Betsy DeVos and the politics of fear: A not-so-fond farewell to Trump's education secretary

DeVos was terrible at her job and knew nothing about public schools. That was exactly what the far right wanted

Published January 24, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attends an event hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump with students, teachers and administrators about how to safely re-open schools during the novel coronavirus pandemic in the East Room at the White House July 07, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attends an event hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump with students, teachers and administrators about how to safely re-open schools during the novel coronavirus pandemic in the East Room at the White House July 07, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Even Betsy DeVos — one of the longest-serving of Donald Trump's revolving-door cabinet secretaries — finally reached what she called an "inflection point" with the former president's open call for violent insurrection, resigning slightly before he left office. Amid the chaotic Trump administration, DeVos was in many ways the perfect choice for education secretary. She showed an astounding lack of knowledge about public education. She seemed at best uninterested and at worst downright hostile to America's public schools.

DeVos' tenure leaves us with unanswered questions: How is it possible that the leader of the Education Department could be so indifferent to public education itself? Why wouldn't she learn the basics about her own department?

Scholars and pundits have offered answers. For one thing, DeVos did not care about her department because she thought her department should not exist. Like conservatives ever since the Reagan administration, DeVos yearned to dismantle her own department from within. DeVos, in this analysis, was never the guardian of public education but rather the "wolf at the schoolhouse door."

That explanation is true and important. For decades, conservative leaders have threatened to eliminate the Education Department entirely. Even when Rick Perry could not remember all three of the federal departments he planned to eliminate back in 2011, he remembered that one of them was Education.

But that explanation can only get us so far. There is another reason why conservatives like DeVos often show a stunning ignorance about public schools. After all, even if she only planned to undermine public schools, it would make sense for her to learn a little something about them. Secretary DeVos never did.

In her infamous interview on "60 Minutes" in 2018, for example, DeVos seemed surprised by the questions. Were public schools in Michigan — her home state — doing better or worse? She stumbled. She hemmed and hawed and finally choked out an awkward, "I don't know."

As one pundit said at the time, "If I were a boxing referee, I would have stopped this exchange halfway through." No one did. DeVos went on to show her utter lack of … well, everything having to do with her job. When interviewer Lesley Stahl asked her if she had visited any struggling public schools, DeVos flailed. "I have not," she began, "I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming. ... Maybe I should. Yes."

It wasn't just that she didn't know anything about schools, even in her home state of Michigan. She didn't even seem willing to learn, and she didn't improve with time. When the COVID pandemic threw American schools into utter confusion, DeVos shocked observers once again with her trademark combination of incompetence, ignorance and chilling apathy. When asked what her department would do to help coordinate an educational response to the pandemic, DeVos punted. It was not the job of her department, she said, to "collect and compile that research." Of course, that was precisely her job. As the original charter of the Education Department laid out, one of its primary responsibilities would be to improve schools "through federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information."

She didn't know that. She was even unwilling to spend three seconds to Google it. Yet DeVos turned herself into a rare survivor in the Trump administration, keeping her seat at the table as other Cabinet members came and went.

So yes, if we want to understand the mysteries of Betsy DeVos we need to understand that she never wanted to protect and improve public education. Like generations of conservative leaders, she has had a long antipathy for secular public schools and a deep distrust of the federal government itself.

But if we stop there, we won't really answer the toughest questions about her. After all, Ronald Reagan's education secretaries, Terrel Bell and Bill Bennett, also planned to undermine their own department. But whatever their flaws, both Bell and Bennett knew a lot about education and learned a lot more on the job.

DeVos didn't bother to learn, and her approach to conservative education activism is as different from Terrel Bell's as President Trump was from President Reagan. In order to make sense of it all, we need to unearth and decode a long tradition of conservative educational activism. We need to understand the ways conservatives have always used Trump-style tactics in their fights to control public education.

For a full century now, conservative activists have learned how to win when it comes to public schools. Time and time again, conservatives have failed when they attacked public schools directly. When they've tried to fight against modern teaching or progressive textbooks they haven't succeeded. But they have won — and often won big — by fighting against imaginary schools, schools in which students are threatened by sneaking subversive teachers and corrosive anti-American textbooks. In a nutshell, conservative education policy has often been a non-starter, but conservative scare tactics have dominated schools.

