The CRT and "Don't Say Gay" Panics Aren't About Controlling Public Schools, but Destroying ThemRoundup
tags: conservatism, culture war, education history, critical race theory
Adam Laats is professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY) and author of Fundamentalist U. and The Other School Reformers.
It seems as if the school culture wars have never been fiercer or more bizarre. Conservatives are rejecting textbooks — even math textbooks — for including “prohibited topics” and attempting to “indoctrinate students.” Politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) are accusing teachers of targeting “White babies” with Marxist teaching. State leaders are calling teachers “groomers,” accusing them falsely of intentionally sexualizing children to satisfy their own predatory desires. The pitch is feverish, apocalyptic. It feels like a critical moment in a nationwide war for control of America’s public schools.
It’s not. Conservative activists would like nothing better than to call their attacks on public education a “war,” but, in fact, America’s school culture wars ended long ago and conservatives lost. The battles in today’s headlines are something different: part of a desperate retreat, an attempt to loot as many resources as possible from public schools on the way out the door, in the grim recognition that conservatives can only destroy what they can never control.
A century ago, a true school culture war raged. Conservatives in the infamous Ku Klux Klan waged a campaign to seize control of every facet of public education nationwide. They planned to spread White supremacy by dramatically increasing public school funding; they even hoped to outlaw private school alternatives.
In the 1920s, the KKK claimed millions of members across the country. They controlled state governments from Indiana to Colorado to Oregon. They relished their reputation as vigilante enforcers of America’s religious and racial hierarchy, and they had their eyes set on imposing their strangled vision of “100 percent Americanism” in the nation’s public schools.
Unlike today’s conservatives, they did not try to weaken public education. To the contrary, they saw strengthening public schools as their most important goal. As Klan leader Hiram Evans preached in 1923, “the greatest duty of America today is to build up our educational system.” At the federal level, Evans called for a new Cabinet-level Department of Education with a then-extravagant $100 million budget to improve the quality of local public schools.