Nora De La Cour: Neoliberal Education Reform Paved the Way for Right-Wing “Classical Education”
Nora De La Cour, writing for Jacobin, explains how the neo-liberal education reforms we’ve been through set the stage for the current rise in “classical” education, noting how those reactionary schools have been flourishing in Florida.
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.
So how did neo-liberal reform make education vulnerable to the appeal of Hillsdale-style private schools?
When I listen to Hillsdale College’s Classical Education podcast or view any number of their promotional materials, I’m struck by how much of the messaging resonates with me as a parent and former public school English teacher. They elevate a number of goals that have felt depressingly absent from public schooling in the era of neoliberal education reform: cultivating a sense of wonder in young minds; immersing students in powerful stories that invite them to wrestle with timeless human questions; giving teachers room to “drink deeply” from their subjects; addressing the needs of the whole child. Like the mostly centrist or left-of-center early Great Books evangelists (people like Mortimer Adler, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and E. D. Hirsch), they oppose the hegemonic idea that schooling’s primary aim should be to boost future employability. They continuously reference a higher educational purpose, illustrated by a stream of bright-eyed teachers, and parents who tearfully assert, “I just wanted more for my kids.”
The neoliberal education reform movement was driven by a bipartisan belief in Washington that addressing income inequality should be left entirely up to schools. Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were all more or less on the same page: as Clinton put it, “What you earn depends on what you learn.” Their claim proved grossly incomplete. But for several decades it gave cover to our government’s abdication of the responsibility to protect us from economic insecurity and exploitative employers.
This specious premise has wrought devastating harm on our public schools. As the “accountability” regime sought to apply principles of scientific measurement to learning, teachers, schools, and districts were punished for failing to “add value” to students in the form of higher standardized test scores. Testing, scripted curricula, monotonous accountability paperwork, and other forms of institutionalized babysitting have devalued teachers’ love for, and knowledge of, their students and their subjects.