Muzzling the Debate

Retirement offers many opportunities: sleeping later in the mornings (haven’t figured that one out); learning to paint (not really interested); becoming fluent in a new language (没有); streaming more television (Yes!). But in large part, being away from the daily demands of teaching has open the possibility of reading more deeply in fields of history that were outside my own.

U.S. history has been at the top of that list, particularly the early republic, slavery, Black history, and Black struggles for equality and dignity. Ever since reading the 1619 Project a few years ago, I’ve tried to engage the historiographic debate about the shaping of the Constitution: was it “abolitionist” or “pro-slavery”? Sean Wilentz’s 2015 op-ed in the New York Times and David Waldstreicher’s response in The Atlantic nudged the debate over to non-specialists as well, and I followed the rolling, often heated, discussion in the pages of the New York Review of Books (see, for example, here and here), among other publications. That conversation, and a recent review by David Blight in the NYRB, encouraged me to pick up James Oakes’ The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (Norton 2021).

Reading The Crooked Path led me to reflect, once again, on how historians think about contentious issues in the histories we explore. In the first place, I understand that I have not read deeply enough in the field to draw strong conclusions of my own on the central issue of whether the U.S. Constitution was “pro” or “anti” slavery, although I’m persuaded by Oakes’ superb book that it was both. Second, I found it affirming and energizing that historians who have been deeply immersed in the subject are not just capable of, but willing to modify their analysis in the face of more reasoned arguments and new evidence. As Blight observed: “We may be dead certain, or even mildly sure, about facts and the stories we tell about them, but our craft requires us to remain open to new persuasions, new truths.” Finally, and because of both points, I find it utterly infuriating that these rich debates will be shut out of classrooms in dozens of states because their instructors, quite simply, are forbidden by state law from raising them. Under the banner of opposing the “indoctrination” of students, hundreds of bills have been introduced to ensure that students will be prevented from grappling with the debates that shaped the nation’s history and continue to influence its evolution.

Continue reading

Ohio Races…to the Back of the Line

“Amid the tidal wave of proposals across the country that would eliminate diversity efforts at public colleges, Ohio’s Senate Bill 83 stands out.” That’s the lead to a recent article by Kate Marijolovic in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The American Historical Association warns that the Ohio bill’s “unwieldy omnibus of contradictory mandates would not only enable but even require classroom-level intervention by state officials.”

I’m sure that I’m not alone when I say that I’ve grown numb to the flood of Republican  attempts to tell students what they can’t study, administrators what they are not allowed to support, librarians what they are prohibited from putting on their shelves, women what parts of their anatomies they no longer control, the trans community who they are not permitted to be, LGBTQ+ young people what they must never talk about, Disney (Disney!) what the company can’t challenge

Just a hot minute ago, these same legislators were denouncing the Big Brother state for dictating what you could and couldn’t do. Remember the Right’s outrage when Michelle Obama encouraged food companies to market healthier food to children? “This is none of her business,” Rush Limbaugh puffed. “The free market takes care of this stuff…We believe in people having choice, to live their life as they choose. Coca-Cola, Twinkies, don’t kill anybody.”  And then there’s Representative Gary Palmer (R-Alabama) who, in response to the research linking gas stoves to pollutants that harm both human health and the environment, tweeted: “It is time to rein in the Biden administration and their continual desire to control American’s lives and decisions.”

The same folks who ridiculed “snowflake” students for not being able to handle the most trivial inconvenience without suffering a nervous breakdown, are now clutching their conservative pearls because school students might be “uncomfortable” were they to glance at the famous Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges being protected from an angry segregationist mob as she attempted to integrate an elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. A Tennessee law makes lesson plans illegal if students “feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish.” A proposed law in South Carolina prohibits teachers from discussing any topic that creates “discomfort, guilt or anguish” on the basis of political belief. And, of course, there’s Florida, where legislation forbids lessons that could cause individuals to experience discomfort, guilt or another form of “psychological distress” based on actions committed in the past by members of the same race, color, sex or national origin. The assumptions behind these prohibitions are dismaying, Imani Perry, Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, recently argued, as they presume that “white children won’t identify with Black people and people of color. It presumes cutting off the moral imagination of white children so that they can’t imagine themselves as being any kind of actor in history…We, none of us, are bound by our genealogy. We’re bound by our values.”

