Is Education “Woke”?

The GOP’s hostility to higher education–okay, to education in general–has been getting more scrutiny since Ron DeSantis intensified his war on those “woke” institutions we call colleges and universities. DeSantis (smarter and much more dangerous than Trump) is latching on to the Republicans’ increasing hostility to education.

Before discussing the politics involved in this particular aspect of the culture war, let me readily concede that a significant majority of university instructors and educated Americans are what that base considers “liberal.” There are two reasons for that: first, the definition of “liberal” has changed rather dramatically over time; and second, (depending on that definition) reality has a pronounced liberal bias.

I can personally attest to the rather profound change in the definition of the word “liberal.” As I have previously noted, in 1980 I ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress. I was a Republican–and I was told I was “too conservative” by a fair number of voters.  Although I have changed my position on a couple of policy issues since then, as I learned more about them, my overall political philosophy has remained consistent. Only now, I’m routinely accused of being a pinko socialist/communist elitist.

While I was essentially standing still, philosophically, the GOP totally redefined conservatism. Conservatives are now True Believer authoritarians edging toward fascism. Using the current (re)definition, I’m no longer conservative, and neither are most of the GOP politicians with whom I once worked.

The Rights’ newly radical definition of “conservatism” rather obviously excludes the majority of college professors. But even before the transformation of the GOP,  and under the “old” definition of the term, a majority of university faculty identified as liberal. Not “leftist”as Europeans use the term, but liberal: people whose world-views are shaped by empirical evidence. These are people who recognize and are able to cope with the emergence of new understandings and/or evidence that conflicts with what they previously thought to be the case– people who lack  the all-encompassing, rigid certitude that marks today’s “conservatives.”

Liberal college professors recognize the limits of their knowledge. As I often told my own students, my goal was not to have them leave my classroom agreeing with my perspectives, political or otherwise; my goal was to teach them the importance of understanding and applying two important phrases: it depends, and it’s more complicated than that.

In today’s politics, conservatives are those who hold fixed, immutable beliefs (and want government to impose them on everyone else), and liberals are people who recognize contingency and complexity. DeSantis’ hated “wokeness” is willingness to examine new evidence, determine its credibility, and revise error when the facts support such revision.

In a recent column, Paul Krugman considered what he called “the extraordinary rise in right-wing hostility to higher education in general.”

Not that long ago, most Americans in both parties believed that colleges had a positive effect on the United States. Since the rise of Trumpism, however, Republicans have turned very negative. Recent polling shows an overwhelming majority of Republicans agreeing that both college professors and high schools are trying to “teach liberal propaganda.”

Did America’s colleges — which a large majority of Republicans considered to have a positive influence as recently as 2015 — suddenly become centers of left-wing indoctrination? Did the same thing happen to high schools, run by local boards, across the nation?

No, as Krugman notes, what happened was that right-wingers expanded their definition of what counts as “liberal propaganda.”

Thus, when one points out that schools don’t actually teach critical race theory, the response tends to be that while they may not use the term, they do teach students that racism was long a major force in America, and its effects linger to this day. I don’t know how you teach our nation’s history honestly without mentioning these facts — but in the eyes of a substantial number of voters, teaching uncomfortable facts is indeed a form of liberal propaganda.

And once that’s your mind-set, you see left-wing indoctrination happening everywhere, not just in history and the social sciences. If a biology class explains the theory of evolution, and why almost all scientists accept it — or, for that matter, the theory of how vaccines work — well, that’s liberal propaganda. If a physics class explains how greenhouse gas emissions can change the climate — well, that’s more liberal propaganda.

Krugman says that what we need to understand is that people like DeSantis are attacking education, not because it uses liberal propaganda to indoctrinate, but because it fails to sustain the ignorance they want to preserve.

I wonder how many MAGA folks ever encountered or seriously considered that famous quote from Thomas Jefferson: If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.


