Public education is now being refashioned in ways reminiscent of earlier authoritarian regimes, writes Henry A. Giroux.
History teaches us that democracies fail when educational systems designed to create critically informed and socially responsible citizens collapse. Education is under siege in the United States as conservative groups pass legislation that bans books, imposes loyalty oaths, prevents teachers from “introducing any controversial subject,” and legislates a range of gag orders.
Public education is now being refashioned in ways reminiscent of earlier authoritarian regimes. This is evident given the Republican Party’s efforts along with conservative groups to remove progressive books about race, gender, and sexuality from libraries and schools. These include books such as George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Maus, a Pulitzer-Prize winning novel about the Holocaust. New Hampshire is initiating legislation that “would ban the advocacy of any ‘doctrine’ or ‘theory’ promoting a ‘negative’ account of U.S. history, including the notion that the United states was founded on racism.”
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, taking a lesson from the Stasi, former East Germany’s feared Ministry for State Security, called on parents to rat on schools and teachers who introduce “divisive” topics such as racial equity and other critical social issues. Some school systems are threatening to punish teachers who do not conform with the GOP’s rules against teaching “prohibited ideas.” In Iowa and Florida, Republican lawmakers would require cameras in every classroom. Parents would be able to access the “videos at any time,” in order to insure that alleged controversial issues are not being taught in classrooms. School officials and teachers who don’t install the surveillance hardware can be fined. Such actions are frighteningly similar to the indoctrination efforts that took place in Nazi Germany which produced an education dedicated to burning books that encouraged “decadence and moral corruption.” Soon afterwards bodies were burned.
Make no mistake. The current attack on public schools aims at both destroying education as a democratic and critical public sphere and rewriting history and knowledge in the interests of white supremacist values and ideals. There is more at work here than a hysterical moral panic over controversial issues being taught in the schools. This is a systemic and dangerous attempt by right-wing extremists to use schools to produce an authoritarian culture that stifles real dialogue and critical learning in classrooms, all in the name of allegedly preventing students from feeling uncomfortable. It also created a climate of fear to control teachers.
This attack on critical education has its counterpart in a wider depoliticizing culture channeled largely through conservative social media such as Fox News. These platforms trade in lies, misinformation, and have become the new educational engines of civic illiteracy and shameless propaganda. An entire culture industry has emerged consisting of right-wing foundations, reactionary media pundits, and politicians who embrace the big lie and the ongoing politics of censorship and book burning.
This culture of ignorance has its sights on destroying truth, rationality, and the public institutions crucial for creating well-informed, civic minded, critical citizens. Civic literacy has morphed into a form of civic illiteracy giving way to a culture based on misinformation, a contempt for scientific evidence, and support for a bizarre number of conspiracy theories. Rather than push at the frontiers of the imagination, education in the broadest sense, is being constructed to promote ignorance and organized irresponsibility.
The current attack on public education represents a systemic attempt on the part of the modern Republican Party to punish public schools not because they are failing but because they are public and represent one of the few crucial sites where critical ideas can be taught, history can be critically engaged, and the imagination is valued for creating informed and socially responsible critical citizens. This is a reactionary fear-mongering educational movement that Canadians should watch very carefully in order to reject as soon as it appears.