Continue reading

Demoralization Eats the Soul

I’ve been away from the blog for some time – apologies. I’ve been busy, or lazy, or consumed with angst at the state of the country/world, or working on the upcoming elections, or all of the above.  In any case, I remain deeply concerned about the state of higher education, with partisan divisions regarding the value of a college education as wide, if not wider, than ever. A recent FiveThirtyEight poll revealed that more than 80% of likely Republican voters believe that “Most college professors teach liberal propaganda.” (Only 17% of Democrats agreed.) As one respondent from Pennsylvania noted, “My daughter went to college as a staunch Republican and she came out a liberal Democrat.”

But no, this is not another tirade about the ugly cynicism of politicians who have found that hammering higher education (along with immigrant bashing) is their ticket into the culture wars dance. After all, targeting professors and student activists has been a staple of Republican campaigns since Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. “The professors are the enemy,” Nixon proclaimed, a refrain picked up in the current electoral cycle by JD Vance, running for Senate in my state of Ohio. Speaking as the everyman taxpayer when running for governor in California in 1966,  Reagan questioned “why some instructors were able to use the classrooms to indoctrinate and propagandize [our] children against the traditional values of a free society in this country.”

There is more than a little irony in the fact that in the current Congress, every senator and 95%  of House members, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Boston University) to Marjorie Taylor Greene (University of Georgia) has been “indoctrinated” by these institutions so contemptuous of the “traditional values” of American capitalism. As Kelly Grotke recently wrote, “Most [higher education] institutions are run along similar lines as their peer institutions—which is why so many of us who have worked in or proximate to higher education find it grimly comic when the conservative media depict colleges and universities as bastions of illiberal un-American radicalism. Our universities and colleges are also places where people are trained in concepts and practices that normalize the financialization of society and are often governed by administrations and trustees who contribute to this shift, especially as governing boards have become increasingly dominated by financial, business, and legal professions.”

Continue reading

The Case for History

The Mississippi Delta
Was shining like a national guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War

Paul Simon, Graceland

We didn’t follow the Mississippi, but in early May I drove with my wife and some friends through the cradle of the Civil War, first passing through eastern Maryland before heading to Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Following a visit to the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge, Maryland, located a few miles from where Tubman grew up, we headed to Jefferson’s hill-top plantation in Monticello, Virginia. There, besides the standard “house” visit, we joined the “Slavery at Monticello” tour. We had read about this particular opportunity in Clint Smith’s excellent book, How The Word Is Passed, and looked forward to the chance to experience it for ourselves. We were not disappointed.

Our visit was led by a superb guide, Ariel, who was well read in the latest historical research on Monticello, Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the history of many of the 607 enslaved people who worked on, or passed through, the plantation. The tour was disturbing and illuminating, as it needed to be. With care, Ariel walked us through Jefferson’s many contradictions. Here was a man who could at the same time proclaim the equality of all men while selling enslaved people to pay off his mounting debts; a man who wrote, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that “blacks [were] inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” while living a life utterly dependent on the labor and intelligence of his enslaved laborers at Monticello. Ariel’s presentation was deeply informed and historically accurate. Unfortunately, as we commented to each other while heading to our cars, teachers in dozens of states are probably thinking twice about raising similar questions in their classrooms, that is if they want to keep their jobs. Republican-initiated legislation in those states, intended to quash such discussions, is already having its intended chilling effect.

