“May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.” - Peter Marshall, former Chaplain to the United States Senate
I don’t frequently quote clergy, but Marshall’s wisdom in this regard is particularly instructive in these fraught times.
The selective use of “freedom” by conservatives is a political ploy to appeal to their supporters to do as they please rather than to do what is right. Freedom is selectively deployed, thus encouraging anti-vaccine craziness, anti-mask belligerence and automatic weapon possession. “Freedom” in the conservative scheme does not include reproductive freedom, voting freedom or freedom of the press.
The future of our democratic republic is certainly threatened by the full frontal assault on voting rights, but the greater threat in the long run may be the unending attack on public education. This war, financed in large part by conservative oligarchs, receives scant attention in the media.
An August 31st forum in New Hampshire, sponsored by the Libertarian/big business/anti-government Club for Growth, was the first of many stops on a school choice tour. The featured guests were former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
I listened to a broadcast of the forum and was unsurprised that this propaganda campaign has jumped on the “freedom” train. Buoyed by data reported by Republican pollster Chris Wilson, the “school choice” movement is being rebranded as school or education “freedom.” It happens that education “freedom” is far more appealing to the populace than school “choice,” although both phrases refer to precisely the same tactics and policies.
In addition to invoking the amorphous and seductive concept of freedom, DeVos and Pompeo emphasized the rights of parents to choose what, where and how their children learn. This is crass political strategy, not an assertion of an educational conviction.
A September 8 New York Times article noted the growing political rift driven by educational differences. Those with more education skew Democratic. Those without degrees flock to Republicans. Advanced education is a threat to the current iteration of Republicanism and, therefore, the education “freedom” movement is directed toward anti-intellectualism and anti-science.
In a post on Right Wing Watch, Peter Montgomery describes another prong of the effort to dismantle or corrupt the public education system by training right wing activists to run for and eventually control local school boards. Montgomery explicates the many ways that fear of Critical Race Theory is used to fan the flames of resentment and the urgent need for parents to take schools back from the radical leftists now in control. Of course neither fear is justified, since Critical Race Theory is not taught in public schools and radical leftists have no control of education. Republicans are the post-truth party.
These two prongs of the conservative assault are directed toward the same end. In his New Hampshire remarks, Pompeo insisted that he and America’s parents want schools to teach the true history of America - the history of manifest destiny, not genocide; the history of noble emancipation, not systemic and pervasive racism; the history of a country born out of Christian faith, not a secular, diverse and inclusive nation; and the dominance of personal belief over an evolving body of science.
And this is why Republicans press for “school freedom;” so that parents can "choose" schools that reinforce the fairy tale of American exceptionalism, deny the reality of systemic racism, dilute science with creationism, and dismiss the threat of climate change.
Our system of public education is arguably the institution that holds the most promise for continuing the American experience. As expressed by John Dewey and other progressive educators for more than a century, public schools are where children are prepared for thoughtful civic engagement, beginning with a common understanding of our past, an honest assessment of our present and the ability to craft a more just and satisfying future.
Since I started with a rare allusion to religion, I shall do so in closing. The King James Bible asserts “that the truth shall make you free.” The conservative version of freedom skips the “truth” part.
I prefer Gloria Steinem’s variation;“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
The truth of what Republicans are doing to education should really piss you off.