In its original sense, the term “political commissar” or a “supervisory officer responsible for political education” (ideology) referred to a special officer in the armed services. Their job was to “ensure political control of the military.” The post was first created by the French revolutionaries at the end of the 18th century and eventually adopted by the Soviet army among others. The office of political commissar is still used today by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
In the armed services, assuring ideological “correctness” is relatively easy to do because you have a captive audience. To do so successfully with a civilian audience—always a mixed crowd—is harder. Nonetheless, even in democracies such as the United States, small groups will periodically come along and try to enforce a specific ideological uniformity on the public at large. This is usually done in the name of “sacred” tradition and maintaining a nation’s “true” values. At some point in this effort, control of the public schools becomes a major point of contention. That is what is happening now in the U.S., and those who are involved in this latest effort to get all of us to think the same way, sound very much like self-appointed political commissars.
Exaggerations and a Vocal Minority
No one seems to recognize this likeness. Certainly, the media and press appear clueless. Take, for example, the recent Washington Post (WP) article “Trust in teachers is plunging amid a culture war in education.”
As is typical of media and press, the WP piece begins with an exaggeration. “Americans are losing faith in their school teachers.” Proof? “In January, a Gallup poll found that Americans’ belief in grade school teachers’ honesty had dropped to an all-time low, with 64 percent of adults reporting they believe those instructors are truthful and have ethical standards, down from a high of 75 percent in 2020.” Is it reasonable to interpret this poll as proof that “trust” in teachers is “plunging” among all or even most Americans? No, it is not. So, what is really going on here?
As it turns out, the story is really about the influence of American-style political commissars: a very vocal minority of ultra-conservative, often religiously fundamentalist, always paranoid citizens who think the public schools are out to “groom” their sons and daughters to become transgender, homosexuals, and lesbians as well as trash the country for its historical shortcomings. Sixty or seventy years ago these same folks would be looking for communists under their beds. Those who lead this most recent revival of a “paranoid style” of politics—most of them associated with what remains of the Republican Party—have taken up the role of 21st century American censors.
We must mention that the American left has its own version of such censors—the so-called Cancel Culture movement. However, the situation is different on the left where the effort to ostracize or “call out” someone perceived as behaving in a racist, misogynist, or prejudicial way toward alleged deviants
is more spontaneous than occurs in a more organized fashion on the right. Given that the left can also have their extremists in this regard, much of what is disdained by the Cancel Culture movement is at least worth minimizing in any society claiming to be civilized. This is not the case when it comes to the targets of the right wing.
Leaders and Followers
Let’s take a look at some examples of both the leaders and the followers offered by the WP story. One of the story’s chief protagonists is Alfred DuBois, a 65-year-old father of eight. Dubois began to suspect there was an anti-American current within the public school system when school mask mandates made their appearance. Then, with a logic that only the chronically suspicious can understand, DuBois made the jump from mask mandates “to questions about what books are available in the school library.” As it turns out banning books is a growing part of this rightwing ideological crusade. DuBois decided to initiate a private investigation and was upset when his district school said no, they would not cooperate. Seeing nothing wrong with his own intrusive demands, he figured the school must be hiding something. He went on to interrogate his own children with what may or may not have been leading questions and concluded that local history teachers “spoke very negatively about [Christopher] Columbus, [George] Washington, and [Abraham] Lincoln.” Mr. DuBois is now a cultural warrior speaking out at just about every school board meeting for his district over the past five months.
In all of this DuBois had direction from a political commissar of sorts in the person of Jordan Peterson, “a Canadian psychologist and self-help author who became a prominent figure in the culture wars for his criticism of feminism and transgender people. Peterson has also led an online crusade against what he says is political brainwashing in schools.” That is where DuBois got the idea that sex-education classes in the public schools were really a form of “sexual grooming.” Overall, the message DuBois took from Jordan was that “the schools have been indoctrinating for 30 years, maybe more, with a certain kind of liberalism, or leftism.”
Jordan is only one of a larger cadre of right wing conspiracy-minded commissars who accuse teachers of brainwashing children with their leftist ideology. Never mind that the Jordans of this world attempt to do the same thing to parents with their rightist ideology. The WP article also introduces us to Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the right wing American Enterprise Institute. Hess asserts that “for a large number of Americans” public schools are “pushing agendas and values that feel alien, feel destructive.” This “large number” is of doubtful accuracy as the WP’s introductory assertions that “Americans are losing faith in their school teachers.”
