21st Century Anti-intellectualism

NYU's 2016 graduation ceremony
NYU’s 2016 graduation ceremony, Yankee Stadium (Jeff Burgess)

I recently attended New York University’s 184th commencement ceremony. I felt a bit like a traitor being there, because it was held at Yankee Stadium and I grew up a Detroit Tigers baseball fan. But it’s the Yankees’ fancy new stadium, not the original one, and I was there to see my daughter graduate with honors.

The ceremony was amazing, and not just because of the spectacular venue. It included the bestowment of honorary degrees to some outstanding individuals. One of them was given to John Lewis, the iconic black civil rights activist who risked his life alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the South in the 1960s, getting repeatedly beaten and arrested for protesting against discrimination. Another was given to Emmanuelle Charpentier, a scientist who’s recent work on genome editing is helping to revolutionize medical treatments. The celebrity Billy Crystal also received one for his outstanding career in the entertainment industry, along with his many contributions to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts .

There were also several inspirational speeches given by various faculty members and students. Each speech was unique and interesting in its own way. But they all shared a common theme: The real purpose of education isn’t to simply help graduates find good jobs, but to broaden minds, encourage the use of science to solve problems, promote social justice, and continually seek the truth.

I confess these speeches brought tears to my eyes. One reason, of course, was that I was very proud of my daughter for graduating from such a prestigious institution. But also because they reminded me of how low are nation’s standards have recently sunk in regards to the respect for knowledge and truth.

A couple of the speakers helped to remind everybody of that with some thinly veiled references to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But the ongoing assault on public education by Republicans in Arizona is just as troubling. According to reports by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state spending on Arizona’s K-12 public school students has fallen 17.5 percent since 2008, the third-deepest rate of school budget cuts in the nation. And a recent U.S. Census Bureau report showed that the state’s school spending is about 33 percent below the national average of $10,700, and 49th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Furthermore, while these cuts were being implemented, private school tax credits were expanded.

As for higher education in Arizona, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities issued another report that showed no other state has cut state university funding more since the Great Recession. This year’s budget restored a portion of the $99 million Ducey and the legislature cut from the state’s universities last year, but $5 million of it is earmarked for so-called freedom schools – think tanks established by the Koch brothers to promote a radical libertarian ideology that includes the privatization of the public schools.

The vast majority of Arizona’s voters didn’t support these cuts. A survey conducted last fall, for example, found that 69% opposed the $99 million cut to university spending, and only 36% supported raiding the state’s First Things First early childhood development program to help fund K-12 schools.

“As people do better, they start voting like Republicans – unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.” – Republican strategist Karl Rove

Republican Governor Doug Ducey and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature were forced to respond to this widespread opposition to their education funding cuts. They passed a ballot initiative, called Proposition 123, that proposed to distribute more funds to public schools from State Trust land revenues. The voters narrowly approved it in May. But the primary objective of these Republicans in submitting this proposal to the voters wasn’t to adequately fund the schools, but to make it possible for more tax decreases, so they can continue to implement a dubious supply-side economic strategy for the state.

The refusal of Arizona Republicans to adequately fund public schools highlights the lack of respect they have for education. This attitude is exemplified by the influential Arizona Republican Assembly, a group dedicated to promoting “true conservative” candidates for office. Their principles say that, “We must insure no school or teachers’ union can compromise the education of our children or advance a particular political agenda at the expense of our future generation’s education.” In other words, they believe education should promote a conservative ideology, and they reject the classic liberal education that has served Western civilization so well.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t a new phenomenon in the United States. But this modern version being nurtured by conservative dark money lords and their Republican marionettes is especially dangerous because the world is growing increasingly complicated and voters need to be well-informed. The answers to modern problems aren’t simple and can’t be solved by putting up walls.

The Arizona Ministries of Truth

George Orwell
George Orwell Wikipedia

Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey, in cooperation with the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, allocated $5 million in the state’s FY 2017 budget for three “freedom schools” at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. The money will go to the U of A’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, ASU’s Center for Political Thought and Leadership, and ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty. These three schools were established with seed money from the Charles Koch Foundation, an organization that promotes a radical libertarian ideology. The billionaire Koch brothers provided millions in “dark money” support for Ducey’s 2014 election campaign.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, no other state has cut university funding more than Arizona since the Great Recession. Last year, for example, Ducey and the Legislature reduced state university funding by $99 million. This year’s budget restores just $32 million, but $5 million of it is earmarked for the so-called freedom schools – or about 15% of the increased funding.

Ducey’s spokesperson Daniel Scarpinato defended the earmark by saying the governor “believes it’s important that students in our university system are exposed to a broad range of viewpoints and academic views on a number of issues, including economics.”

Several Republican legislators also voiced their support. Representative Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, a former conservative radio talk show host, said the money represents “a wonderful opportunity” to fund conservative viewpoints, which he claims are lacking at the state’s universities.

But Arizona Republicans weren’t concerned about encouraging different viewpoints when the they passed HB 2281 in 2010. That law was used to stop Mexican-American studies classes from being taught in Tucson’s public schools. John Huppenthal, Arizona’s school superintendent at the time, helped get it passed because he claimed the classes taught Mexican-American students to resent Anglos.

