327. Attacks on Education

In the last few years, a growing number of state and local governments have attempted to limit diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and to place restrictions on what students are allowed to learn. In this episode, Kevin Gannon and Cyndi Kernahan join us to discuss strategies that can be used to resist these attacks on education.

Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Kevin also appeared in 13th, the Netflix documentary on the 13th amendment. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor.

Show Notes


John: In the last few years, a growing number of state and local governments have attempted to limit diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and to place restrictions on what students are allowed to learn. In this episode, we discuss strategies that can be used to resist these attacks on education.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guests today are Kevin Gannon and Cyndi Kernahan. Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Kevin also appeared in 13th, the Netflix documentary on the 13th amendment. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. Welcome back, Kevin and Cindy.

Cyndi: Thank you.

Kevin: Thanks. Great to be here.

John: Today’s teas are:… Kevin, are you drinking tea?

Kevin: I am not drinking tea, I have moved on to cold carbonated bubbles. And I’ve got a big vat of Diet Pepsi. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: I love the word vat. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and Cyndi?

Cyndi: British Breakfast.

Rebecca: Perfect. I have blue sapphire today.

John: And I have some Christmas tea, left over from a reception we had in the teaching center here about a week or so ago.

Kevin: Isn’t it cold by now? [LAUGHTER]

John: It is freshly made today, but we had a lot of leftover tea from there… with a cinnamon stick sitting in it.

Kevin: Ah, very festive.

Cyndi: Fancy, yeah.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the restrictions that some state legislatures have been imposing, or attempting to impose, recently on what can be discussed in college campuses. Many of these restrictions seem to be focused on imposing alternative versions of history and on banning discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. Before we discuss these, though, is this something that’s entirely new, or have we seen this at some points in the past as well, with state intervention in academic freedom and issues of what students should be allowed to learn?

Kevin: I think this has some resonances with what we’ve seen in the past. And in particular, I’m thinking of the sort of anti-PC hysteria that emerged from so-called conservative thought circles in the 1990s. And so there’s the big curriculum debate over the National History standards that occurs in the early 90s. But what we’re seeing now with the mobilization of actual state power, I think, is an important difference of degree even if it does resemble some of the same sorts of rhetorical devices and button pushing that we might have seen in the past.

Cyndi: Yeah, the 1990s are what also popped into my mind, and it seems like attacks on higher education and on education generally, they come around in different ways, and for different reasons, it’s always an institution that is under attack.

Rebecca: So critical race theory has been the focus of many attempts to limit academic discussions of this topic. Can we start first by maybe defining what that is?

Kevin: What it is or what it has been made out to be?

Rebecca: How ‘bout both?

Kevin: I’ll actually take the second part of that first. What it’s been made out to be, is the sort of malleable boogeyman concept in the hands of pretty cynical right-wing actors, like Chris Ruffo, from the Manhattan Institute, for example, is probably the most prominent of these, who have basically admitted that this has become a stand-in for all of the things that are, quote unquote, wrong with higher education. It’s a concept that in its true sort of accurate provenance comes out of the critical legal studies movement. Critical race theory starts in law schools, and moves into areas like education, and then other areas of the humanities and social sciences to talk about how what we see as racism and, in particular, racist outcomes are not the product of individual bad actors so much as they are systemic features. It’s a counterpoint to the sort of feel-good narrative of civil rights, where people might say, “Oh, things were bad, and then Martin Luther King came along and segregation ended and then now everything’s great” and critical race theory says: “Not so fast, my friends, we need to talk about structures and systems.” And because it comes out of a discipline, Legal Studies, and is a largely academic conversation in many ways, it becomes easy to paint it with this brush of critical race theory is communism, critical race theory is reverse racism, critical race theory is anti white, because it’s such an unfamiliar concept to the general reading public that it becomes a blank slate for bad actors like Ruffo and others to inscribe whatever they wish on it.

