There are no commanding visions of public education at work in the United States. These are dark times for education, teachers, librarians, Black youth, trans people, young people and the empowering principles of academic freedom, critical thinking, civic courage, and a shared notion of citizenship. Since the 1950s, and especially since the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan as President, there has been an intense struggle both to privatize public schooling and to corporatize higher education. In its updated and expanded version, the current far right extremists in the Republican Party are waging a naked attack “on the very existence of public education.” In the first half of the 20th century, the established conservative common sense operated off the assumption that the central purpose of education was to prepare students at different levels for their station in the workplace or in the larger global corporate order. A growing far right version of the conservative movement increasingly argued that the idea of schooling as a public and common good was anathema. Schools were now disparaged as government schools or even worse, “socialist training camps.”According to these assassins of public education, schools had become a byproduct of a government that used them to enforce a poisonous notion citizenship defined through the values of equity, freedom, justice, and equality.
In this anti-democratic discourse, the role of government was to serve markets and the dictates of the financial elite, not social needs. As Pinochet-loving neoliberal economist Milton Friedman made clear in a 1970 article in the New York Times, social responsibility was the handiwork of socialists and communists and had no place either in the corporate world or in education. Markets became the engines of education, and corporate values now shaped education in the image of commercialization, profits, consumerism, deregulation, and privatization. Economic and educational activities were removed the grammar of ethical assessments and social costs, regardless of the presence of mass suffering and human misery.
In the second instance, the 21st century, especially the last decade, has been marked by a proto-fascist driven GOP that has expanded its attack on public education by unleashing the menacing forces of nativism, xenophobia, misogyny, and a rampant culture of cruelty, lies, and spectacularized panics over the presences of alleged disposable “others.”* Under the rule of an emboldened and well-funded number of right-wing politicians such as former President Trump, Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, and GOP Gov. Abbott in Texas, learning from the past has given way to the numbing forces of social and historical amnesia. Systemic racism, social sorting, manufactured ignorance, and the deadening of the mind are now celebrated as the organizing principles of education. In addition, the educational force of the wider culture has reinforced this attack on public education through a hate driven social media, conservative cable news, and other media platforms promoting 24/7 a predatory war against gender identity, sexual orientation, histories of resistance, and dangerous ideas such as critical race theory and studies of equity and equality. The ugly grasp of fascist politics, culture, and education has moved from the margins to the center of American life and power.
Amid a society increasingly marked by staggering amounts of inequality, racism, and powerlessness, schools from the eighties to the dawn of the 21st century were also largely redefined as engines of racial segregation, punishing factories and testing centers. Students of color increasingly found themselves disproportionately subject to the school-to-prison pipeline while white working- and middle-class youth were subject to a pedagogy of repression enforced through the teaching of dead-end standardized curricula that eliminated matters of context, dialogue, and critical consciousness. Paulo Freire’s notion of banking education became the norm as students were treated like “objects,” into which teachers poured knowledge. Added to this poisonous, repressive notion of education was the state-sanctioned demand that public school teachers teach for the test. Testing industries and apparatuses increasingly defined the space of learning. At the same time, the notion of schooling as a democratic public good whose purpose was to educate young people to become critical, informed, and engaged citizens was dismissed as an outdated, if not dangerous ideology. Education was no longer a process of self-discovery, a foundation for expanding individual and social agency, and a space of wonder, creativity, and critical learning endemic to what the famous educator, John Dewey, defined as a critical public good. Under such circumstances, public education became both a racial and class sorting center, an outpost of the criminal justice system, and a space of utter drudgery whose aim, in part, was to kill the imagination and diminish any viable investment in young people. Schooling as an agency of what Jacque Derrida once called a “democracy to come” became a place where democracy was consigned to the abyss of pedagogical corruption. We can thank both the Reaganites as well as the Wall Street democrats for this history. Think especially of the dreadful educational policies of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—all of which in some ways were a mirror image of the worse notions of education.
More recently in an age marked by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the ghosts of an authoritarian past have once again emerged in American society, though far more ruthlessly than in the past. Public education is now under siege by a myriad of white Christian nationalists, neo-fascists, white supremacists, and gaggle of corporate billionaires. Aided by far right politicians, the disciplining voice of white supremacists and a nefarious mix of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, religious fundamentalists, and anti-public intellectuals are now shaping educational policy in several GOP held states. Under such circumstances, a fascistic notion of education has emerged defined by a deep hatred of critical thinking, social justice, equality, freedom, and democracy—all grouped together under the idiotic and empty catch-all of the misnomer “woke.”