This tradition is the soil in which DeVos' Trumpish type of leadership could grow. To be sure, DeVos doesn't represent all educational conservatives any more than Trump represents all conservatives. Just as plenty of smart, well-informed conservatives abhor Trump's toxic narcissism, there have been plenty of smart, well-informed conservatives in the past who have offered good ideas about American education. DeVos isn't one of them. She comes from a world in which there has been only one thing people needed to know about public education: It was a monster.

Consider one example from the war years. In 1939, America was torn apart, beset by an unimaginable combination of unprecedented crises. The world was ablaze, with Nazis blitzing Europe and the Japanese war machine seizing Asia. At home, the economy reeled from the Great Depression. Pundits warned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was turning himself into a dictator. Homegrown Nazis mounted alarming rallies nationwide and voices shouted to keep "America First."

In the midst of all this, conservative activists discovered that America's public schools had become the targets of a sneaking subversion. Conservative groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution warned that a popular series of social studies textbooks spread "socialistic" ideas among the nation's innocent schoolchildren. Critics warned that the books by Professor Harold Rugg taught that America was only a second-rate nation, a cruel capitalist regime.

In many ways, the conservative campaign against the Rugg textbooks worked. When the specter of socialism reared its head, school leaders across the country outdid one another in their haste to purge their classrooms. Even as Nazis built bonfires of banned books in Europe, conservative activists across the United States burned textbooks in Wisconsin's fields and New York's empty lots.

A set of textbooks that had once been in the hands of nearly half of all American middle-schoolers was soon hard to find. The frenzy over the Rugg textbooks might seem like an example of the way conservatives have long controlled American schools. It might seem as if conservatives have always exerted veto power over textbooks and curriculum. It might seem that Americans have always teetered on the edge of a frightening right-wing hysteria.

On closer look, though, the lamentable Rugg textbook episode tells a very different story. Yes, conservative activists managed to whip their followers into a frenzy. They managed to dominate headlines and turn school board meetings into desperate shouting matches. But they didn't actually change schools very much.

For instance, at the height of the controversy, on Aug. 29, 1940, the New York Times front page headlines screamed, "Rugg's Books Banned from More Schools." But after a few months, state school boards reviewed the charges and found them baseless. Unfortunately, newspapers like the Times buried those less-inflammatory stories. For example, the news of Georgia's positive review of the Rugg books was only briefly mentioned in a short article on page 21.

Moreover, when conservatives terrified Americans into yanking Rugg books from their schools, the books were replaced with very similar books by different authors. Despite the accusations made against them, Rugg's books were really not very radical at all. They represented middle-of-the-road, mainstream social studies education.

If conservatives had wanted to change the way young Americans learned about history and society, they would have had to make much deeper changes in the kind of books students used. Yet when conservatives in the American Legion tried to do just that, they failed miserably. Years before Legion stalwarts learned of Rugg's textbooks, they tried to commission their own history textbooks. They found a willing writer, Charles F. Horne of the City College of New York. Their new textbook, they promised, would teach a history "so glorious that its proper study must inspire any child to patriotism."

Unfortunately for their big dreams, the new American Legion textbook was bad — so bad the Legion itself tried to pretend it had never existed. The books were full of glaring factual errors. As one disgusted historian wrote, the books' only goal seemed to be to "produce a bigoted and stereotyped nationalism ... a deplorable subservience to the rule of ignorance."

In the end, America's schoolchildren ended up reading textbooks very similar to Rugg's, though without his name on the cover. Conservatives failed miserably when they tried to instill their own ideas into America's schools, but they succeeded when they spread terror about an imaginary socialist threat.

The Rugg debacle was far from an isolated case. In every generation, conservative activists have sought to take control over America's public schools. And in every generation, they have run into the same fundamental roadblocks. They could not change American schools in ways that really mattered. But they could do one thing very well: terrify the general public by spinning extravagant stories of sneaking subversion.

