging from W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Y. Davis to Audre Lord and James Baldwin. There is no mention of even Derrick Bell, the founder of critical race theory in the 1980s. Nor is there room for complexity, evidence or facts, just as there is no room for either a critique of structural racism or the actual assumptions and influence that make up CRT’s body of work. Such attacks raise fundamental questions about the goal of higher education and role of academics in a time of mounting authoritarianism.
This is especially true at time when higher education has become a site of derision, an object of censorship, and a way of demonizing faculty and students who address critically matters of racial inequality, social injustice and crucial social problems. Let’s be clear. For the Republican Party, higher education has become a battleground for conducting a race war waged in the spirit of the Confederacy and conducted through the twin registers of censorship and indoctrination. Right-wing politicians now use education and the power of persuasion as weapons to discredit any critical approach to grappling with the history of racial injustice and white supremacy. In doing so, they undermine and discredit the critical faculties necessary for students and others to examine history as a resource in order to “investigate the core conflict between a nation founded on radical notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, and a nation built on slavery, exploitation, and exclusion.” In this context, the language of history appears frozen, stripped of its critical insights and reduced to a weapon of miseducation. History no longer teaches us what tyranny looks like or to recognize the ethical grounds of resistance. It no longer provides lessons about the courage to act. Ignorance destroys civic culture and undermines democracy by eliminating an informed public capable of understanding and shaping the forces that bear down on their lives.
Apartheid pedagogy is about disavowal, erasure and disappearance. It promotes a manufactured ignorance in the service of civic death and a flight from ethical and social responsibility. The right-wing attempt to impose “patriotic education” on educators is part of a longstanding counterrevolution that conservatives have waged since the student revolts of the 1960s. The 1960s call by students to democratize the university and open it up to people of color was then considered by many liberals and conservatives as a dangerous expression of dissent. In one famous instance, this was duly noted by ruling class elites such as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in the Trilateral Commission of 1973 who complained about what was called the “excess of democracy” in the United States. This counterrevolution also fueled the ongoing corporatization of the university in which business models defined how the university is governed, resulting in faculty being reduced to part-time workers, and students being viewed merely as customers and consumers. Another register of this ongoing counterrevolution with its embrace of apartheid pedagogy includes an attempt by boards of trustees to remove faculty from making decisions regarding both matters of administrative governance, faculty appointments and who decides who gets tenure. In addition, many Republican-led states are not only making decisions about what books can or cannot be taught — a decision that should be left up to teachers — but are also calling for what they call teaching opposing views in classrooms. In one instance, a school administrator in charge of curriculum in a Texas school district informed a group of elementary school teachers that “if their classroom libraries included books about the Holocaust, students should also be steered toward books with ‘opposing views,’” as if there were a legitimate opposing view to counter the death of 6 million Jews and others.
In addition, right-wing legislators have also introduced laws to limit funding to higher education institutions that teach critical race theory. For instance, Ohio Republican State Representative Sarah Fowler Arthur introduced a bill titled “Promoting Education Not Indoctrination Act” that threatens to cut state funding by 25 percent to any Ohio public university that allows the teaching of critical race theory. Arthur’s disdain for democracy was also evident in her attempts to erase from state-mandated curriculum guidelines any mention of the notion of common good, a view in sympathy with her repugnant views of racism, environmentalism and critical thinking itself. Ron DeSantis has passed legislation that mandates that Florida’s two public universities “use objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid” surveys to measure “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives” exist on the campuses. Beyond imposing what amounts to ideological surveys, the law also encourages conservative students to secretly record classes in the event they file a lawsuit against the university. This is about more than censorship; it is about the whitewashing of history and education regarding any issue that is at odds with the right-wing’s notion of patriotic education. As the novelist Francine Prose argues:
If teachers are obliged to tell their classes that there is “another point of view” about whether the Holocaust occurred, must American history lessons now also include books asserting that the United States was never a slave-holding nation or that racism ended with the Emancipation Proclamation? If the discussion surrounding a novel or story leads a class to conclude that LGBTQ+ people are entitled to basic human rights, must the class be asked to seriously consider the opposing view: that those rights should be denied to anyone who differs from the heterosexual norm?
