For the first time in decades, education policy has become a major issue in a Republican presidential campaign. Last month, former President Donald Trump, a frequent critic of “radical left indoctrination,” declared that he would cut funding to schools espousing “critical race theory,” “transgender insanity” or “any other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content.” Trump was trying to outbid Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has vowed to curb “woke indoctrination” and the use of tax dollars to teach kids “to hate our country or to hate each other.” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another potential Republican presidential contender, calls “defeating anti-American indoctrination” in schools “the biggest cultural challenge of our lifetime” and has pledged to restore “honest, patriotic education.”
Claiming, as then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos once put it, that college and university faculty tell students “what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think,” Republicans have launched a scorched earth war against “woke education.”
In the last two years, 15 states have adopted educational gag orders restricting “discussions of race, racism, gender, and American history” in public schools, with seven states applying such orders to public higher education.
Campaigns to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, undermine tenure, ban or sanitize books, and appoint MAGA extremists to public university boards are well underway.
Yet almost all the conservative claims about left-wing indoctrination are wrong.
All education involves imparting information “from someone’s point of view.” It is not indoctrination, for example, for a biology professor to teach evolution while rejecting creationism. Nor is it indoctrination to cite Jim Crow laws, segregation of schools and public transportation, grandfather clauses for voting, and the complicity of public officials in violent acts of intimidation against Blacks as evidence of systemic racism in the post-Civil War South.
Education only becomes indoctrination when, in the words of a 2007 American Association of University Professors subcommittee report, “an instructor insists that students accept as truth propositions that are in fact professionally contestable,” and presents “such propositions dogmatically, without allowing students to challenge their validity or advance alternative understandings.” Thus, it is not indoctrination for a professor to assert her belief, based on research and disciplinary expertise, that systemic racism is (or is not) a defining feature of American life, gender is (or is not) fluid, capitalism is (or is not) the best system for allocating goods and services. It is indoctrination only if the professor refuses to countenance discussion or debate about these claims.