A few days ago, I posted a blog about the Chinese mainland’s negative response to “liberal” education in Hong Kong. I pointed out that the Chinese approach to education is more accurately described as indoctrination.
It would be satisfying if, as Americans, we could say “tsk tsk” and take comfort in our longstanding commitment to academic freedom. But of course, this is the Age of Trump, and we can’t–because this administration agrees with the Chinese.
On September 19th, the New York Times reported that the Department of Education had issued an ultimatum to two distinguished universities: Duke and the University of North Carolina–teach what we tell you or lose financial support.
The Education Department has ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remake the Middle East studies program run jointly by the two schools after concluding that it was offering students a biased curriculum that, among other complaints, did not present enough “positive” imagery of Judaism and Christianity in the region.
In a rare instance of federal intervention in college course content, the department asserted that the universities’ Middle East program violated the standards of a federal program that awards funding to international studies and foreign language programs. The inquiry was part of a far-reaching investigation into the program by the department, which under Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, has become increasingly aggressive in going after perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education.
DeVos, like Pence, is a fundamentalist Christian; apparently, she is also one of the Christian Zionists whose support for Israel is far less nuanced than that of America’s Jewish community. Christian Zionists believe that the Rapture they await won’t occur until all Jews are gathered back in Israel. They also believe that only the Jews who then accept Jesus will be Raptured Up with them; the rest of us will burn in hell.
This isn’t support for Jews or Judaism; it isn’t really even support for Israel as a country–they are just protecting what they believe is a necessary means to their heavenly end.
Be that as it may, the Department of Education disapproved of the universities’ effort to improve understanding of Islam.
The department also criticized the consortium’s teacher training programs for focusing on issues like “unconscious bias, serving L.G.B.T.I.Q. youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.” They said that it had a “startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history and language.”
The Times article was a dry recitation of the unprecedented action taken by DOE. The Guardian was more direct.
If you criticize Israeli policy, you will lose your federal funding. That is the message the Department of Education is sending with its threat to withdraw federal support for the Consortium for Middle East Studies, operated jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, if it does not alter the content of its programming.
Just three months after Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, ordered an investigation into a conference about the politics of the Gaza Strip that the consortium had sponsored – an authoritarian threat, in and of itself – the Department of Education issued a letter demanding that the Duke-UNC consortium remake its curriculum. Or else.
This is just the latest evidence of what the Guardian calls “the Orwellian grammar of the Trump era”–where the repression of liberal or progressive viewpoints is free speech, and federal intervention in university curricula is academic freedom.
The Department of Education threat against the Duke-UNC consortium is yet another example of the Trump administration’s spectacular hypocrisy and cynicism, not to mention its clash-of-civilizations-style Islamophobia – among other things, the Education Department’s letter accused the Duke-UNC program of devoting disproportionate emphasis “on understanding the positive aspects of Islam.”
This episode is part of the GOP’s antipathy to expertise, science and higher education, and the Trump Administration’s efforts to dictate what can properly be taught.
Indeed, when it comes to higher education, the Trump administration’s approach is uncharacteristically coherent, to fight its enemies – variously conceived of as liberals, Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, LGBTQ people, people of color, and women – by enforcing ideological constraints, amplifying conservative viewpoints, dismantling or manipulating anti-discrimination statutes and, when possible, slashing federal funding.
When the government can dictate what scholars teach in the classroom, that’s indoctrination, not education. Academic freedom is essential to genuine education.
The First Amendment doesn’t protect free speech because the Founders thought ideas didn’t pose a threat. They knew ideas could be dangerous–but they also knew that allowing the government to determine which ideas could be exchanged would be far more dangerous.
If some schools did use lopsided curricula, that might pose a danger–but allowing government to control what universities can teach would be infinitely more dangerous.
We need to bid an unceremonious “hasta la vista” to this entire administration.