Long after the Rugg textbooks had been shunted off into dusty school-district warehouses, another school controversy repeated the pattern. In Pasadena, California, conservative activists attracted national attention by upending their school district. The charge? Teaching "progressive" methods that undermined the patriotism and Americanism of helpless children.

At the time, a loud-mouthed populist leader had brought the Washington establishment to its knees, reeling off lists of conspirators who had infiltrated the government. The fact that Joseph McCarthy had no facts to back up his wild charges didn't matter. He drew big crowds — angry crowds — and Republican politicians rushed to keep up with his changing stories.

Just as in the Rugg era, in 1950 the imagined danger was from socialist subversion. And just as in the Rugg era, conservatives looked hard at public schools for evidence of communist infiltration. In Pasadena, a new superintendent became the latest Harold Rugg. The superintendent, Willard Goslin, had had an impressive career before he took over Pasadena's schools in 1948. By 1951, though, he had been fired. Conservatives from Pasadena and around the country rallied to eliminate Goslin and others like him. They warned that school leaders like Goslin were injecting a subtle form of ideological poison into their children, the poison of "progressive" education.

In broad outline, at the time "progressive" education included a range of ideas, from field trips and group projects to ungraded report cards and non-authoritarian teaching. As Willard Goslin saw it, progressive education simply meant better education. He planned to abolish report cards so that students and parents would be free to learn as individuals, not crammed into a one-size-fits-all grading scheme. He established working groups that included teachers, school staff and community members to make decisions about schools. He wanted to abolish gerrymandered school zones that kept Black and Latinx students isolated in separate schools.

As Goslin saw it, there was nothing subversive about these ideas. They were merely the new way to teach, freed from meaningless traditions of strict discipline and schooling based on fear. Goslin thought the citizens of Pasadena agreed, since they had recruited him away from his job in Minnesota, begging him to bring modern learning to their community.

Goslin was wrong. A coalition of local conservatives quickly mobilized against his plans for their schools. They passed around pamphlets by right-wing pundits. They warned one another that "progressive" education was nothing but a stalking horse for socialist subversion. The age-old progressive scheme, they insisted, was to undermine American traditions of self-reliance and competition. By getting children in school to focus on working together instead of competing for grades, progressive educators planned to raise a generation of helpless drones, ripe for totalitarian plucking. Progressive education, right-wingers shouted, meant nothing less than "the disintegration and final extinction of the American society."

Like Harold Rugg, Goslin found himself the surprised bogeyman for these conservative fears. He was booted from his position. It might seem as if conservatives asserted once again their control over the nation's schools. Yet just as in the early 1940s, in the 1950s conservative activists actually demonstrated only the hard limits of their own power.

In Pasadena, on second glance, "progressive" education remained just as popular as ever. A teachers' group conducted a survey during the bitter campaign against Goslin. In late 1950, they asked over a thousand of their fellow citizens what they thought about their local schools. It turned out that a slight majority (50.7%) of Pasadenans did indeed think their schools were worse in 1950 than they had been in the past. But very few people actually blamed progressive classroom methods. By vastly overwhelming majorities, Pasadenans approved of typically progressive teaching methods such as "group discussions" (97%) and "field trips" (92%). People loved modern teaching techniques such as using "motion pictures" (92.7%) and "group projects" (95.4%).

In late 1950, Pasadenans embraced progressive education. Yet they wanted Goslin out, on charges of promoting progressive education. Just as in the case of Rugg, conservatives in the 1950s could not control schools, but they could spread fear. In Goslin's case, he was accused of two offenses. First, he was rumored to plan a summer camp for Pasadena's children. The camp, conservative activists charged, would spirit students away to the woods for indoctrination. It would brainwash students into accepting socialist truths and rejecting American values. The fact that Goslin had no plans for such a camp didn't matter. The rumors were enough.

In addition, while conservatives publicly blasted Goslin's alleged plans to abandon the "three Rs," it was another "R" that energized them more: Racism. Goslin had not planned any socialist summer camps, but he had planned to rezone the district. If Goslin had had his way, Pasadena's small but growing populations of African-American and Latinx students would be more fully integrated into the school system. In public meetings, conservatives attacked the supposed subversion of progressive classroom methods, but among themselves they warned that their property values would plummet if they lost preferential access to all-white schools.

