When K-12 Education Becomes a Battleground: An Analysis and Call to Action

When K-12 Education Becomes a Battleground: An Analysis and Call to Action

UPDATE 4/2/22: Hey, look! Schools are still a battleground–it’s just that masking is no longer what’s being fought over. All the history (including my now-embarrassing personal history as a one-time unintentional Christian nationalist) below is still relevant. (Sheesh it’s vulnerable to even admit that I organized a See You at the Pole rally at my Christian school. Soooo cringey now!) –DS Leiter

As I’ve been thinking about it, it doesn’t surprise me that once again educational settings—and especially K-12 education settings—are the (literally violent) battleground over which right-wing policy is hovering. This time it’s the COVID-19 pandemic, as Republican governors in several states have outright banned mask mandates and are sticking to their guns even as the delta variant threatens to ravage the populations of unvaccinated school age children. But it’s happened before. In this article I plan to unwrap the rhetoric of why right-wing politicians are targeting school settings specifically and how that ties into the idea of a post-truth era, in which one version of truth seeks to dominate all others. I’ll wrap up by encouraging us all to stand up for a different way of seeing and doing.

The Republicans Aren’t Exactly “School as Battleground” Virgins….

Because yeah, this isn’t the first time this has happened. After Columbine and up through Sandy Hook and up through the more recent Parkland school shootings, schools have been literal battlegrounds over questions of “gun rights.”

And then over the last year the battle has intensified over education in racial history, as “Critical Race Theory” has been misapplied and demonized in the aim of teaching children whitewashed history in K-12. I wrote about the demonization of “CRT” here and here previously.

This piece was inspired by the Fall 2021 pandemic developments—specifically the battles over vaccinations and mask mandates in K-12 classrooms across the US—but these other two developments should be kept in mind in the background. Because this is a bigger issue, and that larger perspective helps us see how it works.

Thanks for hanging with me as I take some time to unpack this.

Yup, Not about Freedom—About Post-Truth

After all, it’s when we look at this long view that we have space to understand that these battles are indeed battles of what philosopher Lee McIntyre (who has guest blogged here before) calls “post-truth” in his book of the same name.

Post-truth, as he defines it, moves beyond simple lying. It moves into the territory where one person seeks to dominate all other views with a version of “truth” in a very zero sum way. As I’ve described it many times here before, zero sum approaches to conflict believe that if one person wins, then another person always loses.

Describing Zero-Sum Worldviews

Zero sum approaches are sometimes true—for instance, when you have a pie and someone eats one slice, no one else is able to eat that slice. However, this process completely leaves out a more integrative approach to conflict, which sees that there are often ways for everyone to get their needs met as well as possible.

K-12 Settings as Ideal Battlegrounds for “Knowledge Wars”

Looking at these three sets of right-wing policies together with what I know from my history, it is easy to see how Republicans see K-12 educational settings as places where they can potentially lay the groundwork for another generation of those who believe in their zero-sum post-truth views.

How My Background Helps Me Understand This

And here’s the thing: as someone who grew up as a pastor’s kid in an educated moderate denomination that believed strongly in Christian education (and grew up in the more right-leaning sides of that denomination), I can absolutely understand why they would think that way.

See, I grew up in a denomination that didn’t typically ban things like Harry Potter. But I did grow up in Christian schooling, all the way through undergrad, that emphasized how much the way we learned could form our ways of thinking—and emphasized that it was important to carefully consider how you thought about what you studied.

Moderate, But….

I mean, we weren’t as right-wing radical as what any of the above policies would suggest. For instance, the people I grew up around weren’t gun owners, and I grew up with the idea that studying the world or stories was not a threat.

But I also grew up around some people who felt a very strong need to filter the things we took in through some pretty strong theological lenses when we did seek out external ideas.

Thus the strong emphasis on “Christian education.”

“Biblical Worldviews” Didn’t Always Land Us on the “Conservative” Side of Things

Now, as I’ve said, the people I grew up around, some of them, used the principles in the Bible to lead them to really progressive views, as seen in today’s perspective.

The idea, for instance, that science wasn’t an enemy and that God used doctors was really normal. Same with the idea that we should take care of the earth because of that pesky verse in Genesis about being stewards over the earth.

Where White Evangelical Pop Culture Came In

So with those “progressivisms” in mind,  it’s key to know I also absorbed influences from more conservative perspectives in the church. I remember, for instance, going to a big white Evangelical youth conference where we heard lots of what I realize now was extremely theologically dicey music and were whipped up into a frenzy about how “ungodly” public school was.