Continue reading

Student Success Rests on an Institutional Culture of Support

It wasn’t long into the pandemic closures of March 2020 before faculty began to rethink practices long upheld as essential ingredients of a rigorous pedagogy. Instructors reconsidered the purpose, design, and utility of exams, the nature and value of the grading system, and the most equitable way to treat late work. As the pandemic rolled on, taking a mounting toll on student mental health, faculty – themselves steamrolled by the shift to online teaching and need to manage their own lives – were challenged to take onboard the complexity of their students’ lives, and not view them only as learners whose identity was defined by the subject of the course being taught.

Confronted with Zoom screens in which a quarter of the cameras might be turned off, teachers were hard pressed not to wonder what was going on behind those blank boxes. Were students drowsing off, watching videos, completely uninterested in what we had to say? Were they unwilling to reveal themselves parked outside a McDonald’s in order to grab a bit of the Golden Arches’ bandwidth that they lacked at home? Were they embarrassed about what their homes revealed about them?  

Now colleges are back and faculty – to the extent that they have the time for it – are examining the importance of face-to-face teaching and the residential campus with fresh eyes. Even for those instructors who best met the challenges of online teaching and learning, the impact of not being able to develop or sustain multi-dimensional relationships with students was unmistakable. Faculty certainly lost the ability to interact with students in complex ways in the classroom, but the loss was felt even more deeply in other arenas. We no longer saw our students playing sports, performing music, or hanging out at the local coffee shop. We couldn’t share a meal with them in the dining hall. The more that students were squeezed into their Zoom boxes, the more faculty came to miss (and cherish) the human relationships and social interactions that are critical to student learning and the overall success of the academic enterprise.

Continue reading

The (Short) Road from Book Banning to Book Burning

On the heels of my last post (Behind the Attack on Critical Race Theory) comes the news that efforts by Republican-led states to ban books from K-12 classrooms have now spread to colleges and university campuses. Consider this: Last year PEN America, an organization which champions free expression, reported that of the 54 bills introduced between January and September 2021 in 24 state legislatures across the United States, only three states (Idaho, Iowa, and Oklahoma) extended gag orders to the higher education system. Yet a recent legislative review by the same organization has found that the focus of these measures was rapidly shifting. “Forty-six percent of all educational gag orders filed so far this year implicate higher education directly,” PEN America reported.  “As of January 24, there were 38 higher education-focused bills under consideration in 20 states.” The PEN America report provides many specific details of the pending legislation, and you should read it.  But here are some notable horrors:

  • Oklahoma’s HB 2988, under which professors at public colleges are prevented from teaching “that America has more culpability, in general, than other nations for the institution of slavery; that one race is the unique oppressor in the institution of slavery; that another race is the unique victim in the institution of slavery; that America, in general, had slavery more extensively and for a later period of time than other nations.”

  • Under laws in introduced in Missouri (HB 1484), Oklahoma (SB 1141), Pennsylvania (HB 1532), South Carolina (H. 4605), and Wisconsin (SB 409), “professors could not discuss affirmative action or reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, even to disagree with them, or assign readings such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘The Case for Reparations,’ even when paired with competing perspectives.”

  • Mississippi’s HB 437 would prohibit faculty from teaching or assigning materials that raise the idea that “the State of Mississippi is fundamentally, institutionally, or systemically racist.” All seven of Mississippi’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) would be muzzled by this gag order since the measure would apply to private as well as public colleges in the state. Violations could lead to the loss of state funding.
Continue reading

Behind the Attack on Critical Race Theory

Republican legislatures in approximately thirty states have sprinted to pass legislation which seems intent on banning teachers from discussing race, racism, and what has been termed “divisive” concepts. Also forbidden: anything that makes (white) students feel “discomfort” or a “sense of responsibility” for the past. The current efforts by Republican legislatures and conservative school boards have been packaged as an opposition to “critical race theory” (CRT), an academic framework that views racism as ingrained in law and other modern institutions. But, as others have noted, “critical race theory” is a red herring that functions as a catch-all term that includes any consideration of race and racism (e.g., multiculturalism, “wokeism,” identity politics, culturally responsive teaching, etc.). Any hint that “racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society,” or any attempt to offer anything but a sanitized history of the United States is equally likely to be caught up in the Republicans’ expansive nets.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by USA Today Network via Reuters Connect

CRT emerged in the legal studies field in the 1970s, spreading to other academic disciplines as a series of theoretical propositions. As Jacqueline Jones, president of the American Historical Association, recently summarized, it “provides an intellectual framework for understanding the many ways that governmental entities and private interests have put racial ideologies into practice in the forms of laws, taxation policies, public works projects, regulatory guidelines, profit-making schemes, hiring preferences, and more.” In terms of educational policy, the theoretical concept moves away from the individual child, focusing instead on “suspension rates, assignment to special education, testing and assessment, curricular access…who gets into honors and AP, who doesn’t,” as Gloria Ladson-Billings observed. (Ladson-Billings co-authored what is considered the definitive article on critical race theory in education.)

“Critical race theory” was always a suspicious target for legislators and school board members if only because it simply is not taught at the K-12 level. Indeed, it’s rarely offered at an undergraduate level.  But the increasing diversification of the U.S. population and the unprecedented calls for social justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 left the Right searching for a response, and “critical race theory” was at once vague, all-encompassing and suggestively threatening. Fox News, always a good barometer of Right-wing currents, virtually ignored CRT through mid-2020, raising it a scant 12 times between June and August 2020. Then, spurred by Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, Tucker Carlson jumped on board. By September, Trump added the power of the presidency with an executive order banning as “divisive” diversity training in federal agencies. Fast forward one year: between  June and August 2021, Fox referenced CRT over 1,900 times.

Continue reading

Taking Responsibility

I’ve used some of the space opened up during COVID-times to begin to address a gaping hole in my education. Truth is, I know painfully little about U.S. history, even less as regards its African American component. That I know more about the history of Chile or Mexico than the history of my own country is unsurprising since I’m trained as a Latin American historian, and have spent the better part of 50 years studying those countries. But how I could avoid taking responsibility for my own country’s history for so long is puzzling. In any case, I’ve begun to address my ignorance with generous amounts of Douglass and DuBois, Baldwin and Rankine, McGee, Glaude, Jr., Wilkerson, and Blight. I’ve also put my long walks outside to some educational purpose by listening to podcasts covering this history, including any number of episodes of NPR’s “Throughline” with hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, David Blight’s 27 lectures at Yale (History 119) on “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” Brooklyn Deep’s “School Colors,” as well as “Floodlines,” “A Strange and Bitter Crop,” and many others. Yesterday, I caught up with the final episode of “Blindspot: Tulsa Burning,” produced out of WNYC’s studios, and expertly narrated by WNYC’s KalaLea.

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, Item 1977.025.001

I don’t have to remind you that we recently marked the centennial of the race massacre that led to the destruction of the so-called “Black Wall Street,” the prosperous 35-block Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob of thousands, aided and abetted by the police and the National Guard, rampaged through Greenwood, leaving behind a heap of rubble where once a thriving town had stood, up to 300 dead (we’ll never know the exact count as Black lives didn’t matter), a thousand injured, and some 6,000 Black townsfolk penned up in the fairgrounds and other large sites. Nearly 10,000 people were left homeless as 1,256 homes were looted and burned down.

What followed the atrocity was…silence. Not a single person was ever arrested or tried for the racist rampage; the only individual to be compensated for his losses was a white pawnshop owner. White Tulsa avoided taking responsibility for its own history by thoroughly erasing the massacre from the city’s official history for most of the 20th century even as the events remained as a traumatic memory for its victims, one so painful that survivors rarely spoke of it to their children or grandchildren.