Cyndi: I think, too, it’s important to keep in mind that that word system is a word that I think about a lot because I do think that there is a divide and a difference there around the folks who really don’t want to accept the idea that racism, along with other isms, is a systemic problem. And so I do think that, in that way, it’s really interesting to watch. One of the things that really caught my attention… I’m sure you all probably are familiar with the AP African-American Studies controversy in Florida, whether or not Floridian students would be allowed to take AP African-American Studies. As I was sort of watching, and it’s continuing with the evolution of that course, as the AP sort of responded to criticism, one of the things they did… I think they’ve since reversed this… is they took the word systemic out of the course, there was a report in The Washington Post about that and I thought, that’s really interesting, because that really is a divide where you see on the right folks saying, “we don’t want to think about this or talk about this, this is not a systemic problem;” whereas that’s not the scholarly understanding. And so that, to me, has become a really telling default line. I saw it echoed across the executive order in Oklahoma that was just handed down, I think, last week or a couple of days ago. And it was very interesting, the language around, “we want to guarantee access, but not equal outcomes” is an interesting phrasing that, to me, again, signified there’s an unwillingness to think about it as a systemic thing, which is where a lot of the fight of this becomes, and Kevin’s absolutely correct, that it does become this huge catch all. And even Ruffo himself says that in the interviews I’ve read, when they think of anything sort of bad in higher ed or education, it’s going to be critical race theory.

John: One thing that’s really struck me about this is how extensive it is, reaching from the federal level to stage to even local K through 12 school districts. We even saw some board candidates locally, who were part of one of these groups trying to restrict what students are allowed to learn. How extensive is this problem?

Kevin: Very. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, has a DEI legislation tracker that I urge anybody listening to this to consult regularly, because it is a fairly quick moving landscape. And I think one of the dangers for those of us in higher ed is, if you live in a state, so called blue states, you can say, “Oh, well, this is a Florida problem or a Texas problem or a North Carolina problem. But it’s not. It’s a national problem. There are states that are further down that path. But this is not something that’s just going to stay over there. And because it is a movement that is national in scope, it’s funded nationally, it is heavily bankrolled, they’re using the same sort of legislative and PR templates. Those measures have been successful quicker in some places. But wherever they’re being used, they have been successful to a degree. And so I think that’s the thing to keep in mind here is that this isn’t just some sort of localized phenomenon. It is a truly nationally oriented thing that we’re wrestling with. And I think that not seeing that is to really put yourself in danger iIf you care about the fundamental values of what we’re supposed to be doing in higher ed.

Cyndi: I want to add another resource too to the Chronicle one that I like, I think, even better. It’s the CRT Forward Project from UCLA. They have a map. I like their map a lot, because you can filter between higher ed and K -12, local versus state level. My read of that most recently is that there are 10 states that have passed legislation and at the higher ed level that is restrictive around what we teach and what we can do. And then there are lots of other states that have things in the works. So it just gives you a sense of what Kevin’s saying of just how extensive this is. And I would argue further, I would add, I think another way I’ve started to really think about this, just based on what I’m reading, what I’m seeing in my own experience, is that this is so connected to the politics of austerity. And I think we don’t think about, that we don’t connect it. But a lot of the reason why these problems are cropping up, it’s also tied to the lack of funding for higher education, which makes it more difficult in multiple ways. But it weakens us politically, it weakens what we can do in the classroom. I won’t go into but there’s a whole bunch of analyses that really connect the adjunctification of our campuses to these attacks on DEI, to the cutting of DEI positions. There really are a lot of connections there that I think you’ll recognize. And that way, it makes it even more extensive, because I would argue it’s not just the laws, it’s also that cutting our funding and not allowing us to do the work that we need to do. I think it’s connected to all of this as well. It feels like a very bought this attack on higher education and education generally.

Kevin: Yerah, yhat’s a crucial point. Look at what’s happened recently in Wisconsin, where the state boards… I don’t need to tell Cyndi about any of this, because that’s her system… but, there’s a surrender in advance to the Republican-controlled state legislature sort of diktats against DEI work. You don’t need to pass laws that abolish DEI if you make funding contingent on presidents and individual institutions doing that for you. And those things work because austerity and the sort of neoliberal approach to higher ed has created an extremely resource scarce environment where those who shepherd institutions are predisposed to sort of comply in advance, as scholars of fascism warned us not to do. And if you look at the history of the austerity movement in higher education, one of the real touch points of this process is when Reagan becomes governor of California, and Reagan and the California Republicans stick it to the University of California system as a sort of revenge for the upheavals, in particular Berkeley in the 1960s. And so a state that offered free tuition for California residents, to this sort of crown jewel university system, Reagan gets rid of it, the Republicans in California get rid of that. And that becomes a blueprint for this process that Cindy’s just talked about. We’ve seen that go national, and it’s only taken a few short decades to accomplish.

