The Culture War in the Classroom Continues: Unpacking the Battle
Just in the last two weeks, conservative advocacy groups published a “woke heat map” of Missouri’s schools to combat “socialism”, the Ohio House passed a law that requires children to have their genitalia examined to “verify their sex” in sports if their “sex is disputed”, commentators fomented outrage at children attending an (optional) drag show, and personalities attempted to connect trans people with mass shootings.
The dialogue on teachers has shifted from “heroes” at the start of the pandemic in 2020, to “liars” in response to teaching racism (a “connection” to CRT) in 2021, to “groomers” due to fighting for LGBTQIA+ rights in 2022. Of course, the culture war descending into classrooms is nothing new. In order for us to understand how to combat these narratives, we can learn from previous instances of culture creep.
Rhetoric and Organizing: “Contract with the American Family”
Prior to today’s outrage over critical race theory and LGTBQIA+ rights, there have been battles from W.E.B. DuBois to the Free Schools Movement — and over the 20th century — in regards to race, sex, history, and inclusion in schools. However, in the last 30 years the push to transform American schools into “traditional”, conservative spaces has grown massively.
In the 1990s, the Christian Right movement gained legitimacy in US politics. Initially a collection of fairly unorganized groups, the Christian Right adopted more pragmatic strategies in the ’90s to gain political power. Rather than focusing on the “moral crusade”, organizers switched to building a political coalition against liberalism. In other words, less talk about “the dangers of pornography” and more about “liberals destroying the country.” A different coded language to dominate the political discourse.
Further, they shifted to a grassroots, local and state level focus. In 1996, the Christian Right leader Ralph Reed stated, “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members”, mirroring Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon in 2021, “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.”
The movement grew strength with The Family Foundation, a 40,000+ person organization which was part of the 35 family-policy councils of Focus on the Family. They set up a 24/7, 7-day-a-week hotline that alerted activists on policy issues, as well as a fax network that provided talking points once a week, as well as hosted conferences and workshops with monthly print newsletter. These same policies spread across other Christian Right organizations and began the structure for a robust talking points network.
A key part of the movement was deception: changing talking points and rhetoric to be secular — appearing more tolerant. Ralph Reed once remarked to a reporter, “I do guerrilla warfare, I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.” It’s warping language in extreme cognitive dissonance. As in, stating that there’s nothing wrong with being gay…you just can’t talk about it or normalize it.
The Christian Coalition State Legislative Policy and Campaign Institute circulated a booklet titled “How to Win With Life” that was explicit: “To make the issue of abortion an issue that works in his favor, the pro-life candidate must make his opponent out to be a ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’”, adding that conservatives should focus on unpopular sub-issues (e.g. third trimester abortions, taxpayer funding) to make their opponent lose the election.
Similarly, the American Life League had “How to Work the System for the Babies While Keeping Your Soul for the Lord”, where leaders encouraged political candidates to not directly answer questions: “And even the Lord did not always answer questions directly.” This is, of course, to make the claims of the extreme Christian Right more palpable.
Into the 2000s and 2010s, the effect of a well-organized, grassroots Christian Right is taking its effect. Prominent conservative activists have mainstreamed talking points which are repeated on FOX News (and now, Newsmax and One American News Network) and rallied (often misinformed) viewers to the cause.
15 Years Ago: Ethnic Studies
Starting in the 2000s, many public schools began to offer ethnic studies courses, focused on the historical and systemic perspectives of racial and ethnic groups. In 2008, Tucson Unified School District came under fire for its Mexican American studies curriculum. After Dolores Huerta, a labor organizer, spoke to a group of students and at one point stating, “Republicans hate Latinos”, a republican lawmaker said the school, “…has decided that indoctrinating students is one of its top priorities…[and is] running this kind of sweatshop for liberalism.”
In response, the state passed a law which shut down ethnic studies programs in all Arizona schools. Tom Horne, the Arizona Attorney General, who wrote part of the law stated, “…you can’t have courses that are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnicity or that arouse resentment against other ethnicities.” Horne compared having different studies programs, such as African American Studies and Asian Studies, as the same as the “old South.” John Ward who was a former ethnic studies teacher in the district said, “I think clearly their purpose was to create the next generation of ethnic radicals who could hit the pavement.”
