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Democrats' Embrace of Education "Reform" Paved Way for DeSantis

Classical” education is all over the news, as Florida governor Ron DeSantis pursues his shock-and-awe campaign to remake Florida’s public colleges and universities in the image of Michigan-based Hillsdale College. This classical Christian liberal arts school, which has become one of the most influential centers of right-wing thought in recent years, has been working assiduously to transform the political landscape of the United States by upending our public education systems — much as DeSantis has been doing in Florida.

After banning the original version of a high-school course in Advanced Placement African American Studies and resolving to cut off funding for college Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs, the likely presidential candidate announced plans to mandate coursework in “Western civilization” across Florida’s public higher education system. DeSantis also pledged to empower university officials to review faculty tenure “at any time” — an intimidation tactic clearly targeted at educators who would foster discussions of American racism, LGBTQ issues, and other so-called “woke” topics.

DeSantis’s appointment of six of his allies to the board of trustees of the New College of Florida has transfigured what was previously a safe haven for marginalized identities and progressive ideas. The new board, which includes Hillsdale College professor and dean Matthew Spalding and anti-woke culture warrior Chris Rufo, fired the college’s president at the end of January in a raucous display of political overreach, replacing her (for now) with incoming interim president Richard Corcoran — a DeSantis loyalist who, as Florida’s education commissioner, invited Hillsdale (producer of the jingoistic, anti-historical 1776 Curriculum) to overhaul Florida’s K-12 civics guidelines. Under DeSantis, Florida has passed legislation limiting how schools can talk about gender, sexual orientation, race, and US history.

DeSantis’s willingness to consolidate power and dominate the culture wars by restricting students’ and educators’ ability to express dissent is consistent with his mutually supportive relationship with Hillsdale College. Though founded by devout abolitionists, Hillsdale has ascended to prominence in an ecosystem of “postliberal” thinkers eager to trade in pluralism and individual rights for Eurocentric monoculture and coercive Christian governance. It’s no secret that actors in this New Right ecosystem are interested in defending “traditionalism” and “Western civilization” by turning the US into an authoritarian state on the model of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. As has been widely reported, DeSantis’s assault on education in Florida is straight out of Orbán’s playbook.

Right-wing classical schooling advocates’ tendency to hark back to an imaginary time when things were purer and more virtuous lines up with what Italian historian Umberto Eco referred to as ur-fascism’s (eternal fascism’s) cult of tradition and rejection of modernism. The idea that, in Eco’s words, “There can be no advancement of learning,” because “truth has been already spelled out once and for all” fits with some conservative classical schools’ absolute veneration of Greek and Roman texts, biblical and early Christian writing, and US founding documents. Quite a few other features of Eco’s ur-fascism — including selective populism and exacerbation of the fear of difference — are evident in the “parents’ rights” rhetoric that DeSantis, Rufo, and Hillsdale College all employ.

But even though some of the loudest voices calling for classical schooling are motivated by dangerous aims, we can’t simply discredit the entire movement. The fact is, Hillsdale College and other conservative classical education proponents offer a compelling vision that exploits genuine weaknesses in our public school systems. For the Left to effectively respond to this threat, we need to lay out our own compelling vision of what school learning is for.

Read entire article at Jacobin