Continue reading

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

“Forgetting is an involuntary act. The more you want to leave something behind you, the more it follows you.”  I couldn’t help but think of this epigraph attributed to one William Jonah Barkley in Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian when I read of the efforts by Republican lawmakers in Texas to reframe that state’s history lessons by minimizing references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination that were – how to put this? – fundamental to  that state’s existence. And yet, the more determined these legislators are to excise this country’s roots in slavery and genocide, the more the reality of that history continues to dog their heels.

The Texas bill, similar to ones taken up by Republican-controlled legislatures in other states, would ban the teaching of the 1619 Project, an initiative by The New York Times designed to re-center the country’s history by foregrounding the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans, as well as by limiting classroom teachers from discussing how racism has influenced the legal system in the state and the rest of the country. Another bill, which cruised through the Texas House, would create a committee to “promote patriotic education” by ignoring how the territory’s 1836 breakaway from Mexico was spearheaded by proponents of slavery’s expansion.

Slave and Free States, 1850 (Library of Congress)

Mexico, after all, had banned slavery in 1829, but newly arrived American “patriots,” nearly 80% of whom were “illegal aliens” who entered after an 1830 law prohibiting their immigration, made sure that slavery would be zealously secured by the new Republic’s Constitution. The General Provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas prohibited owners, without the legislators’ consent, from freeing those they had enslaved, while barring Congress from making any law that would restrict the slave trade or emancipate enslaved people. 

Finally, returning to the present, a third bill proposed by the Texas legislature would block exhibits at San Antonio’s Alamo complex from (truthfully) stating that major figures in the Texas Revolution were slave owners.

The “Lone Star” state, of course, does not stand alone in this matter. Earlier this month, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed into law a bill that restricts educators from teaching critical race theory. CRT has been developing since the early 1980s, spurred at the time by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a student at Harvard Law, who wanted to deepen an understanding of how the history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination was embedded in U.S. laws and continued to shape outcomes for Black Americans. It was largely ignored by the non-academic world until the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder when Fox News commentators, who referred to CRT only twice in 2019, suddenly became fixated on the concept. Since June 5, 2020, more than 150 broadcasts on the network saw fit to reference critical race theory.

Senator Joe McCarthy by Herb Block, May 7, 1954; Library of Congress

Last September, Christopher F. Rufo, writer and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, to argue that CRT had become “the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and was being “weaponized against the American people.” Senator Joseph McCarthy (“I have here in my hand a list of 205… members of the Communist Party … who are still … shaping policy in the State Department”) is likely smiling from his grave. Rulfo called on Trump to issue an executive order banning it.

Conservative lawmakers feared that white students were being taught to be “ashamed” of past wrongs, such as slavery. And yet shame, were it to arise in these imagined classrooms, would be but the most minimal recompense for the sins of a country, as Frederick Douglass put it in his shattering “Fourth of July” speech of 1852, “built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men.”

Nearly a dozen states have introduced similar Republican-backed bills that would direct what students can, or more often, cannot be taught about the role of slavery in American history and the ongoing impact of racism in the U.S. today. On May 12, the North Carolina House of Republicans approved a plan to prohibit public schools from teaching seven specific ideas that critically examine how race and racism influence American politics, culture, and law. According to Republican Representative John Torbett, “We owe [our children] an education system that unites and not divides.” Actually, we owe our children an education that educates, not obfuscates.

The Tennessee General Assembly, for its part, not only banned the teaching of critical race theory, but also would withhold funding from any public school that discussed white privilege. Perhaps Tennessee is just maintaining its historical traditions: the state’s Butler Act of 1925 made it illegal to teach human evolution in any state funded school, paving the way for the infamous Scopes Trial.

