Attacking Education

Indiana’s terrible legislature is–as usual– considering several terrible bills. One of those is a thinly-veiled attack on Hoosier higher education.

Senate Bill 202 would establish government oversight of tenure and promotion for all faculty teaching at the state’s public universities. The bill would require those institutions to “deny, limit, or terminate continued employment to faculty if certain conditions related to free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity are not met.”

The author of S.B. 202 wasn’t taking any chances that a classroom discussion violating his quixotic definition of “intellectual diversity” might go unchallenged; SB 202 also establishes a reporting system encouraging students and employees to file complaints against any faculty member they feel is failing to meet the new pro-conservative conditions. It also adds two additional alumni representatives to university boards of trustees.

The Indianapolis Star has published an opinion piece that describes the bill and its likely effects: the departure of competent faculty and an enforced intellectual conformity, a la DeSantis’ Florida. The article reported on the real motives of the bill’s supporters and the political dishonesty involved.

The bill is similar to proposals advanced in other majority-Republican state legislatures — in Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Texas — that seek to establish political oversight of tenure and promotion procedures, curriculum planning, and student services at public institutions of higher learning. Such initiatives are part of a concerted effort to curb the expansion of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and programs that many colleges and universities across the country have adopted.

Sen. Spencer Deery, R-Lafayette, the bill’s author, has cited partial and unspecified polling data in a number of press reports that purport to show 46% of right-leaning students not feeling welcome to express their views on college campuses in Indiana. In fact, no such Gallup survey results exist.

The figure of 46% does, however, show up in a 2022 study conducted by political science professors at the University of North Carolina (and much cited by conservative advocacy groups) that seems to confirm Deery’s worries. But that study only surveyed students across eight institutions in the UNC system (and even there, with a sample size of 500 students, a mere 2.5% of the student population), not in Indiana.

Of course, as the author notes, even if a more rigorous survey produced the same results, S.B. 202 wouldn’t alleviate the problem. Instead, it would turn Indiana’s campuses into incubators of political correctness and intellectual conformity and would replace the scholarly and professional basis for employing faculty with political litmus tests.

The article ends with a pertinent question: why is a political party that holds a supermajority in the state legislature, the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, and 7 out of 9 seats so alarmed by the prospect of actual education on the state’s college campuses?

I think we all know the answer to that question.

All available polling and research confirms that the more educated voters are, the more likely they are to vote, and the more likely they are to vote Democratic.

Here in Red Indiana, any threat education poses to GOP dominance will be delayed, thanks to gerrymandering and the lack of a mechanism to overcome it (not to mention the ongoing “brain drain” that sends our brightest graduates to states more congenial to that pesky diversity and inclusion), but our legislative overlords are looking down the road. The rural districts that reliably send MAGA Republicans to the Statehouse are emptying out, and even in the hinterlands, some of Indiana’s small towns are showing signs of dreaded culture change–welcoming immigrants and other “diverse” town-folks.

Several political observers have noted that MAGA Republicans are prone to projection–that when they hurl an accusation at Democrats or “Never Trump” Republicans, they are usually accusing their targets of behavior of which they themselves are guilty. Senate Bill 202 is an effort to indoctrinate students attending the state’s institutions of higher education; anyone who has been paying attention is aware that Republicans have been insisting that teachers, librarians and professors are “indoctrinating” students by introducing them to subversive “liberal” ideas.

The problem is, indoctrination is the antithesis of genuine education.

Educated individuals can recognize complexity, live with ambiguity, and discuss, negotiate and compromise with people who disagree with them. Today’s MAGA voter rejects complexity, is terrified by ambiguity, doesn’t understand the concept of negotiation and refuses to compromise. To be a MAGA Republican means to believe in a black and white universe threatened by any rapprochement with fellow-citizens who differ.

Education and intellectual inquiry are the enemy. Hence S.B. 202.


Where It All Began

A friend recently recommended Robert P. Jones’ most recent book, “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: and the Path to a Shared American Future,” and as I’ve gotten through it, I’ve become aware of just how misleading my history classes were and why White Christian Nationalists are so determined to eliminate accurate history (which they inaccurately call CRT) from the nation’s classrooms.

