Surviving the Right-Wing Assault on Education
A recent article by the editors of Rethinking Schools recalled an 1867 Harper’s Weekly editorial invoked the phrase: “The alphabet is abolitionist.” It meant that with the denial of literacy under the “slavocracy,” merely learning or teaching others to read and write was in itself an abolitionist act.
Educators have always been vulnerable to the threat of white nationalism, with their main duty being the enhancement and diffusion of knowledge, a great, if not the greatest, weapon of all. Just look at how fearful the idea of teaching formerly enslaved people to read made white supremacists during Reconstruction.
Now, 150 years later, white supremacism has evolved, not only as an intrusion to the way teachers relay facts or clarify concepts or ideas, but as a threat to the very stasis of the classroom, as kids are becoming influenced by back-alley online movements that promote nationalism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. And so, while teachers don’t and shouldn’t create incognito accounts on 4chan, they should try to stay current with right-wing Internet trends, so that they’re able to catch things like hand symbols and disconcerting research paper citations.
One Chicago teacher created a toolkit for confronting white nationalism in the classroom, which offers various entry points for addressing whether or not and how a student may have become radicalized. In general, white nationalism has managed to creep its way back into the classroom in more ways than one can seemingly count. As a National Education Association article from earlier this year recalls, an Illinois high school teacher found himself, for the first time in his 32-year career, standing in front of his social studies class in 2017, reminding students that Nazis are not good people.
While this was a direct response on the part of the teacher to Donald Trump’s comments about the Charlottesville Nazis being “very fine people,” it was also a pretty abrupt shift for the teacher when it came to how he expressed his opinions of politicians’ statements in the classroom. The last six years have completely shattered the delicate walls that separate politics and everything else. For teachers, addressing the current state of politics is not a matter of grandstanding—it’s become a matter of human decency, of living up to their positions as presumptive role models and advocating for their students.
Laws around banning critical race theory — or worse, the bill introduced in Missouri which bans teaching that “identifies people or groups of people, entities, or institutions in the United States as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, anti-LGBT, bigoted, biased, privileged, or oppressed” only serve to confuse young people. By banning educators from teaching about these systemic realities, and further, prohibiting them from even acknowledging that many systems are built upon “isms” and “antis,” politicians and their supporters deny young people the right to understand the very world they’ve inherited.
Denying this type of learning, and the civil discussion that accompanies it, is in itself a type of suppression. By prohibiting students the ability to learn the truth of their country’s history, lawmakers and the right-wing nationalists who today have emerged as a truly influential voting contingent in this country are disenfranchising young people. Despite this massive threat, teachers across the country are already fighting back, with many arguing that there is simply no way to stay neutral when not only our democracy but our ability to teach the truth is at risk.
If anything, schools should step up when it comes to bringing politics into the classroom—help teachers develop tactics and show support when necessary. As places that bring so many types of young people with so many different perspectives together, schools have a better opportunity than most institutions to help teachers develop a more human approach to viewing the world. Students, therefore, will be less susceptible to being radicalized by right wing forces online and will maybe even use their newfound knowledge to educate their parents and communities.
As educators, we must remember that staying neutral is perhaps more dangerous than any right-wing threat. Ignoring the recent explosion of right-wing nationalism and Nazi sentiments is not a way of staying out of politics, but a way of proliferating harmful politics. We cannot, in good conscience, become Adolf Eichmanns in the classroom. We must instead fight for what is just and for what betters our students and the world.
The Rethinking Schools article ended with a quote from Angela Davis. “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
Owen, T. (2019). How teachers are fighting the white nationalists brainwashing their students,” Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en/article/j5yg54/how-teachers-are-fighting-the-white-nationalists-brainwashing-their-students
Rethinking Schools. (2021). Right-wing legislators are trying to stop us from teaching for racial justice. We refuse. Retrieved from https://rethinkingschools.org/articles/right-wing-legislators-are-trying-to-stop-us-from-teaching-for-racial-justice-we-refuse/
Saul, S. (2021, November 14). How a school district got caught in Virginia’s political maelstrom,” New York Times. Retrieved from
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/14/us/loudoun-county-school-board-va.html Walker, T. (2021). Teaching in an era of polarization. NEA Today. Retrieved from https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/teaching-era-polarization