April 27, 2024

Steve Nuzum: Crackdowns on Student Advocacy

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Steve Nuzum is a blogger and education advocate in South Carolina. In a recent post, he notes increased attempts to stifle student activism.

Education writer Jennifer Berkshire recently tweeted that it was “[i]mpossible to overstate how much of Florida education politics right now— mandatory K-12 anti-communism curriculum, the push for conservative *classical* charters— is an attempt to reverse engineer kids so they won’t be so keen on collective action”.

I think that observation is right on the money, though I wonder how sincere the proponents of this movement are about anything involving schools. In other words, do they truly want to change education in America, or do they simply want to use populist messaging to gain political power? Either way, this neo-McCarthyite educational policy has spread far beyond Florida.

In an echo of 1960s Southern Strategy scaremongering, far right groups and individuals like Chris Rufo are targetting “the institutions,” including universities. In practice, this means rooting out “DEI” programs (often left just as poorly-defined as “wokeness” or “CRT”), calling for the ouster of school leaders and professors who are too “woke,” and pressuring university officials to crack down on student protest and advocacy through arrests and expulsions. (Leaving aside ongoing debates about specific protests on campuses, there seems to be an obvious zeal among some far-right politicians for demanding that “liberal” college administrators step down, no matter what they do or say.)

Again, this is nothing new. In the ‘60s, rightwing politicians practiced these same strategies in reaction to the Civil Rights movement.

And the crackdown on perceived bogeymen hasn’t been restricted to higher education.

Individuals and organizations with an interest in undermining public schools often characterize them as centers of “indoctrination,” a word that has filtered down from model legislation by national political groups to state- and school district-level discussions of educational content.

While the “indoctrination” narrative seems intentionally designed to evoke images of reeducation camps and government brainwashing, proponents of censorship and educational gag orders, when pressed, often retreat to a definition of “indoctrination” that matches what many of us would describe as “teaching”— that is, not brainwashing or force-feeding information, but the more prosaic business of introducing students to information and skills, and of helping them to develop as learners. Although the public at large does not support school censorship, the use of words like “indoctrination” preys on emotions that garner political support from politically partisan groups.

In addition to the much-publicized crusade to censor specific texts, there is also a push for more general censorship of instruction, and in particular instruction related to social or political advocacy. Would-be censors argue that unscrupulous educators are using student advocacy to implant their own worldviews and political preferences into the minds of students.

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