  1. Today’s Republican agenda is a lurch backward to the times when the first societies emerged from hunting and gathering. Since the GOP is owned and operated by corporate/banking America – as Todd points out almost every day – these cheaply-bought, corrupt dolts do as they’re directed: FASCISM.

    Fascism is what business and industry eat for breakfast. OF COURSE, they want/need to control everything within government and without. Have you ever met and talked to a high-up corporate type? It’s all about control, power and dominance. That’s how they got there and that’s what they perceive keeps the profits rolling in.

    The recent train wreck (How symbolic) in Ohio had its roots in Trump rolling back safety regulation changes that Obama’s administration put in place. I doubt Trump saw past the end of his nose where his hate for Obama lived. Probably some whining railroad exec. complained about how much it would cost to employ the safety measures, and Trump saw another opportunity to “stick it to the libs.” Now, East Palestine will be a toxic dump for years. Well done, fascists.

  2. Changing the meaning of words such as “liberal” and conservative” because time changes conditions could be the core of many of our problems. New conditions and issues call for different or newly coined words to separate them from the vitally political terms such as “liberal” and “conservative”. Neither word factually describes either political party. I am 5 ft. 2 in. “tall” and standing next to my 21 month old great-granddaughter I am indeed “tall” but standing next to the majority of adults, relatively I am not. A former Republican friend claimed Democrats run on and consider everything as being “relative”; and so it is. Higher education cannot compare intelligence levels with those who did not attend college as having higher intelligence; they merely have higher education levels. My awe of those with college educations waned during and after working with those who were educated but ignorant of conditions, facts and truths. At one time, completing high school was considered having higher education; especially for girls.

    “Liberal college professors recognize the limits of their knowledge.” Being “woke” to our individual potential and our limitations isn’t being “liberal” or “conservative”; no matter our education levels we need to be aware of our own realities and the realities we are living with today. Results of robbing Peter (public education budget) to pay Paul (private, religious education) is not working on any level of relativity or liberal or conservative leadership.

    I’m not talking “sour grapes” here; for I do wish I had a higher education to make better use of my wasted abilities.

  3. In my humble experience, there is a vivid contrast between headlines of a political rant with a loud microphone and what is the curriculum and insight more quietly stirred by a dedicated competent teacher in the classroom.

    Don’t place your bets on the headlines. Take a closer look at the horse that matters most to winning the race. Well … it depends and it is more complicated … I get that, but if I were more a student of the ranting school board member than my enlightened teachers where I grew up in West Texas, more than likely, I would not even have access to Sheila’s blog today expressing a reasonably coherent opinion.

  4. I would say our federal government has been fascist for decades. It’s easy to spot the Republicans because they are working to shape authoritarianism (DeSantis et al.).

    This is helped by Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda here and in the UK and Australia (a military base readying to attack China).

    I just read an article where a Florida permanent substitute took a video of empty bookshelves at the library and posted it on Twitter. He was fired after DeSantis complained. Florida has crazy laws that Indiana is now pursuing – “Media specialists must rule whether each book complies with the STOP Woke Act and the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Making the wrong decision could cost the media specialists their job — or even a third-degree felony charge.”

    Indiana will introduce their version Wednesday morning. I suspect this is an ALEC boilerplate law sent to all Republican (Koch) strongholds.

  5. There is another aspect to the discrepancy in political affiliations in college faculty. Why should those with a PhD in Economics teach at a university, when they know they can make much more money in business and finance? Not just a little more, but much more. This kind of self-selection has to be partly involved in the differences noted in the article.