Duh duh duh. *Enter THE ENEMY.* (Note that this was a familiar enemy from my background, laying a strong foundation for my acceptance of it.)

Ah, Yes, See You at the Pole (Retroactive Shudder)

So yeah, at this conference we were told that there was this huge problem in schools. And in an era where school shootings and concern about racial history and masking had not yet become religio-political talking points on the right, the issue was whether Christians “were allowed to pray in schools.”

The answer? We young people needed to create events like See You at the Pole, where people would have the “courage” to go pray around the flag pole at a designated time.

Shudder-Laughing at My Enactment of This Suggestion

In retrospect I both shudder and laugh at the fact that my fervent holier-than-thou teenaged self took this instruction back and put together my own version of this event.

At a Christian school, no less.

Where we opened classes AND the day with prayer by teachers.

Mind you, this was a place where we had regular mandatory chapels for the entire school.

And where Bible was a class we attended.

I’m honestly shocked that I could get anyone to come to my event. Yet somehow it happened, probably largely because I hadn’t gone to the conference alone. A lot of people at the school was going to Christian concerts and conferences and hearing the same messages. (Deep sigh.)

Reflecting on the Christian Nationalism of the Event

I seriously want to cry, though, thinking about how incredibly Christian nationalist that particular event was. I mean, praying around a US flag? Wow. At the time, I didn’t have the eyes to see. But especially post-January 6, well, WOW.

At any rate, I do distinctly remember that feeling communicated to me through that event that schooling was clearly a “spiritual battleground.” It was a strong good vs. evil, god terms vs. devil terms thing (as a reminder, I’ve talked about god terms and devil terms as rhetorical terms many times in a series starting here).

The Christian School as a Battleground? Churchy Exceptionalism at Work

And as a teen it was extremely ironic if also disturbing that I took those principles and applied them to my Christian school. (If you were wondering, I was also one of those annoying people that started a Bible study before school—when we *had* Bible class and chapel during the school day—and harried people into attendance. Ouch, right?)

I repent now of how I applied my churchy exceptionalism—which I’ve talked about here and here previously—to my poor little Christian school (not that my school was so innocent–I remember a few “religious worldview” lessons on the “evils” of New Age Thinking and backmasking, among others–but it really wasn’t a rich school in any way).

But I also know that I did not create these ideas that I poorly and somewhat hilariously implemented at my school. And neither did the other people I grew up around.

Christian Nationalism and Anxiety about Being “Churchy Enough”

And these ideas had very little, in retrospect, to do with the Bible. They had more to do with the type of militant masculinity and Christian nationalism that Kristin Kobes Du Mez talks about in Jesus and John Wayne and that I’ve previously talked about here, here, here, and here.

Disturbingly, again in retrospect, these ideas were all about “saving the children” through “witnessing” to them, but also about, of course, creating this zero-sum fear of schooling that might not have a “Christian enough” stamp on it.

As you can see, I swallowed this message so hard that I assumed that my Christian school was actually “not Christian enough” because we weren’t somehow “fighting the heathen power.”

Dehumanizing Others Who Didn’t Buy in to See You at the Pole-Style Christian Nationalism

I can see now that this message also desensitized us to the lives of those who weren’t involved in churchy exceptionalism of the particular varieties we were taught to enact on the school grounds. And that in retrospect seems a particularly insidious part of the messaging.

See, not only did it persuade us that we ought only participate in and listen to people in the church, it also taught us that those who chose to practice a different kind of faith, much less those who chose to believe differently, were profoundly less than.

I mean, I was a shy kid overall. It took a lot to convince me to do things like that publicly. I can see now that I was terrified that I would be somehow less “Christian,” less worthy, less lovable, certainly less “spiritual” if I didn’t do these specific things. And I can see now that the problem wasn’t standing up–it was about aggressively standing up for the wrong things and against the wrong things. I mean, I was standing up for a false narrative of Christian persecution–and to heighten the contrast further, I was doing it in a place where we laughably had ALL THE NARRATIVE TO OURSELVES.

Rising Authoritarianism Coming Through

So yeah, at the same time I was being taught that the white Evangelical pop culture powers-that-be somehow knew what was most spiritual and what needed to be defended on the school grounds over and against those lesser-than lights who must be actively fought as part of my faith—and definitely not listened to.

