Neoliberal Education Reform Paved the Way for Right-Wing “Classical Education”

The “classical education” concept promoted by Ron DeSantis, Chris Rufo, and Hillsdale College is a reactionary far-right project. But it wouldn’t be gaining so much ground if bipartisan education reform hadn’t sucked the life out of our public schools.

After banning the original version of a high-school course in Advanced Placement African American Studies and resolving to cut off funding for college Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs, Florida governor Ron DeSantis announced plans to mandate coursework in “Western civilization” across Florida’s public higher education system. (Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Classical” education is all over the news, as Florida governor Ron DeSantis pursues his shock-and-awe campaign to remake Florida’s public colleges and universities in the image of Michigan-based Hillsdale College. This classical Christian liberal arts school, which has become one of the most influential centers of right-wing thought in recent years, has been working assiduously to transform the political landscape of the United States by upending our public education systems — much as DeSantis has been doing in Florida.

After banning the original version of a high-school course in Advanced Placement African American Studies and resolving to cut off funding for college Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs, the likely presidential candidate announced plans to mandate coursework in “Western civilization” across Florida’s public higher education system. DeSantis also pledged to empower university officials to review faculty tenure “at any time” — an intimidation tactic clearly targeted at educators who would foster discussions of American racism, LGBTQ issues, and other so-called “woke” topics.

DeSantis’s appointment of six of his allies to the board of trustees of the New College of Florida has transfigured what was previously a safe haven for marginalized identities and progressive ideas. The new board, which includes Hillsdale College professor and dean Matthew Spalding and anti-woke culture warrior Chris Rufo, fired the college’s president at the end of January in a raucous display of political overreach, replacing her (for now) with incoming interim president Richard Corcoran — a DeSantis loyalist who, as Florida’s education commissioner, invited Hillsdale (producer of the jingoistic, anti-historical 1776 Curriculum) to overhaul Florida’s K-12 civics guidelines. Under DeSantis, Florida has passed legislation limiting how schools can talk about gender, sexual orientation, race, and US history.

DeSantis’s willingness to consolidate power and dominate the culture wars by restricting students’ and educators’ ability to express dissent is consistent with his mutually supportive relationship with Hillsdale College. Though founded by devout abolitionists, Hillsdale has ascended to prominence in an ecosystem of “postliberal” thinkers eager to trade in pluralism and individual rights for Eurocentric monoculture and coercive Christian governance. It’s no secret that actors in this New Right ecosystem are interested in defending “traditionalism” and “Western civilization” by turning the US into an authoritarian state on the model of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. As has been widely reported, DeSantis’s assault on education in Florida is straight out of Orbán’s playbook.

Right-wing classical schooling advocates’ tendency to hark back to an imaginary time when things were purer and more virtuous lines up with what Italian historian Umberto Eco referred to as ur-fascism’s (eternal fascism’s) cult of tradition and rejection of modernism. The idea that, in Eco’s words, “There can be no advancement of learning,” because “truth has been already spelled out once and for all” fits with some conservative classical schools’ absolute veneration of Greek and Roman texts, biblical and early Christian writing, and US founding documents. Quite a few other features of Eco’s ur-fascism — including selective populism and exacerbation of the fear of difference — are evident in the “parents’ rights” rhetoric that DeSantis, Rufo, and Hillsdale College all employ.

But even though some of the loudest voices calling for classical schooling are motivated by dangerous aims, we can’t simply discredit the entire movement. The fact is, Hillsdale College and other conservative classical education proponents offer a compelling vision that exploits genuine weaknesses in our public school systems. For the Left to effectively respond to this threat, we need to lay out our own compelling vision of what school learning is for.

Reactionary Schooling

With massive reserves of funding from right-wing sources, Hillsdale College provides free and low-cost classical education materials and advice to private Christian and public charter schools as well as homeschooling communities. In Hillsdale-affiliated programs, students are reverently taught about “Western civilization” (selectively depicted), the virtues of limited government and free markets, and the idea that the United States was founded on Christian or “Judeo-Christian” principles. In partnership with various Republican governors, Hillsdale’s Barney Charter School Initiative aids the development of Christian nationalism–flavored (but purportedly secular) classical charter schools across the United States. At present, no state has been more hospitable to these schools than DeSantis’s Florida.

Hillsdale’s president Larry Arnn, who headed up Trump’s 1776 Commission, has stated that “highly charged” subjects like racism and sexuality do not belong in classrooms and should be the exclusive domain of parents. The school’s website stresses that discussions of human sexuality in the older grades must be limited to the biology of reproduction. Hillsdale’s K-12 curricula do include some lessons about US slavery and racism, but they emphasize that these problems were aberrations (“warts”) that were objectionable even to the founding fathers who codified them. Teachers are encouraged to use their discretion about whether to broach these topics at all, and urged to remember that “America is an exceptionally good country,” with “extraordinary degrees of freedom, peace, and prosperity.” As the 1776 Curriculum explains, “The more important thing in American history is that which has endured rather than that which has passed.”

Reading lists rely heavily on US founding documents, which are viewed through an “originalist” lens in which the social safety net and other federal provisions are seen as illegitimate. Hillsdale has asserted that its mission is to “recover our public schools” from the “corrupting” tide “of a hundred years of progressivism.” Trumpeting “the good, the beautiful, and the true” (a slogan found everywhere in classical education discourse), Hillsdale member charter schools claim to “instill virtue” by teaching students to “love the right things” and “live the good life” — concepts easily infused with conservative Christian values.

