Tag Archives: definitions

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.



Words, Words, Words…..

One of the barriers to productive political debate is language–its use and misuse.

Genuine communication–in general, not just in politics– is anything but simple. Back in “the day,” when I was a high school English teacher, discussions of grammar included a lesson on the difference between “definition” and “connotation”–between the dictionary meaning of a word, and the social or emotional “freight” it had picked up through use. (Further complicating matters, that “freight”–the negative or positive spin on a word or phrase–often varies depending upon the constituency hearing it. Think of how different ears hear “woke.”)

We all bring our individual world-views to our discussions, and those views and personal experiences become the lens through which we interpret what others are saying. Often, those interpretations are wildly different from the intended meaning–think “Defund the Police”–which is why political strategists and PR folks are so concerned with the language employed by candidates and/or commercial interests. Insisting “that isn’t what I meant” is almost always ineffective; it’s far preferable to initially frame an argument or proposition using  language that is as accurate about meaning as possible, and that will be most resistant to misinterpretation, whether intentional or unintentional.

Sometimes, partisans forget that the object should be to communicate, not simply to engage in virtue signaling.

Back in April, Governing Magazine ran an article titled ” ‘No Accountability, No Peace’: Sloganeering and the Language of the Left,” focusing on the differences in language employed by contemporary Republicans and Democrats. The author noted the “constant demand on the left” to be sensitive, to use words that are received as less hurtful. Sometimes, he wrote, this makes perfect sense. “Other times it feels like they want to fight on the wrong battlefield.”

This is not an isolated linguistic debate. It comes just after the recent overbaked argument about whether President Biden’s infrastructure plan, or parts of it, qualify as infrastructure, namely caregiving for children, the elderly and those with disabilities. Mother Jones was not alone in decrying this as a “semantic argument,” stressing the importance of Biden wanting to support women workers as part of the recovery.

But semantics do matter in politics. For years, the right has found success by putting potent, clever labels on things that help make their arguments for them: Recasting estate taxes as the “death tax,” for example, or succeeding in switching usage from the clinical description of intact dilation and evacuation to the soberingly graphic “partial-birth abortion.”

On the left, the impulse is more aspirational. You increase the power of your vocabulary by borrowing meanings, asserting that some things actually mean other, good things — that child care is infrastructure, or that housing is a human right or health care is a human right.

Give credit where it’s due: the GOP has been far more successful than Democrats in using language–words–to drive public opinion. That success has been partly due to good PR advice, but it also owes a debt to the fact that today, Republicans are far more monolithic  than Democrats, and their major goals are simpler to convey: keep my taxes low lends itself to far clearer messaging than, say, immigration reform, or even “Black Lives Matter.”

I actually think a large-scale public debate over the meaning of “infrastructure” would be  very useful. I have often distinguished between physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, the electrical grid, etc.) and what I think is accurately described as social infrastructure–the governmentally-provided social supports and services that are arguably necessary to social functioning and national cohesion.

America is rather clearly not ready for that discussion–not ready to use language for its intended purpose, which–I will reiterate– is to communicate. Far too many of us evidently subscribe to Tallyrand’s theory that “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.” 

“Make America Great Again” comes to mind….