Strategies to politicize public education are likely the symptom of a backlash against historical developments in a culture’s understanding of itself and/or an era of political divisiveness when one side wants to impose its particular view of a society and that society’s history and its cultural norms on everybody else.
We watched Glenn Youngkin storm through the Virginia governor’s race a couple of years ago with the support of middle class, white suburban mothers—funded by ideologues and supplied with materials from the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute—advocating to ban anything resembling a multicultural curriculum, which they branded as critical race theory. Across the states, we are watching the same political thrust in the mass of culture war bills being debated in the state legislatures—anti-woke bills, “Don’t say gay bills,” bills that say teachers groom children, and all the attacks on what is being called critical race theory.
There are two ways politicians promoting this sort of thing are proceeding. The first is to pass laws banning the teaching or mentioning of certain subjects; the other is to change the people who oversee the agencies or boards that control what is going on at school. Ohio’s legislature has—so far unsuccessfully—tried both methods of political control of education. Besides introducing a mass of bills to ban the teaching of divisive subjects, the far-right Republican legislature has been trying to manipulate the makeup of the state board of education—getting some appointed members fired for their positions on culture war issues and even trying to subsume the important functions of the independent state board, whose majority is still independently elected by the people, under a new state department controlled by the governor.
By passing and imposing several elements of this kind of agenda, one American politician today has taken political manipulation of education to a new level (see here, and here) by experimenting with both strategies: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
When, last February, Florida’s legislature was considering DeSantis’s “Stop Woke Act,” which later passed and was signed into law by DeSantis, the Washington Post’s Tim Craig and Lori Rozsa profiled a Miami Beach high school speech and debate teacher:
“The school system in Florida’s most populous county includes students whose families moved here from 160 nations. Its expansive cultural mix is represented in the district’s curriculum, which includes not only American history, but also the stories of violent government upheavals, such as the revolution of enslaved people who founded Haiti, and the more recent political trauma of protestors who fled or perished in Castro’s Cuba. But as Florida lawmakers consider legislation to police what students are taught, Miami Beach Senior High School teacher Russell Rywell wonders if he will still be able to discuss how some of his students’ ancestors arrived in the United States. ‘How do you teach slavery? The slave trade? The Holocaust?’ asked Rywell… who has taught in Miami-Dade County’s public schools for 11 years. ‘How do you teach these issues without talking about the participants and the roles they played?'”
Governor DeSantis’s latest effort to politicize public education is at Florida’s state colleges and universities, not at the K-12 level, but it is perhaps the most outrageously symbolic of the whole series of attacks across the states on independent public schooling. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune‘s Zac Anderson reports that last Friday, “Gov. Ron DeSantis began the process… of transforming Sarasota’s New College of Florida into a more conservative institution, appointing six new board members, including conservative activist Christopher Rufo, a dean at conservative Hillsdale College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank… The shakeup of the 13-member board is certain to create major tensions at New College, an institution that started as a progressive private school before becoming the state’s liberal arts honors college. The small school’s student body and faculty have a reputation for leaning left politically. Turning New College into a Florida version of Hillsdale would amount to flipping it upside down, a wholesale reinvention akin to a hostile takeover, and one that many current students and faculty are likely to resist.”
Anderson continues: “DeSantis aides blasted the school Friday and said an overhaul is needed. ‘Unfortunately, like so many colleges and universities in America, this institution has been completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning,’ said DeSantis’ communications Director Taryn Fenske.”
In case you have forgotten about Christopher Rufo, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss provides a short review: “Rufo is a Republican activist who in 2020 caught Trump’s eye with an appearance on Fox News in which Rufo declared that critical race theory had ‘pervaded every institution in the federal government.'” She reminds readers that in 2021, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey profiled Rufo as a documentary film maker explaining how to reframe and redefine the concept of “critical race theory,” previously known as a theoretical concept taught in law schools as part of the study of the history of structural racism in America.
Meckler and Dawsey quoted Rufo: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
Later in 2021, we learned from the National Education Policy Center that Christopher Rufo was not only a documentary film maker, but also a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. Now from Zac Anderson’s report we discover that Rufo has also become a dean at Hillsdale College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.
Anderson tells us more about these institutions and what they illuminate about Gov. DeSantis’s goals for politicizing Florida’s public colleges and universities: “Joining Rufo on the New College board is Matthew Spalding, a professor of constitutional government at Hillsdale College and dean of the college’s graduate school of government in Washington, D.C. Spalding was vice president of American studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.”
Anderson continues: “Hillsdale is a small Christian college in Michigan that has been active in conservative education politics. DeSantis spoke at Hillsdale’s National Leadership Seminar last year and has tapped the school to help reshape Florida’s education system. Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute is joining the New College board… ‘Claremont scholars have collaborated with Ron DeSantis and helped shape the views of Clarence Thomas, Tom Cotton and the conservative activist Christopher Rufo’… the New York Times wrote last year. Trump lawyer John Eastman (is) another senior fellow at the Claremont Institute….”
In last week’s column, Valerie Strauss reminds readers that Hillsdale College’s President Larry Arnn, “was in the news recently when he said that teachers ‘are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country’ and that ‘anyone’ can teach. He headed Trump’s 1776 Commission….”
According to Anderson, Christopher Rufo has already begun promoting Governor DeSantis’s plan to politicize higher education in Florida: “‘Gov. DeSantis is going to lay siege to university ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ programs,’ Rufo wrote. Among Rufo’s goals for New College…: Restructuring the administration, developing ‘a new core curriculum,’ eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion policies and restructuring academic departments.”
On Tuesday, NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg quoted Rufo about his plans as a New College trustee: “Later this month, Rufo said he’ll travel to New College with a ‘landing team’ of board members, lawyers, consultants and political allies. ‘We’re going to be conducting a top-down restructuring,’ he said, with plans to ‘design a new core curriculum from scratch’ and ‘encode it in a new academic master plan.'” What DeSantis and Rufo seem to be planning is a frontal attack on a principle that has been understood as the foundation of higher education across the United States: academic freedom.
As Governor Ron DeSantis becomes better known as a potential candidate for President in 2024—in a nation where polls show that citizens prize their public schools—will DeSantis’s agenda for public K-12 education and for public universities threaten his political viability?