The culture war crossfire takes aim at our classrooms
Updated: Mar 25
In the latest piece by Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro, Managing Editor at The Anchor, she explored the history of educational reformer Horace Mann. A key figure in building Rhode Island College into the institution it is today, Mann was an educational reformist dedicated to ensuring the American people a right to publicly funded, universal and nonsectarian schooling guided by trained professionals.
A controversial man for his time, Mann’s creed is one that the American educational system has harmonized with for decades, if not centuries. Yet, despite the strides made in public education since the dawn of Mann, his legacy stirs rancor to the day, and this is no more visible than in the growing culture war battlefield taking place in classrooms across the nation.
It’s no surprise that schools are the key theater where partisan infighting is taking place. The nation’s educational institutions are sacrosanct: Our primary and secondary schools are where the youth grow into intelligent and learned citizens, and our colleges and postsecondary institutions are where the intellectually hungry go to satiate their desire for knowledge as they learn life and career skills. These institutions, where we expect our students to gain educational proficiency, are also platforms where they are most susceptible to learn the ideals that will follow them for life. In this, politicians along with citizens angered at the ebbs and flows of modern culture are seeking to reshape these institutions permanently.
Even at the local level, the impact of the growing culture war is palpable. At both RIC and Mount Pleasant High School in Providence earlier this year, a neo-Nazi group spread anti-Semetic recruitment flyers across the campuses. Further south in North Kingstown, a school board meeting in September 2022 descended into chaos as parents questioned the board with false allegations of litter boxes in school bathrooms.
Beyond the borders of Rhode Island, the educational culture war has grown in scope from the individual level to the political level. Anti-transgender laws related to education have swept across the nation like a riptide, with states like Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee passing laws to restrict trans students from using bathrooms or playing sports corresponding with their gender, or even being referred to by their chosen name. Even compared to these examples, no state has taken to task the fight against Mann’s values more so than Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis, a rising star in conservative populism and potential 2024 presidential candidate, has made a vigorous and complete reform of Florida’s educational system a key priority of his governorship. In this, he has passed a ban on trans student athletes in women's sports and a law allowing the arming of teachers.
DeSantis has also signed into the law the contentious Parental Rights in Education Act, or “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” This legislation limits the speech of teachers on the topics of gender or sexuality, and seeks to expand it dramatically to a form where virtually all sexuality and gender related discussions would be banned.
Although many states have passed laws restricting the rights of transgender students in primary and secondary education, what sets DeSantis apart is the sights he has set on postsecondary education as well. This is most apparent through his hostile takeover of New College of Florida.
NCF, a small public liberal arts institution, was notable for its unorthodox approach to higher education. It eschewed traditional grades for written evaluations and offered diverse options for majors such as animal conservation and environmental studies. Recently, DeSantis has strived to transform the progressive school, rapidly moving to oust the board of trustees and replacing them with ideological conservatives and political allies in a mission to transform the college into a beacon of populist conservatism.
As this happens, the Florida legislature is pursuing the passage of House Bill 999 in an attempt to “fight the woke mob.” The bill bans both “critical race theory” and gender studies in colleges as well as diverts more power in appointing college board trustees to DeSantis.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy institute, ranked Florida as the first place state for educational freedom in the United States. Mann, however, would spin in his grave hearing this claim. After all, it was Mann himself who said, “The best teachers teach from the heart, not the book.” Even though the political takeovers of education have mostly glided past Rhode Island thus far, it would be folly for any Rhode Islander to remain ignorant of what is happening across the country.
As the state and culture of the nation changes, it’s imperative for schools to provide education and guidance of the highest quality without getting caught up in hyper-partisanship. This means schools must affirm students in their identities, providing them with a deserved dignity and encouraging their diversity.
Schools must not be afraid to cover all of history, be it the most honorable, the ugly or the often looked over. And, most importantly, educators and students alike must stand against the rising efforts to stifle their rights. Schools are bastions of hope for the next generation. We must fight to keep them this way.