In New Hampshire, House Bill 544 would prevent K-12 schools and public colleges and universities from teaching certain “divisive concepts,” such as systemic racism or sexism. One of the bills circulating in Oklahoma would make public colleges liable for students or employees who are “harmed” by the institution “promoting, requiring, or allowing any political, social, or unorthodox views as part of the curriculum.” The Arizona House of Representatives has approved a bill that would fine teachers $5,000 for discussing “racist, sexist, politicized or other controversial topics” in schools. On May 20, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law a measure that bars faculty from violating students’ First Amendment rights and made it easier to discipline or fire employees for supposed violations. The new law, much like Arizona’s, revealed its heartfelt devotion to the First Amendment by simultaneously restricting the teaching of concepts like systemic racism.

Inside the Capitol building, January 6, 2021 (Reuters)

This country’s history of ignoring, deflecting, re-writing, or forcefully repressing “inconvenient truths,” has advanced at warp-speed in the last few months and years. A violent rampage in the halls of Congress has already been turned into “a normal tourist visit” by a Representative who, when the events took place, had himself barricaded the door of the House chamber against those same “tourists.” We bring with us, unfortunately, a long tradition of politicians who stand on the bandstand of liberty in order to suppress historical investigation. Unfortunately, there is also a tradition of university administrators and trustees who are willing, if not eager, to throw a faculty “Jonah” overboard if they thought it would calm the turbulent waters on which they sailed.

I am a historian, so it is not surprising that I would add my voice to those who feel an existential dread about the efforts of Republicans to legislate the whitewashing of U.S. history in the name of free speech, unity, and “racial equality.” Most often, such drastic measures are not necessary given our tendency toward historical amnesia. Americans were by habit “destitute of political memory,” Frederick Douglass once observed. A faculty member at the liberal Bard College, understanding this, was therefore not surprised that her students were uninformed about Henry Kissinger’s widely displayed disregard for human rights, but she was gobsmacked that twelve of her fourteen students had never even heard of him. But when forgetting is not enough to stem the tide, threats, intimidation, and violence have never been far behind. It is all too predictable that professors whose efforts to raise honest, if uncomfortable, historical discussions with their students have become the target of right-wing ire and death threats. Of the 338 faculty members targeted by Campus Reform, an organization designed to “expose liberal bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses,” 40% reported receiving threats of harm, including physical violence or death, following the publication of stories about them.

But faculty, from our generally privileged positions, are not the ones most threatened by the demand to silence discussion about a flawed past. “I understand,” said Georgina Perez, who serves on the Texas State Board of Education, “that maybe some white people are uncomfortable. Well, dammit, when Black people were being lynched, they sure as hell weren’t comfortable. Native Americans being removed from their land and Mexican Americans being shot to death in the middle of the night, that shit wasn’t comfortable either.” It is those who have been erased from this history, and who stand to be victimized again and again in the shadow of that erasure, who will pay the price.  “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here,” former Senator, and now former CNN commentator, Rick Santorum proudly proclaimed on May 3. Being required to wear a face mask is no different than being “put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany,” the unhinged Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene asserted. These distortions of the factual past too easily pave the way for their repetition in the future.

The sins present at the creation of this country won’t disappear if hidden behind a wall. The crimes of enslavement, Native American genocide, and anti-immigrant violence do not vanish when state legislators threaten social studies teachers and history professors with penalties should they encourage their students to examine them. History isn’t comfortable, but banishing it doesn’t make it go away. The past will continue to follow us around. We can either accept that reality and make a good-faith effort to engage with our country’s often painful, often hopeful, history, or we can attempt to elude it. But for those who think the latter will work, I give the last word to Joe Louis. “You can run,” he is thought to have said, “but you can’t hide.”

Opinion: Laws against teaching critical race theory in college are unconstitutional” by Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr. (Professor, University of Alabama School of Law and author of “The Disappearing First Amendment),” appeared in the Washington Post on May 26.

