Schools and universities are ground zero for America’s culture war

<span>Photograph: Daniel A Varela/AP</span>
Photograph: Daniel A Varela/AP

You could be forgiven for losing track of all the lurid and inventive ways that Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor with presidential ambitions, has attacked education in his state. Last year he signed the Don’t Say Gay bill, a nasty little law that bans classroom discussion of sexuality or gender identity issues – effectively forcing children and teachers alike to stay silent about their families and lives, under the threat of lawsuits. The bill caused confusion and controversy, frightening gay students and teachers, leading to preemptive compliance in some sectors and defiant disobedience in others – and, not coincidentally, drawing quite a bit of culture-war attention to DeSantis himself.

Since then, the Florida governor has repeated the playbook in increasingly ambitious fashion. Last April, DeSantis signed the exhaustingly titled “Stop Woke Act,” which restricts lessons on racial inequality in public schools. The bill prohibits the teaching of material that could cause a student to “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress,” due to US racial history – the implication being that these are not appropriate responses to an encounter with this history, or that protection from such emotions is more important than a confrontation with the facts.

In mid-January, DeSantis’ Department of Education issued new guidance to educators, saying that all books that have not been approved by a state compliance censor – euphemistically termed a “school media specialist” – should be concealed or removed from classrooms. Because the law deems some books “pornographic” or “obscene,” it also creates the possibility that teachers who provide books that feature LGBT content to students could be given third-degree felony charges. The guidance prompted teachers in several populous counties to remove books from their classrooms altogether. Photos of bare shelves in classroom libraries went viral; other teachers hid the books from students’ view, draping them behind ominous curtains of paper. There were reports of children crying, and begging for the books back.

DeSantis has also set about narrowing the scope of inquiry for all students – not just those in Florida – by picking a very public fight with the College Board. The private organization runs much of America’s standardized testing regime, as well as the nationwide Advanced Placement, or AP, program, a series of courses that allow high school students to receive college credits at a lesser cost.

Last month, DeSantis announced that he would ban the AP African American studies course, saying that the course, which had initially included readings on Black feminism, the Black queer experience, and the Black Lives Matter movement, violated his Stop Woke Act, and was “pushing an agenda on our kids.” In response, the College Board almost immediately dropped the offending material from their curriculum, eliminating instruction in the work of Black feminist thinkers like bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Audre Lorde, and making study of the Black Lives Matter movement “optional.” Instead, the course now encourages research into Black conservatism. The changes to the curriculum are not localized to Florida – they apply to students nationwide. DeSantis’ war on education, it seems, is now a national affair.

As for the activities that are still permitted in schools, DeSantis seems determined to make them as invasive, dangerous, and unpleasant as possible. His administration is weighing whether to require all girls on school athletic teams to answer detailed questions about their menstrual periods in order to participate in sports. The interrogations could come as DeSantis fights to keep trans girls out of sports, and as his Florida Republican party moves to tighten Florida’s abortion ban from an already-strict 15 weeks, to six. The questions would likely discourage sports participation for teenage girls, who would be made to face invasive, intimate, and embarrassing inquiries from prurient adults as a precondition of their athletic lives.

And that’s just DeSantis’ agenda for K-12 education. Last week, the governor announced a sweeping agenda to overhaul the state’s public universities, aiming to make their curricula more conservative by eliminating tenure protections for progressive faculty and requiring courses on “Western Civilization.” He’s started with the New College of Florida, a small liberal arts honors college with an artsy reputation. There, DeSantis installed a new board made up of Christian college administrators, Republican think-tank denizens, and the right-wing online influencer Christopher Rufo. The board promptly fired the college president, and has set about reshaping the mission and instruction of the college in DeSantis’ image.

Much of the right-wing culture war that has emerged since the onset of the pandemic has focused on schools, and in crass political terms, it’s not hard to see why DeSantis has chosen to attack education. Schools are spaces where lots of voters – and crucially, lots of the white, conservative voters that DeSantis needs to mobilize – feel they have a stake. It’s easy to get people riled up and panicked about kids, easy to pray on people’s protectiveness towards their children as a way to exploit their anxieties about the future, about a changing culture, about lost innocence. And frankly, it’s easy to get people to be mad at teachers: you would be surprised how easily grown men can be prodded into reviving an old adolescent resentment of a teacher’s scolding authority.

But there is a more foundational reason why DeSantis and the far right are attacking education: it is the means by which our young people are made into citizens. Schools and universities are laboratories of aspiration, places where young people cultivate their own capacities, expose themselves to the experiences and worldviews of others, and learn what will be required of them to live responsible, tolerant lives in a pluralist society.

It is in school where they learn that social hierarchies do not necessarily correspond to personal merit; it is in school where they discover the mistakes of the past, and where they gain the tools not to repeat them. No wonder the DeSantis right, with it’s fear of critique and devotion to regressive modes of domination, seems to hostile to letting kids learn: education is how kids grow up to be the kinds of adults they can’t control.

  • Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist