There is a revolution taking place in public schools across the United States. More precisely, it is a counter-revolution, the aim of which is to initiate minor children into the hierarchies of race, gender, and sexual orientation that have long structured American life.
Part of the strategy of this counter-revolution is to offer students a distorted vision of America’s past. Florida’s recently updated social studies curriculum, which now includes the slightly surreal claim that enslaved Black Americans benefited from slavery, is a case in point.
Yet to focus on factual distortions or telling omissions is to miss the broader goal of Republican education reform, which is to introduce minor children to the performative cruelty and taste for dominance that have become central to the contemporary Republican Party. If Trumpist politics are driven by a resentful nostalgia for the status hierarchies of old, the right’s current fixation on minor children is an attempt to preserve these hierarchies for future generations. For these hierarchies to persist, children must be taught their place within them.
Consider, for example, Republican objections to social emotional learning, an approach to education that emphasizes empathy and cooperation. As proponents of SEL have argued, social emotional competence is not only good for children, it is essential to a pluralistic democracy, which ultimately cannot survive without a citizenry capable of considering a diverse range of experiences and viewpoints.
To leading right-wing activists like Christopher Rufo, however, SEL is a “radical pedagogy” that seeks to “soften children at an emotional level.” The fear that children will become “soft”—that is, empathetic and cooperative—likely helps to explain why Florida has banned not only SEL but also AP African American History and AP Psychology. Teaching straight students or white students to consider how race, gender, and sexual orientation shape one’s experience might lead some to reflect on the lives of their nonstraight, nonwhite peers, which in turn may lead to deeper questions about the justness of a social and political system that makes these characteristics so determinative of life outcome.
Much of this is performative, but it is part of a broader politics of dehumanization centered around children. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, was a relatively unknown candidate until his campaign garnered international headlines after releasing a disturbing campaign ad in which he teaches his 1-year-old daughter to “build the wall” with stacking blocks.
Of course, it is LGBTQ+ youth who are the targets of the Republican Party’s most intensely felt disgust, particularly in DeSantis’ home state. Florida students at all grade levels are now banned from learning about or discussing sexual orientation and gender identity, and many other states are following suit. Florida’s all-out campaign against LGBTQ+ youth has led, predictably, to an increase in bullying and harassment targeting LGBTQ+ students. Yet even as hate crimes targeting the LGBTQ+ community are on the rise, schools in a number of states have investigated, disbanded, or made it more difficult for students to form or join LGBTQ+ inclusive clubs. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration went so far as to remove an LGBTQ+ suicide-prevention hotline from the Virginia Department of Health webpage.
What is so galling about Republican attempts to teach children hierarchy is not just that they are cruel but that they are antithetical to the American tradition of treating public schools as sites of democratic socialization. For founding figures like John Adams, public education in America was for “the common people,” whose education would be “as nearly equal as their birth.”
The Supreme Court has repeatedly advanced this view of public schools as spaces in which minor children are educated in democratic values. In the 1979 case Ambach v. Norwick, for example, the court noted that public schools bring together “diverse and conflicting” constituencies “on a broad but common ground.” Teachers in particular, the court wrote, have a special role to play in “promote[ing] civic virtues,” such as “tolerance of divergent political and religious views” and a willingness to consider “the sensibilities of others.”
Most importantly, public schools are spaces in which minor children learn to see themselves and their peers as equals. This was the essential holding of Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down segregation in public schools on the grounds that it “generates a feeling of inferiority” in Black children “unlikely ever to be undone.” Similarly, in the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe, the court, citing Brown, struck down a Texas law that banned undocumented children from the classroom. These children will one day become community leaders and citizens, the Plyler majority reasoned, and thus they cannot be relegated to a permanent underclass.
The court’s major gay rights cases, though less focused on education, evince a similar concern for protecting minor children from laws that impair their developing sense of equal citizenship. In United States v. Windsor, for instance, the court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which limited “marriage” in federal law to heterosexual unions, on the grounds that it “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.” Likewise, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the court struck down state laws banning same-sex marriage. Children of these marriages, the majority argues, should not be made to “suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.”
In several recent cases, the court has acknowledged that minor children should be protected from harmful social influences, suggesting that it may be receptive to arguments that Republican educational policies stigmatize minority children. These arguments have started to gain momentum at the appellate level; at least two federal appellate courts have struck down trans-exclusionary school policies on the grounds that they stigmatize trans students.
Over the long term, however, the views of the current court majority will become less and less relevant. A 73-year-old Supreme Court justice has little understanding of how sex and gender norms have changed and even less right to control the futures of LGBTQ+ youth. The issue ultimately belongs to Gen Z, and public opinion polling indicates that they overwhelmingly reject conservative attempts to demean LGBTQ+ identity. Ironically then, and despite their best efforts, Republicans may end up teaching children a lesson about democratic values after all. It is a lesson about standing up to bullies.