  6. The Republican party has not moved to the right, it has been taken over by the “Christian” (I use quotes because they are cerntainly not followers of Jesus) Nationalists, and those Republicans who are not “Chistian” Nationalists have been willing to bow to the Christian” Nationalists’ agenda. As Sheila poined out in her book, “God and Country: American in Red and Blue” The roots of Christian Nationalism go back to Calvin, who punished people who didn’t follow his beliefs, and if they moved to far from his beliefs they were burned at the stake, sometimes with green wood to make the process slower. We are not dealing with conservatives gone bad, we are dealing with people who want a Christian Nation. Being a transgender woman I have been following the hearings in various states, and they are nothing but show trials. No one who is rational and unbiased could set through these hearings, listening to experts on transgender, and parents and sibling testifying about their fears for the trans youth, and sobbing between each sentence, and then vote for these bills. Trying to keep trans kids safe? These same folks who have been denigrating LGBTQI+ folks for decades if not centuries? No, the trans kids are first because they believe they will be least defended. Next they will come after abortion at the national level, and birth control, and on and on, until, if they are successful, we are back to 1880 right after reconstruction stopped, and when the Bill of Rights didn’t even apply to state laws. Or maybe we won’t even have a Democracy to save. These people have to be stopped now.

  7. Government regulation and our Congress are out of control. They are meddling in areas where they have little training or working knowledge. They have no rational business micro-managing the fields of education, vouchers to private schools for wealthy kids, medicine at the Doctor/Patient level, and other business interests, such as Walt Disney World.
    Actions such as DeSantis’s vindictive restrictions on Disney’s Special Taxing District, his attacks on teaching history in Public Schools, and bans on books and controversial classroom discussion topics.
    He punishes the States largest employer by revoking its Special Taxing District status and dumping Disney’s Bond Debt on the local Government, making it a potential burden on all the citizens in that area. Meanwhile, The Villages (The STD capital of America) still enjoy their STD status (Special Taxing District).
    If you haven’t already watched the video link, please watch it and do what you can to spread the word. Our country is out of control.
    Appreciate the job all our educators do and still believe the best education should be in Public Schools.

    The video concerns whether we are “teaching for a test or educating our students?”
    ~ Noam Chomsky

  8. “ideology-a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy” The New Oxford American Dictionary
    Why are universities criticized for being bastions of liberal ideology?
    I don’t consult my medical doctor when I need to get my car repaired and I wouldn’t go to my auto mechanic if I had a broken leg. I look to specialists for specialized help and advice.
    There are people who have specialized in the study of economic and political theories and policies. They are likely to be found in and associated with universities. They attended universities to obtain their knowledge and have earned degrees certifying they have gained a certain level of expertise in their chosen fields.
    When you spend years studying something you gain both detailed knowledge and a broad perspective of your subject. This enables you to make more reliable evaluations and judgements about it than could someone lacking your expertise.
    If universities really are bastions of liberal ideology, it isn’t because there is some evil cabal trying to destroy America. It is because those ideas are the ones that have stood the tests of criticisms and evaluations I’m the communities of scholars who have specialized in studying them.

  9. Meanwhile, Governor DeMentis has set hIs sights on “woke” local government. He has his legislative minions drawing up bills that will make it easier for him to take over local governing bodies. He’s trying to cement total control over Florida.

  10. I have told my husband that DeSantis was MUCH more dangerous than Trump and he disputed me. I now get to tell him that the wise & sage Sheila agrees with me. How I love being correct!

  11. Education doesn’t necessarily equate into being smart!

    Everyone arrives at their own conclusions from different angles. One size never fits all.

    My wife holds six different degrees. I don’t hold any.
    My wife who happens to be of African descent, had to struggle through school, and corporate America at least twice as hard as her white counterparts.

    I dropped out of school after 8th grade. Now I did go to trade schools, and, received a high school diploma from night classes at the Native American center on Wilson avenue in Chicago!

    The education that I received in trade school and the Native American center was much more enlightening to me than all the years I put in to public school. My wife suffered the same abuse in school in this area as I did and even worse. Because of course being a black female, the white male teachers always had some ignorant comments to make. Let’s just say, they tended to be filthy pigs. Now I suppose these teachers were enlightened, they claimed to be liberal-minded here in Illinois of course, but they were closet bigots so to speak. Espouse one set of values in public but practice the complete opposite in private.

    Vernon was really spot on this morning. And, pointing out Todd’s comment concerning the dolts, absolutely!

    They not only keep the pipeline full of these Dolts,

    They keep adjusting that pipelines filter to produce the desired flavor that works best in their quest for authoritarian power.

