The Right's War on UniversitiesRoundup
tags: conservatism, fascism, authoritarianism, teaching history, Donald Trump, colleges and universities, critical race theory, 1776 commission
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, specializing in authoritarian leaders, fascism, and propaganda, and she is an advisor to Protect Democracy. A regular contributor to CNN Opinion, she has also written for The New Yorker, The Guardian, and Foreign Affairs, among others. Her books include Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922–1945 (2001, 2004), Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema (2015), and the forthcoming Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. (August 2020)
First came the declaration of war on The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which examines the way slavery has shaped American society and national identity. In September, Trump tweeted a threat to defund California schools if they included the 1619 Project in their curricula. Then came measures to ban antiracist trainings for government employees. A September 22 executive order made official the prohibition of workplace instruction on sex and racial discrimination, both deemed “divisive concepts.” Over the summer, as antiracist pedagogy gained currency among Americans following the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, an alarmed Trump administration sought to limit its circulation in multiple ways.
A White House history conference held at the National Archives on September 17 unveiled yet another prong of the strategy. A new 1776 Commission, tasked with developing a “pro-American curriculum” of “patriotic education,” would free the teaching of history from antiracism and its “twisted web of lies.”
The invocation of patriotism connected the crusade against antiracism to another Trump talking-point: the need to reduce the influence of the political left on American education. As the argument goes, the same destructive politics that produces “violence and anarchy” on the streets is finding a foothold in American classrooms. “Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education,” the president had tweeted in July.
“We are here today to declare that we will never submit to tyranny,” the president declared at the September history conference, depicting leftist university professors as agents of larger designs to destroy family, community, and national unity. The Education Department guidelines announced that month raise the possibility of defunding universities whose faculty members disparage “any race or ethnicity,” a measure that might sound reasonable but is intended to silence any discussion of white violence and abuse of power in America, past or present.
Trump’s actions reflect the American right’s opposition to rethinking the legacies of slavery in US history, but they also mirror a long, international tradition of how illiberal and authoritarian rule has managed universities. From the fascist years in Europe, nearly a century ago, to our own times, right-wing leaders have accused universities of being incubators of left-wing ideologies and sought to mold them in the image of their own propaganda, policy, and policing aims. Far from being “ivory towers” closed off from society, higher education institutions have often been on the front lines in times when democracy was under attack.
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