People hold up signs during a rally against ‘critical race theory’ being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government centre in Leesburg, Virginia
There is mounting evidence that voters are turned off by the school culture wars, book bans and censorship © AFP via Getty Images

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Last week, I spent a couple of days in Washington meeting with two fascinating and politically distinct groups of people. First, I moderated a panel at a conference put on by the non-Maga conservative think-tank American Compass, looking at how thoughtful conservatives are imagining the future of the Republican party. Second, I led a roundtable discussion with four of America’s top union leaders, soon to appear in the FT Weekend edition, looking at the record year for labour in the US and many parts of the rest of the world, and what comes next.

More to say on all of this, but I want to focus on a crucial hot-button issue that came up in both conversations: education. As you may have seen last week, there’s a new Pew poll looking at how the culture wars have affected teachers’ ability to do their jobs. About 40 per cent say that the stress around what can and can’t be taught, and how, is having a major negative impact on their teaching ability. No surprise there; in fact, the only thing I’m surprised about is that the numbers weren’t higher.

But there is also mounting evidence, according to educators I spoke with, that voters are really turned off by the school culture wars, book bans, censorship, and so on. Parents and teachers want educators involved in nursery school through 12th grade to be able to just focus on the basics of their jobs, not the policing of their thoughts, language, and curriculum — and they don’t want more time, energy and resources going into culture wars. As a parent of two children who have gone through the system in New York City, I’d wholeheartedly agree with this. I must say that it really broke my heart that my son’s middle school had two racial justice co-ordinators, but no dedicated art or music teacher. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone will automatically agree about what should and shouldn’t be taught. But 70 per cent of teachers in the Pew study just want more influence over how they can teach. As it is, two in three teachers are opting out of any discussion about political and social topics, and who can blame them?

While there’s a backlash on both sides of the aisle against education as a cultural battleground, I sense that it’s moving even more front and centre as an economic issue. Consider that Harvard now has levels of negative brand buzz that are on a par with Tesla and Boeing, according to a recent summit of university presidents that gathered to grapple with leadership in higher education.

I was quite struck at the American Compass conference by conservative speakers who felt that higher education had become a path towards downward mobility because of the debt that many borrowers have to take on (there’s a lot of truth to that, particularly at the lower levels of the socio-economic ladder, where many more people default and don’t finish their degrees, or end up paying for worthless degrees). One speaker quite rightly pointed out the six-figure salaries being pulled in by white-collar administrators in schools that charge working-class kids too much for too little. He actually called them “vampires”, which may be strong, but gets at the point that education — as David Brooks pointed out in his latest piece, is now a major class-oriented political divide. Brooks has also rightly pointed out in another recent piece that higher education — with its massive administrative overhang — is emblematic of bureaucratic bloat that is costing not only individuals, but society at large

The understandable vitriol with which I heard people on both sides of the aisle discuss education last week reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s wonderful dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, in which Harvard Yard — once a symbol of openness, liberty and debate — becomes the headquarters for the brutal secret police in an autocratic state.

Peter, I know that you, like me, have spent time these past months touring colleges. Any wise thoughts on where the political debate over higher education is heading?

Recommended viewing and reading

  • My first recommendation isn’t reading, but viewing. I recently saw the movie American Fiction, which tracks a frustrated Black novelist who writes high-minded fiction that has nothing to do with identity. He sells poorly until he hits gold with a satire of “Black” fiction, which the white literary establishment takes as truth. It’s poignant but also hilarious, well worth a watch.

  • I have followed economist Jan Hatzius’ excellent work for decades, and was pleased to see him get this shout-out from Greg Ip in The Wall Street Journal Capital Account column. This is a prescient guy, and he’s bullish on 2024. Good news!

Peter Spiegel responds

Rana, Ron DeSantis may have run the worst presidential campaign of the modern era, but the Florida governor’s decision to make education and the culture wars on college campuses — and, in some cases, at primary and secondary schools — one of his pre-eminent issues was not pulled out of thin air. It was based on a lot of public opinion polling that makes the same point that you do: Americans of all political stripes (but particularly moderate “swing voters” in key suburban districts) are increasingly uncomfortable with the politicisation of their kids’ classrooms.

For me, this issue first became part of the national political conversation during the 2021 gubernatorial race in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin — who was wary of associating himself with Donald Trump in a state won overwhelmingly by Joe Biden in 2020 — was incredibly effective at playing on parents’ fears that Democrats were trying to turn schools into cultural Petri dishes. It didn’t help that his opponent, former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe, had belittled parents’ concerns, saying during one debate: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin is now governor; McAuliffe is out of work.

I have to admit that I was sceptical of Youngkin’s attempts to use the school culture wars to his advantage at the time — a scepticism that, alas, was memorialised in a Swamp Notes that I wrote during the campaign. But I have to admit, Youngkin’s instincts were right. Independent voters were growing tired of teachers unions resisting the reopening of schools in the fading months of the pandemic, and then further antagonised by school administrators trying to incorporate (mostly left-leaning) social and political messages into the curricula following the Black Lives Matter protests. 

Both as governor and as a presidential candidate, DeSantis over-reached, targeting widely accepted civil rights lesson plans instead of more overtly politicised teaching materials. And then he extended his crusade by going after Disney. In Florida. What was he thinking? But agree or disagree with his policy positions, DeSantis’ political antenna was right: moderate, mainstream swing voters are increasingly unhappy with what they see going on in American education. They want to reassert parental controls from ideologues on both sides, and they will respond to politicians who tap into that. 

The only place I may disagree with you, Rana, is a final lesson that I would draw from the DeSantis disaster: education policy doesn’t really translate at the national, presidential level. When voters think about their schools, they tend to think of mayors and governors, not presidents. As Youngkin’s team pointed out shortly after their 2021 victory, it’s hard enough finding a single unifying way of talking about education policy at the local or state level, never mind on the national level. Jeff Roe, Youngkin’s chief strategist, put it this way:

[S]ome people get animated about CRT [critical race theory]; some people get animated about school choice; some people get animated about advanced math; some people get animated about school resource officers. People get animated about different features of education depending on where you are physically, geographically, and the age of your kids. And it also depends on your demographic make-up.

So I agree with you that education is likely to remain an animating feature of US politics in 2024. I just don’t think you’ll see either presidential candidate talking much about it.

Listen to Peter and FT US legal and enforcement correspondent Stefania Palma explain why Trump’s legal liabilities might be giving him a political boost on the latest Swamp Notes podcast.

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to “Democrats are too scared of a contested convention”:

“Policy infighting at the Democratic convention would not only be a welcome relief from Trump/Biden personality wars. It would provide the opportunity to use the presidential debates for a concentration on accomplishments and issues rather than age and soundbites. If someone like Gretchen Whitmer could turn attention away from Trump and towards present challenges it could produce a landslide and a watershed in the tone of American politics.” — Brantly Womack

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