    College does not create common sense, it doesn’t necessarily create any special form of knowledge nor does it promote wisdom. There is no perfection in this world, and education is loaded with ideologues that see themselves as iconoclasts! It really is Ludacris to promote the evil of one side, and the virtues of another when both sides are usually full of crap.

    One thing I do know in my ignorant mind, the reckoning for all of this is coming because it always has throughout history! Every single time! And it will not be any different, because this historical moment is driven by the same blathering ignorant ideas and practices that have permeated humanity throughout its history.

    Nothing has changed, nothing!!! And, probably even has regressed in certain areas.

    We all have friends, who can impart certain feelings and wrongs that have been perpetrated on them. But, it’s hard to walk in those shoes. You have to experience it yourself. No one ever learns from the experiences of others because of ignorance. Folks might want to understand, but never do.

    The grief that I felt dealing with and being taught by some of these ideologue iconoclasts far surpassed any grief that experienced from the death of my Brothers, Father, uncles, aunties and cousins…

    I had to laugh about what all of these enlightened geniuses were talking about concerning the Republican party going the way of the Whigs! Barack Obama was in his second term, and Hillary Clinton was the sure fire next president! Then everyone decided to take a break and smoke some weed! Gee, what happened? The extinct political party got to work! While everyone else was taking their self-satisfying siesta.

    And, surprise surprise surprise! When you have these so-called liberal geniuses espousing moronic diatribe, like defund the police, or, refuse to use their political capital to stop violence in minority communities, because, it’s not their mission!

    Silly me, I thought that the mission was to be accepted by everyone. Or, is life only worth fighting for if a police officer extinguishes it? If your neighbor does it, it’s okay?

    Narcissistic diatribe and beliefs are common all shades, I would say many more than 50!

  12. “Empirical evidence,” evidence that shows that the globe of the planet is not just a squashed square, or cube?
    John Locke said that all human knowledge is derived from ideas presented to the mind by the world of experience.
    He was not referring to the experience of hearing a DeSantis blather about his version of “Unicorns are real!”
    “…contingency and complexity?” Hey, those both start with a “C,” just like communism, therefore, you MUST be a
    pinko commie. My kind of lady!
    “…but in the eyes of a substantial number of voters, teaching uncomfortable
    facts is indeed a form of liberal propaganda.” Indeed! And that’s why, when
    Faux News had the nerve to call Arizona for Biden, over 1.5 million of their
    viewers switched to Newsmax, which presented a more comforting version of
    reality to them. (It has been reported that they later returned to Fox.)
    It is interesting to note that the factor leading to the change in the right’s
    view of education was Trump’s voicing. He who has been characterized as
    “The dumbest student I ever had,” by one of his former teachers.
    “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Paul
    Samuelson, receiver of the Nobel Prize in economics, 1970.

  13. The opposite of woke is sleeping which is unconscious which is the purest state of ignorance. Know nothing, see nothing to quote Sgt Schultz. That would be the most pliable constituency for authoritarian rule. That’s the Goal of DeSantis for Republicans. They fall for the line because they interpret it personally as him giving them power over others. A piece of his action. That, as every authoritarian ruler knows, is the kind of gullibility that authority needs.

    Then there are liberals who, as our liberal democratic Constitution clearly posits, honor diversity and human rights above all, along with clear guardrails on the reach of government.

  14. Education, especially higher education, has long been a sore spot for some on the “right” for two reasons.
    1) At its best, it teaches people to think and to evaluate the pronouncements of others “objectively”.
    2) (horror of horrors) It teaches to question authority, not to follow blindly.

    As for “Woke”, I’ve always thought that MAGA owned the trademark on that brand, as they do with ANTIFA. I’ve generally only heard MAGA people toss that word around, but all in all, if woke means “awake”, well I’d rather live life awake, than as a mindless, somnambulant MAGA adherent.

    Sheila – I suspect that you have always been “ideologically non-binary” – just your own person.

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