Category Archives: Education / Youth

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.



Public Schools And Parents

When the movement for school vouchers first began, proponents insisted that a “free market” in education would improve outcomes–that children no longer confined to those failing “inner city” schools would emerge better-educated. They tended to ignore pesky concerns about transportation, fly-by-night “education entrepreneurs” and the inconvenient fact that public schools serving rural folks who had no private options were losing resources so that urban kids could attend primarily religious schools.

As the years went on, numerous credible research projects showed that the magic of the market had unaccountably failed. Voucher students not only didn’t perform better, they mostly lagged behind their public-school peers.

That was inconvenient, but the intrepid opponents of American public education weren’t about to let a little thing like poor educational outcomes keep them from realizing their goals: destroying teachers’ unions, evading Separation of Church and State, and enriching donors from the for-profit education sector. So proponents pivoted from test scores to the horrors of “woke” instruction: assertions that the public schools were “indoctrinating” children by teaching them accurate history and –horrors!!–letting them read “woke” books.

The battle cry this time was “trusting and empowering parents” whose Christian family values were being undermined. It turns out, however, that a majority of parents are satisfied with their “woke” public schools.

As an article from the American Prospect explains. there was considerable discontent with school closures during the pandemic, and early successes by reactionary parent groups built on that discontent. Then they over-reached.

The new culture war over the future of education is a stalking horse for the same old battle over school choice. The not-too-hidden goal of denigrating public schools is to weaken support for teachers and their unions, and to redirect funds into school vouchers and other programs that pummel public education even further.

Polling conducted by the American Federation of Teachers in mid-December found that the culture-war framing was unpopular. Instead, voters and parents saw strong academic, critical reasoning, and practical life skills as most important, when compared to anti-wokeness. Furthermore, among the sample group, when given the option between improving public education and giving parents more school choices, 80 percent preferred improving public schools. Most revealing was that two-thirds of voters said that culture-war battles distracted public schools from their foremost role: educating students.

The article noted that even some Republican state legislators resist efforts to privatize education.

In Iowa, nine Republicans in the House, and three in the Senate, voted against a bill that would pull $345 million of taxpayer money over a four-year period into family private-school costs. Thanks to the margins in the Iowa legislature, the bill still passed. The state’s education department expects it would include an additional drop of $46 million from public-school funding as a result…

One Iowa Republican who opposed the measure  told the Des Moines Register that he represented a “very Republican, very conservative district” –and that his constituents were opposed to the measure.

The article also referred to the earlier experiment in Kansas under Gov. Sam Brownback that led to a reversal of the cuts and the election of a  Democratic governor now serving her second term.

Diverting resources to voucher and “scholarship” programs has reduced funding for public school teachers, as well as for extracurricular activities, English-as-a-second-language programs, special-education programs, school bus drivers, janitorial services, and coaches. Those cuts most definitely are not in the public interest, nor are they desired by the vast majority of parents.

As NPR has reported:

Math textbooks axed for their treatment of race; a viral Twitter account directing ire at LGBTQ teachers; a state law forbidding classroom discussion of sexual identity in younger grades; a board book for babies targeted as “pornographic.” Lately it seems there’s a new controversy erupting every day over how race, gender or history are tackled in public school classrooms.

But for most parents, these concerns seem to be far from top of mind. That’s according to a new national poll by NPR and Ipsos. By wide margins – and regardless of their political affiliation – parents express satisfaction with their children’s schools and what is being taught in them…

In the poll, 76% of respondents agree that “my child’s school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics.”…

Just 18% of parents say their child’s school taught about gender and sexuality in a way that clashed with their family’s values; just 19% say the same about race and racism; and just 14% feel that way about U.S. history.

Vouchers don’t improve education, and a small minority of parents is dissatisfied with the curricula in their children’s schools. But in Indiana, evidence is irrelevant. Republican legislators are pushing hard to expand an already-generous voucher program.

They need to explain just who they are representing–and why.