If Republicans are so concerned about the quality of the information that’s being given to the state’s students, then why aren’t they concerned about what’s being taught at the freedom schools? Dr. William Boyes, for instance, the founding director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, is advocating for the elimination of public schools. He gave a speech last fall in support of the School Sucks Project in which he rejected the belief held by most Americans that public schools are a foundation of our democracy. He called for the end of public schools, saying they are our biggest obstacle to greater personal and political liberty.

Furthermore, Dr. Boyes in an advocate of the Austrian School of economic thought, which is promoted by the Mises Institute.  Austrian School economic theory advocates the concept of methodological individualism – that social phenomena result from the motivations and actions of individuals. It rejects the use of econometrics and macroeconomic analysis. Instead, it calls for the government to be dismembered so the free market can magically solve all problems.

If this doesn’t seem to make sense, that’s because it doesn’t. There aren’t any reputable economists that believe in it. But, not coincidentally, Austrian School economic theory can be used to justify a radical libertarian political ideology.

Updates

The FY 2018 state budget passed by Arizona Republicans gave another  $2 million to the state’s “freedom schools” at the U of A and ASU. This was in addition to their ongoing $5 million annual appropriation. Republican Rep. Anthony Kern, who pushed for the funding, claimed the schools are needed to counteract the widespread “liberal indoctrination” that’s going on at the state’s universities.

The FY 2019 state budget passed by Arizona Republicans included another  $2.5 million for the state’s “freedom schools.” This was in addition to the ongoing $5 million annual appropriation. Republican Sen. John Kavanagh said the money was needed to help balance “left-wing bias” at the state’s universities. The U of A and ASU will each receive $1 million more, and Northern Arizona University will get $500,000 to establish a new school there.

Total Appropriations to AZ Freedom Schools: $19.5 million

Arizona a Cesspool of Republican Politics

dead republican elephantThe voting fiasco in metro Phoenix during Arizona’s March 2016 presidential preference election highlighted the ideological bankruptcy of the modern Republican party, especially among Arizona Republicans.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has opened an investigation into the botched election process in Maricopa County, which is home to more than 4 million people and includes the city of Phoenix – the nation’s 5th most populous city. Federal investigators have submitted a list of documents for Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell and her elections director, Karen Osborne, to provide for review.

Purcell, a Republican, reduced the number of polling places in the county from 200 to 60, forcing some voters to wait in line for up to five hours, and making many give up and go home without voting. She did it with the approval of the county’s Republican-controlled board of supervisors. The primary reason, they all say, was to save money on the election. That excuse is backed up by the proceeds of a February board of supervisors meeting wherein its Republican members commended her proposal to save about $1 million by drastically reducing the number of polling places. The board had instructed Purcell to “to be as frugal as you can” because the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature had cut state contributions to the county’s federal election funding by $2.4 million.

Republican Governor Doug Ducey responded to the voting mess by releasing a statement calling for election officials to “make sure it doesn’t happen again.” He also called for a change to the state’s voting laws, so that voters registered as independents are allowed to vote in party primary elections. “If people want to take the time to vote they should be able to, and their vote should be counted,” he concluded.

Ducey’s call for open primary elections surprised many people, because the state’s Republican leadership sees closed primaries as a way to preserve the conservative ideological purity of their candidates. This, and the fact that Ducey supported the legislature’s funding cuts to county elections, have fueled speculation about his motive for releasing the statement.

Purcell and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors are claiming that the problems with the election were just the result of their bad mistakes. But even if that’s true, the election still highlighted the rotten heart of Arizona Republican policies:

  • Republican Governor Ducey’s post-election statement said he supported the right of citizens to vote, but he isn’t concerned about the rights of the voters who passed Proposition 301 in 2000 to enact a sales tax to increase the funding for public schools. The legislature illegally diverted this money, according to the courts. But instead of encouraging the legislature to follow the law and reinstate this funding, Ducey devised Proposition 123 and convinced the legislature to put it on the ballot. If approved, it would provide less money to the schools than Proposition 301 and accelerate payments to the schools from State Trust land – potentially depleting the funds available for schools in the future. It would also place a constitutional cap on the percentage of the state’s budget that can be devoted to schools. This would help Ducey continue to cut taxes at any cost as part of his implementation of a dubious supply-side economic strategy for state government.
  • The Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature deemed it more important to cut state spending than to adequately fund federal elections. But that didn’t stop them from scheduling a special statewide election in May for Governor Ducey’s Proposition 123. This election will cost the counties millions to administer, some estimates are $9.3 million, with Pima County estimating that it will cost them at least $1.2 million.
  • The Republican-controlled Maricopa Count Board of Supervisors was willing to reduce the number of polling places to save $1 million. This was in spite of the fact that they’ve taken no action against the county’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has cost county taxpayers an estimated $142 million in legal settlements, court awards and legal fees, and whose office was found guilty in federal court in 2013 of violating the rights of Latino citizens.
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