Ron DeSantis, who is currently governor of Florida and wants to become president, has been trying to position himself as America’s leading crusader against wokeness. And lately higher education has become his most visible target. He picked a very public fight with the College Board over its new advanced placement course in African American studies, and in the past few days has broadened that attack into a suggestion that Florida might stop offering A.P. classes in any field.
What’s going on here? It’s easy to get drawn into debating accusations about particular courses or institutions, but that’s missing the fundamental context: the extraordinary rise in right-wing hostility to higher education in general.
Is every accusation about left-leaning professors trying to indoctrinate students false? Probably not: America is a big country, and it surely must be happening somewhere — although the specific charges made by right-wing critics are often ludicrous. In a meeting with the College Board, Florida officials asked whether the new A.P. course was “trying to advance Black Panther thinking.” Guys, the Black Panthers closed up shop when Ron DeSantis was a little kid; say the words now and most people think you’re talking about Wakanda.
It is true that college faculty members are much more likely to identify themselves as liberal and vote Democratic than the public at large. But this needn’t be evidence of anti-conservative bias. Much of it surely reflects self-selection: What kind of person decides to pursue academics as a career? To make a comparison: The police skew Republican, but I presume that everyone accepts that this mainly involves who wants to be a police officer.
So what’s really driving the attacks on higher education?
Not that long ago most Americans in both parties believed that colleges had a positive effect on the United States. Since the rise of Trumpism, however, Republicans have turned very negative. Recent polling shows an overwhelming majority of Republicans agreeing that both college professors and high schools are trying to “teach liberal propaganda.”
But what actually happened here? Did America’s colleges — which a large majority of Republicans considered to have a positive influence as recently as 2015 — suddenly become centers of left-wing indoctrination? Did the same thing happen to high schools, run by local boards, across the nation?
Of course not. What happened was that MAGA politicians began peddling scare stories about education — notably, denouncing high schools for teaching critical race theory, even though they don’t. And right-wingers also greatly expanded their definition of what counts as “liberal propaganda.”
Thus, when one points out that schools don’t actually teach critical race theory, the response tends to be that while they may not use the term, they do teach students that racism was long a major force in America, and its effects linger to this day. I don’t know how you teach our nation’s history honestly without mentioning these facts — but in the eyes of a substantial number of voters, teaching uncomfortable facts is indeed a form of liberal propaganda.
And once that’s your mind-set, you see left-wing indoctrination happening everywhere, not just in history and the social sciences. If a biology class explains the theory of evolution, and why almost all scientists accept it — or, for that matter, the theory of how vaccines work — well, that’s liberal propaganda. If a physics class explains how greenhouse gas emissions can change the climate — well, that’s more liberal propaganda.
And so a large segment of the population — the segment DeSantis is courting — has become hostile to higher education as a whole.
As an aside, it’s a familiar fact that U.S. politics is increasingly polarized along educational lines, with the highly educated supporting Democrats and the less-educated supporting Republicans. This polarization is often portrayed as a symptom of Democratic failure — why can’t the party win over working-class white voters? But it’s equally valid to ask how Republicans have managed to alienate educated voters who might benefit from tax cuts. And the party’s growing hostility to education is surely part of the answer.
In any case, one sad thing is that this turn against education is taking place precisely at a time when highly educated workers are becoming ever more crucial to the economy. This is especially obvious when you look at regional data within the United States: The college-educated percentage of a city’s population is a powerful predictor of both its current prosperity and its future growth.
That’s not to say that U.S. higher education is perfect. In general, we surely fetishize the standard four-year degree, which isn’t appropriate for everyone, and grossly neglect forms of education, such as apprenticeships, that might be more useful to many people. But that’s a whole other story.
For now, the important thing to understand is that people like DeSantis are attacking education, not because it teaches liberal propaganda, but because it fails to sustain the ignorance they want to preserve.
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