Is This the Most Dangerous Member of Trump's Cabinet?

One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous appointments is in education: Betsy DeVos. Her anti-intellectual agenda would take root in the nation's youngest minds, filtering down through descendant generations. 

Richard Hofstadter is in vogue. Since Donald Trump’s ascension the term ‘anti-intellectualism’ has been used endlessly, in part thanks to the President's announcement that, “I love the poorly educated.”

Hofstadter’s work is more nuanced, of course. He recognized intellectual appreciation is cyclical, dependent upon cultural forces. Obama has been derided as professorial, a quality many other Americans appreciate; journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recently expressed awe over just how intelligent a mind he has. With Trump we’ve entered a new (or old) phase of the cycle.

This can be witnessed in his cabinet appointments. A secretary of state with questionable economic ties to oppressive regimes; a secretary of energy who wants to abolish that agency (if he could only remember its name); a labor secretary who disdains higher minimum wages but loves carnivorous women in bikinis; a climate change skeptic running the EPA.

One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous confirmations is in education. Betsy DeVos criticized Trump and even raised funds for other GOP candidates, but she fits perfectly into the ‘poorly educated’ narrative. Like other picks she wants to shrink the agency she’s being put in charge of by handing over power to state and local agencies while promoting school vouchers.

The voucher program supports free-market competition, a running theme in the coming administration. For example, Jim O’Neill, a potential pick to run the FDA, has stated that the government needs less oversight and fewer clinical trials; he claims the market will figure it out. DeVos toes a similar line in education. She plans on breaking up the “government-run monopoly” public school system in favor of private, charter, and—we can argue, especially—religious school training.

DeVos and her husband, Dick, are billionaires with a strong belief in Christianity—she once stated that school choice will “advance God’s kingdom.” They’ve argued public schools have “displaced” the church in American life. As an activist DeVos has made it her mission to undermine the system through vouchers, shepherding young minds into schools that aren’t subject to that inconvenient First Amendment.

In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter reminds readers that religion is not inherently opposed to education. In fact intellectual life flourished due to Protestantism in the 18th and 19th centuries—the same church DeVos was brought up in. But oh, how religions change. What happened was not purely American, Hofstadter argues, but a natural consequence of intellectual development in religious communities. A fracture between “mind and heart” started the slow dissolution of intellectual pursuits.

Long before America was discovered, the Christian community was perennially divided between those who believed the intellect must have a vital place in religion and those who believed that intellect should be subordinated to emotion, or in effect abandoned at the dictates of emotion.

As the country grew and tribes splintered the race for a pure Christianity commenced. As enthusiasm for boisterous new movements evolved the “learned professional clergy suffered a loss of position.” Rational religion, Hofstadter argues, declined as citizens relied more on their reptilian paralimbic survival mechanism: my way or no way.

Let’s consider Hofstadter’s sentiment in light of a more current understanding of neuroscience. No matter how logical a thinker one might be, our brains are designed to respond to our environment quickly and accordingly, meaning emotional reactions always occur first. There are techniques (such as meditation) that strengthen the resolve between the paralimbic system and the prefrontal cortex, the reasoning portion of the brain. This means you’re able to feel an emotional response but not immediately lash out in fear, disdain, or hatred. You’re able to see many sides of an argument without always defaulting to your own.

The problem is this process requires an education to understand. By appealing to and championing emotions over all else—by espousing a specific religious ideology, for example—people like DeVos short-circuit the slow and arduous process of critical thought necessary to differentiate between imagination and reality. They believe their way is the way. Once that happens silencing your opposition is easy. You have made yourself believe you have a divine mandate, which trumps all earthly rationality. Education becomes secondary to allegiance to that belief. And if education contradicts or stifles that belief, it must be eradicated at all costs.

That’s a dangerous mindset in an ailing public school system. American education is the most expensive in the world, yet recent results are lackluster; we currently rank fourteenth in the world. Since 90 percent of private schools are associated with a religious group, DeVos’s ‘choice’ is really not one at all. She’ll be attempting to indoctrinate broad swaths of children into a system that teaches a particular way of viewing the world, one that is more emotional, less rational, and in accordance to what she believes.

We call cities bubbles, but so are nations. America is the only developed country besides Australia with elected officials who deny climate change. Some of those same figures give credence to creationism. It’s hard to take seriously men and women spouting such ridiculous ideas, yet their prominent positions of power afford them the ability to legislate. That’s only going to get worse with the coming administration.

DeVos is right on one thing: public schools are in trouble. Not only do we need to focus more on science and math, especially as the latter discipline pertains to critical thinking in statistics (so we’ll stop believing biased polls and research, as well as fake news), we need a stronger appreciation of and education in the arts, fitness, nutrition, and sexuality. Growing legions of under-cultured brains do not make for a sound cultural mind. While it’s wonderful that six-year-olds can develop apps, learning how to treat your partner and respecting other cultures is equally if not more important in the larger scope of life.

Overlooking Betsy DeVos is dangerous. She has an agenda, one that will accomplish the worst fate of all: turning the clock back centuries on young minds through magical and biased thinking. 


Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.