Jones is an ordained pastor and the director of the Public Religion Research Institute. (He also wrote “The End of White Christian America,” exploring the political and social responses by White Christians to their dwindling majority.) In this book, he has probed the Christian roots of White supremacy, which–he persuasively argues–goes back much further than American slavery and is responsible for the horrific treatment of both Native Americans and Blacks.

Jones locates the institutional source of White supremacy in a document I’d never previously heard of: The Doctrine of Discovery, issued as a Papal Bull in 1493–the year after Columbus’ “discovery” of America.

As one academic source describes it:

The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.

That document, which essentially gave European Christians carte blanche to invade and dispossess any non-Christian populations that might be inconveniently in possession of desirable territory, reflected a belief in European (White) Christian supremacy that is still potent.

Jones provides example after example of the U.S. government cheating Native Americans, breaching treaties, and decimating tribes. I thought back to my history classes. Not once in high school or college did that instruction include a description of the ways in which early Americans mistreated Native Americans. Not once was there even a mention of the Trail of Tears, arguably the most famous of these reprehensible events. I only learned about the Trail of Tears as an adult visiting a Cherokee museum.

The book moves between the mistreatment of Native Americans and the history of slavery and Jim Crow–and the way we are still grappling with the remnants and persistence of both– and he provides important background and context for the murder of Emmet Till, the Tulsa massacre and other shameful episodes in our national life. In places, it has been very hard to read; I’ve had to take breaks from time to time as I considered, among other things, what sort of people would actually torture and kill a young teenager over the perceived “assault” of a wolf whistle, and what sorts of government officials intentionally refuse to honor treaties and routinely betray solemn promises.

Thanks to this book, I have a deeper appreciation for the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” because for a considerable part of our nation’s history, in many parts of the country, those lives didn’t matter to significant percentages of the White majority. (And let’s be honest; those lives still don’t matter to more Americans than I care to think about…)

It is coincidental that I am reading about this history during Black History month, but that coincidence emphasizes–at least, to me– the importance of teaching accurate, inclusive history. It has also given me a fuller understanding of the resistance; those who continue to harbor racial animus and view inclusion as a threat are frantic at the prospect of students abandoning a whitewashed (pun intended) version of the American nation as the “City on the Hill,” a virtuous product of White Christianity.

If the Germans can confront the Holocaust, Americans can confront our genocidal treatment of Native Americans and our vicious suppression of Black Americans. In fact, as Jones argues, we absolutely must. The only way to ensure that the past is truly past is to encounter and admit to it, warts and all.

Acknowledging the past and moving to remediate it is, in the end, our only “Path to a Shared American Future.”


Then And Now

A week or so ago, my husband and I watched an American Experience episode titled  “Nazi Town”–a PBS documentary about the extent of pro-fascist opinion in the United States in the run-up to World War II.

The documentary left me both saddened and (unexpectedly) hopeful.

I  was saddened–to put it mildly– to learn of the enormous numbers of Americans who had embraced Nazi ideology. Until recently, I had assumed that the great majority of Americans actually believed in democratic government and the protection of civil liberties. I knew, of course, that a minority of my fellow-citizens harbored less comforting views, but I had no idea of the extent to which the American people endorsed truly horrific hatreds and were ready–indeed, eager–to hand the country over to a strongman who would relieve them of any responsibility for political decision-making.

In the 1930s, the nation had dozens and dozens of “Nazi camps,” where children were indoctrinated with White Nationalism. The German-American Bund enrolled hundreds of thousands of Americans who affirmed the notion that the country was created only for White Protestant Christians, and endorsed a “science” of eugenics confirming the superiority of the Aryan “race.” Racism and anti-Semitism were rampant; LGBTQ folks were so deep in the closet their existence was rarely recognized.

All in all, “Nazi Town” displayed–with scholarly documentation and lots of footage of huge crowds saluting both the American flag and the swastika –a very depressing reality.

But the context of all that ugliness also gave me hope–even in the face of the MAGA Trumpers who look so much like the Americans shown giving the “heil Hitler” salute.

I’m hopeful because we live in a society that is immensely different from that of the 20s and 30s.

During those years, the country experienced a Depression in which millions of Americans were jobless and desperate.  America was also in the throes of Jim Crow, and most White and Black Americans effectively occupied separate worlds. Thousands of people–including public officials– wore white robes and marched with the KKK. Europe’s age-old, virulent anti-Semitism had not yet “matured” into the Holocaust, and Hitler’s invasion of Poland–and knowledge of what came after–were still in the future. Few Americans were educated beyond high school.