Such attacks are also being funded by foundations such as the Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute, which often rely on the endorsement of conservative scholars such as Thomas Sowell. Some of most powerful enablers of the attack on “anti-racist programs” in higher education and elsewhere include such as organizations such as the Koch Brothers foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is particular pernicious given that it increasingly provides the template for anti critical race theory bills which are then used by many state legislators. This is apartheid pedagogy with a vengeance.
Education Must Develop Young People’s Capacity for Democracy
One of the challenges facing the current generation of educators, students, and others is the need to address the question of what higher education should accomplish in a precarious democracy? How can educational and pedagogical practices be connected to the resurrection of historical memory, new modes of solidarity, a resurgence of the radical imagination and broad-based struggles for an insurrectional democracy? How can education be enlisted to fight what the cultural theorist Mark Fisher once called neoliberalism’s most brutal weapon, “the slow cancellation of the future?”
Such a vision suggests resurrecting a democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond a social order immersed in massive inequality, endless assaults on the environment, and elevates war and militarization to the highest and most sanctified national ideals. Under such circumstances, education becomes more than an obsession with accountability schemes, market values,and an unreflective immersion in the crude empiricism of a data-obsessed market-driven society. Education and pedagogy should provide the conditions for young people to think about keeping a democracy alive and vibrant, not simply training students to be workers. Yes, we must educate young people with the skills they need to get jobs but as educators we must also teach them to learn “to live with less or no misery [and] to fight against those social sources” that cause war, destruction of the environment, “inequality, unhappiness, and needless human suffering.” As Christopher Newfield argues, “democracy needs a public” and higher education has a crucial role to play in this regard as a democratic public good rather than defining itself through the market-based values of neoliberal capitalism.
One of the most serious challenges facing administrators, faculty, and students in colleges and universities is the task of developing discourses and pedagogical practices that connect classroom knowledge, values and social problems with the larger society, and doing so in ways that enhance the capacities of young people to translate private troubles into wider systemic issues while transforming their hidden despair and private grievances into critical narratives and public transcripts. At best such transcripts can be transformed into forms of public dissent or what might be called moments of rupture or empowering transgressions. Democracy cannot work if citizens are not autonomous, self-judging, curious, reflective and independent — qualities that are indispensable for students if they are going to make vital judgments and choices about participating in and shaping decisions that affect everyday life, institutional reform and governmental policy.
The current right-wing attacks on education dangerously weaken the critical and democratic impulses of education. Moreover, they are designed to strip history of its critical and most troubling elements, and in doing so weaken the pedagogical opportunities for students to develop in free and open exchanges of ideas while undermining the conditions that promote critical thinking, dialogue and civic engagement. Matters of truth, evidence and reality itself disappear in this form of pedagogical repression. Such actions set the stage for a generation of students unable to distinguish truth from fantasy, unable to resist the false allure and claims of demagogic leaders, and unprepared to reject conspiracy theories and lies. In other words, this form of education prepares them to accept a world where manufactured ignorance is the norm and where repeating the worst elements of the past becomes an unquestioned reality.
Resistance in this sense begins with the refusal to accept a crudely functional view of education that only values those modes of research, knowledge and teaching that can turn a profit. We must reject educational views that consign administrators, faculty, and students to the prison house of common sense and cynicism. We must reject the attacks on teacher unions and the reduction of knowledge, values and modes of governance to the language of managerial capitalism. We must refuse to turn education into work stations of right-wing ideology and white supremacy, or into factories designed to domesticate thought and cauterize the imagination. We must speak out against the power of bean counters to align educational research with the idolatry of data, which attempts to define the unmeasurable and promote a deadening instrumental rationality that suffocates consciousness. We must resist the empirical frenzies that turn courageous ideas into ashes, all the while degrading civic virtue and ignoring the shadow of a fascist politics engulfing the globe.