I must not be—this word now holds incredible irony in retrospect—“indoctrinated” in the “ways of the world.” I must be—cue out of context Bible verse extremely poorly applied—“in the world but not of it.”

I mean, obviously that involved praying around a flag pole with the US flag on it—right???? (insert shrug of horror combined with many eye roll emojis)

Of course, the use of the word “indoctrination” was a huge projection—because what this messaging did was effectively scare us off from listening to anyone who might take opposing views on this types of subjects.

Which is an intensely authoritarian move.

Nothing “Biblical” About It

And yes, let’s be clear: after a youth of intense exposure to the Bible and theology, I can tell you there’s nothing about See You at the Pole in the Bible. It’s extremely loosely based on “biblical principles.” And there’s certainly nothing there that would make this act of praying around a nationalist flag something that would be “the most holy” thing to do somehow.

Especially in a country where Christians are the majority—and specifically those in power. In a place where schools often begin with prayer, even in public schools.

Ah, “Spiritual Warfare”

No, this isn’t about some sort of benign “spreading of spirituality to the lost.” This is about spreading a very specific form of authoritarian fundamentalist culture war mentality. This is about making schools a battleground, and about the people involved listening to very specific voices about which actions are meant to be “good” and which are meant to be threats.

And while my denomination didn’t overtly participate in this, my people thought that this messaging was somehow “safe” for me, because it was clothed in Christian language.  I mean, they weren’t teaching me to—gasp—swear or something like that.

I mean, as I’ve mentioned, my tradition thought public school was a bad idea anyway, so surely this must be okay, right?

Also, while it was a little suspect because it wasn’t from our denomination, but it wasn’t from those “weird progressive Christians” who didn’t all believe in the literal resurrection, so the story went, or those scary atheists over there, so surely it must be okay messaging.

How Our Moderate “Christian Nice” Got Roped into Supporting Christian Nationalism

And…yeah. When I think enough about my experience with See You At the Pole, I can absolutely see how my people have been roped into regularly sharing pieces from the Daily Wire to support the current unhealthy right-wing post-truth battles over K-12.

Because, you see, if you listen to the wrong religio-political sources that just bathe these kinds of things in enough vaguely god term/devil term language, and especially if you add the idea that children need to be taught the “right things” so that they can “be saved.” Well, then, as long as you’re listening to the right people, you should be okay.

And these people are currently saying that school shootings and whitewashed history and pandemic deaths are a “necessary cost of freedom,” and this twisted view of freedom is this thing to be defended at all costs, soooo surely that must be the “most righteous” thing to do, right? (And conveniently, if you’re “Christian Nice,” you can disclaim “those weird extremists” to defend your own weird version of moral high ground.)

How This View Would Justify Literally Dead Children.

And those children that die in the process of “pursuing their salvation”?

Well, we can shake our heads over those, and lament before God.

After all, it’s Christian to bring your feelings to God, but not to translate them into action for making things better.

Such a Sickening Way to View the World

Lord, this paradigm sickens me to think about. I feel intensely disgusted, in retrospect, that I got suckered into it as long as I did.

I am thankful, however, for the insight this experience gives me into the way our current religio-political orthodoxies are turning schools into battlegrounds over gun policy, racial education, and masking/vaccination.

See, from a more progressive perspective the question is (I now believe rightly) along the lines of “How can (largely Christian) people sacrifice children on the altar of principles that have nothing to do with the Bible?”

Well, I understand better now that I’ve written through my See You at the Pole experience.

Hijacking People’s Desires to Be “Righteous”

See, you just have to hijack the reasonable desire people have to be valuable and worthy and loved and attach it to particular cultural enactments that sound virtuous.

Bonus points if combine that with a zero-sum vision of enemies who not only shouldn’t be listened to but are seen as deeply suspicious and to be fought at all costs.

 Dismissing Dissonances, of Course

And yeah, ideally some way to dismiss any dissonant concerns from other biblically based values you hold dear. For instance, one may see caring for the environment or for the stranger as something you do individually or something churches ought to do rather than something the government should do.

And suddenly your faith becomes simultaneously about striving for “righteousness” and making sure “your side wins” politically on these particular things you’re being taught are important, even while you “stay out of politics” on things like caring for the natural environment or the “least of these.”

After all, all those babies are dying in the womb, so surely protecting them through getting Supreme Court justices who might overturn Roe vs. Wade is a greater political righteousness than thinking about those (nudge, nudge—shakes head–largely heathen) kids in public school.