Hillsdale College opts out of Title IX antidiscrimination rules, which it deems federal overreach, by proudly rejecting all federal funding, including student aid. And while classical charter schools are, unlike private schools, legally barred (for now) from discriminating, they seem to be more likely than other charter schools to erect access barriers that discourage enrollment by poor and minority students, and to create environments that are hostile to LGBTQ kids and families.

The Role of Neoliberal Education Reform

When I listen to Hillsdale College’s Classical Education podcast or view any number of their promotional materials, I’m struck by how much of the messaging resonates with me as a parent and former public school English teacher. They elevate a number of goals that have felt depressingly absent from public schooling in the era of neoliberal education reform: cultivating a sense of wonder in young minds; immersing students in powerful stories that invite them to wrestle with timeless human questions; giving teachers room to “drink deeply” from their subjects; addressing the needs of the whole child. Like the mostly centrist or left-of-center early Great Books evangelists (people like Mortimer Adler, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and E. D. Hirsch), they oppose the hegemonic idea that schooling’s primary aim should be to boost future employability. They continuously reference a higher educational purpose, illustrated by a stream of bright-eyed teachers, and parents who tearfully assert, “I just wanted more for my kids.”

The neoliberal education reform movement was driven by a bipartisan belief in Washington that addressing income inequality should be left entirely up to schools. Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were all more or less on the same page: as Clinton put it, “What you earn depends on what you learn.” Their claim proved grossly incomplete. But for several decades it gave cover to our government’s abdication of the responsibility to protect us from economic insecurity and exploitative employers.

This specious premise has wrought devastating harm on our public schools. As the “accountability” regime sought to apply principles of scientific measurement to learning, teachers, schools, and districts were punished for failing to “add value” to students in the form of higher standardized test scores. Testing, scripted curricula, monotonous accountability paperwork, and other forms of institutionalized babysitting have devalued teachers’ love for, and knowledge of, their students and their subjects.

The Common Core–era obsession with “informational texts” (as though novels, drama, and poetry do not contain valuable information) has sidelined literature. Nowadays many students and teachers don’t have time to dive into whole, breathing works of fiction; they’re more likely to encounter these as decontextualized excerpts in corporate-produced test prep materials. This fragmentation of literature causes young people to feel confused and demoralized by reading, rather than enjoying what should be an essentially pleasurable activity. Personally, I stopped wanting to teach English after my supervisor insisted I move on to the next unit before my students had finished their thrilling journey through Macbeth. Don’t worry, she explained. Your job is to teach the skills, not the books.

Hillsdale College wants to teach the books. Technocratic education reformers like Arne Duncan have talked about “protocols,” “systems,” and students’ ability to “process texts” — but they’ve largely eschewed discussions of the texts themselves. By contrast, classical schooling’s focus on Great Books and other rich content seems a welcome intervention in pedagogical practices weighed down by uninspiring jargon.

When the Hillsdale set and likeminded others describe the need to return to a bygone era of great schooling, their implications are fundamentally inaccurate. Schools as we know them are a relatively new invention; they did not exist in antiquity, so there is no golden Classical Era of schooling for us to return to. And if we turn the clock back fifty years, as a lot of conservative classical educators claim to be doing, we find US schools plagued by problems like segregation and overcrowding. But while the references to bygone greatness are deeply misleading, they have understandable purchase with parents who feel disheartened by the soul-crushing pressures that thirty-some years of failed education reform have placed on schools.

It’s not inherently chauvinist to study time-honored books. For one thing, great, time-honored texts have been authored by people of all different cultures and identities, including thinkers who faced nearly insurmountable obstacles to writing and publication. And the dead white men who predominate on Hillsdale reading lists (from William Shakespeare to William Faulkner) provide fascinating entry into a wide range of human themes, including race, gender, Self, and Other. But right-wing classical schooling uses the worship of old books specifically to advance the harmful message that new ideas, nontraditional identities, and people who complicate our national mythos are corrupting American unity.

The Need for a Narrative

Data clearly show that millennials, who came of age during the Great Recession, are bucking the rule that people grow more conservative with age. Gen Z–ers have faced even more financial uncertainty than millennials, and hold strongly progressive views on social, political, and economic issues. These trends probably explain more than anything else about why the Right is so intent on “recapturing” K-12 and higher education and using schools to indoctrinate students (to borrow one of Chris Rufo’s favorite terms) with ultra-right-wing ideology. Members of the postliberal right are certainly not the only proponents of classical schooling, but they have won the brand and are using it to push their antidemocratic agenda. And thanks to vast funding networks, their narrative is gaining traction.

To be sure, Hillsdale-affiliated schools and other conservative classical programs appeal to some parents who wish to unfairly limit the scope of information — and the kinds of people — to which their children have access. But they might also appeal to parents who simply feel frustrated by the state of our underfunded, overburdened public schools and who want good and beautiful things for their kids. We all want to picture our children in classrooms that cohere around an exciting vision.

The Right’s ultimate plan for education is to draw so many students out of traditional public schools that our public school systems atrophy irreparably, leaving us ever more vulnerable to antidemocratic forces. To meet their operation head on, the Left should articulate our own robust narrative about schools that do more than train future workers. We need schools that honor and nourish our shared humanity.