When the Missouri legislature convened a hearing in 2021 on the topic of how history is taught in the state, Andrew Bolger came armed with a dire warning. The schools were turning kids red, claimed Bolger, who runs the character education program at the conservative College of the Ozarks. “[M]any students have Mao Zedong as a poster on their walls,” he told the legislators. The solution, Bolger argued, was to reorient the schools away from communism and toward what he called “liberty’s foundation,” steeping kids in the value of hard work and the wonders of free enterprise.
Blaming the public schools for leading the nation’s youth astray is a reliable right-wing sport as old as the schools themselves. But while much of today’s conservative crusade is focused on rooting out “woke” indoctrination from classrooms, a far older cause lurks just beneath the surface: the age-old dream that schools will produce the next generation of free-market warriors. In this fantasy, the kids come out right, inured to the charms of “collectivism” and firm in the conviction that the only good government is a limited government.
While this vision of using the schools to grow young champions of capitalism dates back to the pre–New Deal era, the cause has taken on a new urgency today. In his recent best-selling book, Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation, Fox News correspondent Pete Hegseth warns that in polls of younger Americans, socialism has now pulled even with — or even ahead — of capitalism. “How can you blame them?” asks the author. “Their classrooms are inundated with whitewashed history about socialists and communists and full of anti-American views that paint our system, including our capitalist economic system, as predatory.”
Most alarming for the Right, those anti-capitalist views are now showing up in the only polls that really matter: voting. In the midterm elections, young voters effectively canceled out older voters, blocking GOP gains. Nor do the kids seem likely to grow out of their left leanings. Another recent survey found that millennials are “tacking much further to the left on economics” than previous generations, including favoring more wealth distribution from the rich to the poor.
Sounding the alarm after the midterm elections, Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn pointed to exit polls showing that more than six out of ten voters under thirty had supported candidates “committed to less liberty and more expansive bureaucracy.” Like Hegseth, Arnn placed the blame squarely on the schools. For decades, Arnn insisted, kids have been educated with the aim of producing future Democratic voters. Now it was time to make things right.
In their new book, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway recount the astonishing tale of an industry-led effort to feed students and their teachers “correct information” about capitalism and free-market principles.
In the 1920s, private electrical utilities faced a dilemma. They resisted rural electrification as it wasn’t profitable, but they didn’t want the government to step in and provide the service. The solution that the National Electric Light Association (NELA) settled upon was a propaganda effort through the schools. By influencing textbooks and teachers, went the thinking, these titans of lighting hoped to shape the future generations. These 1920s-era young people, having learned in school that government regulation and public ownership were bad, would grow up to cast their votes for officials who felt the same.
The effort backfired spectacularly. A years-long investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, which documented the group’s disinformation campaign in an eighty-volume set, made NELA a poster child for capitalism run amok. But the concern that schools were churning out kids who were inadequately enamored of the free market — and that getting them the “correct information” would fix this — persisted.
Two decades later, fresh off an effort to roll back the New Deal and blunt the growing power of organized labor, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) launched a far-reaching campaign to sniff out “socialist” textbooks. After reviewing more than five hundred economics, history, social studies, and civics texts, the group concluded that many were hostile to the free-enterprise system. In a precursor to present-day book bans, NAM’s warnings of socialism in schools would result in thousands of books being removed.