The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Conservatives think education is a threat. They’re right.

History teacher Eirik Nielsen speaks to students at K-Pop Club during lunchtime in his classroom at Burton High School in San Francisco in October 2021. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The conservative campaign against education is many things. As a political matter, it’s about intensifying the culture war so moral panic drives Republican votes. As a policy matter, its long-term goals include dismantling public education. As a personal matter, it’s often motivated by fear that the American system of education is a threat to people’s children — that the wrong ideas, even ideas themselves, are impossibly dangerous.

On that last point, conservatives are absolutely right: Education is indeed a threat to many things they believe.

Consider some recent news from the front. In a Texas school district, police officers showed up to a high school library to “investigate” a graphic novel about a bullied gay teen. In Oklahoma, a teacher was investigated for responding to a draconian school censorship law by covering up her classroom library with a sign saying, “Books the state doesn’t want you to read”; she then resigned.

In another Texas district, a middle school deemed portions of a book by the man for whom the school was named — a grandson of former slaves who learned to read at age 98 — to be “inappropriate.” The reasons are unclear; perhaps his tribute to the importance of reading was too inflammatory.

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It’s not just teachers. Librarians have come under attack, too. In a Michigan town, librarians were targeted with a torrent of abuse after residents learned that the library contained books on LGBTQ themes; the town then decided to defund its only library. Problem solved!

Meanwhile, Fox News has been on a tear, vilifying school teachers as lazy, stupid, anti-White Marxists trying to “groom” children for sexual abuse.

In some red states, teenagers have taken it upon themselves to organize sex-education classes. Conservatives who dominate in those places are terrified that if the teens learn how their bodies work and what sex is, they might develop ideas that undermine the “traditional” view of sex.

And once again, the conservatives are right. If you teach a girl that she has the right to make her own choices about sex, that having sex doesn’t turn her into chewed-up gum no one would want to touch, or that she ought to question why society labels men who have sex “players” but women who have sex “sluts,” she might begin to free herself from the shame and fear that perpetuates certain hierarchies of power. Who knows where that might take her?

Now, are school teachers more likely to be liberals, even in conservative areas? You bet they are. Think about the kind of person who goes into teaching. You have to be committed to the welfare of children, be skilled at providing care, and believe in the institution of schools (most of which are public). You have to care about equality, because it’s inherent in the practice. You have to love books and learning. And you have to be willing to work incredibly hard for low pay.

There are some conservatives who meet all those requirements, but most of the people who do — who are disproportionately women — are going to be liberals. That makes conservatives suspicious of the entire profession, regardless of what is actually being taught.

Then there are all the ways that, in Stephen Colbert’s immortal words, reality has a well-known liberal bias. If you’re going to teach science, you have to teach about evolution and climate change, even if some people would prefer to tell themselves both are sinister hoaxes.

And even if you train teachers to say the slaveholders who signed the Constitution actually hated slavery, or pass laws forbidding any mention of “gender fluidity,” what if your kids go on to college? Then they’ll be exposed to all manner of new ideas as they cultivate their capacity for critical thinking. They’ll probably meet people from different parts of the country and different backgrounds. They very well could decide that their parents are small-minded, and arrive at a set of beliefs that alienates them from the people who raised them.

These fears are intensified because we now live in an interconnected culture where shielding your children from ideas you don’t like has become almost impossible. If you’re 50 years old, you might have gone through school never meeting someone who was openly gay, or who wasn’t Christian, or who didn’t think the Civil War was about state’s rights. But if your kids have an internet connection, they have all kinds of exposure to different people and different ideas.

And the more conservative you are, the more likely it is that education will lead your kids toward experiences and beliefs that differ from yours — not because your kids are being victimized by propaganda, but just because of the nature of becoming educated.

If you’re an average consumer of Fox News and conservative media, you typically can’t do much about the things you’re told to be angry about every day; the rage is an end in itself. But in their war on education, conservatives have found a way to connect the national to the local, linking the things Tucker Carlson tells you are terribly threatening with what’s going on right down the street.

The threat is real. Conservatives can’t keep their kids from having their minds opened forever. And they know it.