Indiana’s Pathetic Legislature

An analysis of the priorities of Indiana’s legislative super-majority yields two possible interpretations. Either the members of the demonstrably unrepresentative  GOP caucus hate their constituents (unless they’re well-to-do), or they are so devoid of common sense that they enthusiastically support measures that are the legislative equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot.

I do tend to think the problem is intellect rather than malice–a rabid devotion to ideology that precludes the evaluation of credible contrary evidence. But former state employees who depend upon their state pensions might be forgiven for thinking those in the current Statehouse super-majority hate them.

As the Capitol Chronicle recently reported, 

A bill mandating that Indiana’s public pension system divest from firms or funds that use certain non-financial investment criteria — a flashpoint in the state’s culture wars — could slash the system’s returns by nearly $7 billion over the next decade, according to a revised fiscal analysis.

Author Rep. Ethan Manning, R-Logansport, and supporters say the proposal would ensure that the Indiana Public Retirement System puts finances first. House Bill 1008 is part of a GOP effort to crack down on the environmental, social and governmental framework known as ESG investing.

But its restrictions and administrative requirements could mean a hefty price tag for the fund and its retirees.

As the article noted, even the conservative-leaning Indiana Chamber of Commerce strongly opposes the measure. That opposition undoubtedly reflects the long-time–but evidently now discarded–Republican opposition to unnecessary and/or intrusive meddling in decisions that should be left to the owners and managers of businesses.

But hey! Today’s GOP recognizes the terrible threat posed by allowing Hoosier companies to consider the environmental, social and governance positions of the enterprises in which they invest, or with which they do business. If former state workers must suffer in order to avoid participating in this descent into “wokeness,” well, so be it.

Lest the casual observer conclude that this misbegotten bill is an outlier, allow me to disabuse you.

Let’s look at just a couple of other areas where our intrepid lawmakers are hard at work making sure the state will not and cannot reach its purported goals. You can probably identify others.

One problem to which everyone gives lip servicee is that  Indiana lacks a sufficiently skilled workforce to make us competitive for many of the companies our economic development folks would like to attract.

So what did the God-Fearing misogynists at the Statehouse do? They passed a ban on abortion–sending a clear message about Indiana’s political culture to skilled workers (male and female) who might otherwise have considered living here. Multiple news outlets have confirmed  the increased difficulties in recruitment that followed passage of the ban.

Another major issue for Indiana is the worsening teacher shortage, a shortage that the General Assembly is assiduously addressing with multiple efforts to drive educators (who might produce that skilled workforce) out of the profession and/or the state.

It isn’t just the bills telling teachers and school librarians what books they can use and what history they can teach. At the same time our lawmakers are trying to micro-manage what happens in public school classrooms, they are intent upon enlarging a voucher program–aka “scholarship” bill–with virtually no oversight mechanisms. 

That program is patterned after one in Arizona, where even minimal oversight was evidently considered intrusive. As The Guardian recently reported, 

When the former governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, signed a law last year that lets any family receive public funds for private school or homeschooling, he said he “trusts parents to choose what works best” for their children.

Over 46,000 Arizona students now take part in the state’s education savings account, or ESA, program, which provides about $7,000 per child annually for a huge array of school expenses. But with households in greater charge of curricular choices, some purchases are raising eyebrows, among them items like kayaks and trampolines, cowboy roping lessons and tickets to entertainment venues like SeaWorld….

One parent in the group said she uses the Disney+ streaming service to “extend our learning” and asked if the state would approve the cost of a subscription. Others said they had received approvals for trampolines and horseback riding lessons.

It’s pretty obvious that what legislative culture warriors tout as a boon for “family empowerment ” is really part of a persistent effort to disempower and dismantle public education.

In Arizona, the seemingly endless variety of options available to homeschoolers makes it difficult for state officials to regulate them – and that may be the point. The goal, school choice proponents say, is to break free of school bureaucracy and put parents in control.

In Indiana, the message to teachers is clear: we trust even the most uneducated parents, but we sure don’t trust you. 

Gee, I wonder why we have a teacher shortage…?