Just what are the schools “pushing,” according to Hess? They are accused of familiarizing children with their society’s problems such as “issues of race, racism, topics such as gender fluidity and gender identity, and the parts of U.S. history in which the country failed to live up to its ideals.” This is the equivalent of “activism in the classroom” and pushing a left wing agenda which in turn, according to Hess, is “eroding [parents’] faith in the [teaching] profession as a whole.” Actually, Hess does not know if his broadly put assertion is true. However, he talks as if it is. This is what is usually called propaganda.
Unfortunately, some of these self-appointed commissars are empowered. The most well-known of these is Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. He has turned alleged “activism in the classroom” into a political cause célèbre which he is more than willing to use state power to combat. DeSantis, in his role as political censor, has “passed a host of laws restricting how teachers can talk about race, racism, history and LGBTQ issues.” He has also expanded right wing attacks to include the nation’s schools of education. He accuses them of having been “overtaken by ideology” and “churning out educators who encourage children to do things such as switch gender identities without telling their parents.”
In this crusade, DeSantis is abetted by conservative groups such as the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. In July 2022, it released a study that drew attention to four-year public schools of education that taught future teachers to be aware of such issues as “equity,” “diversity,” “multiculturalism” and “culturally relevant pedagogy.” The study asserted that while these categories “sound innocuous enough on their face; in reality, they have been something of a Trojan Horse for a wide variety of policies and instructional narratives with potentially harmful effects.” All of this, it is claimed, is a part of “an indoctrination process that begins when student teachers are enrolled in universities.” Will Flanders, one of the authors of the study said “blame for parental mistrust of teachers must be laid at the feet of education schools” because nationally they are turning out instructors who teach concepts that do not match “local ideologies [and] that’s why we’re seeing these angry parents.”
These accusations leveled at schools of education are ideologically convenient for the right, but they are factually inaccurate. As Harvard professor of education Heather Hill correctly points out, “most teacher preparation programs emphasize technical classroom skills. That’s where a lot of teacher prep programs have headed in the past 10 years.”
How Does a Vocal Minority Rule?
The truth is that a conservative minority is trying very hard to pass themselves off as a majority. They are doing so by shouting louder than anyone else. However, behind the noise is a different and quieter reality.
Most people’s specific expectations for their school systems are twofold: (1) make my child literate enough to get a job, and (2) make my child a good citizen. These are the end goals of public education as well. The trouble is found in the second goal. From the parental point of view, the parameters of this goal are defined by the specific nature of the parent’s own upbringing and culture. That means that the notion of “good citizen” is fractured among multiple groups in what is, and always has been, a multicultural society. This being said, most parents do not complain about their public schools, even if they have questions or doubts. For instance, using the poll cited by the Washington Post, 64 percent of respondents do believe grade school teachers are truthful and have acceptable ethical standards. That is, in fact, a solid majority. Unfortunately, most of them are the proverbial silent majority.
Think of this situation in terms of a bell curve. Those in the main bulge of the curve are people who live their lives in near total compliance with the attitudes and beliefs of their culture. Even teenage rebellion is carried on mostly within accepted cultural terms. So, this real majority rarely, if ever, publicly points to anti-social conspiracies in their own backyards. They usually know very well what goes on in their own local area, including the schools, and, with the possible exception of taxes, it is mostly okay with them.
This means the practice of political and cultural speech that makes the news is carried on mostly by the outliers of this bell curve. As noted, a few of these outliers may be on the lefty, but most will be right wing. Think about what happened during the Cold War, an era often represented by the likes of Joe McCarthy. It was during this time that, through a process of historical distortion and propaganda, the entire bell curve was shifted to the right. Ever since, centrists have been labeled as liberals and liberals called socialists, etc. In this way, at least some of those who populate the center of the bell curve can be manipulated and frightened. The present attack on the schools is part of this repetitive scenario.
Presently, our right wing political commissars seem to be having their way. A growing number of teachers are being victimized and some are either quitting their profession or self-censoring. This is particularly true if they are individuals seen by the right wing vocal minority as dangerous by virtue of a flawed character.
The Washington Post story cites the case of “Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr., who was named 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year by his state education department after more than a decade teaching English and French to high-schoolers in Mount Sterling, Ky.” Carver is a gay man and so, “shortly after he won that honor, a small group of adults began showing up to board meetings to call him a [sexual] “groomer.” He was attacked on Facebook and his private life was investigated. “Dismayed, miserable, and frightened, Carver quit his job in June.”
In truth, it is the noisy minority acting out the role of political commissar that is dangerously flawed. Made up of paranoid, rigid, conspiracy-minded individuals who can only be comfortable in a mono-cultural environment, they will dominate our schools, and our laws as well, if we let them. Then you can say goodbye to liberty as democracy gets dwindled down to fit the ideology of a noisy few.