Cyndi: Yeah, one last point on that, too, that your comments made me think of, Kevin, there was a paper in economics several years ago that showed that the states that have diversified the most, if they have Republican controlled legislatures, the funding in those states goes down, and it’s connected to the diversity of the institutions. So, that’s another way in which we see this connection between austerity and diversity and politics. That’s really troubling and challenging to work with. I feel like we don’t connect these things enough, but we really do need to.

Kevin: Yeah, it is no coincidence that as the proportion of faculty and students of color have increased in higher education, that funding has decreased in almost direct variation, and that is absolutely intentional.

Rebecca: So, you both talked about many contributing factors to the growth. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s happened so quickly? And maybe, [LAUGHTER] how do we make it slow down? [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Well, higher ed doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And we’re in the middle of an authoritarian turn, to say the least, in both international and national politics. So you have a globally connected right-wing movement. And if you look at the way that fascist and authoritarian movements have developed with the late 19th, and early 20th century, higher education and the sort of intellectual landscape are fields of play for these movements to establish power. Practitioners and students in higher education have made convenient boogie men for those who aspire to building support for authoritarianism and fascism. And so what we’re seeing, I think, is this process has accelerated so much so intensely in recent years, because we have a fascist movement in this country, and it has accelerated so much and so intently in the past few years.

Cyndi: I think there are phases where we can see effective ways to push back against this. I really do. There’s not enough of them. But there are ways to get to the second part of Rebecca’s question around like, “What do we do?” I think we have no choice but to act collectively and to work to push back together. I mean, that’s why Kevin’s point about this isn’t a Florida and Texas thing. It’s not. like I said, 10 states from my count, when I was at that CRT tracking math, and it’s on a lot of other places, and through lots of actions. So the collective action that’s inspiring to me… I think a lot about the state of Ohio… they had a bill that was quite restrictive, it would have restricted what could be discussed in general education, very similar to Florida. It had a lot of restrictions around what can be taught. And there was a strong movement against it. And what was crucial, in my reading of that, was not that it was just faculty and students pushing back, which they did, there were protests. But, more importantly, there was no compliance in advance, as Kevin mentioned a minute ago. So the regents or the board, I forget what they call it in Ohio, but those presidents of those institutions, they banded together, and they sent a letter pushing back against that. And it was the university leadership, faculty, and staff and students all pushing together against that. And that bill’s effectively dead now. It did pass the Senate, but it did not pass their assembly or else it did not become law. And this year, it has not been taken back up. There was just a word on that recently. That to me is very inspiring. That tells me that you don’t have to do this, we can push back in states that have systems. Those Chancellors, those Presidents can stand together against this. They do not have to comply in advance. They don’t have to argue with folks who don’t believe in what we do. I think that we can do that by getting everybody on board with that challenge.

Kevin: And Cyndi’s point here is essential, that institutional leadership has a really crucial role to play here. And this is where we’re seeing what I would term as a failure in so much of the leadership across higher education. You know, we’ve been told for decades that the increasing salaries of upper level administrators are because we’re bringing in bold, innovative leaders who aren’t afraid to make tough choices and hard decisions. And yet we’re seeing a vast silence from most of them as this last several years has unfolded. It’s not like the leaders of Ohio State institutions are like a Marxist collective. These are university presidents. [LAUGHTER] These are not wild-eyed radicals, but they led and the results were tangible. So if you look at things like Florida or Texas, one legal test case, pushing back against these curricular mandates as a violation of speech rights, for example. What would be the result of that? What message would that said to one’s own faculty, staff, and students? But we haven’t seen that we saw the community colleges in Florida, the presidents of those institutions issue a sort of collective statement, at least most of them, where they basically said, “Okay, fine, we’ll do all these things…” again, get this sort of comply in advance, and what message does that send to the people at your institution, because clearly, what you’ve done is you’ve abandoned your mission. That mission statement on your website needs absolutely nothing if you’re not willing to defend it against strong political headwinds. And so the main obstacle to this collective action is a leadership vacuum brought about by either moral cowardice or by leaders who actually agree with what’s happening and are willing to let these things happen to their institution because they personally sympathize with them. I don’t know which one of those is worse.

