The battle for the minds of American children

Polarisation of the classroom is dominating US politics

Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign watch phrase was “it’s the economy, stupid”. Today it would be “it’s the culture, idiot”.

Clinton’s front line was America’s deindustrialising landscape. Today the nation’s suburbs are its most critical battleground. Republicans have a lock on small-town and rural America while every big city is under Democratic control. The suburbs are once again where the US’s highest-stakes contests are occurring. Some of the most contentious fights are for control of suburban school districts.

The polarisation of US education is mostly new and entirely disquieting. One big exception should be made for the resegregation of America following the 1960s civil rights era via white flight from the cities and the shift to religious schools.

Another was the ultimately futile evangelical backlash early last century against the teaching of evolution. But in most of the US, and for most of its history, the typical school board election was a genteel affair. That quality now belongs with James Stewart movies and Walter Cronkite broadcasts in the sepia-tinted memory bin.

The battle is about what it means to be American – a question that today can end friendships and split families. Children’s minds are in play. As the Jesuits reputedly said, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Teaching critical-thinking skills seems to be low on everyone’s priority list. Republican-run states are passing Bills to ban the teaching of “critical race theory”.

Virginia, where some polls showed education as voters' main concern, and which turned Republican last week after a gubernatorial race, is likely to follow suit. The fact that the theory – a legal critique of the inadequacy of equal rights against the structural legacy of slavery – is technically not taught in most US schools is beside the point. It is a Republican device for tapping resentment against the perceived arrogance of teachers' unions and education bureaucracies.

Identitarian wings

The pandemic’s endless Zoom classes crystallised that backlash and fuelled a boom in home schooling, which has doubled to more than 11 per cent of US children since early 2020. Enrolment in religious schools has also surged. But the battle for children’s minds is likely to outlast Covid-19. The narrative is dictated by the identitarian wings of each party. When they disagree over the size of government, politics can be a relatively civil affair. When it comes to identity, however, it is impossible to split the difference.

Among educated liberals, the Pulitzer-prize-winning 1619 project has largely become the consensus. It holds that the US is irredeemably shaped by racism and dates the country’s foundation to the arrival of the first slave on its shores. To conservatives, 1619 is a gift that is likely to keep on giving. Sixty-nine per cent of the US electorate is still defined as white.

Polls show that most Americans fall between these cultural poles. They are happy for their children to be taught the US’s full-spectrum history, both the good and the bad. It would be hard for a child to understand the origin of states’ rights without knowing that the south succeeded in enshrining an African as three-fifths of a human being.

It puts today’s attacks on “federal over-reach” in context. But majorities of parents of all races do not want their children to be taught that pigmentation is destiny, or that their country is beyond redemption. Alas, the voice of America’s so-called exhausted majority is outweighed by those pushing for clashing identity approaches.

Demographic majority

The blunder the US’s liberals are making is to think their philosophy chimes with the “emerging demographic majority” – a forecast which, like tomorrow, may never come.

Like America’s once-ostracised Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants, many Hispanics elect to be defined as white, which used to mean Wasp (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), a term that now belongs with Cronkite’s evening broadcasts. Even if ancestral guilt had merit, it is hard to imagine its pragmatic endgame. Descendants of those who arrived after slavery can hardly be expected to share it.

As others have observed, the manner in which identity is now being prioritised offers an opening for the Republicans to criticise today's Democrats with the language Barack Obama used in 2008. By embracing identity, the cultural left has abandoned its traditional liberal turf. From a tactical point of view, this is baffling. Glenn Youngkin exploited that opening to help win Virginia's governorship last week. Donald Trump is unlikely to look this gift horse in the mouth. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021