In response, the district stated that these claims were simply not true. These classes had students of all races attending them and spent time learning how to respect each other. As Maria Federico Brummer, a teacher, explained,
“I think it’s important for everyone of our students to be strong citizens and knowing that commitment to democracy. And part of that commitment is knowing exactly where our country is coming from, our history. Some of it might be negative and it’s our responsibility to not repeat any part of that negative history again.”
In 2011, the Tuscon school board voted to disband the program due to concerns of millions of cuts in state funding due to violating the ban.
On April 26th, 2011, UNIDOS, a group of student and community allies, took over the school board meeting:
The surprise intervention caused the event to further escalate at a national scale. In 2012, a federal court it was ruled that the program could continue. A victory. It was renamed to “culturally responsive”, which is an obvious connection to continued conversations on CRT.
The Modern Culture War
10 years later, conservative leaders continue to make outlandish claims about public education. In 2021, Christopher Rufo (who mainstreamed CRT and “groomer” language) tweeted:
“We have successfully frozen their brand — “critical race theory” — into the public conservation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.
The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
As chronicled by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker, Christopher Rufo is a continuation in the growth of the Christian Right. After discovering anti-bias trainings, Rufo began lamenting about the writings of Derrick Bell, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and other “boogeymen” of CRT. He connected the works to Marx, ignoring evidence that would turn popular opinion against him. (For example, intentionally leaving out that Martin Luther King Jr. was sympathetic to Marx.)
In 2020, Rufo had grown the anti-CRT movement so much that he was invited to the White House to co-construct an executive order issued by President Trump that prohibited contractors from providing any employee training in regards to “race and sex relations.” Just like the Arizonan attorney general who claimed ethnic studies courses were racist, the same terminology was used. The executive order claimed that these teachings were discriminatory and inherently racist/sexist. Prominent conservative politicians such as Ron DeSantis (who is gearing up to be the 2024 Republican nominee) and Tom Cotton have used Rufo’s language to talk about CRT and “woke” educators.
As made clear in the ridiculously titled Counter Wokecraft: A Field Manual for Combating the Woke in the University and Beyond, conservative commentators Charles Pincourt and James Lindsay echo the Christian Right pamphlets of the 1990s. The authors comment how woke is equated to words like “critical” “diversity” “equity” “justice” and “privilege”, warning readers to look out for words that are rooted in philosophy and “words that appear to have been made up.” These are a “woke advance.”
Pincourt and Lindsay offer the debate tactics of “stealing the motte and bombing the bailey”, where one advances a radical position and retreats to a more defensible position. In their example, they highlight how a “Woke professor” might advocate for a lower proportion of white professors on a hiring committee. This is the “extreme” bailey position. The motte position would be believing in racism. The debate tactic is to “steal the motte”, as in agree that racism exists, but “bomb the bailey” as they write,
“One might say for example that claiming that all white people are inherently and irredeemably racist is itself racist, that there is no evidence for such a claim, and that the argument itself relies on a fallacious (CSJ [critical social justice]) understanding not only of reality, but of what constitutes racism.”
Other strategies to counter the “woke” include moving up the ladder in administration, speaking up and causing mild opposition (building into something greater), and “never letting them add their words.” (As in, not letting the “woke” say their “words” mentioned above.)
As ludicrous as this book is to read, these talking points and strategies have spread throughout the conservative talking points network, leading to the mainstreaming of “woke” and “groomer” into national discourse. As The Guardian highlighted, CRT has now become the dominant talking point of the Right:
In a sense of déjà vu, this propaganda has rallied the extreme right (arguably, the entire modern right) to infiltrate school boards and enact wildly conservative policies, as our Creative Director at Human Restoration Project Nick Covington saw first hand in Ankeny, Iowa. Governor Ron DeSantis banned discussion of gender and sexuality among students and censored math textbooks for “critical race theory.” This cycle will continue, decade by decade, and probably ever-more extreme.
