In my years of following state politics, I have heard North Carolina Republicans say stupid, outrageous, incomprehensible and otherwise foolish things. Pat McCrory said Caitlin Jenner would have to use the men’s shower if she ran track at UNC-Chapel Hill. Larry Pittman and others declared that the State of North Carolina has a right to nullify U.S. Supreme Court decisions within its borders. And so forth. But nothing I have heard echoing out of right-wing avenue was more utterly discrediting to a public servant than what DPI leader Catherine Truitt recently said about the purpose of K-12 education. Read on, if you can stomach it.
““We’ve got to redefine what the purpose of K-12 education is,” she declared. “Some would say it’s to produce critical thinkers. But my team and I believe that the purpose of a public K-12 education is to prepare students for the post-secondary plans of their choice so that they can be a functioning member of the workforce.” In one quick stroke, the leader of public education in North Carolina discounted and disparaged critical thinking, the foundation of an enlightened citizenry. In saying this she definitively sided with the forces of political authoritarianism and capitalist plunder, the two great foes of the American experiment that have always fought against liberal education.
More than anything else, Truitt’s remarks reminded me of rants by her fellow unreconstructed white Southerners who viewed liberal education as a threat to the social hierarchies of which they considered themselves the guardians. The intensity of the language they used varied in candor and colorfulness, but amounted to the belief that critical thinking would empower the masses to confront a social system that oppressed them. This, they believed, was why education should be strictly confined to manufacturing useful workers for the corporate class, which would pay them stingy wages and expect complete loyalty from the workforce. Truitt, like these Southerners, distrusts educators who want to give North Carolinians the tools to question big business.
This ancient Southern fear of true education extends, in cases ranging from the fanatical bigot James Vardaman to the genteel policy adviser Catherine Truitt, to that musty foundation of the Southern order, the vexing issue of race. Slaves had to be kept illiterate in order to prevent them from corresponding with abolitionists and Underground Railroad leaders in the North. After the fall of slavery, which came about because the United States military crushed a traitor army that Truitt’s legislative overseers continue to venerate, Black education remained anathema to the white oligarchy. It is striking–and important–that Truitt had previously chosen as her crusade the GOP’s fight against “critical race theory.” Southern reactionaries still don’t want the truth to set people free.
In other words, Superintendant Truitt envisions a public education system that churns out docile laborers who will not question capitalism, racial inequality, or the sanitized creed of American nationalism that is the preferred doctrine of the Republican Party elite. Her attack on “critical thinkers” was unusually frank even for a Republican, but she clearly reflects the uncritical thinking of N.C. Republicans who are the faithful servants of a Southern order that would likely crumble if the people of the South had the education to question what is wrong. But something is wrong–and North Carolina Republicans want it hidden behind palisades of blind loyalty and trust in classist white supremacy.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.