Cyndi: I think, too, there’s a little bit of an assumption that while it won’t be that bad, it can’t be that bad. They won’t really do that. And we’ve seen that a lot, too, I think. And that also is a fundamental mystery.

Kevin: It will be that bad. I’m a historian, and I can give you a reasonably expert opinion that it will indeed, if you let it get that bad.

John: Could some of this be caused by perhaps the fact that we tend to see people who have more education tend to be more liberal and perhaps might be less likely to vote for Republican candidates?

Kevin: I think there is that partisan element to it. I think that’s at the root somewhat of why this trope as universities of hotbeds of leftist radicalism is so effective, which again, takes one small slice of the intellectual and political climate at a particular institution of higher education and reads it across the entire sector, as if engineering and economics departments and business schools don’t exist. But I think that partisan element, this perception that well, here are the places where all the people who vote for Democrats live and work, is an effective one. But it’s also again, if you look at who’s wielding power and making decisions at universities, these are not hotbeds of leftism, by any means. And it’s just remarkable how successful that trope has become. It’s also, I think, an effective trope because we, and higher education, ourselves… back to Cyndi’s point about the necessity of solidarity and collective action… we have not been able to tell our story as effectively as we might. I’m not intending to get into blame the victim discourse here, but I do think that there are ways that we can advocate for ourselves and what we’re doing that have been more effective than what has usually been the case.

Cyndi: Yeah, I would agree. I think related to that point, it reminds me actually, of something you talked about in Radical Hope, Kevin, around the idea of sort of accepting this framing of what we do is we’re just only about workforce development, and we’re only about developing these sort of skills. And that’s not all of what we do. And we need to be able to talk more broadly about what we do and why it matters, and why it matters for everyone.

Kevin: Yeah, one example of this disconnect, if you look at all the surveys of prospective employers, and they say, “What are the skills that you’re looking for, for college graduates that you would want to hire into your company or your firm?” They all talk about things like critical thinking, ability to work in diverse teams, understanding people with viewpoints and backgrounds who are different than your own. This is the business community basically saying here are the things that are important. While you have right-wing politicians on the other side of the coin, saying these are the very things that we want to outlaw [LAUGHTER] in higher ed. And so I think it testifies to the power of this narrative that higher education is a hotbed of sedition, when, in actuality, most of what is in the crosshairs of these legislative and political efforts are actually things that are, on the broad face of it, not controversial, and generally agreed upon by almost all of society as good things to have.

Rebecca: I think to make collective action work effectively, folks need to be somewhat on the same page. And so if people are supporters of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but aren’t aware of counter arguments against that, it might be hard to take action. Can you talk a little bit about why folks are so opposed to these efforts?

Cyndi: My read of part of it goes back to that idea of racism as a systematic problem. There’s a lot of research on K-12 education around race that shows that, particularly for white Americans, but really across races as well, you see it as sort of a fundamental misunderstanding of what racism is, how it operates, how systemic it actually is. Part of that is because we’re in the United States, which is a very individualistic place and so we tend to think in terms of those problems, even the way often that DEI is framed, it’s very individualistic. And so we don’t think of it as a broader systemic thing. And that keeps us from acting collectively as well, because we’re not really thinking about it in that terms. I see that a lot. That is my main teaching and learning goal, when I teach about racism or other systems of oppression, is just to make that shift, sort of the individual acts of meanness over to this more systemic understanding, and understanding that really the most important things like, I constantly get the question from a lot of my students: “Well, okay, so what do I do about these problems? What should I learn more about?” and then like, “If you can learn more, that’s great. Like, I want you individually to learn as much as you want. But if you really care about this, you have to think about policies and voting, and what broader policies are being enacted.” And I try to give them examples just to help them start to think more broadly about these things. And I think that disconnect is part of it. Because if you believe that it’s just individualistic, it’s just about being a good, colorblind person, which is also often tied into one’s morality, like “I’m a good person, so that’s all I need to do. I don’t necessarily need to think beyond that.” And so then it makes sense if you are told over and over again, that there are these DEIi administrators trying to force you to have particular thoughts. It kind of makes sense from that perspective that you would want those thoughts, and that you would think they were going too far on the college campuses. But if you understand instead, that it’s not about color blindness, and it is this broader systemic thing and there are broader problems of not just access but opportunity and outcome, then that changes. But until people start to understand those broader things, I think it’s always going to be a struggle.