Just like in Pasadena, time after time conservatives have failed when they tried to upend progressive traditions in public schools. Those traditions have always been far too popular to be attacked directly. But time after time, conservatives have scored spectacular successes when they have marshaled the politics of fear to spread anxiety about the goings-on in public schools.

The strange career of Betsy DeVos has been only the latest instance of this long legacy of conservative educational activism. Even before she became Trump's education secretary, she harangued conservative audiences that public schools were nothing but a "dead end." It wasn't merely that public schools offered worse academics, DeVos warned. In a speech in late 2020, DeVos articulated some of her guiding beliefs about the dangers of public education. Public schools, DeVos suggested, threatened to yank children from the loving care of their homes and churches and wipe away "every distinctive feature of families." Instead of sustaining and reinforcing the religious beliefs of conservative Christians, DeVos agreed, public schools would only cram "uniform guidance" down every student's throat.

By injecting toxic strains of fear and suspicion into every dialogue, DeVos poisoned educational politics from the very top. Her strategy of attacking public education helps explain why she was so successful in keeping her seat in Trump's Cabinet. President Trump himself harped on the same refrain. Sounding just like the anti-Rugg activists of the 1940s or the anti-Goslin pundits of the 1950s, Trump has warned that public schools in 2020 spread a sinister subversive lesson.

As part of his "1776 Commission," this past November Trump intoned darkly that public schools placed "rising generations in jeopardy of a crippling self-doubt." For too long, Trump warned, "a series of polemics grounded in poor scholarship has vilified our Founders and our founding." As a result, Trump believed, "many students are now taught in school to hate their own country."

It sounds scary. Parents might justifiably worry if public schools were putting their children in jeopardy. They would have a right to object if public schools tried to strip their children of their religious beliefs. Shouting "subversion" in a crowded school board meeting has always been a brutally effective technique, except for one thing.

When it comes to public schools, lots of Americans have direct experience that gives the lie to right-wing fear-mongering. When asked by Gallup pollsters in 2010, large majorities of Americans give their kids' public schools high grades. The better they knew their schools, the better they liked them. Only 18% of people thought the nation's public schools as a whole were doing a good job. And only about half (49%) thought their local public schools were thriving. But among people with kids in public schools, over three-quarters (77%) of respondents gave their children's schools an "A" or "B."

The politics of fear can only get conservatives so far. True, they can get superintendents racing to discard textbooks. And they can cost a few high-profile school leaders their jobs. But they have never been able to convince Americans that their public schools are actually subversive. Unlike a lot of institutions, public schools are by definition embedded in their local communities. Families go in and out of their schools every day, though these days it may be only via Zoom.

Public schools face plenty of problems and challenges. But by harping on the politics of fear, Betsy DeVos and other conservative activists only take attention away from those real problems. By frightening students and parents with far-out tales of sneaky left-wing teachers and subtly suspicious textbooks, conservatives have always managed to score some short-term successes. The long-term effect of those scare tactics, however, has been to foster a corrosive suspicion in the public's attitude toward public education.

The odd tenure of Betsy DeVos doesn't make much sense in traditional terms. She was a department leader who despised her department, a spokesperson for public education who didn't have any idea what to say. In more normal political times, it would have been impossible for her to keep her job. However, in the poisonous atmosphere of Trump's White House, DeVos fit right in. Like her boss, she did not deal in facts and figures, in policies and plans. Instead, she drew on the long tradition of right-wing fright campaigns.

Why didn't she bother to learn anything about public education? Because she knew her success lay elsewhere. As conservative activists have done for generations, Betsy DeVos only needed to attack a figment of the conservative imagination. She did not need to know what went on in real schools, because she only needed to resurrect a cartoonish misrepresentation, a bogeyman that had long haunted conservative nightmares.

By Adam Laats

Adam Laats is a professor of education and history at Binghamton University. He is the author of the award-winning "Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education" (2015) and "Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education" (2018). His commentaries about conservatism and education have been published in Chronicle of Higher Education, Education Week and the Washington Post.

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