Disinformation, anti-intellectualism and intimidation are tactics employed by authoritarians throughout history to obtain and maintain power.
In the U.S., we’re seeing these tendencies manifested in book banning and in legislative efforts to prevent certain ideas and concepts from being discussed or taught in public schools and universities.
The Manhattan Institute – an influential far-right think tank – has outlined legislation for conservative-leaning states to adopt, designed to reinstate white supremacist ideologies in public universities. One of the authors, Christopher F. Ruso, is responsible for the public campaign which has successfully demonized critical race theory.
The Institute is seeking “to reverse the illiberal takeover of higher education through Diversity, Equity, Inclusion” by developing a strategy to enact state laws that would:
- Forbid colleges from hiring DEI officers.
- Disallow schools from educating staff on how to combat systematic racism.
- Ban employees from signing statements pledging commitment to diversity.
- Prohibit commitments to social justice.
- Prevent the teaching of critical race theory.
- Bar the use of addressing students by their preferred pronouns.
A ready audience of conservative legislators exist to enact such legislation. From January through September 2021, 24 state legislatures introduced 54 separate bills restricting discussion on the intersection of racism and sexism in U.S. history within the public education system from kindergarten through university studies.
Today, you cannot teach a sociology course on race and ethnicity in Oklahoma, known for burning down Black Wall Street. In Texas, teachings about the Holocaust must be balanced with “opposing views.” In Tennessee, using Ruby Bridges’ autobiographical picture book about her experience with desegregation is being challenged.
According to the American Library Association, nearly 1,600 books were removed from libraries and schools in 2021. Unlike the May 10, 1933, book-burning campaign spectacle spearheaded by the German Student Union which destroyed over 25,000 “un-German” books, U.S. states today are passing legislation that simply bans them with little public fanfare.
You know you are never on the right side of history when you burn or ban books.
A slew of bills have been proposed in over 12 states – including Texas, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma and Iowa – that empower parents to sue educators up to $10,000 for usurping parental rights. Several have become law.
These laws are enacted to protect children from the emotional stress of them feeling guilty over past incidents of racism. In reality, grandparents are supporting these types of laws so that their grandchildren don’t discover that they stood on the wrong side of the lunch counter.
A concerted effort exists in states where politicians from the extreme right legislate to make the classroom a space of indoctrination. Just consider the 1776 Project, a propagandist response to the academically rigorous 1619 Project. For minoritized communities to be exposed to the 1776 project as truth becomes a form of corrective therapy.
The classrooms can either be conditioned for domestication or explore liberative possibilities from existing social structures. The former occurs by silencing academics, as in the form of the Manhattan Institute proposals. The latter occurs when consciousness is raised by hearing the perspectives of minoritized voices.
Authoritarian regimes flourish when policies are put in place to ensure that students entering the classroom remain ignorant of, and docile to, institutionalized social structures of oppression, especially if those students happen to be of color.
An educational system captured by eurochristian nationalists and the gerrymandered politicians they support, normalizes and legitimizes the current power structures that undergird white supremacy.
Contrary to popular belief, no one is trying to “cancel” Kant, Kierkegaard or Krause, but they are refusing to accept eurocentric thought as universal. What is academically rigorous is to seek understanding of one’s worldview, social location and cultural symbols in dialogue with that of others.
The classroom is becoming more damning as the slew of conservative legislation is being considered and enacted to silence those who focus education on the diversity of humanity.
Raising consciousness in the classroom has become a dangerous proposition which can lead to harm, if not death, at the hands of the ignorant who are made afraid by manipulating politicians.
The frontlines in the battle for our democracy are being waged in the classroom. If the pursuit of truth is stifled there, little hope remains in preserving a democratically just social order.
Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.