Republican Attacks on Education and Critical Thinking

Have you ever been grilled by little kids asking the question, “Why?” Why is the sky blue? Why does Heather have two moms? Why are you going to work? Why do you need money? Before you know it they have you questioning basic social values you never even thought about. That’s why right-wing Americans attack public education from kindergarten through college. They don’t want children turning into adults who have learned how to ask the question “Why?”

Conservatives have viewed America’s higher education institutions with suspicion for years. Remember Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativity?” But distrust of public education has now become part of the Republican party’s DNA. According to a Pew public opinion poll, for instance, fifty-nine percent of all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. It’s no surprise, then, to see Florida’s Yale and Harvard educated Governor, Ron DeSantis, beef up his expected run for the presidency by attacking public education across the board.

DeSantis began by banning books and dictating curricula in K-12. Now he’s feeding red meat to his Republican colleagues by declaring war on Florida’s “woke” colleges and universities. Proclaiming that they teach ideological conformity and prepare students for “leftist” activism, DeSantis promises to restore academic freedom by eliminating courses on race, gender, and sexuality, to name the most obvious. He also wants more courses on Western Civilization, i.e., on Europe and the United States. And to keep faculty in line, DeSantis wants to eliminate tenure, the backbone of academic freedom. You want to teach students how to think and raise questions, Professor? Start looking for a new job. But not here in Florida.

DeSantis is already implementing this purge by turning the New College of Florida, a public college with about 700 students and a reputation for free thinking, into a bastion of political conservatism. Without concrete evidence, DeSantis blamed the college’s low enrollment on what he dubs its “ideological” filter. Using this accusation as his justification for intervening, he packed the college’s Board with his political loyalists, fired the President and replaced her with a political ally at more than twice the salary. Following his overt political takeover of the New College, the Governor plans to implement his higher education program as described above.

In the name of ending “woke” brainwashing, Yale and Harvard educated DeSantis and other Republican Governors – see Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, another Harvard grad – are using their political power to squeeze out trained professional educators to impose a right- wing version of reality on a generation of students. But the attack on “woke” culture is merely a smokescreen for DeSantis, Fox News, and their ultra conservative base. They don’t want a population capable of cutting through the baloney of misinformation, “fake news,” and the dense fog of intellectual apathy. For instance, while Fox News hosts blasted lies about election fraud, they privately mocked their sources as nuts. DeSantis knows the country’s real racial history. But his aggressive assault on critical race theory and its proponents assumes that racism can be washed out of reality. The Right never clearly defines the concept, they just want people to see CRT as anti-white propaganda. The attack on CRT is just a straw horse, a shiny object, to keep people from thinking seriously about the history, nature, and direction of American society.

It’s scary that ivy educated governors like DeSantis and Youngkin demonize higher education. They rely on these McCarthy-like tactics because they fear the consequences of an educated public. As Thomas Jefferson observed, an educated public is essential to a functioning democracy. According to a Pew poll, about a quarter of the adult population hasn’t read a book in the past year, and, worse yet, about half the adult population reads at the sixth-grade level or below. If the likes of DeSantis and Youngkin have their way, schools from kindergarten through college will produce non-thinking automatons, cheerful robots, the passive, non-questioning citizenry essential for authoritarian governments.

Sidney Plotkin is a Professor of Political Science, Margaret Stiles Halleck Chair of Social Science, at Vassar College. He is the author of many articles and several books, including Veblen's America: The Conspicuous Case of Donald J. Trump (Anthem Press, 2018). William E. Scheuerman is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at SUNY Oswego. He is the retired President of the National Labor College and past President of United University Professions, the nation's largest higher ed union. A long-time labor activist, Scheuerman has written several books and numerous articles in both scholarly and popular journals. His most recent book is A New American Labor Movement: The Decline of Collective Bargaining and the Rise of Direct Action (SUNY Press, 2021). Read other articles by Bill Scheuerman and Sid Plotkin.