Well, it appears as though my column about why you should vote didn’t single-handedly swing the results of the Virginia gubernatorial election last month. That remains on the bucket list. With that, it looks as though Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe by just two percentage points. Even if you’re not a Virginia voter, because I know I’m not, there’s still a lot to take away from that unfortunate electoral loss for Democrats. Furthermore, if you care about any left-leaning causes whatsoever, you should care about our public education system and protecting it from demagogues that try to destroy it.
Is that slightly hyperbolic? Yes, but not by much. A sizable portion of the Virginia electorate had schooling as their top priority for voting. And I can’t blame them — schools are widely underfunded, have large class sizes and are staffed with overworked and underpaid teachers, and these problems disproportionately affect poor and minority youth. Additionally, an often overlooked point is that our public education system fails to sufficiently prepare all members of society to be active participants in the democratic process. In the age of mass disinformation and increasing polarization, now more than ever, education centered around civics and the social sciences is pertinent to the future success of U.S. democracy. This is to say there’s plenty of problems with our education system that demand immediate action, but I’m sad to say this kind of discussion is often not around these real and tangible problems.
Depending on your political orientation and news sources, you may instead hear about how transgender people are invading the bathrooms, critical race theory is teaching your kid that they’re racist and Marxists are indoctrinating our youth to hate their country. The moral panic carousel never ends.
Reactionaries manufacturing crises and then acting on their fantasies is nothing new and perfectly exemplified by the ongoing critical race theory outrage machine. Don’t believe me? According to a Fox News voter analysis survey, critical race theory was self-reported as a major factor for people’s votes in Virginia. More nationally, per the Brookings Institution, nine states have successfully passed legislation attempting to ban critical race theory, while many more have proposed bills to do so. Looking over the fact that critical race theory is not taught outside of universities, these laws go well beyond any supposed justification against critical race theory, banning a wide range of topics like structural racism, the history of racism in the United States or conscious and unconscious bias. This is not just anti-intellectual but undemocratic. When something as basic as unconscious bias is banned, that’s not “protecting the youth,” it’s keeping the next generation ignorant about the existence of racism, plain and simple. Or rather, it keeps the white youth base ignorant and vulnerable to manipulative politicians — it’s no coincidence that busing a generation ago, and critical race theory today, are both such motivating issues for certain voters.
If you want another specific example of the moral panic hijacking education, here’s one. The Hill recently reported on a Texas House committee investigation that is asking its school districts “to provide information about books that deal with sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS and HIV and ‘material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.’” Now, it’s mighty convenient how “free speech” warriors seem to disappear when it comes to fact-based education — in one breath, we need to teach bastardized biology and glorified history to discredit the existence of gender minorities and whitewash American history because it’s supposedly “just the facts.” Yet if we dare teach about modern gender science or sex education, then it’ll be the end of Western civilization. Even if you agree in principle with this book burning, I, for one, will not be trusting the same group of people who are forcing Texan teachers to teach “opposing sides” of the Holocaust to carefully consider what is and is not appropriate and fair education.
Why should you care? No matter what you think about the purpose of education, we should all be able to agree that a functioning and comprehensive education system is absolutely necessary for a basic democracy. Think about it — how are you supposed to participate in democracy if you don’t understand what Congress is, what the president does, the state of the country, its history, how to consume trustworthy media, etc. This is why interdisciplinary study including economics, political science, history, sociology, philosophy and more are all important to teach to all students. Funny enough, the latest critical race theory moral panic is perfectly indicative of what happens when education fails to adequately teach about race and racism.
Luckily, in my opinion, Democrats will still control Virginia’s Senate and can block some of the nonsense seen in other states. But avoiding the worst case scenario isn’t exactly inspiring, now is it? We need to cultivate our public education system, putting greater focus on civics and the social sciences. Not everyone needs to grow up to be an engineer, but everyone ought to be active citizens in democracy. If we pull some people out of the insurrectionist, armchair-virologist, alt-right pipeline in the process, even better.
Eleanor Gully is a senior triple-majoring in French, economics and philosophy, politics and law.