World War II and discovery of the Holocaust ultimately ended the flirtation with fascism for most Americans, and in the years following that war, the U.S., like the rest of the world, has experienced considerable and continuing technical, social and cultural change. As a result, the world we all inhabit is dramatically different from the world that facilitated the embrace of both fascism and communism. (In fact, it is the extent of those differences that so enrages the MAGA culture warriors.)

Today, despite the contemporary gulf between the rich and the rest, America overall is prosperous. Unemployment has hit an unprecedented  low. Many more Americans are college educated. Despite the barriers that continue to face members of previously marginalized populations, people from different races and religions not only live and work together, they increasingly intermarry. Many, if not most, Americans have gay friends, and some seventy percent approve of same-sex marriage. Television, the Internet and international travel have introduced inhabitants of isolated and/or homogeneous communities to people unlike themselves.

Although there is a robust industry in Holocaust denial and other forms of racial and religious disinformation (I do not have a space laser), Americans have seen the end results of state-sponsored hatreds, and even most of those who harbor old stereotypes are reluctant to do actual harm to those they consider “other.”

The sad truth is that many more of my fellow Americans than I would have guessed are throwbacks to the millions who joined the KKK and the German-American Bund. The hopeful truth is that–even though there is a depressingly large number of them–they are in the minority, and their numbers are dwindling. ( It’s recognition of that fact, and America’s changing demography, that has made them so frantic and threatening.)

I firmly believe that real Americans reject the prejudices that led so many to embrace Nazi ideology in the 20s and 30s.

Today, most of us understand that real Americans aren’t those who share a preferred skin color or ethnicity or religion. Real Americans are those who share an allegiance to the American Idea–to the principles enumerated in the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In order to send that message to today’s fascists and neo-Nazis, we need to get real Americans to the polls in November.


A Speech Worth Revisiting

It’s probably a sign of just how suspicious I am these days of quotations on the Internet, but when I saw a post on Daily Kos that purported to be a lengthy portion of a speech by Ulysses Grant, I checked with two separate academic sites to confirm its accuracy.

It turned out it was accurate–and prescient.

Grant might have been commenting on our current national woes when he spoke in Des Moines in 1875.

I do not bring into this assemblage politics, certainly not partisan politics, but it is a fair subject for soldiers in their deliberations to consider what may be necessary to secure the prize for which they battled in a republic like ours. Where the citizen is sovereign and the official the servant, where no power is exercised except by the will of the people, it is important that the sovereign — the people — should possess intelligence.

The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a free nation. If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.

Now in this centennial year of our national existence, I believe it a good time to begin the work of strengthening the foundation of the house commenced by our patriotic forefathers one hundred years ago, at Concord and Lexington. Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the more perfect security of free thought, free speech, and free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion.

Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support, no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that the State or Nation, or both combined, shall furnish to every child growing up in the land, the means of acquiring a good common-school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistic tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.

Grant eloquently addressed what I have called “civic literacy”–the need of a “sovereign people” to be both patriotic and informed. As is clear from the context of his words, Grant’s definition of “patriotic” is very different from the jingoism displayed by today’s MAGA Republicans. True patriotism requires an allegiance to the principles of America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights, an allegiance based upon a proper understanding of those documents and the philosophy that animated them.

Grant was very clearly aware that such allegiance and understanding comes from instruction “unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistic tenets”–that such religious precepts must be left to the family, the church and private schools “supported entirely by private contributions.”

An eon ago–in 1980–I was a Republican candidate for Congress. I even won a Republican primary.  Despite the fact that I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, among other things, I was considered–and considered myself– to be a conservative. Then and now, I believe the proper understanding of that label includes a commitment to conserve the values that Grant enumerated in that long-ago speech.

I continue to believe that labeling today’s GOP “conservative” is a travesty that works to normalize what is a truly frightening and very unconservative approach to politics and American governance.

True conservatism requires a commitment to uphold the individual liberties protected by the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech and press, Separation of Church and State, freedom of conscience and personal autonomy, among others.

I don’t know the proper label for the MAGA fanatics who have taken over what was once my political party. Culture warriors? White Christian Nationalists? Fascists? Today’s GOP is probably a blend of all those, together with a heavy sprinkling of people who are too civically-illiterate to understand how very unconservative–and dangerous– their party has become.

