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.
2/26/2017 08:24:26 am
You might be interested in this article by Sharon Hill
2/26/2017 10:54:13 am
"Note carefully, though, that DeVos literally said that the university professors are a “threat” because they are somehow suppressing conservative beliefs."
2/26/2017 12:19:11 pm
Is that some sort of subtle First Amendment jooke?
Jason, this is again another example of exaggerated criticism.
2/26/2017 12:25:36 pm
Why do you think that DeVos phrased it as "fighting" against universities and professors? One could seek policy changes in any number of ways. Why personalize it as a battle against "the educational establishment" and "defenders of the status quo"?
Jason, do conservatives not have the right to think of the First Amendment being applicable also to them?! I wonder. I always thought, human rights belong to everybody.
2/26/2017 01:53:05 pm
It's a Ciceronian rhetorical strategy in which the speaker explicitly denies the impression the audience receives. I used that because DeVos's speech leaves a specific impression ... but never mind.
2/26/2017 02:01:27 pm
'Conservatives' appealing to the First Amendment, Mr. Franke, generally are not complaining that they are prevented from speaking. Their complaint is that when thy speak, people do not agree, and often call them fools and bigots, which terms are in most instances quite accurate. Left protesters in the sixties faced arrest and police violence, on campus and off. There were real consequences for many. The current crop of right-wing trolls forming various 'conservative' clubs on college campuses face nothing but the disdain of their fellow students and the disapprobation of much of the faculty. Both students and faculty, in their private capacity as citizens, have every right to express such disdain. It is not police action, not state suppression. These are what the First Amendment bars.
2/26/2017 04:00:59 pm
When you suggest that Trump somehow commanded a majority, you misunderstand American elections. Trump attracted 3 million fewer votes. The election pivoted on just 77,000 votes in three states. This is not a revolution but a quirk of geography. If those 77,000 people lived elsewhere, we would not be having this conversation. Nor is it right to say that we should cater to the prejudices of the few for fear that they might be further radicalized by exposure to values opposed to their own. The politics of grievance and resentment must be called out because wherever they arise, they end in disunion, distrust, and disaster.
Jason, your intention not to show any understanding that there could be a problem which made so many voters vote for Trump, your lack of mercy for minorities, your ice-cold ignorance towards serious threats against free speech, and your parallelization of Betsy DeVos with National Socialism are indications of a fanatic mind set. Not good.
2/26/2017 04:39:30 pm
My lack of mercy for minorities? What are you talking about? In your scenario, who would these forgotten minorities be? Conservatives are the largest self-identified bloc in American politics.
2/26/2017 06:40:56 pm
I would add, Mr. Franke, a few short items to Mr. Colavito's comments.
Jason, beyond this controversy:
Jason, let me add an article by Victor Davis Hanson, the author of "Who killed Homer?":
2/26/2017 12:31:34 pm
De Vos' headline question in the CPAC speech was:
2/26/2017 10:02:32 pm
Thanks for saying what I have been thinking for the last few months... What was once an enjoyable and at times enlightening experience has become a tedious slog through liberal self righteousness.. All conservatives are bad all liberals are good... Jason's conclusions unfortunately are being arrived at before his research even begins
2/27/2017 02:48:07 pm
Did you complain when I criticized the government of Indian Prime Minister Modi for its attacks on the integrity of education? Or when I criticized the entire country of Georgia for twisting its schools into nationalist training academies? It sounds like your problem is that you are emotionally invested in American (faux) conservatism in a way you are not invested in Indian or Georgian nationalism.
2/26/2017 11:55:51 am
"'But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree."'
2/26/2017 12:18:08 pm
You did notice that I said that while the rhetoric echoes it, it does not have anything to do with it. The anti-professor rhetoric she uses seems to come out of the Christian conservative sense of grievance. The "safe space" movement is silly, but it came up from the students rather than down from the professoriate. Coddled teens don't want to deal with views they disagree with (not that this is new--I opposed the movement when it started when I was in school in the 1990s!), but how are liberal safe spaces to "block" offensive speech somehow more troublesome than Christian efforts to purge science from the classroom or impose speech codes on how science can be presented? When DeVos speaks of fighting back, her words carry greater meaning because of her longtime advocacy of this latter version of Christian political correctness, which is to say censoring facts to cater to snowflake religious prejudice.
