If really ignorance were bliss, Western New York would not be having the disputes that are now filtering down to school board races in the debate over whether kids get educated or indoctrinated.
And make no mistake: That is the choice.
After all, what gets taught in schools – at least in public schools – is not handed down on stone tablets from on high. Education policy is developed by human beings, some of whom now mirror critics elsewhere who want to instill a more anti-science, anti-government, pro-1950s agenda in the area’s public schools.
But in their rebellion against expertise, at least credit them for being open about their goals as they recruited candidates ahead of this week’s filing deadline for next month’s school board elections. They don’t hide the fact that they sprung up in opposition to school mask mandates, remote learning and, in the case of at least one local organizer, efforts to educate students about the reality of “white privilege.”
Also give them some credit – at least so far – for how they are pursuing their desired changes: through the electoral system. As a spokesman for Western New York Students First recently told The Buffalo News, “we want the whole community to be part of this board of education process.”
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As the embodiment of democratic principles, rather than a call to violence, that much is commendable.
But make no mistake: It is also a challenge.
The beauty of America is that groups like that have every right to peacefully try to impose their agenda. The danger – also inherent in a democratic republic – is that they may well succeed, particularly in a democracy as lazy as ours.
A 2020 Pew Research Center analysis ranked the United States 30th out 35 developed nations in terms of voter turnout as a percentage of the voting age population in each country’s national election. There’s no reason to think we fare much better in local elections such as school board races, which often draw so little interest that seats go uncontested.
That is the ideal environment for reactionaries who, like nature, abhor a vacuum.
Coating themselves in a patina of grassroots governance, groups like Western New York Students First bill themselves as part of a “movement around democracy and education.” Similarly, the Fight for Your Family Initiative is raising funds for school board candidates in Orchard Park and Hamburg – again, a time-honored practice in the best political system money can buy.
But while all of that sounds noble on its face, it severely tests English philosopher John Milton’s maxim that truth will always best falsehood “in a free and open encounter.” The 2016 presidential election and reactions to the Jan. 6 insurrection have already shown that Milton was much too sanguine. The May 17 school board elections may further prove that he was unduly optimistic.
When Fight for Your Family says its goal is “to get freedom-loving folks elected” and “ensure that American values are upheld and exalted in our school,” it doesn’t require much reading between the lines. Started by an Orchard Park gym owner who sued over Covid-19 capacity restrictions and who also took exception to how a teacher delved into America’s racist past, its website claims to want to teach kids “HOW to think, not WHAT to think.”
But once you proscribe information vetted by a vast majority of experts because it doesn’t fit your political beliefs – whether on the nation’s sordid racial history or the best ways to stop a fatally infectious disease – you’ve already dictated que kids will be taught to think.
It’s a movement much more insidious than open insurrection, but just as dangerous, as the demand to “Follow the science” morphs into the question, “Follow whose science?” It would dictate school policy – whether on safety protocols or what is taught in the classroom – based on who can scream loudest at board meetings and get their backers to the polls.
Citing just enough of their own “experts” – and in an open society, there will always be professional outliers on any subject – they would dictate public policy for all students to suit their ideology, regardless of what the preponderance of the evidence says.
Yet we stand in danger of exactly that kind of takeover because it is always easier to stir up people to be against something than to be for something. Those mostly content with how education has been handled can sit blissfully complacent while those energized by pandemic safety protocols, “critical race theory” or some other made-up threat will swarm the polls.
That is the challenge for the rest of us.
With energy and anger on their side and apathy on the other, Milton won’t stand a chance. And neither will Western New York’s kids.
Seeing groups like this mobilize in plain sight to set education back decades is like watching a wreck unfold in slow motion before your eyes, and feeling helpless to stop.
But as informed and forewarned voters, we are not helpless to stop it.
Heaven help us if we don’t.