Kevin: Yeah, I think Cyndi’s point about us living in this overwhelmingly individualist sort of society and culture is a key foundation, a key part of the answer here, because one of the things that surprises me a little bit is that arguments like the one that Heather McGee makes in her book, The Sum of Us, that those haven’t gotten more traction, where she talks about the famous anecdote she uses is during desegregation, states in the South would close their swimming pools rather than integrate them. And what happens is, all these communities now don’t have a swimming pool at all. And so part of that is to the white folks of that community, rather than the swimming pool complexes racially integrated they went without. Is that really a good outcome? Taking the moral element out of it, it’s like, here’s a public good that is no longer available for the public. And so what racism does, McGee argues, is it hurts everybody to varying degrees and in different ways, but it’s actually something that is poisonous to the very roots of any sort of people that would claim to live in community or society with one another. And I remain discouraged that that argument has not gotten more traction, because I think we need to appeal beyond this sort of sense of individualism. Like Cyndi said, like, “Well, I’m a good person, so racism doesn’t exist. These other racists are bad, but we can quote unquote, educate our way out of it, or a magical black person like Martin Luther King, Jr. will come and absolve everyone from their sins,” right? And of course, that’s not how it works. But this tide of individualism, this conditioning that we have, is so powerful that it makes systemic critiques into a sort of existential threat for folks who are not ready to make that journey, because it becomes a threat to an individual to say, if you live in a system that is fundamentally racist and inequitable, for example, if you subscribe to this sort of inherent individualism as the core of your identity, that a systemic critique says, “You live in this system, and it’s your fault, at least partially that the system is like this.” And if you can’t separate those two out, and if you can’t make those distinctions, you’re not going to have a very useful conversation about what we would term as DEI. And instead, what you get is you get anecdotes of, let’s say, unskillful students making an argument in some inelegant way that is an easy thing to lift out of context and present as here’s what DEI is, these lefty kids running amok protesting food in the dining hall at Oberlin, for example, and turning it into a kind of theater of the absurd. And so we’re swimming against such a powerful cultural tide when we try to do this work because it is asking people at least to set aside this fundamentally individual centered ethos. And that is a really heavy lift for all of us, I think.

Cyndi: Although I have some good news, if you guys want to hear it.

Rebecca: I’ll take it, I’ll take it. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: I would love to hear good news.

Cyndi: This just comes from my own individual teaching experience, because what Kevin’s talking about is a powerful argument, the sort of Heather McGee’s and there are others too. And what I’ve started doing, and I’ve found that post-2020 It’s become a little bit easier for this to get purchase in terms of teaching. I really do think that there is a lot of hope in our teaching. One of the ways that I’ve started to help my students cross that bridge, that divide from the individualistic to systemic is to have think in terms of their own lives. And one of the most clear examples to go all the way back to like sort of where we started, it’s like they pay more for college tuition as a result, I would argue, of racism, and sometimes some forms classism, too. And there are several ways to get at this. Heather McGee, in that great book, The Sum of Us, that Kevin mentioned a minute ago, she has a whole chapter on college funding and how it’s gone down. I mentioned the economics research that shows that. So these austerity policies that are related to diversity and racism and fear, frankly, cost a lot of white students, particularly students that I work with, tend to be first generation, a little bit lower income, and I know you all do too, as well, at your institutions. Public regional institutions, and not private, we serve a lot of students who are directly affected by these austerity policies, they’re directly connected to race. So again, I mentioned Heatherr McGee. I also have another great resource that I’ve been reading, it was written by a couple of sociologists about the racial consequences of underfunding public universities, they look at two schools in the California system. You don’t have to give all of these to students. But it turns out that it’s very easy when you work with students to sort of talk about, let’s think about what systemic racism means. Here’s a way it impacts you directly. My classes are overwhelmingly white, but speaking with white students about that, and helping them connect those dots, they can do it. And part of what I think has helped us, that’s a strange way to say it, but post-2020, is that after 2020, people started using the word systemic racism a lot more like in social media. So I have more students that will come into my courses, saying that word, I don’t think they fully appreciate what it means. But it’s more of an opening. And so then we can start to think about all those ways in which it is harmful to everyone. Racism is harmful to everyone, it costs all of us more than it should in lots of ways. And not just in terms of like sort of the moralistic framing that we often use, but real material differences. So that’s one way that I found hope, I guess, it’s to go back and to think about how to teach about these issues in a way that feels good. And I think there’s a lot of things instructors can do, no matter what they teach, to sort of start to get out these issues and help students to think about it.