2/26/2017 08:19:36 pm
Really, they are different sides of the same ugly coin, but I have found over the years that for want of a better term 'bad ideas' coming from those who are perceived to be 'oppressed', for example just look at the career of Hunter Adams, author of "African and African-American Contributions to Science and Technology" which formed part of the 1987 'African-American Essays' and which contained a mass of pseudo-Archaeology about Egypt, the Egyptians and their relationship to the modern world.
2/26/2017 09:14:53 pm
The difference is that one group has political power and the ability to impose their views by law, while the other creates looney material almost no one outside a small slice of the population ever sees.
2/26/2017 01:02:26 pm
Is is, I wonder, of any significance that the DeVos family company, Amway, is itself a major educational enterprise, specialising in the teaching of customer-persuasion skills?
2/26/2017 02:08:19 pm
You could say, I suppose, Mr. Bradbury, that Amway is an 'educational enterprise', at least in certain senses of the word educational. it can teach the old lesson that a fool and his money are soon parted quite effectively....
2/26/2017 01:38:33 pm
Uncle Ron, you might be interested to know that a lot of professors don't like safe spaces and trigger warnings either. But in a lot of cases, it's not their call, it's the administrators'.
2/26/2017 01:54:40 pm
It was my understanding that administrators imposed them because of student demands and the fear of lawsuits. Conservatives, who traditionally are for tort reform, might have more profitably battled their hated safe spaces by making it harder to sue schools for being offensive.
2/26/2017 06:05:07 pm
I don't know about safe spaces, but trigger warnings in the sense of warning people who have had traumatic experiences that something in a class might upset them seems like common courtesy to me.
2/26/2017 06:10:53 pm
I think much of the criticism is the nitpicky form many of these trigger warnings take. It's funny, though, that the same people who are angry about trigger warnings were many of the same people demanding that network TV "clean up its act" by putting content warnings at the start of every TV show to make sure "viewer discretion is advised."
2/26/2017 08:01:00 pm
Yes, Shane, I am aware of that. I used those words because Jason had used the phrase above. They're all weenies. And It is probably, in part, an extension of the justifiable anti-bullying effort starting in elementary schools. But it has evolved to the point that simply saying words that someone doesn't want to hear makes you a "bully." The irony that these things happen at the institutions people pay to expose them to new things is almost unbearable. The inmates are truly running the asylum. If it wasn't so sad it would be amusing to watch these whiners denying others the right to free speech in the name of free speech.
2/26/2017 12:06:33 pm
A heads up... watch out for the expected claims that Atlantis is actually under New Zealand:
2/26/2017 12:29:22 pm
Sad that your blog is trending towards fake news with overblown accusations comparing this woman to past evils. How do DeVos' words compare to those of Clinton in her most recent public address?
2/26/2017 12:46:22 pm
I made a small error in my post. Due to a pasting error, I left out the first sentence of the block quoted paragraph, where DeVos accuses professors and adjuncts of controlling students' lives. That was the line that bothered me most, and it contextualizes the remainder of the paragraph. I fixed it, and you can more clearly see that she was specifically telling her audience to fight against professors. That is the rhetoric the totalitarians of all stripes used.
2/26/2017 08:16:16 pm
Jason: You certainly read more into that paragraph than I do. Knowing that professors DO ridicule and silence those who disagree with them (usually their conservative students who ask inconvenient questions), and DO tell students what to think (and grade accordingly), I hear her saying "Don't let them cow you into silence." Maybe if she had said "never stop advocating" instead of "fighting for what we believe" you would see it differently.(?)
2/26/2017 08:20:20 pm
Throughout the election, everyone in public life said time and again not to take Trump literally. Then he did what he said he would do. I think it behooves us to take his flunkies seriously and literally when they speak.
2/26/2017 12:32:52 pm
Excellent commentary, Mr. Colavito.
2/26/2017 08:20:48 pm
The fact that you use and repeat the juvenile phrase "mentally unbalanced creature currently squatting in the Oval Office" is sufficient indication of your immaturity to disqualify from serious consideration any other remarks you make.
