"They Want Your Children!": Right-Wing School Panics Seek to Repeal ModernityRoundup
tags: conservatism, culture wars, religious right, public schools, education history, critical race theory
Rick Perlstein is a historian and author of Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980.
Reactionary panics about what children learn in school are about as old as time. And they won’t ever go away. So if you want to fight bans of LBGT books, Florida GOP Governor Ron DeSantis’s lunatic crusade against math texts supposedly pushing social-emotional learning, or panics about the teaching of America’s true history that somehow supposedly teach white children to “hate themselves,” you really have no choice. You have to put Twitter or the TV aside. You have to start at the very beginning.
For as long as there have been villages, there have been young people who chafed at their confines. They strike out for the wider world. Having seen something of elsewhere and its strange ways, rejecting some, embracing others, the prodigal returns, and perhaps evangelizes: Instead of hunting and/or gathering this way, why don’t we try it like that?
Think of the elder who responds with a frantic, paranoid horror as history’s first conservative. Comes the modern world, and the condition of the village prodigal becomes universal: everyone is bombarded by challenges to settled ways, unspooling remorselessly, year in and year out. Old hierarchies shift. Sometimes the changes are tectonic: African Americans, once chattel, become citizens; women, once defined socially as extensions of their fathers or husbands, become legal individuals; people who desire those of the same gender sexually, once seen only as devils in human form, become trusted neighbors and friends. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about when he said the moral arc of the universe is long, but bends toward justice—though sometimes these changes can feel, to those who experience them as dispossession, like they happen overnight.
The word for this flattening of hierarchies of authority is “liberalism.” And it drives those who didn’t find anything wrong with the old hierarchies of authority in the first place—whom history came to call “conservatives”—quite berserk. They are the kind of people, as the mission statement published in the first issue of National Review in 1955 put it, who seek to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop.”
Another defining feature of modernity is the emergence of a class of individuals who specialize in figuring out how the world works—scientists; and of the integration of the knowledge thus derived into new ways to experience, manipulate, and master the world—technology. Inexorably, science and technology spur changes in long-settled habits and understandings that made perfectly good sense when our knowledge of the world and our ability to manipulate it were very different. Take, for example, the notion that the sun revolves around the Earth. Or the taboo against having sex outside of marriage—for how else to ensure the care of the child that might ensue?
Over time, such vestigial habits and understandings may have solidified into moral norms—even after the arrival of telescopes and birth control pills means the old ways no longer make objective sense. If you are a conservative, preserving the norm may nonetheless come to feel like an end in itself. And you will soon end up a very angry person indeed. For the word that the rest of the world that is not conservative attaches to these processes is “progress,” and the non-conservative world judges it an inherently desirable thing—the kind of thing the powers that be require children to learn about in school.