That something as simple as critical thinking would engender fierce controversy in North Carolina is not surprising at all. If Republican governance has had one hallmark, it has been political attacks on the foundations of functioning, small-r republican government. A populace capable of applying critical scrutiny toward those who presume to rule over them is a prerequisite for self-government. So the aggressive authoritarians have sought to defang the critical faculties of North Carolinians they seek not to serve, but to bully.
A clownish right-winger, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt launched perhaps the most clumsy volley against critical thinking. “Some people believe the purpose of public education is to teach critical thinking skills,” she intoned. But, “my staff and I disagree.” The maladroit anti-intellectualism of this silly vignette may provoke laughter from cynics. But unfortunately, Truitt’s hostility to the notion of free thought derives from a carefully considered worldview. Truitt regards public schools as corporate-worker factories tasked with churning out laborers who will serve the Southern oligarchy without question.
This impoverished vision for education runs deep in the thinking of North Carolina Republican policymakers. With characteristic linguistic dignity, Pat McCrory declared that universities should put “butts in jobs.” He said this as a sitting governor representing the people of North Carolina on a national radio show. If McCrory’s crudity is to be expected, what may disconcert observers to a greater degree is the attitude that the UNC Board of Governors holds. Completely dominated by right-wing Republicans, the universities’ leadership cohort shares McCrory’s utilitarian cynicism. Former handpicked UNC President Margaret Spellings said (with McCrory-esque eloquence) that she wanted UNC to “play NFL ball” by eviscerating liberal education. Authentic education faces an attack from every corner of the NCGOP establishment.
History was not always an academic discipline. The first historian, Herodotus, fabricated large parts of his seminal masterpiece, the Histories. Amusingly, a millennium and change later, one Geoffrey of Monmouth “explained” that England was founded when the son of Aeneis defeated an army of giants and that Merlin was an historical figure, and Englishmen took this as the standard history of their country for 400 years. But it is to romantic nationalist historians such as the great George Bancroft to whom Republicans turn for their preferred historiography.
America, Bancroft said (with considerably greater insight and erudition than todays right wing), was driven from the beginning by a providential destiny to spread democracy and equality throughout the world. “American Exceptionalism” had not yet entered the country’s intellectual bloodstream when Bancroft penned his great works, but the correlation between his narrative and the thinking of today’s conservative patriots is clear enough. This is heady stuff–and also bereft of thoroughness and rigor. Bancroft’s genius was crippled by his romanticism, and so too is the “patriotic history” Republicans insist upon teaching instead of the phantom menace of “critical race theory.”
It would be smug to claim that Republicans want vacant minds because they can’t win voters who can think critically. At one time educated professionals voted in large numbers for Republicans such as Eisenhower and even Goldwater. Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater girl! But what is clear is that the objectives of the conservative movement will never be met if enlightenment grows and education flourishes. Conservatives seek to defend, and in some cases to intensify the pathologies of, inherited social systems. Americans who know the roots of our country’s inequalities are unlikely to acquiesce in such a project.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.