Why you should care
Because we have to get to the root of the problem.
The mass murder in El Paso, Texas, was the most brazen and tragic act of violence in the name of Trumpism to date. But Donald Trump’s election was the product of this virulent racism rather than its originator. The failure to quarantine today’s variant of White nationalism is a symptom of the much larger and dangerous miseducation of the American people.
The White supremacy we see spiking in America’s towns and cities isn’t new. It’s the outgrowth of a racial hierarchy that long dominated the institutions and cultural representations in most of the republic’s life. The 1960s and ’70s changed that, when social movements decrying wealth inequality and the Vietnam War while championing civil rights and second-wave feminism sutured a revolution that diminished, though did not destroy, the White male entitlement that had ruled the country since its birth.
Education catalyzed and benefited from that revolution, its landscape yawning across federal buildings, streets and universities. A good portion of the young marchers were the beneficiaries of higher education’s democratization. They were the non-elites, women, veterans and people of color historically excluded from the ivory tower. They demanded new courses of study in institutions of higher learning like Black studies and women’s studies. No longer was knowledge grounded in WASP patriarchy.
Education is one of the key sites of nationalism.
We are the inheritors of that revolution. But today, even as many live and thrive in post-’60s America, there are far too many left behind. The number of poor Whites and people of color who cannot pay their monthly bills or afford a college education has grown to an unsettling percentage of our community of 327 million. Brown labor — citizen, migrant and immigrant — becomes an easy target. White men who claim loss in the wake of racial and gendered democracy seek to reinstate an entitlement that most modern Americans affirm is woefully unequal.
At first glance, the trend in alt-right racism appears puzzling because more people have access to public schooling. In 1940, less than one-third of U.S. residents had a high school education; today it is roughly 90 percent. Those left out of educational welfare are disproportionately people of color, who are not perpetrating the kind of violence associated with Trump and his acolytes.
So where does this miseducation that can produce a rationalization for racist violence to Make America Great Again come from? For one, public education is eroding. State cuts to public funding have been dire. This summer Alaska’s governor, Mike Dunleavy, cut the University of Alaska’s budget by 40 percent to keep oil dividends higher for Alaskan residents. This slash has been catastrophic, with students stripped of their scholarships and the jobs of college faculty and staff in peril. Steeper than most, yes, but Alaska is not alone. The defunding of higher education has quietly taken place for quite some time, which has caused tuition rates to outpace other inflationary measures and saddle college graduates with crippling debt. Such cuts reduce access to education for populations that most need it, especially those from underserved communities. The disincentives for education make alternative ideologies appealing and accessible, including those of hate groups.
The country’s educational apparatus has also suffered from an inability to keep up with the innovation of the internet. As liberating as this technology is, it has also proved nettlesome in the advancement of truth. Internet knowledge has changed the way we come to know the nation. It has the power to produce realities without verifiability or credibility. It makes anti-vaccination advocates into a bona fide constituency with authority instead of merely a fringe society of conspirators.
Education is one of the key sites of nationalism. The nation forms its future citizens in its classrooms and cafeterias. Without a doubt, humanistic inquiry is more crucial than ever. The melting pot of the nation’s curriculum, the humanities determine the country’s heroes and villains, its triumphs and failures. As the study of art, history and literature changes, so too does the multitude. Ultimately, the ever-changing We the People can only be ratified by humanism. It’s no accident that we also stand witness to increasing attacks on liberal arts pursuits, particularly in the area of ethnic studies. While science, technology, engineering, math and business degrees become more attractive for the outrageous cost of college tuition, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the humanities are the civic backbone of the country. They are the glue of national identity. This depreciation risks losing an important vehicle for America’s voice, where we encounter Walt Whitman, Toni Morrison and Wynton Marsalis. The cultural tapestry of the nation needs to be reinvented and taught in every generation, and this void grows with more aggressive prioritization of business and technology. In the process, we overlook and even shun other ways of knowing and bonding with America.
Correcting this miseducation will be a tall order. The struggle to overcome the U.S. vs. Them mentality woven into the nation’s fabric continues. Racialized labor and citizenship were at the nation’s founding and still largely structure our sense of belonging in it today. If we are to put America first, let it be all of America. Education will help us do it by strengthening rather than hobbling our public schools; embracing curricula that highlight diversity and inclusivity in the hallmarks of America’s arts and letters; and distancing contemporary whiteness from that which executed yesterday’s inequality without ignoring the ways Whites continue to benefit from it today.
It is in the humanities where we learn to act humanely and narrate the nation anew. As president, Trump has the power to direct nationhood more than any other American. But the truths any president effectively upholds or rejects are ultimately up to us. Without changes in education, we can expect more Trumps.
John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is an associate professor of American studies at the School of Humanities and Global Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey.