Of all the books I need to read this coming month for research on my next book (as always, please subscribe to my Patreon for exclusive updates on that research, one of which will be dropping later this week), Ellen Schrecker’s No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities may be the one I’m looking forward to the most. Schrecker is one of the leading historians of McCarthyism and its lasting impacts on America, and she’s also written widely on how corporate America has shaped our country’s institutions of higher education; I highly recommend her book The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, The Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University for in-depth information about this topic. Her work will probably be a cornerstone for many of the arguments I want to build in my next book, but as with all the research I’ve been doing here, it should also influence my teaching practices both in and out of the classroom.
Schrecker and other historians, like Joel H. Spring, have documented how the rise of industry in the late 19th century led to the first attempts by the owners of large corporations to silence academics (especially those in institutions that were already adapting to the German research model) whose work called into question the ways by which these corporations were making money, including the prevalence of child labour and other forms of worker exploitation. The rise of early 20th century workers’ rights movements, along with the concurrent Red Scare that opponents of those movements engendered, resulted in a redoubling of attempts by corporate America to silence its critics in higher education, and while those efforts faded into the background of American life in the wake of the Great Depression and the New Deal and World War II, American corporations and their combined efforts (such as the work of the National Association of Manufacturers) during this time were still noteworthy.
The rise of student activism on American college campuses in the 1960’s, coming as it did on the heels on Joe McCarthy’s downfall, provided new energies for conservatives and corporatists who wanted to bend American education (not just higher education) to meet their whims. The rising rights movements for women and people of colour that happened at the same time resulted in them becoming practically inextricable with the simultaneous unrest on college and university campuses, even if many anti-Vietnam War movements often failed to take minority perspectives into account in their methodologies and goal-setting. It only seems fitting that the Cornell Student Takeover of 1969 led to one of Cornell’s most wealthy (and right-wing) alumni, John M. Olin, to begin the first substantial movement by corporations and their owners to use their power to try to influence American higher education, an effort that rapidly gained speed in the 1970’s thanks to the organizing done around the Powell Memorandum and the entrance of other wealthy right-wingers, such as Richard Mellon Scaife and the Koch brothers, into overt political actions.
These battles have risen in prominence at times over the past fifty years — the skirmishes over the campus “culture wars” of the late 1980’s and the heated rhetoric in the aftermath of 09.11 come quickly to mind — but they never really go away. Living through those episodes greatly affected my experiences as a student, and they continue to influence me on the other side of the classroom, as I keep working to find the best approaches to help my students learn the things they need to learn in my classes. The debates over these issues will likely continue long after I’m done teaching (as they should), so I’d be negligent in my responsibilities as an instructor if I were to ignore them, or to stop contemplating them as I form my everyday teaching practices.
In recent months, as right-wing media and politicians continue to misappropriate the term “critical race theory” to stoke their followers into a frenzy about the realities of American history (and America’s present), it shouldn’t be surprising that those in power would seize on the moment to pass new legislation that allows them and their supporters to flog the same old tired canards about American colleges and universities supposedly being institutions of “liberal indoctrination,” capitalizing on this cultural moment to try to force their ideologies on campuses instead of permitting them to develop their own ideologies. This is one of the most brazen (recent) attempts to tilt the scales, but it’s no surprise that it’s coming from the same state that allowed Charles Koch to have veto power over the hiring at a public university’s economics department, a stunning break of precedent in terms of the influence that donors are allowed to exercise at American institutions of higher education. (It’s important to remember that tilting the field of economics education at American colleges and universities, particularly through the push of pro-corporate “law and economics” education started by the John M. Olin Foundation, has been one of the most long-standing and effectual ways that conservatives have used to create generations of ultra-right-wing judges.)
It’s not too hard to imagine how the discussions of wanting “balance” through surveys of Florida students and professors will end up. Just as conservatives demand “balance” in debate on climate change by insisting that the tiny fraction of scientists who deny humanity’s role in climate change get as much speaking time as the vast majority of scientists who oppose that view, anything more than a 50-50 division of liberal and conservative students will be immediately portrayed as “evidence” of indoctrination, and used as a cudgel to further punish Florida’s colleges and universities through withholding of public funding and other means. Never mind that college and university students tend to lean left to start with for the simple reason that younger people tend to be more liberal, and never mind that the surveys won’t be administered at Florida’s private religious colleges and universities that tilt right (and which many young conservatives flock to). Any survey that shows liberal students or professors outnumbering conservatives on a campus is likely to be portrayed as prima facie proof of “indoctrination,” and the howls of right-wing outrage will grow even louder.
With the rate at which local and state governments run by Republicans have picked up on the “critical race theory” hullabaloo, it’s likely that this Florida legislation will soon be replicated in several other states, both now and after the next midterm elections if Democratic governors and state legislators get turfed out of office (which is feeling more and more inevitable these days). The lack of sustained counter-narratives to combat the current wave of right-wing attacks on education is galling, and if this new Florida legislation isn’t enough to shake the rest of us out of our stupor, then maybe nothing will. Anyone who claims to care about American education, but sits idly by, not only has no sense of decency; they have no sense, period.