This state-mandated mourning came in recognition of the Memorial Day for the Victims of Communism scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Trump administration created the party in 2017 at the request of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC), a right-wing nonprofit organization.
The effort highlights how an argument used by public education advocates to build support for universal public education has become a potent weapon for conservatives to push their cultural agenda on American children.
In the early 19th century, advocates of public education, such as Horace Mann, argued that schools would be a framework for cultivating a shared national identity. Mann and other common school reformers who promoted universal education for children argued that schools were essential for democracy because they could instill a shared “Americanism” in the hearts and minds of future generations of the country. Beyond teaching literacy and math, they would socialize children and prepare them to be productive members of their communities. In this way, schools would develop citizens who could find common ground in a diverse – but still largely white, Christian and patriarchal – society. This potential meant that the schools promised to be the cure for a long list of social ills, including poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, and other stereotypical “vices” attributed to Catholic, Jewish, and non-white immigrants.
Nationalism was the reformers’ main argument for institutionalizing public education, as historian Cody Dodge Ewert has written. Public education was (and still is) the purview of the states, but defining public schools as a nationalist cause made the idea popular at a time when the rapidly developing country was seeking to define its own identity.
However, in “make american schoolspublic school advocates politicized them in such a way that they benefited cultural and social conservatives who wanted to ensure that national identity remained rooted in white Protestant patriarchy. Right-wing opponents of liberal democracy have thus jumped on the idea of compulsory education to promote their favorite visions of patriotism and nation-building.
As the United States became more industrial and less agrarian in the late 19th century, compulsory education meant that children would spend most of their days with their teachers, rather than with their parents and other adults in their extended family. In this context, white Americans in the West and South accepted schools as institutions and they trusted white teachers to preserve and promote a culture of manners, customs, literature, history and religion of European Protestant origin. And as Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe increasingly flocked to northern port cities, wealthier Protestants from the Northeast (whose own white children were often taught by hired tutors) were also attracted to free public schools as institutions of assimilation that would promote their traditions of Protestantism and patriarchy. among poor immigrant children.
In the 20th century, historian Adam Laats explains:other school reformers— those on the right like the Ku Klux Klan — clung to schools as cultural unifiers who could instill their values in the next generation. The Klan, for example, only supported education in English. Soon after, white evangelicals joined the campaign to arm the curriculum against their enemies: atheism and communism. In the 1920s, battles between educators and right-wing Christian groups made national news, such as the infamous Scopes trial over the place of evolution in science curricula.
After World War II, school-wide recognition of patriotic holidays became an essential part of the school year. Throughout the 1950s, teachers led children in Columbus Day and Veterans Day celebrations, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (incorporating the new phrase “under God” in 1954) and singing patriotic songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America (My Country Is Yours).” Public colleges even required oaths from their teachers and students, who swore they were loyal Americans and not Soviet secret agents. Through these activities, public K-12 schools and colleges challenged students to define themselves as patriots and Christians, drawing a clear distinction from the secular communist enemies of the time.
In the 1960s, cultural and social conservatives attempted to legislate compulsory K-12 classes on the differences between “Americanism and Communism” and sought lawmakers from both major political parties to sponsor their law projects. Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), which served as a political incubator for many on VOC leadership in their youth; the American Legion; Veterans of foreign wars; conspirator John Birch Society; and other right-wing and military groups circulated petitions in support of the required course. These groups also announced the presence of ROTC and JROTC recruiting and training centers on college campuses and in K-12 schools during the Vietnam War. Such efforts demonstrated the right’s willingness to promote militarism from kindergarten to college to enforce its anti-communist ideological vision.
For the rest of the 20th century, conservatives continued to fight to keep schools from drifting away from values rooted in Christianity and white culture. They protested a wide range of things, from banning prayer in schools to creating ethnic studies curricula to sex education. In the 1990s, conservatives called for a total dismantling culture war (derived from the German Kulturkampf, a bitter struggle between church and state) on these and other issues that they felt were contrary to being American.
In the 2000s, the perceived inability of conservatives to control curricula and policies so enraged the right that many pulled their children out of public schools altogether. GOP endorsement of voucher programs enabled right-wing evangelical parents to enroll their children in Christian academies, charter schools, and cooperative homeschool programs that were not beholden to school boards for state (despite acceptance of state-funded vouchers).
Today, the main grievances of the right vis-à-vis the school are largely based on conceived and unjustified the fears that arise from a anti-racism resistance and LGBTQ inclusion. The right is now calling for book bans and other restrictions, especially in history and literature classes, when the topics run counter to the narratives favored by conservatives.
In the modern context, the right argues that the nation is “under attack” as historians challenge the right’s favorite narratives of American exceptionalism with facts about the past. When historians highlight racial, gender, and economic injustices, knee-jerk right balks that doing it is anti-American and divisive. True unity, just claims, are achieved by elevating American stories of greatness and promoting conformity to white, Christian, and patriarchal standards of the past. So they promote much of the same vision of education as the conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s – Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) recently proposed history and social science standards would have kindergarten children learn patriotism – including the salute to the flag.
Dedicating school time to recognizing Victims of Communism Memorial Day is another example of Christian nationalists and other right-wingers using propaganda to achieve their goals in public education. It also foreshadows the political future of GOP stars with presidential aspirations, like DeSantis, who are all too willing to advance right-wing political narratives about historical truths.
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