John: I’ve seen some similar things. And one thing I’ve noticed is that as our classrooms become more diversified, as we have more first-gen students, as we have more students from historically minoritized groups, we’re seeing people in general becoming much more aware of some of these issues. But one of the challenges, as you both have mentioned, is the issue of austerity that colleges have moved to a more contingent labor force, there’s a larger proportion of adjuncts. And while it’s important to be able to push back, many of the people doing the labor of classroom instruction are in a position where their jobs are very much at risk. And if their administration is not going to be supportive of DEI efforts, they face losing their very limited incomes that they’re receiving from these positions. Is there anything we can do to address that challenge?

Kevin: Again, I think part of the answer to this goes back to the idea of leadership of institutions. What is the mission of your university or college? What are you saying that you’re going to be doing? Why are you there? Our mission statements as institutions are promises that we make to all of the stakeholders of that community, whether they currently are part of the community or external groups in the town in which we’re situated in the area, for example, potential students and their families, we don’t put Terms and Conditions on our mission statements, we say that X University will provide a powerful educational transformative experience to all of our students. We don’t say all of our students who meet a certain income level or all of our students who come from certain demographic groups. We mean all of our students. And so if we’re going to do this mission driven work, and we’ve got study after study after study that talks about having a diverse student body and a diverse faculty and staff, not just racially and ethnically, but diversity and all of the ways that matter lead to better learning outcomes. In other words, we do this education thing better when we do it in diverse places with diverse people. And if that’s what you want, which I would argue we do, then that’s what we need to lean into. And so if you’ve got folks who are doing that work, who are not supportive, who are contingent and precarious faculty and feel that they cannot do what is, I would argue, inherently mission aligned work, that as an institution, that is a problem. And you need to do something about that. And so if you’re a department chair, how are you supporting your part-time colleagues? If you’re a professor with tenure, how are you supporting your part-time colleagues or your junior colleagues who aren’t tenured yet? How are you providing cover? How are you modeling things as a secure person in a secure position? How are you advocating in governance? How are you advocating in Provost’s Council or a senior leadership’s cabinet? How are you looking at getting rid of just semester-based contracts and moving towards annual- or several-year contracts? You can’t wipe out precarity at a single swoop. But what you can do is fix some of the sharpest edges of it, to blunt those. That’s the work in front of us in the short term. And if you’re not supporting your colleagues doing that, that none of this works… Again back to Cyndi’s central point, we either do this collectively or we don’t do it at all.

