The Right’s war to control education

Jun 29, 2024
Blue Cap and Gown Image:iStock/svengine

The corporate world is afraid of youth demanding change, particularly as rapacious business practices look set to drive us over the climate cliff into a frightening future. One solution the Right has implemented is the Christian Classical Education movement.

It is an ultraconservative educational fashion from the US. Michigan’s Hillsdale College is its lodestar, celebrated by American Trumpists. Tony Abbott delivered an awkward speech at the National Symposium for Classical Education in Arizona in January.

One of its leading lights, Andrew Kern of the CiRCE Institute, recently delivered three lectures in Australia. Kern diagnosed us as living in “a broken and fragmented age in which we are going through a crisis of deliberation, of meaning and of glory.”

Our thought began to disintegrate into discord from coherence, apparently, from around 1600, the start of the Modern Age. Now we live in chaos and our education system inculcates children with discordance, a disease. Not only does it lead to disorder in our world, but modern education even drives children to suicide, he alleges.

Kern believe that education’s “primary function” is to be “ordering their minds.” Students’ minds can be ordered by an education that nourishes their soul. Christianity and the treasures of the Western canon are taught to celebrate glory. Latin is taught to provide discipline.

The students tend not to be taught functional Latin to read the works of the ancients, because there is far too much to upset a well-ordered Christian mind there. The language is taught like a puzzle and out of all-consuming “piety,” or reverence for the past.

Teaching the “Great Books” is not an inherently concerning mission; there is much there to be admired. It becomes problematic when the pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful, as Kern describes his work, involves trapping people in ideas that cannot change.

Kern diagnoses that study of the “liberating [rather than liberal] arts” was debased into “subjects.” Subjects became debased into “studies,” which were intended to make us into “activists.” The activists are the problem, rather than attempting to solve problems. They reflect and make discord. This is the change conservatism was birthed to prevent.

Tradition, for Kern, is an inheritance to pass on unscuffed. Tradition does not gleam so, however, if one is traditionally oppressed. For this reason, CCE teaching must be bowdlerised to prevent exposing the cruel undercurrents of the story. Not only might students learn that being Black or Queer is not a defect, but they might also learn of traditions of resistance to power.

The schools see themselves as “the last real halls of learning, a bulwark against the barbarian hordes of liberalism and ignorance.”

There are several CCE schools in Australia currently. They are also fostered by the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, a Catholic “intellectual society” in Hobart. David Daintree, its director, organises anti-trans activities and shares climate denial material with his mailing list.

CCE is affiliated with other problematic movements.

One is the “Western Civilisation” movement. This is a trend on the Right that sees White and Christian and Western men as threatened individually, and existentially as an identity, by efforts to incorporate newer voices into understanding the world and our places within it. Mediocre men from comfortable backgrounds have long had an unearned advantage. Some are aggrieved at having to compete in a wider pool of excellent candidates for preferment and for defining reality.

Defending “Western Civilisation” at National Conservative (NatCon) events becomes code for defending White or Christian or Western men against Muslims, against non-White people, against LGBTQIA+ people, against feminists. Life was better before any one of those other “identities” were allowed to hold a microphone in the civic space.

Augusto Zimmerman, in 2018, exposed how the Western Civilisation movement defines itself (through sleight of hand) as the saviour of “indigenous populations from utter annihilation” and against Islam as an inferior civilisation, explaining multiculturalism as an “anti-Western ideology.” He also wants schools to include study of the “crimes of communism.” The CIA roots of Quadrant live on.

The plutocrats’ influence machines are embedded in that movement. The Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) is entwined in this NatCon mission, nostalgic for a world where God and fossil fuels were respected. It intends to reimpose that natural order.

The ARC is interlinked with the Atlas Network. The Australian Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is a likely partner. The Atlas Network has made its partner organisations secret in recent years, but Ramsay now appears alongside the known partner organisations such as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and Mannkal at Atlas-linked events.

Embedding conservative and neoliberal beachheads in academia is a near century-old strategy of the neoliberal movement that created the Atlas Network. It began with the original colonisation of three departments at the University of Chicago in the 1940s.

The Ramsay centre has established three such beachheads in the University of Wollongong, the University of Queensland and the Australian Catholic University, despite arguments that they would become “weaponised learning.” The first chairman of the board was John Howard who was listed on the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) rolls when they were last leaked. The MPS is the inner sanctum of the Atlas Network. Tony Abbott is also on the board. He has long links with Atlas partners such as the IPA and, more recently, Viktor Orbán’s Danube Institute (now affiliated with leading American junktank, the Heritage Foundation). 

Andrew Kern spoke in Australia to the Ramsay Centre. Simon Haines, the CEO, began his introduction with, “As usual I’d like to start by acknowledging…” He followed this formula with a pause, then concluded, “our wonderful benefactor, the late, great Paul Ramsay.” This parody of the Welcome to Country is predictable in an organisation whose founding was coordinated by Tony Abbott.

Haines boasted in this introduction to the sophomoric lecture that Ramsay collaborates with those three universities to stage summer schools for Year 11 and 12 students, interviewing 100 of them annually for allocations of Scholar status. Gaining access to secondary schools was important, he asserted, because schooling is “where the foundation is laid for what young people, future university students and future citizens, think of their society and the wider world that they will inherit.” One of Atlas’s strategies has been finding and lucratively promoting the careers of young “conservatives” from university days through into the professions. It seems that the model is now working to ensure school students are prevented from become feisty before university. The “School strike for Climate” movement was no doubt inconvenient for a deeply fossil fuel-funded network.

CCE is also connected to the “charter school” movement. This is a movement that takes public education money for privately run schools. Some of the schools it produces educate well, offering students a better education than they might find in their community. Others are terrible. Some are reputation-laundering philanthropic exercises by exploitative plutocrats. Paul Marshall, scandal-plagued hedge-fund multimillionaire, is a backer of the ARC and was chair and trustee of Ark Charter Schools. As an ultraconservative Evangelical his mission to promote the private use of public school money is suspect.

The transnational Right is at war with public schooling. This American campaign was born in anger at the idea that White students might be educated alongside Black ones, but it has transformed into a fear that public school teachers will undermine the reactionary “truths” the right wants taught. Atlas’s Heritage Foundation is in the thick of trying to dismantle public education in America.

In Australia, this campaign is powered along by the IPA, led by Bella D’Abrera. Trisha Jha has campaigned for charter schools in Australia from as early as 2015 with the CIS. She spoke on them again at CIS’s Consilium in 2023 with Macke Raymond, of the Atlas-partner Hoover Institute. The benign-sounding “school choice” is a wedge aiming to undermine further our desperately underfunded public school system.

Most teachers would embrace a curriculum that nourished students instead of preparing them for neoliberal benchmarks. Most Australians would prefer to see excellence in a properly-funded state school system, not taking that public funding to give to private projects.

As we debate solving the outrageous overpayment of private schools and drastic underfunding of public, we must beware right wing figures disguising reactionary control as educational “choice.”

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