An Ugly Omen

I’ll begin today’s post with a link to this report from The Week, but I’m reasonably certain that everyone reading this blog has already encountered reports about Ron. DeSantis’ most recent assault on the Constitution.

On the remote chance that you were vacationing in Bora Bora or blissfully hidden in an Amazon forest, I’ll explain: DeSantis refused to allow Florida schools to use a new Advanced Placement course in African-American studies, accusing it of being “woke.”

DeSantis has engaged in an unremitting war against “woke-ness”–otherwise described as any recognition that Black, Brown and LGBTQ people are citizens who are entitled to be treated as civic equals. My initial reaction to this latest eruption of racism in an effort to appeal to the increasingly racist GOP base was just to shake my head at this latest effort to protect Florida school kids from the evils of education.

Then came the reports prompting today’s headline–the utter capitulation of the College Board.

The alarming part of this story is that the College Board “completely bowed to his demands — and extremely quickly at that!” The nonprofit’s insistence that politics played no part in the decision is bunk. According to The New York Times, the writers and academics barred from the curriculum include Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a Columbia professor whose work has been “foundational in critical race theory,” and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, “who has made a strong case for reparations.” More than 200 African American studies teachers said in a Medium post this gutting of the course amounts to “censorship and a frontal attack on academic freedom… Happy Black History Month.”

As Robert Kuttner put it in Kuttner on Tap in The American Prospect, DeSantis and the College Board were “enabling each others corruption.”

On Wednesday, after a threat from Gov. Ron DeSantis to ban the new Advanced Placement curriculum on African American studies in the state of Florida, the College Board released a watered-down version. The new curriculum is mainly historical. It deletes critical race theory and expunges or minimizes references to Black Lives Matter and the issues of reparations and Black incarceration. Some issues are removed from the AP curriculum entirely; others are left as optional topics for papers. The course still covers the slave trade and the civil rights movement but excises the work of several Black radical scholars.

Talk about following the money!

Like most Americans, I had previously been unaware that the AP courses offered to high school students capable of engaging with a more challenging curriculum are a branded product of the College Board. 

As Kuttner explained,

The College Board is a classic case of a large nonprofit that behaves exactly like a profit-maximizing business. Its annual budget is about a billion dollars a year, and according to its most recent tax filings, Coleman, its CEO, was paid $2.849 million in total compensation in 2020, which included $1.6 million in bonus and incentive compensation.

It turns out that the College Board’s income comes almost entirely from two sources: the fees it collects from SAT exams, and the money it makes from AP classes–licensing fees for use of the curricula and charges for the AP tests that allow students to earn early college credits.

But the SATs are on the ropes. Thanks to a long-standing campaign against the overuse of standardized testing by FairTest and other critics, at least 1,835 colleges and universities, a majority of all higher-education institutions, now either don’t use the SAT or make it optional. Its total revenue dropped from $1.1 billion in 2019 to $779 million in 2020, the year of its most recent tax filing. So the College Board is now even more reliant on AP curricula and tests.

That reliance explains a lot. According to Kuttner, there are currently 38 AP courses, including human geography, psychology, art history, and Japanese culture and language. The AP African American studies curriculum was new, poised to be launched in the 2023-2024 school year.

I had also been unaware of a growing movement to replace the College Board’s AP classes with “home-grown” curricula; the article quoted one principal explaining that having his own  advanced courses allows his school to be creative in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and to respond to student interests.

Parents opposed to substituting local curricula worry about college acceptances in the absence of the familiar College Board classes. Kuttner notes that their worry “is fomented by that other famously corrupted institution, the U.S. News rankings. In ranking high schools, one major U.S. News weighting factor is how many kids take AP courses—”a perfect symbiosis between two unsavory education players.”

This “backstory” goes a long way to explain the College Board’s craven capitulation to the censors of the far right. It also strips away any belief that the Board’s mission is education.

It’s profit.

The White Supremacy Party

In a recent newsletter, Robert Hubbell summed up the path Ron DeSantis is pursuing–the path he clearly believes will garner him the GOP’s Presidential nomination.