Can a Shot of Higher Education Immunize Against Authoritarianism? More thoughts on the purpose of an education

Steven S. Volk

In a radio interview on March 11, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson (R) said of those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, killing five people, assaulting 125 Capitol police and injuring 70 of them in the process: “I knew those were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn’t concerned.” Not content to stop there, he pressed on, “had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa [sic], I might have been a little concerned.” Other than the unmistakable racism animating his statement, what Johnson has done is not just replace facts with fantasy, but remake reality to conform to his imagination. In his world, since the insurrectionists were respectful and law abiding, the violence is shifted to the “Black Lives Matter and antifa” protestors — who, of course, were only present in Johnson’s own counterfactual reality, which he is more than happy to share. Fintan O’Toole, a brilliant writer who reports regularly in the New York Review of Books, saw this coming. Former president Trump lied “prodigiously” and was able to successfully “obliterate for his supporters the distinction between the fake and the genuine,” O’Toole argues. But this alone couldn’t have created the strong bond which continues to glue his base to him. “What he managed to do,” he writes, “was simultaneously to erase the distinction between the valid and the bogus and to remake it…What is real is not what is going on. It is who ‘we’ are.” If “we” are peaceful, law abiding white people, than the insurrection couldn’t have been led by “us”!

I continue to ponder the role of higher education in responding to the epistemological and democratic crises on full display in Johnson’s interview which I considered in my last post. If the democratic crisis was most terrifyingly visible in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, an invasion bent on overturning a democratic election (and a Democratic victory), no less so is the epistemological crisis which paved it way by fashioning a “reality” in which two-thirds of Republicans think Biden’s victory was illegitimate and one-third say the claim that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that includes prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites” is either mostly or completely accurate. This is more than troubling even if, as a colleague who works on these issues pointed out, Republicans still represent less than 30% of registered voters.

If I seem obsessed by this topic, it is largely because, as I observed in earlier posts and as emerging data continues to indicate, education is increasingly becoming an important predictor of party preference, more so than income, and increasingly since 2016. “At the subgroup level,” David Shor, the head of data science at OpenLabs, a progressive nonprofit, argued recently, “Democrats gained somewhere between half a percent to one percent among non-college whites and roughly 7 percent among white college graduates.” That, he added, “is kind of crazy.” A voter’s level of educational attainment — whether they had a college degree — became even more predictive of which party they voted for in 2020 than it had been in 2016, while a voter’s racial identity became less predictive.

As the Republican Party sails deeper into anti-democratic waters, as it persists in lashing its future to an individual (and a remarkably flawed one, at that) rather than to any ideas or legislative program – see, among many others, here, here, here, and here – one begins to wonder whether a bachelor’s degree can offer some kind of immunity to the authoritarian virus. Yet even were this the case, the “vaccination” rate remains too low (less than 35% of persons 25-29 hold a bachelor’s degree) and the “efficacy rate” of today’s college education in preventing “smart” people from anti-democratic cravings is not robust (the margin between Trump and Biden voters with a college degree is actually quite narrow). By now we all are aware that Ted Cruz’s office is papered with his Princeton and Harvard diplomas, that Josh Hawley boasts degrees from Stanford and Yale, and that Louisiana Senator John Kennedy attended Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, and Magdalen College (Oxford). Yet none of what they learned at those august institutions stopped them from attempting to halt a democratic election in a Senate vote taken a few short hours after insurrectionists roamed the Senate floor and rifled through their desks. Ninety-six percent of the members of the 116th  Congress had a college education, two and a half times more than the population as a whole. Yet, according to Gallup polling from December 2020, when asked about honesty or ethical standards, only 8% of respondents rated members of Congress as “very high” or “high.” (And yes, If you’re wondering, that puts them at the bottom of the heap, even below the proverbial used car salesman.) The chasm between morality and intellect is not new, but it is troubling. We have agonized for decades trying to understand why learning and knowledge didn’t safeguard the Germans, well-educated students of Goethe and Kant and other humanistic giants, against murderous hatred. How is it that schooling (and higher education in particular) has become so alienated from ethics? Should we try to reverse that alienation? Can anything be done to reverse that movement?

Continue reading