Weaponizing Public Schools

“Whoever has the youth has the future.” Adolf Hitler

“Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” Josef Stalin

“Revolution and education are the same thing.”  Fidel Castro

Like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin is following a well-trod path, using Russia’s 40,000 schools to train all Russian children to believe what they are told and follow orders.  Here in some American states, public schools are also being weaponized, but in different ways.

As the New York Times reported, “Starting in first grade, students across Russia will soon sit through weekly classes featuring war movies and virtual tours through Crimea. They will be given a steady dose of lectures on topics like “the geopolitical situation” and “traditional values.” In addition to a regular flag-raising ceremony, they will be introduced to lessons celebrating Russia’s “rebirth” under President Vladimir V. Putin.”  They will also learn how to ‘uncover falsifications in the Fatherland’s history’ and to ‘defend historical truth.’   

“We need to know how to infect them with our ideology,” Serge Novikov, described by The Times as a senior Kremlin bureaucrat,  said.  “Our ideological work is aimed at changing consciousness.”  

And, chillingly, Novikov defined patriotism as “Readiness to give one’s life for the Motherland.”

That was Hitler’s view as well.  He believed that education served a sole purpose – to ensure that all children would be loyal to the Nazi state so that the Third Reich would last 1000 years.  As he wrote in  ‘Mein Kampf.’  “Whoever has the youth has the future”.

Josef Stalin understood education to be an important weapon:  “Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” But Stalin also expanded education dramatically, with the goal of universal literacy. Prior to the Russian Revolution, schooling was for the elite only.

Likewise Cuba:  While Fidel Castro also hoped to achieve universal literacy, he did not lose sight of his goal. “Revolution and education are the same thing,” the Cuban dictator said. Che Guevara, his lieutenant, echoed that view: “To build communism, a new man must be created. . . . Society as a whole must become a huge school.” 

Even today in Cuba, “the schools are the linchpins in the ideological struggle,” a Cuban educator said.  Mabel Maria Ruiz, a school principal in an upscale Havana suburb, says her goal is to teach students to give unconditional support for the Cuban government.  “Wherever the revolution tells them ‘You are needed,’ they must be capable of stepping up,” she said. “That’s the challenge and that is what we are forming them for.”

These dictators were teaching impressionable young children what Wilfred Owen, the brilliant World War I poet, called the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.  (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”)

Long before coming to power in China, Mao Tse Tung wrote in 1941, “A policy should be established of focusing such education on the study of the practical problems of the Chinese revolution and using the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism as the guide, and the method of studying Marxism-Leninism statically and in isolation should be discarded.  Once in power, he declared that “Bourgeois intellectuals could not be trusted with the education of the people.”  Thousands of the teachers and professors in China were sent to reeducation camps, and literacy rates in rural China dropped sharply as “politically correct” students were put in charge. 

I saw the damage Mao had wreaked first-hand in 1977, when I spent several weeks in the Chinese countryside visiting schools. Most of the classrooms I visited were led by Young Pioneers or Red Guards, clad in their distinctive red kerchiefs, seemingly about the same age as the students.   And, although Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution was over, its scars were clearly visible. I interviewed teachers who had been confined to ‘reeducation camps’ until they renounced their previous lives and work. My most vivid memory is of a concert violinist (and former music teacher) whose knuckles on both hands had been smashed by Red Guards, to keep him from playing ‘decadent’ classical music

Under Mao, 130 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 were required to belong to the Young Pioneers, and today Putin seems to be adopting Mao’s approach.  Russian children will be encouraged to join the “Pioneers,” a new patriotic youth movement, the Times reported.  Young Russians will apparently wear red kerchiefs, a visual echo of Mao’s “Young Pioneers” and “Red Guards.”  

Stalin, Castro, Mao, and even Hitler professed to be intent on creating a better world for their people, as does Vladimir Putin. First, however, the people had to be “properly” educated so they wouldn’t question their leaders.  

But George Orwell saw them for what they were: power-hungry despots.  Here’s what he wrote in 1984, his classic novel.  “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power……Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.”

Here in the United States, public education and public school teachers are squarely in the sights of some Republican politicians.  Instead of echoing Putin or Hitler, they are waving the flag of “Parents’ Rights.” 

Among the Republicans waging what should properly be called a war against public education are Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, Bill Lee of Tennessee, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Greg Abbott of Texas, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Brad Little in Idaho, Eric Holcomb in Indiana, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa. 

They are eagerly copying Glenn Youngkin, the conservative who was elected Virginia’s governor in 2021 largely because he presented himself as a staunch defender of parents and their children–and by extension the entire community–against ‘indoctrination’ by leftist teachers who, Youngkin said, were making white children feel guilty about being white. 