I mean, some of those kids wouldn’t even be willing to step out to pray around a pole. (Insert all the eye roll emojis here.)

Not an Easy Mindset to Fight…But We Need to Anyway

Sooo yeah. I hate that I get it—and I hate that I had to jump myself back into that mindset to explain it here—but I can totally see the twisted ways all of this disturbing logic works.

So here’s the thing: this is the mindset. It is not easy to combat when people are so entrenched in it.

No Longer a Metaphor

And let’s be clear—the battleground thing is no longer a metaphor in any way. There are casualties here, and it’s come to regularly threatened violence. As this article from NPR notes, the mask mandates in schools thing is bringing out threats of violence.

And that’s deeply disturbing Because yeah, the same kinds of extremists that have been minimizing and gaslighting about January 6 are out there threatening violence. They are seeing themselves as Crusaders for what is right. For “freedom.”

Time to Keep Assertively Standing Up Against This Toxic Crap

But that’s all the more reason why we need to refuse to let these religio-political bullies have their way.

It is sooo important that this mindset not be allowed to become even more mainstream than it is. Even more so because violence is being threatened. Because that’s not remotely okay, and it can’t be allowed to be how we make decisions in this country going forward.

These mindsets are extremist, and they are costing lives already. See, the COVID-19 virus is real and the Delta variant is intense. Racially motivated killings are an unfortunately continuing part of our country’s history. Masking and vaccinating and making careful decisions toward public health are the best things we can do to love our neighbors right now.

And praying around a flag pole, refusing to mask, whitewashing history, and arming shooters left and right has absolutely much nothing to do with healthy spirituality.

Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance

And yeah, as Karl Popper said, creating a tolerant society means standing up against intolerant behaviors.

And standing up for the literal health and well being of our educational systems means standing up against unhealthy, intolerant, gaslighting of reality post-truth frameworks like these.  

It’s important, friends. Whether you have kids in school or not, please continue to advocate for and vote for literally healthier school systems where this kind of militant white supremacist masculinist Christian nationalist thinking is not allowed to prevail.

We’re All So Tired—But Let’s Keep On with This Relay Marathon!

I know a bunch of us are exhausted from compassion fatigue right now. It’s hard to have compassion for those caught up in this twisted type of ideology—to even know what to do.

But honestly, we need to keep doing what we can. It matters intensely. Lives are at stake.

Because let’s be clear—education DOES matter. I still believe that principle I was taught in my childhood. Our students deserve MUCH better education than these twisted lies.

And here’s the thing: in the case of the pandemic, it’s the unvaccinated and their children who are at greatest risk—and that’s not okay either, regardless of “personal choice.”

As hospitals in the most Republican parts of the country get overwhelmed, as that starts to affect others in those areas, and as the virus has a huge chance to mutate, it’s clearer and clearer how these decisions impact others.

Reaching Toward Integrative Views of This Conflict

And especially those who identify as Christians of differing views from those of the Christian nationalists, your voices are intensely important and valuable here.

See, fighting this isn’t a zero-sum proposition in which if “our side” wins, they lose. They may see it that way—and we can’t fix that. But in this case, lives of those caught in these delusions will be saved alongside the lives of the vulnerable, including children.

Looking Out for the Least of These

And yes, even when I have a hard time feeling empathy for the hard-core anti-vaxxers caught up in conspiracy rhetoric, I absolutely have great empathy for the children and others caught up in the damage they’re doing.

Not About Gaining Approval from Right-Wing Bullies, Weirdly

And yeah, those on the other side will see our actions as less-holier-than-theirs, less righteous somehow.

Oh f*cking well. (Oops—I’ve learned to swear and everything since those days.;) )

See, as I mentioned before, after, and even during my See You at the Pole days, I was being trained that when I’m following Jesus, seeking to love my neighbor as myself, I don’t have to gain others’ approval in the process.

In fact, following Jesus often involved others misunderstanding and rejecting you.

So I guess, a broken clock being right twice a day and all that. So thanks for helping drive home that valuable lesson, See You at the Pole folks???? (Shrugs)

A Final Charge

At any rate, I could go on, but I’ll just leave you with a final charge.

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all—even those that might not be striving toward evidence-based health. We can do this thing—and it genuinely will help us all.

Looking for more resources toward speaking up for what’s right and dealing with the conflict that results?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you. It actually helps you with conflict both online and off. To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. As soon as we feasibly can we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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When K-12 Education …

by DS Leiter Time to read: 16 min