The battle for the minds of American children
Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign watch phrase was “It’s the economy, stupid.” Today it would be “it’s culture, idiot”. Clinton’s front line was America’s deindustrializing landscape. Today, the country’s suburbs are its most critical battleground. Republicans have a lock on small towns and rural America while every major city is under Democratic control. The suburbs are once again home to America’s most important contests. Some of the more controversial fights are for control of suburban school districts.
Much of the polarization of education in the United States is new and quite disturbing. A big exception should be made for the resegregation of America after the civil rights era of the 1960s via the flight of whites from cities and the transition to religious schools. Another was the ultimately futile evangelical reaction at the beginning of the last century against the teaching of evolution. But in most of the United States, and for most of its history, the typical school board election was a matter of nobility. This quality now belongs to James Stewart films and Walter Cronkite shows in the sepia-tinted memory bin.
The battle is over what it means to be American – an issue that today can end friendships and divide families. The spirit of the children is at stake. As the Jesuits used to say: “Give me a child until he is seven years old, and I will show you the man.” Teaching critical thinking skills seems to be low on everyone’s priority list. Republican-led states pass bills to ban the teaching of “critical race theory.” Virginia, where some polls have shown education to be the number one concern of voters, and which became a Republican last week after a gubernatorial race, is expected to follow suit. The fact that the theory – a legal critique of insufficient equal rights versus the structural legacy of slavery – is not technically taught in most American schools is irrelevant. It is a Republican device to exploit resentment against the perceived arrogance of teachers’ unions and education bureaucracies.
The Pandemic’s Endless Zoom courses crystallized this backlash and fueled a home schooling boom, which has doubled to reach more than 11 percent of American children since the start of 2020. Enrollment in religious schools has also increased. But the battle for children’s minds is expected to last longer than Covid-19. The story is dictated by the identity wings of each party. When they disagree on the size of government, politics can be a relatively civil matter. When it comes to identity, however, it is impossible to divide the difference.
Among educated liberals, the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 project has largely become the consensus. He maintains that the United States is irreparably shaped by racism and dates the founding of the country to the arrival of the first slave on its shores. For conservatives, 1619 is a gift that is likely to keep on giving. Sixty-nine percent of the American electorate is still defined as white.
Polls show that most Americans fall between these cultural poles. They are happy that their children are learning the complete history of America, both the good and the bad. It would be difficult for a child to understand the origin of the rights of States without knowing that the South has succeeded in consecrating an African to three-fifths of a human being. He puts today’s attacks on “federal overbreadth” in context. But the majority of parents of all races don’t want their children to learn that pigmentation is fate, or that their country is beyond redemption. Sadly, the voice of America’s so-called exhausted majority is being overtaken by those pushing for conflicting identity approaches.
The blunder the American liberals make is to think that their philosophy accords with the “emerging demographic majority”- a forecast which, like tomorrow, may never come. Like the once ostracized Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants, many Hispanics choose to be defined as white, which once meant Wasp (Anglo-Saxon Protestant White), a term that now belongs to Cronkite’s evening shows. Even if ancestral guilt had merit, it’s hard to imagine its pragmatic end of game. The descendants of those who arrived after slavery can hardly be expected to share it.
As others have observed, the way in which identity is now prioritized offers an opening for Republicans to criticize today’s Democrats with the language used by Barack Obama in 2008. By embracing identity, the cultural left has abandoned its traditional liberal ground. From a tactical point of view, it’s confusing. Glenn Youngkin exploited this opening to help win the governorship of Virginia last week. Donald Trump is unlikely to look at this horse gift in the face.