2/26/2017 11:02:52 pm
It is an accurate description. He is mentally unbalanced. He shows little sign of any trait or quality of character associated with common humanity, with common decency. He is emphatically not the choice of a majority of the country's voting public. He has no more legitimacy than he does dignity. He is, in point of fact, a mentally unbalanced creature currently squatting in the Oval Office.
2/27/2017 10:40:38 am
"mentally unbalanced creature currently squatting in the Oval Office" is a perfect description and you're an humorless idiot, uncle.
2/27/2017 01:41:16 am
The election is electoral, not based on popular vote. The outcome of a vote setup for popular vote would be quite different. Pick your poison.
2/27/2017 03:57:57 am
I don't disagree with much of what you've said, but your view of charter schools is the hackneyed version trotted out by the reflexively anti-charter school propagandists. I actually went to a charter school. No, they couldn't pick and choose which students to accept. You're equating private schools with charter schools in that respect, and this is a false equivalency.
2/27/2017 09:21:52 am
One of my grandsons attends a charter school, Mr. Yoon. It was recommended by the teachers in our neighborhood school he had attended through eighth grade, who had worked closely with him in overcoming obstacles besetting the boy which I will not detail. It is a sound institution, and we are glad to have him there.
2/26/2017 04:26:40 pm
A significant part of what's wrong with higher education in the U.S. is the incredible bloat of administrators which has led to tuition increases far outpacing inflation over the past four decades.
2/26/2017 04:52:48 pm
When I first read this post, I didn't know what to say. Since President Trump and the media are both playing to their core audiences with their little "war", I had feared you had ventured into really nasty waters, Jason.
2/26/2017 05:26:13 pm
The issue of funding has been a perpetual issue for decades, as you mention. Certainly Buckley's "God and Man at Yale" set the template for the idea of liberal indoctrination, but it came in the era of Communist scares when everyone wrongly thought that everyone else was engaged in all manner of mind-control, and that it would actually work. Pod people, Manchurian candidates, and communist indoctrination were all the rage back then.
2/26/2017 06:13:06 pm
I absolutely agree with that last statement. We basically have a hardcore right wing ideologue as Secretary of Education now, someone who would prefer only her views to be taught.
2/26/2017 06:13:54 pm
Agreed, which is why I looked into the matter. I wanted to understand the impact of what she said and how she said it. You gave me the starting point, because honestly, I wasn't even aware of this until I read the post.
2/27/2017 10:41:45 am
I'm glad someone brought up William F. Buckley, Only Me. I do wonder if he were alive, could he host one of his renowned Firing Line Debates on today's college campuses without disabling disruption. I do miss those events, when for the most part ideas could be exchanged by those in opposition; who could go out together for a beer afterwards.
2/26/2017 05:59:20 pm
Clear and astute observations about DeVos and the whole Trump cabal, Jason. Don't worry about the attempts by other to try to normalize what is going on here. These are dangerous times for our democracy. An understanding of how Nazis and other fascist regimes rise to power can leave one quite frightened about the words and actions of the current "administration." Keep up the good work.
2/27/2017 10:33:52 am
I really enjoyed this blog. For the most part insightful and well argued. The only comment i would make is the inherent difficulty in "facts" once one removes themselves from the physical wprld. No one seriously disputes quantum mechanics in physics departments at colleges. But take any subject with regards to human actions and u get very different opinions. U have a marxist english teacher as a frshman i would recommend u just play to their views get your b minus and move on. jason u surprised me with yourreference to austrian economics. There is hope for u yet! 😀
2/27/2017 04:49:44 pm
Christianity and other monotheistic creeds like Islam have been debunked already. We know that man was not created.
2/28/2017 07:23:10 pm
I want to print business cards with my name followed by the subtitle "Expert", otherwise undefined.
3/1/2017 08:54:03 pm
All this fussing and turning and burning inside your minds is a sight for sore eyes, and troubled minds. The sore eyes are those of the mind, not those brown, black and blue, or any of the other more rare colors. And all this time we are supposed to be color blind, as they say in social circles of humane dealings with the meanest, cruelest, and wildest animal of them all, man!
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