The right-wing campaign to make our kids dumber

by Michael Hiltzik

For reasons that may not be too hard to understand, Republicans and conservatives seem to be intent on turning their K-12 schools, colleges and universities into plantations for raising a crop of ignorant and unthinking students.

Donald Trump set forth the principle during his 2016 campaign, when he declared, “I love the poorly educated.”

In recent months, the right-wing attack on public education has intensified. The epicenter of the movement is Florida under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, where the faculty and course offerings of one of America’s leading liberal-arts colleges, New College, have been eviscerated purportedly to wipe out what DeSantis calls “ideological indoctrination.”

The state’s K-12 schools have been authorized to supplement their curricula with animated cartoons developed by the far-right Prager University Foundation that flagrantly distort climate science and America’s racial history, the better to promote fossil fuels, undermine the use of renewable energy and paint a lily-white picture of America’s past.

Then there’s West Virginia’s largest university, which is proposing to shut down nearly 10% of its academic offerings, including all its foreign language programs. The supposed reason is a huge budget deficit, the harvest of a systematic cutback in state funding.

In Texas, the State Library and Archives Commission is quitting the American Library Assn., following a complaint by a Republican state legislator accusing the association of pushing “socialism and Marxist ideology.”

In Arkansas, state education officials told schools that they may not award credit for the Advanced Placement course in African American history.  This is the course that Florida forced the College Board to water down earlier this year by alleging, falsely, that it promoted “critical race theory.”

Let’s examine some of these cases in greater depth.

Prager University, or PragerU, isn’t an accredited institution of higher learning. It’s a dispenser of right-wing charlatanism founded by Dennis Prager, a right-wing radio host. The material approved for use in the schools includes a series of 5-to-10-minute animated videos featuring the fictional Leo and Layla, school-age siblings who travel back in time to meet historical figures.

One encounter is with Frederick Douglass, the Black abolitionist. The goal of the video is to depict “Black lives matter” demonstrations as unrestrained and violent — “Why are they burning a car?” Leo asks while viewing a televised news report. The animated Douglass speaks up for change achieved through “patience and compromise.”

This depiction of Douglass leaves experts in his life and times aghast. Douglass consistently railed against such counsel.  

Another video in the series parrots the fossil fuel industry’s talking points against wind and solar power: Standing over the corpse of a bird supposedly slain by flying into a wind turbine, the schoolkids’ interlocutor states, “Like many people … you’ve been misled about renewable energy, and their [sic] impact on the environment …. Windmills kill so many birds, it’s hard to track how many ….”

Acid rain, pollution, global warming — those consequences of fossil fuel energy aren’t mentioned. The video ends with a pitch for nuclear power, never mind the unsolved question of what to do with its radioactive waste products.

PragerU’s sedulous attack on renewables perhaps shouldn’t be much a surprise: Among its big donors is the Wilks family, which derives its fortune from fracking.

As for New College, its travails under the DeSantis regime have been documented by my colleague Jenny Jarvie, among many others.

In a nutshell, the Sarasota institution possessed a well-deserved reputation as one of the nation’s outstanding havens for talented, independent-minded students. Then came DeSantis. He summarily replaced its board of trustees with a clutch of right-wing stooges including Christopher Rufo, known for having concocted the panic over “critical race theory” out of thin air and then marketed it as a useful culture war weapon to unscrupulous conservative politicians, like DeSantis.

Rufo and his fellows fired the university president and installed a sub-replacement-level GOP timeserver, Richard Corcoran, in her place. Faculty and students have fled. Students who stayed behind and were in the process of assembling their course schedules for the coming year are discovering at the last minute that the courses are no longer offered because their teachers have been fired or quit.

Instead of ambitious scholars committed to open inquiry, Corcoran has recruited athletes to fill out the student body, even though the college has no athletic fields for many of them to play on. According to USA Today, New College now has 70 baseball players, nearly twice as many as the University of Florida’s Division I NCAA team.

More to the point, the average SAT and ACT scores and high-school grade point averages have fallen from the pre-Corcoran level, while most of the school’s merit-based scholarships have gone to athletes. New College, in other words, has transitioned from a top liberal arts institution into a school that places muscle-bound underachievers on a pedestal. DeSantis calls this “succeeding in its mission to eliminate indoctrination and re-focus higher education on its classical mission.”

Finally, West Virginia University. Under its president Gordon Gee — who previously worked his dubious magic at Brown University and Ohio State University, among other places — the school built lavish facilities despite declining enrollments. The construction program at the land grant university contributed to a $45-million deficit for the coming year, with expectations that it would rise to $75 million by 2028.

But the main problem was one shared by many other public universities — the erosion of public funding. As the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy points out, “if West Virginia lawmakers had simply kept higher education funding at the same levels as a decade ago, West Virginia University would have an estimated additional $37.6 million in state funding for FY 2024, closing the majority of this year’s budget gap.”

The decision on which programs to shutter at WVU points to a shift in how public university trustees see the purpose of their schools, trying to align them more with economic goals set by local industries, rather than the goal of providing a well-rounded education to a state’s students. Trustees in some states, including North Carolina and Texas, have injected themselves into academic decisions traditionally left to administrators, often for partisan political reasons.

When it comes to the interference in educational policies by conservatives, such as what’s happened in Florida, Texas and Arkansas, there’s no justification for taking these measures at face value — that is, as efforts to remove “indoctrination” from the schools. The truth is that the right-wing effort serves the purposes of white supremacists and advocates of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination — they’re moving to inject indoctrination that conforms more to their own ideologies.

These attacks are couched in the vocabulary of “parents’ rights” and student freedom, but they don’t serve the students at all, nor do they advance the rights of parents interested in a good, comprehensive education for their children, as opposed to one dictated by the most narrow-minded ideologues in their state.

Where will it end?  

Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.