The signposts of America’s turn towards a fascist notion of education are everywhere. Books are being banned in numerous states controlled by the GOP, trans students and their history are being erased from school curricula while the support and compassion of their care givers, supporting librarians, professionals, and teachers are criminalized. African American history is both erased and sanitized, while teachers, faculty, and librarians who contest or refuse this fascist script are being fired, demonized, and in some cases subject to criminal charges. Mirroring an attack on trans people similar to one that took place in the early years of the Third Reich, right-wing politicians and white supremacists are waging a vicious war against trans youth, teachers, and their supporters. As is well known, LGBTQ people are now demonized, trans children are viewed as “invaders” and social pariahs while their supporters are slandered as pedophiles. It gets worse. Trans books and histories are banned, and the identities of gay students are subject to ridicule, fear mongering, and an attack on the ability of gay and trans folk to live out their identities. In some cases, far right groups such as the Patriot Front and the Proud boys “express their anger towards gender nonconformity with violence.” What the far right and white supremacists cannot achieve through street violence they want to achieve through state violence. As Talia Lavin observes:
What the far right proclaims through explicit street violence it wants to reinforce with the implicit violence of the state. Bills that seek to suppress anti-racist education, anti-trans legislation that seeks to codify antiquated gender roles, and the severe and continual restriction of abortion rights in states with right-wing legislatures typify the ways hatred of gender nonconformity, a desire to control women’s bodies, and racism intermingle.
This is a horrible time for trans youth who now attend schools in which they are regarded as unknowable and “placed in a state of terminal exclusion.” As Nancy Braus notes, “Those who are LGBTQ+ deserve to have role models who are able to help them survive the challenges of the pre-teen and teen years. Driving out gay teachers, passing fascist laws like “don’t say gay,” and violently attacking drag shows will never lead to a healthy society.” This is a pedagogy rooted in conformity, hatred, and bigotry. It requires no conceptual work, no culture of questioning. Instead it trades in enforced ignorance, repressive disciplinary controls, and culture of cruelty, disposability, and loathing. Right-wing ideology and educational policies have become part of a machinery of social death and represent the endpoint of a proto-fascist notion of education being imposed on millions of American youths—all done under the ludicrous claims of freedom and protecting children.
Under a rebranded form of fascism, education is now defined as the enemy of historical memory while the very act of thinking and critical consciousness as seen as threats to the economic, political, cultural and ideological interests of the Republican Party and their vision of American society. In this ideological and pedagogical script, racism is no longer covered over or viewed wrongly as resolved in American society, it has now become a rallying cry, badge of shameful honor, and educational weapon to shore up a burgeoning white Christian nationalist notion of white supremacy. In the hands of the fascist driven GOP, power operates not only in the interests of a ruthless drive for power but also a willingness to sanction lawlessness and violence in the service of political opportunism. How else to explain Trump’s lawlessness, implicit in his threat to tear up the constitution and his weaponization of the justice department, his promise if re-elected to pardon the convicted thugs who committed a myriad of crimes in their assault on the Capitol. Or his warning if elected president that he would leverage his power in the spirit of retribution and vengeance for those of his followers who have been wronged. Trumpism in a metaphorical sense can be understood as the move from the celebration of greed, infamously presented in the film Wall Street, to the damaged and vengeance mindset of a self-absorbed businessperson at the center of the film, American Psycho. In this instance, the line between obsession and greed quickly turns to the pleasure, spectacle, and pornography of violence—shorthand for living in a neoliberal fascist society. Trumpism is the face of the new fascism.
Against this historical and current background, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a report in May 2023 that gained a great deal of attention. It so called “The Nation’s Report Card” stated with great alarm that eighth graders were declining performatively in their understanding of history, civic, and the basic principles government, civic participation, and democracy itself. For instance, it reported that only 13 percent of 8th graders were proficient in history and only 22 percent were proficient in civics. While the rise of civic and historical illiteracy is alarming, what is equally alarming is that the report goes no further in analyzing the reasons for such failures than to promote a claim for more of the same standardization and testing—obvious by the fact that the crisis can only focus on test scores and nothing more. What this report makes clear, along with much of how education is discussed today in the far-right, conservative, and mainstream media, is that every culture has an imaginary zone in which core central issues are excluded, relegated to a zone of invisibility. This is a zone that must be historically situated, remembered, and critically interrogated.