Amid the torrent of reporting on Ron DeSantis’s attack on critical race theory and intersectionality, the quiet part is often left unsaid. So let me say it: DeSantis’s educational agenda is code for racism and white supremacy. (Other parts of his agenda seek to erase the dignity and humanity of LGBTQ people.) DeSantis’s invocation of “Western tradition” is meant to suppress knowledge regarding the people (and contributions) of Asia, Africa, South America, Oceania, and the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. See Talking Points Memo, DeSantis Makes 2024 Ambitions Clear As He Pours Gasoline On His ‘Woke’ Education Fire.

 Given DeSantis’s generalized ignorance, his call to focus on “Western tradition” is a slippery slope that will inevitably lead to the discussion of unpleasant truths about America. For example, the enslavement of Black people was a “tradition” in North America for 246 years—and the abolition of that evil practice is relatively recent (155 years ago). So, a college course that honestly addresses the Western “traditions” of North America should include an examination that the role of slavery played in the economic, social, and political development of America.

The New York Times, among other outlets, has covered DeSantis’ various attacks on “woke” instruction, noting that it is part of “An unrelenting assault on truth and freedom of expression in the form of laws that censor and suppress the viewpoints, histories and experiences of historically marginalized groups, especially Black and L.G.B.T.Q. communities.”

The Times didn’t mince words.

Under Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE” law — which would limit students and teachers from learning and talking about issues related to race and gender — Florida is at the forefront of a nationwide campaign to silence Black voices and erase the full and accurate history and contemporary experiences of Black people….

The same reasons that the “Stop WOKE” law is blocked from enforcement in university settings hold for elementary and secondary schools. As a federal judge ruled in November, the law strikes “at the heart of ‘open-mindedness and critical inquiry,’” such that “the State of Florida has taken over the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to suppress disfavored viewpoints.”

The most important point made by the Times–and confirmed by DeSantis’ obvious belief about the most effective path to the Republican nomination–is that it is nakedly racist and homophobic.

It is no longer plausible to maintain that the GOP base is composed of anything other than White Christian Supremacists.

DeSantis is currently the most shameless panderer to that base, but the evidence is nation-wide–and public education is currently the favored target. After all, if children are taught that all people are human and that America hasn’t always treated “others” that way, they might grow up to be “woke.” 

DeSantis is simply doing publicly what GOP officials in other states are doing somewhat more circumspectly. Examples abound.

Think the voucher movement is about giving children educational options? Think again. There’s a reason that so many of these programs lack accountability–here in Indiana, SB 305 vastly extends the availability of vouchers–but places the program under the “oversight” of the State Treasurer–not the Department of Education. It has no mechanism for assessing educational value.

In Ohio, laws presumably governing home schooling failed to shut down a Nazi home schooling curriculum.

Antifascist researchers known as the Anonymous Comrades Collective first identified the couple, who participated in a neo-Nazi podcast under the names Mr. and Mrs. Saxon, as Logan and Katja Lawrence of Upper Sandusky in Wyandot County. The group’s work was the nexus for a story about the couple in Vice News.

Their Telegram channel, started on Oct. 23, 2021, is called Dissident-Homeschool. It features suggested content that is racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic, as well as factually inaccurate. It includes cursive practice sheets with quotes from Adolf Hitler, suggested content about Confederate General Robert E. Lee and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which included an unfounded conspiracy about Jewish people. The Telegram channel offers a suggested math lesson with a story problem attributing crime to different races.

There’s no way to tell how many other “home schoolers” use that channel or similar materials. I see nothing in Indiana’s voucher proposal that would allow the state to monitor for such use–or for that matter, educational value of any kind.

Well-meaning Americans tend to look at the various movements of Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and others as outliers, a few twisted individuals who have succumbed to ignorance and hatreds that nice people largely relegate to the past.  

DeSantis recognizes what those well-meaning folks don’t: ignorance and racism elected Donald Trump, and–if enough votes can be suppressed– may well lift him into the Oval Office too.