Betsy Devos is Not Incompetent – It’s Worse Than That
“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
~ George Orwell, “1984”
Like many dictatorships throughout history we are seeing a war on education in the United States and it is not about money or funding – it is about who gets to control the narrative. Stalin realized that education could be used as a weapon.
“Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”
~ Joseph Stalin
During what came to be known as The Great Purge during the 1920s and 1930s, some 2,000 writers, intellectuals, and artists were imprisoned and 1,500 died in prisons and concentration camps.
Hitler realized the same thing. In his book, Mein Kampf he wrote, “whoever has the youth has the future.” Hitler saw the purpose of education being to ensure the unquestioning loyalty to the Third Reich.
“This new Reich will give its youth to no one but will itself take over youth and give to youth its own education and its own upbringing.”
It is therefore no surprise that one of the groups targeted by the Nazis were intellectuals. As early as April 7, 1933 the Nazi government passed a law designed to exclude from the German Civil Service and therefore from all universities, those persons who in the view of the Nazi party were unfit to hold office. As a consequence of these policies the dismissals of professors at German universities began in earnest with the academic year of 1934—35. In that year, 1,145 professors were dismissed or pensioned early. These constituted 14.3% of the previous year’s faculty at all German universities. By the beginning of the following fall semester, 16% of the original 1934—35 faculty had been dismissed. By 1938 this figure had risen to 33% and by 1939 to 45%. This meant, of course, that a considerable number of vacancies had to be filled in the universities if these were to function at all. This was done by appointing “reliable” persons, that is, Nazis.
The Battle for the American Mind
There is a very silent but very real war on education going on in the United States and much of it has its roots in Texas. No matter where you live, if your children go to public schools, the textbooks they use have likely been written under Texas influence. It is not surprising that there is a growing movement of those who question the concept of separation of church and state and an increased interest in the contributions of the National Rifle Association to American history, and a diminishment in the general knowledge of the parts of American history that speak to our structural and institutional barriers to equality and growing suspicion of immigrants.
Unlike under Stalin and Hitler where intellectuals have been fired en masse, imprisoned and worse the battlefield here has been for control over the content of what is in the textbooks our children use in school because as Winston Churchill famously said, “History is written by the victors.”
Texas became the ideal battlefield for this strategy for a couple of reasons:
(1) The market for textbooks in Texas – 4.8 million textbook-reading schoolchildren as of 2011 and
(2) the peculiarities of its system of government, in which the State Board of Education is selected in elections that are practically devoid of voters, and wealthy donors can chip in unlimited amounts of money to help their favorites win – have combined to make the creation of text-books that support particular ideologies an incredible weapon of the far right.
The size of the Texas market accomplished two things:
(1) it made it very expensive for publishers to offer an alternative to whatever Texas would approve and
(2) made it almost a guarantee that any textbook approved by Texas would be a financial success. These factors led the Texas school boards to have a disproportionately outsized role in determining what would appear in textbooks across the country.
As a result, ever since the 1960s, the selection of schoolbooks in Texas has been a target for the religious right, which worried that schoolchildren were being indoctrinated in godless secularism, and political conservatives who felt that their kids were being given way too much propaganda about the positive aspects of the federal government. The system for choosing school board members made it relatively easy to quickly influence who were chosen to serve on these boards.
Mel Gabler, an oil company clerk, and his wife, Norma, who began their textbook crusade at their kitchen table, were the leaders of the first wave. They brought their supporters to State Board of Education meetings, unrolling their “scroll of shame,” which listed objections they had to the content of the current reading material. At times, the scroll was reported to be as long as fifty-four feet.
This strategy continues to bear fruit for its adherents. In 2009, advocates for the separation of church and state watched in horror as the Texas state board of education worked on approving a new science curriculum under the leadership of a chair who believed that “evolution is hooey.” In 2010, social studies came under attack and teachers tasked with drawing up course guidelines were supposed to work in consultation with “experts” appointed by the board, including one who believed that the income tax was contrary to the word of God in the scriptures. As a result, at one point the New Deal was removed from the timeline of significant events in American history. It is not a big leap from removing the New Deal from American history – along with its historical context – to watching as Social Security and Medicare come under our attack from current administration.
Public Education Is About Freedom of Thought
In this context it is no surprise – and no accident – that Betsy Devos supports school choice (a program that allows public education funds to follow a student to a private school), school voucher programs and charter schools. All of these types of institutions have less oversight and an increased ability to tailor the curriculum to the particular goals of the school administration.
Hannah Arrendt (1906 -1975), who is widely considered to be one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century an expert on the origins of totalitarianism, said:
“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”
Like many of you, I enjoy watching late night tv parody the likes of Betsy Devos and Donald Trump – who often appear to be clownish and inept. The danger of laughing too hard, or for too long, is to fall for the misdirection and not keep an eye on what is happening behind the scenes.
Democracy is a wonderful form of government but it depends on a well-educated and involved electorate and we need to be ever vigilant for any attempts to diminish either of those things.
“The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.”
~ Niels Bohr