Dictators Hate Education

BurnedBook

It’s not news that conservatives in America dislike and distrust the school system. Whether it’s their longstanding attacks on evolution, true but unflattering information about our national history, or scientific predictions about the dangers of climate change, they’re agin’ it all. And recent polls show that Republicans have become hostile to higher education in general, not just specific teachings that contradict their ideology.

Now we have another example, as Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism points out. It comes from Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), a company that publishes a curriculum and textbooks written from a fundamentalist viewpoint, intended for private Christian schools.

Just guess what ACE’s books have to say about the civil rights movement:

The workbook for 1945-1969 was comprised of roughly 13,000 words and made no mention of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, or numerous other civil rights giants. In fact, neither it nor the previous workbook mentioned racism, the KKK, Jim Crow, or lynchings.

And as for Martin Luther King, Jr.

…the text devotes 345 words to King’s life and death, focusing mostly on his assassination… never quotes from any of King’s speeches.

King’s murderer, James Earl Ray, gets more space than King himself. As a final insult, ACE sneers that the response to his death was that “angry young blacks rioted, robbed, and burned buildings… in the name of a man who wished to be remembered as a man of peace”.

Meanwhile, when white people rioted in the 1970s in response to school desegregation – throwing rocks and bricks at black children, setting buses on fire, smashing store windows, assaulting police – the ACE text merely says blandly that violence “erupted” and “continued to surface”. It’s a neutral, impersonal sentence construction which carefully avoids any mention of who was rioting or why. (Again, see Libby Anne’s post for photos of these white-on-black riots, including a literal bus full of Nazis.)

This isn’t some embarrassing relic of the distant past. This text is in the 2015 edition of the ACE workbooks. And it’s not an isolated faux pas, but a consistently racist viewpoint. Past editions of the ACE curriculum had this to say about apartheid South Africa:

“Although apartheid appears to allow the unfair treatment of blacks, the system has worked well in South Africa… Although white businessmen and developers are guilty of some unfair treatment of blacks, they turned South Africa into a modern industrialized nation, which the poor, uneducated blacks couldn’t have accomplished in several more decades. If more blacks were suddenly given control of the nation, its economy and business, as Mandela wished, they could have destroyed what they have waited and worked so hard for.” (source)

This all fits with evangelical Christians coming full circle and reembracing white supremacy. Just like with their creationist beliefs leading them to spurn evolution, pro-white racism is an integral part of their religious identity and they’re anxious to deny, downplay or gloss over any information which might undermine this. The civil rights era is too big a part of American history to omit entirely, but ACE is wary of letting its students learn more than the absolute bare minimum about it.

America isn’t alone in beating a retreat from facts and reality. If there’s a global trend, it’s in the wrong direction: even though information is easier to access than ever, governments and religious leaders are fighting the tide. We also see it in Turkey and Hungary, two countries where increasingly illiberal rulers are trying to starve the educational system, purge teachers with suspect loyalties, and hamper private schools not under the state’s control.

There’s an insidious feedback loop here. Autocratic, conservative leaders try to restrict their people’s access to information; and as a new Pew poll finds, lower education levels and more conservative politics both correlate with support for autocracy (defined as “a strong leader making decisions without interference from legislators or courts”):

…it is often people with a secondary education or below who are more likely than those with more education to favor autocratic rule. This educational divide is particularly wide in the UK (19 percentage points), the U.S. (15 points), Poland and South Korea (both 13 points).

…Those who place themselves on the right of the ideological spectrum are more likely than those who place themselves on the left to say a strong leader making decisions would be a good way of governing.

(In the name of fairness, I should point out that there’s just one country where leftist political views correlate with support for autocracy, which is Venezuela.)

In this way, dictatorship and illiberal rule become self-sustaining. America hasn’t sunk to that level of autocracy (but ask me again in a few years), but here, too, would-be dictators of the mind are trying to construct a parallel educational system designed to keep its graduates ignorant and obedient. It’s no coincidence that the ACE curriculum focuses heavily on rote memorization, avoiding that scary, unpredictable critical-thinking stuff.

This is an immensely frustrating dilemma because, from an outsider’s perspective, it’s so easy to see what the cure is. But the people who have the most need of it are also in the worst position to realize that. Mired in their enforced ignorance, supporters of autocracy lack the information that would let them make better judgments, but that same ignorance makes them dig in their heels against everything that would allow them to correct their problem. The first step on that escalator of reason is the most crucial one, but it’s also the hardest.

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