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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

What the Assault on the Capitol Means for Educators

By Rick Hess — January 11, 2021 4 min read
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Last week, President Trump encouraged his out-of-control devotees to assault the seat of the American government. The morning after this vicious (if inept) insurrection unfolded four miles from my children’s bedrooms, I observed:

“As an American, yesterday’s riotous assault on the U.S. Capitol was a horrific, seditious display. As a parent, it was a terrifying one. As an educator, it was a call to duty.

The blame for yesterday’s insanity lies solely with President Trump, his henchmen on Capitol Hill, and his enablers and apologists in the media and the Republican Party. Period. And their cynical lies have had a profound cost, as poll after poll shows that most Republicans don’t trust the 2020 election results.”

Last week showed that a profound civic malady has claimed much of the American right—from the president, to craven apologists like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, to the millions who have embraced the inane, incoherent “stolen election” conspiracy theories that have been dismantled and demolished in one courtroom after another.

To this point, many in education are likely nodding along. But here’s where things get complicated: I firmly believe that the maladies on display are not confined to the fever swamps of the right but point to a larger challenge that we must address together.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have no patience for anyone seeking to rationalize or justify the events of Jan. 6. As I noted last week, “Nothing can excuse the actions of Trump and his enablers. What they’ve done needs to be denounced, universally and unequivocally. Period.”

But we must recognize that the issue is more than “right-wing awfulness” if we’re to appreciate the larger civic challenge: Respect for norms and institutions has to be more than a matter of convenience. Words and actions matter. They set precedents. They bolster or erode faith in the civic sphere.

After all, this is not the first time in recent memory that partisans have decided that a lost election was obviously a corrupt election. While 91 percent of Democrats say the 2020 presidential election was free and fair, just 43 percent said the same in 2016. Indeed, it was just four years ago that leading Democrats insisted that Trump was an “illegitimate” president installed by Russian collusion—and continued to do so even after former FBI Director Mueller’s painstaking two-year probe found no evidence of collusion.

The notion that norms and institutions are sacred only when they deliver the outcomes we want is a poisonous one. And yet attacks on the legitimacy of our core institutions has become increasingly common, with the assaults mounted not only by right-wing internet trolls but also by learned voices in education and the academy. Prominent voices have claimed that the Electoral College is a corrupt artifact of “slavocracy” and that elections have been disfigured by “voter suppression.” They’ve explained that looting shouldn’t be stigmatized and that even apparent riots have actually been “mostly peaceful” protests. They’ve insisted that police are systemically corrupt and should be “defunded.”

Such lines of argument make it tougher for the national community to declare with one voice that the 2020 election was free and fair, violent protests are unacceptable, and police are agents of law and order. As for me, I absolutely reject the premise that America’s institutions are fundamentally corrupt. I think we have received a miraculous inheritance, one that we must cherish and honor.

On the other hand, it’s a whole lot tougher to explain why we should cherish or honor institutions which are fundamentally corrupt. My fear is that leading voices in education and academe have grown more inclined to critique American institutions than to teach about their value or what’s required to safeguard them.

Look, our nation is profoundly flawed in many ways. No argument here. I’m not suggesting that anyone pretend otherwise or engage in faux-patriotic happy talk. I am suggesting that there’s a profound need to teach Americans to appreciate our institutions, the things that they protect against, and what it takes to make them work. As I put it the other month:

“As we’ve seen daily since the election, the bulwark of free government is canvassing boards in Michigan that faithfully review vote tallies and ensure that elections are free and fair, regardless of their preferred outcome. It’s election officials in Georgia doing a rule-bound recount, even when partisans storm and complain . . . It’s Republican election officials in deep blue states and Democratic officials in red ones striving to make the process work and to defend its results, year after year, even when they know they’ll almost certainly be disappointed by the results.”

Our freedom and democratic government ultimately depend on citizens understanding that norms, responsibilities, and institutions are important in their own right and that their legitimacy cannot depend on whether we like the outcomes of the moment.

Last week was a bitter reminder that we all need to do vastly better on this score. Amidst the sewage of a 24/7 social media, cable news, and QAnon culture, the most effective response may be an educational one. For America’s educators, that’s one hell of a challenge. But it’s also one hell of an opportunity.

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