The so-called culture wars are being fought in full swing in the United States. In the eye of the storm are children and teenagers, schools and what is taught in the classroom.
Professor Joseph Kahne, from the University of California, has conducted extensive research on the subject. He spoke to Brasil de Fato about the topic. According to him, “many people recognize that the experiences young people have at school help shape their values and beliefs.”
“If, for example, schools only offer books that talk about how wonderful American democracy is, it’s different from if schools also show things that happened in our past that, perhaps, we shouldn’t be proud of,” says the professor, “if no one ever reads a book about African Americans or about indigenous people, or all of our history books that ignore the contributions made by women… It shapes how people view society.”.
Last week, during the first debate of the Republican caucuses, mediated by Fox News, the topic was not left out. Republicans and far-right groups are, today, the main actors waging true crusades against plural education in the country.
Florida, a laboratory of cultural wars in schools
Second in the polls for the Republican nomination, Ron DeSantis spoke of indoctrination: “The decline in education is one of the main reasons why our country is in decline. We need education in this country, not indoctrination.”
As governor of Florida, DeSantis passed a series of laws affecting the state’s classroom and teacher autonomy. The so-called culture wars were at the center of his re-election campaign, and gave him a landslide victory in a state, until then, considered divided.
The law known as “Don’t Say Gay”, in English, and which was sanctioned last year, prohibited the discussion of topics related to sexuality and gender until the third grade in the state’s schools.
In May this year, a teacher was investigated for showing a Disney film in the classroom that featured a gay character. The case increased fear among educators, even though the teacher emerged victorious in the dispute.
“We’re seeing what we call a ‘chilling effect,’” explains Kahne, “teachers, in many ways, are self-censoring because of the threats that exist. Some are policies that states have passed, others are fears about things parents are posting on Facebook criticizing teachers or showing up in class to criticize them. But the result is that students lose. Students are less likely to learn about controversial topics.”
Most recently, the Florida government approved a new black history curriculum. Among the points, students will learn that whites and blacks benefited from slavery. Ron DeSantis is proud of the measures.
“In Florida, we eliminated critical race theory in our schools through high school,” the governor said at the debate, “we eliminated gender ideology in our schools through high school. And we elevate the importance of American civics education by teaching our students about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
In recent months, demonstrations at school meetings have become normal in the US. In most cases, ultra-conservative parents organize to demand censorship of certain subjects at school.
In May, a Florida mother asked that a book of poetry by Amanda Gorman be removed from her son’s school library. The book features the poem “The Hill We Climb”, recited by the author at Joe Biden’s inauguration.
It later came to light that the mother in question had ties to the extremist group Proud Boys, which participated in the 2020 Capitol invasion. According to research by Joseph Kahne, this type of conflict is more common in districts where there is a greater parity between Democrats and Republicans.
Major conflicts in pendulum districts
The research conducted by the professor spoke to more than 600 school directors across the country, in all regions and considering small and large cities. One of the questions asked to principals was whether they were witnessing this type of conflict with members of the community and parents of students.
“What we found was, for example, that conflicts were more intense in what we call purple districts, which are districts that have a relatively similar number of Republicans and Democrats,” says Kahne. “In many ways, this is not surprising, right? You have conflicts because there are people on both sides of the issue fighting for what they want.”
Education as the great enemy
Such cultural wars have proven to be an important weapon for Republican politicians to mobilize ultra-conservative bases. A similar situation happened in Brazil a few years ago during the height of the “Escola Sem Partido” campaign.
In last week’s Republican debate, not even the teachers’ unions or the Department of Education itself – similar to a Ministry of Education – were spared by the party’s candidates.
Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black senator in the Republican Party, said, “In education, the only way we can change education in this country is by defeating the teachers unions.” He received an ovation shortly afterwards.
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, third in the polls, went further: “Let’s close the head of the snake, the Department of Education. Take this US$80 billion and put it in the hands of parents across the country. This is the civil rights issue of our time.” He defends a voucher scheme for education, a proposal similar to that put forward by some names on the Brazilian right.
For many, this rhetoric is seen as dangerous. Professor Kahne agrees, and fears for the country’s democracy itself.
“In the United States, and I know this is true in other countries as well, we are seeing an erosion of the commitment to what we think of as democratic values and norms. What worries me about some of the findings we’re finding is that these pressures are perhaps leading to a chilling effect, meaning that schools are putting less emphasis on their democratic mission because they’re afraid of angering members of the public. If schools feel scared and choose not to do this, then students will not have the preparation that would lead them to embrace democratic values. So, yes, that worries me a lot”, concludes Joseph Kahne.
Editing: Thales Schmidt