As the culture war grows, how can we respond? As difficult as it is to be a public school teacher in America: the low pay, the counter-union efforts, and the lack of autonomy in many districts, it’s hard to ask for much more. But a coalition must be formed between educators and concerned citizens to push back.
As professor Dr. Henry Giroux writes in America on the Edge,
This is not just a matter of discovering America’s secular roots, but also of creating a cultural politics in which the language of community, shared values, solidarity, and the common good plays an important pedagogical and political role in the struggle for an inclusive and substantive democratic society. This means developing a language of critique in which the rabid individualism and atomism of neoliberal market ideology can be unmasked for their antidemocratic and utterly privatizing tendencies. It means rooting out all those fundamentalisms so prevalent in American society, including those market, political, religious, and militaristic fundamentalisms that now exercise such a powerful influence over all aspects of American culture.
There must be a direct call to action to be political. What-about-isms and “everyone needs to come together”’s don’t replace ongoing political efforts to dismantle public education and undo civil liberties for vast swaths of young people.
Teach the Truth
The first step is simply to continue teaching what’s real. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” There is collective power in recognizing that the work you do has reverberating effects among peers and students. On June 11th and 12th, 2022, the Zinn Education Project is hosting the Teach Truth Days of Action to rally concerned educators in fighting back.
Part of the job of a teacher is to teach uncomfortable truths. As someone who taught Zinn and Rethinking Schools resources for years in a public, semi-conservative school, it’s shocking how normalized it’s become to embrace hypernationalism. There is a responsibility among educators to teach for justice, using the methods of creative noncompliance (bending rules through power/privilege to continue fighting back) and organization (finding like-minded educators and families) to defy and joyfully struggle.
Support, Start, or Join a Union
Collective action is without a doubt the safest and most fundamental way to continue teaching. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers proclaimed,
“Mark my words: Our union will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history. We have a legal defense fund ready to go, culture warriors want to deprive students of a robust understanding of our common history.”
With over a million educators banding together, the AFT has power to fight back against the multi-million dollar conservative talking points industry. If you’re not in a union, find the National Education Association’s organizing resources and reach out to a state rep for assistance. As a reminder, there is a federal law protecting employees in their right to form a union. You’re allowed to pursue a union (barring these organizing efforts occurring during work hours).
Although those who seek to take away the rights of others should not be pitied, it is worth noting the power of a political machine that aims to distort and manipulate facts to anger a huge portion of the populous. Talk radio, FOX News, and other “rabbit holes” of conservative punditry have warped listeners into believe nonfactual information, drawing upon raw emotion (and to an extent, racism, sexism, and the like).
The documentary The Brain Washing of My Dad, produced prior to the Trump presidency, highlights how easily older generations have shifted toward hateful rhetoric — offering the solution of deradicalizing and mainstreaming those at the edges.
The solution proposed in the film is to ween the older generations off of Tucker Carlson and Breitbart, switching to more neutral and liberal publications like Truthout and NPR. Organizations that focus on facts rather than distorting the truth.
In short, the solution is to continue fighting and not grow cynical. The moment where the majority of teachers no longer care, public education will be destroyed in the United States. That is the end game goal of conservative actors. It’s not comfortable to state, but the fact of the matter is that teaching is an unsafe, rebellious act. As James Baldwin opened in A Talk to Teachers (1963),
“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible — and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people — must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.”
Human Restoration Project invites you to attend the Conference to Restore Humanity!, an international invitation to learn and fight for social justice in schools. Learn more at humanrestorationproject.org/conference. July 25–28, 2022.
Chris McNutt is obsessed with the benefits of progressive education and wants a practical place to find everything, for free, under one roof. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who centered his practice on experiential learning, purpose-driven pathways and community involvement, who now serves as Human Restoration Project’s executive director.
The Ongoing Battle Over Ethnic Studies. Anderson, 2016.
Second Coming: The Strategies of the New Christian Right. Rozell & Wilcox. 1996.
How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory. Wallace-Wells. 2021.