Grant eloquently defended the extension of “equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion.” Today’s Republicans would call him “woke,” and angrily reject him (along with Lincoln) as “anti-American.”


Speaking Of Higher Education

With all the media focus on a handful of “elite” universities, perhaps it’s time (or overdue) to take a look at some of the hundreds of small colleges and universities that dot the country and are most definitely not “woke.” A number of them are religious, and several–like Hillsdale–are proudly “conservative.” (I put quotes around conservative because true conservatives have very little in common with the political movement that has appropriated that label.)

I’ve been aware of Hillsdale for a number of years. I’ve had graduate students who matriculated there, and several years ago I wrote a book about a libertarian organization headquartered in Indiana that–according to its Executive Director– was scammed by Hillsdale and its then-President. I still get –and routinely discard–their slick newsletter.

The New York Times recently did a “deep dive” into Hillsdale’s more recent political shenanigans.

A few days before Thanksgiving 2020, a half-dozen or so people gathered at the home of a Michigan lawyer named Robert E. Norton II.

Norton is the general counsel of Hillsdale College, a small, conservative Christian school in the southern part of the state. One of his guests was Ian Northon, a Hillsdale alumnus and private lawyer who did work for the college. Also in attendance were a couple of state lawmakers, Beth Griffin and Julie Alexander, who represented conservative districts north of Detroit.

Northon would later describe the meeting to the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol. “Somebody at Hillsdale reached out to me, said they are going to have this little meeting,” he testified. “I went to it. There were a handful of reps there, and then Giuliani called in.” That, of course, was Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor turned personal lawyer to President Donald J. Trump.

Hillsdale was already well connected to the Right. Northon had worked for the Amistad Project, an “election-integrity watchdog” that the Times reported “emerged as a primary partner in the Trump campaign’s election-fraud litigation.” He’d been a vice president of the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based Rightwing philanthropy that has funded groups pushing voter-fraud conspiracy theories.

And most prominent was Hillsdale’s president, Larry P. Arnn. Over two decades, Arnn had fashioned the college as an avatar of resistance to progressivism, all the while amassing relationships with many of the influencers and financiers who were transforming conservative politics in America. By the time Trump swept into the White House in 2017, Arnn had made Hillsdale an academic darling and supplier of philosophical gravitas to the new right.

So prominent was Arnn that he was mentioned as a possible education secretary before losing out to Betsy DeVos, part of a wealthy Michigan family of major conservative donors and Hillsdale patrons. (Her brother, the private-security contractor Erik Prince, is an alumnus.) Hillsdale graduates became aides in the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill and clerks at the Supreme Court. (“We have hired many staff from Hillsdale,” says Marc Short, who served as chief of staff to Trump’s vice president and Arnn’s longtime friend, Mike Pence.) In the Covid years, the backlash against school closures, mask mandates and diversity programs made education perhaps the most important culture-wars battleground. Hillsdale was at the center, and nowhere more than in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis frequently invoked Hillsdale as he sought to cleanse the state’s schools of liberal influence. “How many places other than Hillsdale are actually standing for truth?” he said at a 2022 Hillsdale-sponsored event in Naples, Fla.

The Times article explored the way in which this small Michigan college got mixed up in the plot to subvert American democracy, and it certainly makes for fascinating reading. But Hillsdale is hardly the only small religious institution providing an academic environment actively indoctrinating students against progressive political beliefs.

There are some 900 Christian-affiliated colleges in the United States, and while not all of them emulate Hillsdale, those that  pride themselves on turning out “conservative” students collectively educate thousands of young Americans–far, far more than matriculate from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, et al.

I suppose pointing this out is a form of “what-aboutism.” I certainly do not intend it as an argument that all is well in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League; there is plenty of hypocrisy masquerading as inclusiveness on those campuses, and the fact that their graduates are over-represented in government and academia makes them proper targets for evaluation and–when warranted– criticism.  

I just think that criticism should be–in the immortal words of Faux News– “fair and balanced.” For every Harvard graduate, there are probably twenty from schools like Hillsdale, Oral Roberts and Liberty– and their graduates are the ones passing anti-gay and anti-women measures in state legislatures around the country.