The Fatally Flawed DeSan-itizing of Education

As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis squares off with the College Board over Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies, continues to lead the movement to muzzle free speech in schools and prepares to transform the state's public colleges and universities into taxpayer-funded versions of far-right Liberty University, it is worth asking if there is anything connecting these seemingly disparate maneuvers. New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait argues that DeSantis is conducting "a systematic attack on African American political power." That's unquestionably true for his record in office, but what really ties his toxic education agenda together is a desperate and doomed effort to arrest the GOP's slide with young voters.

As a top-tier presidential candidate and the party's heir apparent to former President Donald Trump, DeSantis gets the most attention for his war on intellectual and academic freedom, but it is nevertheless a party-wide project being pursued by both elected officials across the country and astroturfed community groups seeking to ban books, intimidate teachers and strip professors of their autonomy to teach about issues of race and gender identity. At the core of this project is a desperate, unfocused terror that children are being brainwashed to 'hate America' and that Republicans could be competitive with under-29 voters if schools just taught blind patriotism and the same—shall we say "abridged"?—version of U.S. history that they remember.

Those fears of long-term electoral doom are not unfounded. If anything, Republicans should be far more worried about their standing with young voters than they are. Beginning early this century, younger voters began giving Democrats significant margins in election after election—margins that were largely impervious to economic and political developments. Most worryingly for the GOP, Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) have maintained their preference for Democrats into their 40s, puncturing the mythology that says people get more conservative as they grow old.

Ron DeSantis
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis smiles at supporters at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Nov. 19. WADE VANDERVORT/AFP via Getty Images

Rather than reckoning with what created this demographic timebomb—the party's repellant positions on climate change, race, gender identity, abortion, and economic inequality—Republican elites have conveniently externalized the blame onto educators. And so, under the guise of fighting the mostly imaginary speech restrictions of so-called "cancel culture" and "wokeness," GOP political and civic leaders have embarked on a multi-front war against freedom of expression at all levels of public education, hoping that by preventing young people from encountering or sharing "dangerous" ideas about America's history and contemporary reality, they can bring them back into the conservative fold.

The trouble with this story is that it is very dumb and has no basis in empirical reality. The Harvard Youth Poll, conducted twice a year since 2000, shows that even young voters who don't go to college prefer Democrats over Republicans, albeit by smaller margins than their peers who pursue higher education, consistent with a pattern stretching back years. If young people are coming out of high school hostile to the GOP, then it can't be the fault of their Marxist professors. And AP African American Studies is still a pilot program at just 60 high schools in the 2022-2023 school year.

Republicans love to muse ignorantly about students majoring in made-up fields like Lesbian Dance Theory. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of college students major in career-oriented fields. In 2019-2020, just 7,767 bachelor's degrees were awarded to "Area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies," in the whole country, according to the U.S. Department of Education. More than 387,850 students graduated with a BA in business, 257,282 with a degree in health care fields, and 128,332 in engineering.

Sure, they might have to take one or two introductory classes in U.S. history or politics as part of their general education requirements, but these courses are largely boilerplate. Most professors are using the same handful of non-partisan textbooks that contain at most gentle critiques of U.S. institutions and history. Professors of gender studies are generally too busy trying to save their jobs to serve as the vanguard of national left-wing indoctrination.

If any significant number of students get radicalized in college, it's not because of their wild-eyed professors but because they are suddenly surrounded by mostly liberal peers. As I wrote in my 2020 book The Kids Are All Left, a change in your social context is one of the few factors that can shake you free of views that you inherit from your parents in adolescence. No amount of abuse heaped on academia can change the fact that your kids are likely to mingle with libs unless you send them to places like Bob Jones University, where right-wing ideological conformity is real, enforced, and the entire purpose of the enterprise.

In other words, the central premise of what you might call DeSan-itization is profoundly flawed. Until Republicans change their actual policy views on things like reproductive rights, climate change, LGBTQ rights, race, and social spending, they are doomed to experience double-digit losses with 18 to 29 year-olds, and then to watch that cohort turn out at higher rates over time without any significant movement back towards the GOP. The idea that this trend, more than 20 years in the making, can be reversed with some theatrical attacks on teachers and ham-fisted censorship efforts is like thinking you can turn Yankees fans into Red Sox fans by banning books about Derek Jeter from libraries in New York. The whole ugly escapade is far more likely to backfire spectacularly than it is to succeed.

In the meantime, DeSantis gets his ego stroked via press attention while trans kids, students of color and educators see their lives turned into a living hell.

David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.