Yesterday brought news of a recent poll in which a majority of Republicans blamed universities for taking the nation in the “wrong direction.”
Think about that.
I don’t know Henry Giroux, but his recent article in Salon was what we used to call a barn-burner, and it provides a context for that sorry and depressing poll result. It began:
Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making. It also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship.
After cataloging the serious social schisms manifested in Trump’s campaign and victory, Giroux gets down to the question most rational Americans have been asking since November 9th: how did we get here?
What forces have allowed education, if not reason itself, to be undermined as crucial public and political resources, capable of producing the formative culture and critical citizens that could have prevented such a catastrophe from happening in an alleged democracy? We get a glimpse of this failure of education, public values and civic literacy in the willingness and success of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning, a practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice and social responsibility….
In this instance, George Orwell’s famous maxim from “Nineteen Eighty-four,” “Ignorance is Strength,” materializes in the administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history but also to obliterate it. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project but also a reworking of the very meaning of education as both a crucial institution and a democratizing and empowering cultural force.
Giroux reports that two-thirds of Americans believe that creationism should be taught in schools and that a majority of Congressional Republicans believe either that climate change is not caused by human activity or that it is non-existent.
The article goes on to detail the assault on education and educational institutions, and it is well worth reading in its entirety. His analysis of Betsy DeVos particularly resonated with me.
On a policy level, the Trump administration has turned its back on schools as public goods. How else to explain the president’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education? DeVos, who has spent most of her career attempting to privatize public schools while acting as a champion for charter schools. It gets worse: As a religious Christian extremist, DeVos not only supports religious indoctrination in public schools but has gone so far as to argue that the purpose of public education is “to help advance God’s Kingdom.” Not exactly a policy that supports critical thinking, dialogue or analytical reasoning, or that understands schooling as a public good.
Giroux insists that the rampant illiteracy of our politics has been intentionally fostered, that the “dumbing down” of America prevents us from acting from what he calls a “position of thoughtfulness, informed judgment, and critical agency.” Even a cursory survey of the political landscape lends credibility to his argument.
Here are my own questions: when and how did this happen? when did scholarship and expertise become signs of a despised elitism? When did America’s longstanding admiration for “the best and the brightest” turn to scorn?
And what are we going to do about it?