Cyndi: Yeah, I think anybody with any power in any sort of safety, and I use safety in quotes, but like anybody who can has to push back, and this pops up in really small places that you might not recognize. I was reading too about the southern accreditor, I forget what their official thing is. But you know, they’re talking about changing the accreditation, that is absolutely compliance in advance. That is the wrong way to go. Our accreditors, that’s part of what worked in Ohio, where the arguments about it were going to be out of compliance with accreditation. If the accreditors are complying in advance, and watering all this stuff down and not sticking to the mission, that’s a problem. So there are a lot of people who have a lot of power and the ability to push against this, but you have to push against it. All of us do, in all those spaces that Kevin just mentioned, because reducing the harm and softening those edges as much as we can, it’s our responsibility to do that, particularly for people who are adjuncts and semester-to-semester contracts, because that precarity is real, and it is a problem. And I’m sure you’ve all seen it, I have seen it too. And we can work with our students, because our students will work with us. They believe in these things. The ideas we have about students are so often wrong in terms of that. So working with our students and not believing in caricatures about students.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s an essential point, Cyndi, and thank you for raising that, because I think one of the things that we haven’t touched on here, but is a vital thing to bear in mind, is that these legislative efforts are profoundly anti-student. They’re not just anti-higher education, they are profoundly anti-student, anti-young person. They make the assumption that learning only happens through indoctrination. They are based on the premise that students will learn only what is sort of rammed down their throat, basically, pedagogically. They make the assumption that students cannot handle certain truths. They make the assumption that some things just aren’t worth knowing, and they take that decision process out of the students’ hands. They are profoundly anti-student. Among all of the other things they are, this is the essential truth at its core, that these laws, this legislative effort, this broader cultural political campaign is based on a profound contempt for students, for young people, and by extension their families. And so we need to understand that our students want the same thing for them that we want for our institutions. And if we’re able to see our students as allies in this and get our students to see themselves as allies in this, nobody wants a crap education. Nobody wants an indoctrination, force-fed prefabricated chunks of content. We know that doesn’t work. And so to engage the student voice in this in a systematic and supportive way, I think, is a really important part of the equation and a great untapped opportunity across our institutions. But that needs to be, I think, one of the ways in which we push back against these efforts is to really call the fact out that y’all just hate kids. Y’all hate learners, you don’t just hate schools and instructors, you hate the people that these institutions are ostensibly trying to serve. You may say that these are pro-children and pro-family, but they’re not. They hold children and students in profound contempt. And we need to hammer and hammer and hammer on that point, because that’s the reality.

Rebecca: Change is only likely to happen when the whole community’s engaged. So you’ve outlined today: administrators, faculty, staff, students, the whole community working together,

Cyndi: We have a lot more power than we do.

Kevin: Yeah. Scholars of fascism and authoritarianism will point out the fact that the one thing that successful movements of this stripe do is they get you to give up your agency and oftentimes without a fight. So that’s why complying in advance, the phrase that we’ve used several times, it’s so dangerous, because we give up our agency, we forget that we have it, and then it becomes much easier for these movements, which are not representative of the majority, not representative of our community or it’s aspirational values, but it allows them to be successful because the great majority of folks have given up agency. And so as long as we not just recognize the agency we have, but deploy it effectively, then, and only then, can we push back successfully.

John: We always end with the question: What’s next?

Cyndi: What’s next is I have a final tomorrow. So that’s probably like what’s most salient in my mind. So, you know, wrapping up this semester, but definitely more seriously, I want to think more about these questions and how to get people collectively to think about these larger points, about just what Kevin was saying about the real paternalism and contempt for students that is evident in the laws, helping students to understand what this is and why it matters for them, figuring out how to write and speak and work with people more to get people to see the power that they have. We don’t have to do this. We don’t. We can keep our education systems and classes free from this interference, and we should.

Kevin: And I think, for me, as someone who works in Educational Development at a private institution. I think that those of us who have a little more latitude, we’re not immune from any of this, but we do have some affordances that public institutions don’t. And so it’s part of my job to help my colleagues and to build a model of what this looks like to do well. What does it look like to do this work in solidarity and community? What does it look like to do meaningful, as opposed to just performative, work along equity and justice oriented teaching and learning, because it’s so much easier to advocate for these things if we could point to concrete examples of what they look like, how they can sustain themselves, and what the benefits are. And so I think as an educational developer, that’s kind of my responsibility, what I feel bound to continue. And I’m fortunate to be in an institution that values those things. And so I need to take advantage of the climate I’m in to advance that work.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and giving us plenty to think about and ways that we can perhaps act by modeling and coaching and working to have collective action.

John: It’s always great talking to you. Thank you again for joining us, and we’re looking forward to more conversations in the future.

Kevin: Thank you for having us.

Cyndi: Yeah, thank you.


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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.