Why Did Betsy DeVos Attack College Education at CPAC? Creationist Anti-Education Tactics Might Provide the Answer
Expertise is a devalued commodity in today’s world. Once again Fox News got caught using an expert with exaggerated credentials, this time an immigrant with a criminal record whom they identified as a “Swedish defense and national security advisor.” But that’s par for the course on cable TV, where anyone can be an “expert” if the chyron on the screen says so. After all, you know it’s true since both Giorgio Tsoukalos and I have been equally identified by cable TV as experts in ancient history. But this is only part of the general degradation of expertise. At the Conservative Political Action Conference this week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued a cri de coeur for college students to rise up against elitist professors. She could be a talking head on Ancient Aliens! “The fight against the education establishment extends to you too,” DeVos said to the college students in the audience.
The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree. […] Defenders of the status quo will stop at nothing to protect their special interests and their gig. So we need you to engage, to be loud and to never stop fighting for what we believe.
She did not specify what she and her audience believe in; however, the Trump Administration announced plans to cut all funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, so it seems unlikely that a liberal education is among those core beliefs. Note carefully, though, that DeVos literally said that the university professors are a “threat” because they are somehow suppressing conservative beliefs. Her words don’t sound particularly ominous when you hear her say them in her soccer mom voice, but their import is much darker, echoing some of the darkest hours of the twentieth century.
Now, granted, I don’t think that DeVos is clever enough to be a Nazi propagandist, or, frankly, that she has ever spent a moment studying Nazi propaganda, but the tenor of her words, and that troubling assertion that academics and intellectuals—even poverty-stricken adjuncts begging for good student evaluations!—are somehow corrupting the minds and souls of the youth sounds so very much like what Joseph Goebbels proclaimed at the massive book burning of 1933, as newspapers of the time translated it:
Jewish intellectualism is dead! National Socialism has shown the way. The German folk soul can again express itself. These flames do not only illuminate the final end of the old era, they also light the new. Never before have the young men had so good a right to clean up the debris of the past . . . The old goes up in flames, the new shall be fashioned from the flames in our hearts. As you had the right to destroy the books, you had the duty to support the Government. The fire signals to the entire world that the November revolution has sunk to earth and a new spirit has arisen!
This was not just a Nazi tactic. The communist Chinese engaged in a great purge of literature in 1966, sequestering all anti-communist literature in special vaults where the public could not access it. The Pinochet government in Chile did the same with leftist literature in 1973. The attack on intellectuals was a hallmark of the communist Khmer Rouge government, which took its hatred of education to such an extreme that eyeglasses were seen as a sign of intelligence and wearers were therefore punished.
No, I think that her words actually come from a different source. DeVos is a well-known Christian activist, and she has devoted significant financial resources to promoting intelligent design. Specifically, through her family foundation, for the past two decades DeVos and her husband have supported (and she served on the board of) the Student Statesmanship Institute, a Christian organization that claims to follow biblical literalism in training students for future government and leadership positions. It aims to promote a “Biblical worldview,” but dollars to doughnuts that doesn’t mean caring for the poor or forgiving one’s enemies.
Her claims about the oppressive authority of college professors seems ripped right from creationist literature, where Christian advocates fantasize that the all-powerful professoriate can shape hearts and minds with but a whisper of the word “evolution,” unleashing a flood of leftist, atheist, and secular humanist thinking. Consider, for example the title of conservative hack Ben Shapiro’s 2013 book Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth. “Professors are allowed to teach homosexuality, Marxism (a secular religion), and anti-Americanism,” Shapiro wrote, “but mention God and you’re out of a job.” Note the rhetorical sleight of hand here: Shapiro omits the word “about.” Professors teach about homosexuality, and Marxism, and, yes, even God. You can take courses in religious studies that cover Christianity, Judaism, and all manner of topics of similar nature. They just aren’t found in the science department. Some professors, of course, also advocate for their political beliefs, but this isn’t the same as indoctrinating students the way, say, fundamentalist religion indoctrinates believers. Science professors, for example, don’t (or at least shouldn’t!) tell students that English classes are a gateway to hell and Noam Chomsky’s analysis of language is the One True Way to understand literature. That irony is lost on conservative Christians, as Jason Rosenhouse noted in his book Among the Creationists (2012). Rosenhouse attended a 2010 conference in which home-school advocates (DeVos is a major supporter of them) echoed Shapiro to an ideologically frightening degree: “Ominous statistics were presented documenting the scourge of professorial liberalism, with special emphasis on the widespread and, in the opinion of the speaker, horrifying acceptance of homosexuality. As accustomed as I now am to this sort of thing, I remain astonished at the gall of conservative Christians lecturing others about indoctrination.” It’s always about the gays, isn’t it?
The idea of fighting back against the professors comes from this same source, too. A decade ago, for example, creationists (or “intelligent design advocates”) were circulating lists of questions students could use to challenge their professors or wiggle out of learning science in school, and they plotted strategies to fight back against science by taking schools to court and trying to force governments to silence professors or require sectarian religious indoctrination in schools. (Obviously, they never supported teaching, say, Greek mythology as a viable system.) As Religion Dispatches wrote this week, fundamentalism’s century-long battle against knowledge and expertise undergirds the entire conservative project to unhinge political life from fact-based reality, with science a casualty of a crisis in Christian faith.
Christian fundamentalism was characterized in particular by its rejection of two theologically disturbing bodies of knowledge that emerged from the 19th century: the theory of evolution, and the historical-critical method of Bible scholarship. While mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches have had considerable success in coming to terms with these expert knowledge consensuses, Christian fundamentalism is defined primarily by its rejection of them.
Rosenhouse said much the same thing several years ago, noting that “The picture of dogmatic science professors relentlessly indoctrinating their free-thinking students is a near perfect inversion of reality. […] Exposure to novel and varied ideas, and to classmates from a variety of religious backgrounds, inevitably dissolves the cocoon in which creationists too often enclose themselves.” That inversion is still in place. Just this weekend Ken Ham, the arch-creationist, attacked the supposed fragility of science. He posted to Facebook, “Atheists are afraid to let people be taught to think critically about origins… They can’t have their belief critically analyzed so they legislate to protect it in public schools.” He neglects to note that it is creationists who want to use the force of government to declare Christianity a branch of science.
But there is a similarity between creationism, Nazism, Maoism, and all of the other totalizing ideologies that demand a purge of science, the humanities, and thought itself. They all fear the power of knowledge, and they all fear that even a hint of awareness that there are other ways to think, to act, and to live will collapse their simplistic and militant ideologies into rubble. Faith militant requires soldiers to fight for it, and no one fights to the death better than a fanatic.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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