So-called “Critical Race Theory” is not taught in public schools, but that’s not stopping the politicians from using it as a whipping boy.  Florida’s DeSantis put it this way: “Florida’s education system exists to create opportunity for our children. Critical Race Theory teaches kids to hate our country and to hate each other. It is state-sanctioned racism and has no place in Florida schools.”  And Florida has now banned a number of math textbooks, accusing the publishers of trying to indoctrinate children with Critical Race Theory. 

A blogger who’s particularly upset, Michael McCaffrey, put it this way: 

“Indoctrinating children with CRT is akin to systemic child abuse, as it steals innocence, twists minds, and crushes spirits. Parents must move heaven and earth to protect their children, and they can start by coming together and rooting out CRT from their schools by any and all legal means necessary.” 

In the name of “defeating” CRT, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee has invited Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution based in Michigan, to create 50 charter schools in Tennessee with public funds, including $32 million for facilities.  As the New York Times reported, Governor Lee believes these schools will develop “informed patriotism” in Tennessee’s children. 

It’s not just CRT.  Republican politicians are also campaigning against transgender athletes, transgender bathrooms, mental health counseling, any discussion of sexuality, and for the “right” of parents to examine and veto school curriculums. While I have written about these issues here, it’s important to remember that less than 2% of students identify as transgender or gender-fluid. 

And it’s not just Republican Governors who are openly hostile to public schools.  Popular blogger Peter Greene recently described the activities of two Lieutenant Governors: 

In April, Idaho’s Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin set up a task force “to examine indoctrination in Idaho education based on critical race theory, socialism, communism, and Marxism.” After soliciting tips online, the task force held a four hour hearing in August. After hearing testimony “split on whether indoctrination is a problem in public schools,” the task force then unveiled and approved a half-dozen new proposals (one wonders if the folks who had just given testimony then suspected they had been wasting their time).

The Idaho task force proposals included one to make Idaho’s law banning certain teachings more explicitly forbid critical race theory; to ban use of federal grant money for crt-type activities (apparently referencing a Biden administration rule prioritizing culturally responsive teaching); to oppose a diversity policy being considered by the State Board; and to support school choice, favoring education savings accounts, a version of school vouchers.

Last March, North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson announced the Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students (FACTS) task force. The stated goals included holding education officials accountable and providing a means for teachers and parents to report indoctrination where they found it. The task force included three members with ties to the ultra-conservative John Locke Foundation, two conservative GOP lawmakers, the head of the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools, and Baker Mitchell, who owns a group of “classic education” charter schools which he has used to make considerable profit.

It’s not difficult to connect the dots: Republicans are attacking public schools, accusing them of ‘grooming’ their children to be gay, of making white children ashamed of their race, of undermining American patriotism and pride, and more.  One goal is to persuade more parents to home-school their children, or enroll them in non-union Charter Schools, or use vouchers to pay non-public school tuition. Public  school enrollment will drop, teachers will be laid off, teacher union revenue will decline, and less money will flow to Democrats.  

But it seems to me that their real target is not parents but potential voters who do not have any connection with public education.  Remember that in most communities about 75% of households do not have school-age children; many of these folks are older, and older people vote! If Republicans can convince these potential voters that schools (and Democrats) cannot be trusted, they will win.

And Republicans seem to be winning.  Teacher morale is low, and teachers are leaving the field in droves.  Florida and California will have significant teacher shortages this fall, and one state, New Mexico, had to call in the National Guard to serve as substitutes.  Enrollment is declining at institutions that train their replacements, and student enrollment in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles public schools dropped for the second consecutive year. 

I began by contrasting the approach of dictators like Putin, Hitler and Stalin with the strategies being employed by Republican politicians. However, there are also disturbing similarities.  Florida’s DeSantis, now polling strongly for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, recently signed legislation requiring public high schools to devote 45 minutes to teaching students about “the victims of Communism.” 

Florida has also passed two bills limiting classroom conversations about race and racism and restricting younger students’ access to lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity, but Florida is not alone.  The newspaper Education Week reports that fifteen states have passed similar legislation over the past year, and 26 others have introduced bills attempting to restrict these lessons.  

Forbidding discussion of Topic X and mandating discussion of Topic Y:  That’s exactly what Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and Castro did, and it’s precisely what Putin– and some Republican politicians–are now doing.

2 thoughts on “Weaponizing Public Schools

  1. I wouldn’t really mind their spending a class period on the victims of communism. But their teachers’ lessons should approach this and other social studies classes with open-ended inquiry and give kids opportunities to come to a rational understanding of how this system was destructive of individual choice and human rights–which it undoubtedly was–rather than subscribing to a Hillsdale sort of orientation toward presenting “the facts” as the College sees them and not really engaging the students in fundamental inquiry about “consent of the governed.” Indoctrination or something close to that is the worst way to open students’ minds and backfires or feeds a far less relevant approach to learning social studies.


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