Nothing in the report raises serious questions about the ongoing defunding of public education by right-wing politicians. The vicious attacks on schools since the 1980s and intensified in the last decade are ignored. The censoring of books, the increased censorship, the attack on history, memory, teacher autonomy, teachers unions, overcrowded classrooms, limited classroom supplies and the upsurge in the war on Black, immigrant, and trans youth are ignored. Ignored are the dual neoliberal and fascistic attacks now waged against public education. All that is left is a problem removed from any political and historical context that does more to reinforce the decline of public education and by default higher education than to address these issues. Education cannot be divorced from power and politics and should always be understood as a crucial site of struggle over the values, histories, voices, and young people in their education as critical and engaged citizens.
The first rule of civic democracy is that there is no democracy without critically informed citizens. Moreover, this pedagogical and civic challenge cannot exist in teach for the test or far right educational indoctrination factories in which there is no room for intellectually rigorous exchanges, a wide range of ideas, spaces where students can have their voices heard, and where they learn to connect what they learn to the struggle for a more just world. Public education should be a protective space in which the struggle against injustices cannot be removed from an education that provides the foundation for a democratic society. What it should not be is a zone of abandonment for those students considered dangerous, disposable, and unvalued. Such an education should provide the capacities, knowledge, sense of social responsibility, and skills that enable students to speak, write, and act from a position of agency and empowerment. It should do some bridging work between schools and the wider society, between the self and others, and private troubles and wider systemic considerations.
The central question here is what the role of education in a democracy is and in what capacity as David Clark argues is “democracy…an education that nurtures our capacity for democracy, and for sharing power rather than enduring or deferring to authority.”
There is no hope without a democratically driven education system, and that hope resides in the thousands of teachers, young people, and teachers who are striking, protesting, speaking out and fighting against this vicious attack on public education. What they are making clear is that the failure attributed to the education 8th graders and others receive in America is not about ineffective teachers, overbearing unions, lazy students. It is about an authoritarian ideology and fascist politics that believe schools are failing because they are public, teachers are inadequate because they refuse to become puppets of right-wing propaganda, students are falling behind because they reject robotic testing schemes, standardized pedagogies, and reactionary notions of education that promote ignorance, bigotry, and cancel all but selected youth out of the future. Liberal and conservative assessments about public education cover up a fascist political struggle to turn schools into white nationalist indoctrination centers. Echoes of a fascist history are alive once again in the war against democracy proving that education is central to politics, but as a force for empowerment not repression. This is not merely a struggle over the meaning of education and public schooling. It is a struggle about the possibility of a socialist democracy and the future itself.
This essay can also be read as an introduction to two related interviews I gave regarding the ongoing attack by far right extremists on public education in the United States. See:
Ian Masters Interview on Henry Giroux on “40% of 8th Graders Are Below Average in History and 31% Are Below Basic Proficiency in Civic Education.” On Background Briefing.
Allen Ruff interviews Henry A. Giroux on “Attacks On the Education and Information From The Right.” On Public Affairs.
 Henry A. Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019).
 Will Bunch, “Decimating ‘government schools’ used to be a far right fringe idea. Not anymore.” The Philadelphia Inquirer [July 26, 2022]. Online:
 Thom Hartmann, “Americans Used To Understand Public Schools and the Commons.” Hartmann Report [September 22, 2022]. Online:
 Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” New York Times Magazine, [September 13, 1970]. See, also his Capitalism and Freedom co-authored with Binyamin Appelbaum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).
 See, especially Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 3rd edition, 2000), and his Pedagogy of Freedom (Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).
 Talia Lavin, “Why Transphobia Is at the Heart of the White Power Movement.” The Nation [August 18, 2021].
 Ibid., Talia Lavin, “Why Transphobia Is at the Heart of the White Power Movement.”
 Ibid., Talia Lavin, “Why Transphobia Is at the Heart of the White Power Movement.”
 Joao Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p.14.
 Jamelle Bouie, “The Republican Party Says It Wants to Protect Children, but Not All Children,” New York Times (March 31, 2023). Online: . Also see Michael Bronski, “Grooming and the Christian Politics of innocence.” Boston Review [May 3, 2022] .
 Maggie Haberman and Shane Goldmacher, “Trump, Vowing ‘Retribution,’ Foretells a Second Term of Spite,” New York Times (March 7, 2023).
David L. Clark, “What is Democracy?,” NFB Blog (March 27, 2023).
*Jonathan Chait, “Indoctrination Nation: Convinced schools are brainwashing kids to be left-wingers, conservatives are seizing control of the American classroom.” New York Magazine (May 8, 2023); Alice Markham-Cantor, Britina Cheng, and Paula Eceves, “28 States, 71 Bills, and an Education System Transformed—A Running Tally of How Republicans are Remaking the American Classroom,” New York Magazine (May 8, 2023).
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