Last week was my first week of graduate school. At 36, I decided to take a Masters in Appalachian Studies because I believe it will enrich my writings on the region I call home and allow me to better defend my neighbors and friends.
I think this is a worthy and noble effort. Lauren Boebert did not. A clip of high school dropout and the Republican congresswoman complaining that her student loan forgiveness will fund “Karen’s daughter’s graduation in lesbian dance theory” went viral over the weekend. The “lesbian dance theory” is not, as far as I know, a real program (even if it were, it would be great), but it is a popular right-wing topic of discussion; Ben Shapiro was complaining about it as early as 2016.
That it doesn’t exist, however, is not the point. The “lesbian dance theory” is the perfect conservative whistle for everything they hate about education: it is inclusive and promotes understanding of marginalized groups; it involves complex and nuanced bodies of knowledge known as “theory”, which is a word they usually misunderstand (sometimes intentionally) to mean “guess”; and sometimes it involves a discipline – such as dance – which is not immediately understood as useful to capitalism.
This is, of course, what Boebert’s comments are really about. She is not troubled by the fact that the student loan forgiveness will benefit the rich because it will not; the White House estimates that 90 percent of those who benefit will earn less than $ 75,000 annually, and no individual who earns more than $ 125,000 annually ($ 250,000 per household) will benefit. Student loan debt relief will help middle-class and working-class Americans, most of whom are graduates not from elite institutions but from regional universities and community colleges.
When understood then as an attack on education rather than reckless spending, what Boebert, Shapiro and others on the right really mean becomes much clearer. Conservatives around the world are attacking education. In the UK, the Tories want to take away funding from “low value” degrees that they don’t believe will contribute to the economy. Here in the United States, Republicans have opposed the expansion of Pell grants, which help low-income students afford a college education.
I received the Pell Grants myself, and that’s the only reason I could afford to go to college. Without them, I would not have had the educational and career opportunities that I have had. I used my Pell Grants to get a history degree with a minor in women’s studies – “Mickey Mouse Degrees” according to the conservatives, but programs that helped me make sense of our world and my place in it and that in turn, they helped me become a successful freelance journalist. If that’s not a good return on investment, I don’t know what it is.
There is more to a certain value than money produces for capitalism. Majors in theater, majors in music, majors in creative writing – these are the people who make life worth living by producing art that everyone likes. How boring our world would be without people who know how to direct a musical, or produce an album, or edit the next great fantasy epic. I don’t want to live in a world devoid of art – and I certainly don’t want to live in a world where art is the sole purview of the rich, as acting has become in the UK.
These degrees in arts, humanities and social sciences also open our eyes, where the crux of the matter lies. Conservatives are attacking education at all levels because they see it as a threat to their hegemony. Attending a regional college in Kentucky also opened my eyes to injustices I had never seen before and introduced me to people from all walks of life.
I made my first Muslim friend, my first immigrant friend and my first transgender friend all in college. I learned the deep roots of systemic racism in our nation by studying the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I learned to stand up as a gay man by becoming president of our college’s heterosexual alliance and ultimately vice president of the student body. The college took a sheltered, naive boy from eastern Kentucky and turned him into a worldly, open-minded man.
Conservatives can’t have it. This is why they later established segregation academies Brown v Board of Education. This is why they are currently banning books on and about LGBT people, blacks and Jews in public schools and libraries. This is why states like Florida have passed hateful and homophobic “Don’t Say Gay” laws. This is why the right has been busy attacking teachers and pushing for charter schools to privatize K-12 education. And that is why they are attacking student loan forgiveness.
The right does not want you or your children to learn. They want you and your children to be indoctrinated. They are trying to control curricula and slander anyone who teaches anything that runs counter to the Republican party line. By vilifying majors as the nonexistent “lesbian dance theory,” they are telling us that they know best what we should study, whose stories are worth telling and learning, and what every individual should and shouldn’t know.
You don’t need to think alone. Lauren Boebert will think for you.
This is not surprising when you consider that education tends to make people more progressive. This is not a conspiracy on the part of the left. It’s just that public schools are already indoctrinating children with false information and incorrect or incomplete stories. Texas, by dint of being such a large market for K-12 textbooks, has long controlled the national curriculum – and this has always skewed the right. College presents the first correction of that narrative that most of us have ever encountered and it can be revealing.
To borrow a phrase from the alt-right, learning the true history of this country – and even holding it in my hands, as I did in the archives of Kentucky, Washington, DC, and Mississippi – is like being full of red. Nothing is the same anymore. The same goes for meeting people from different walks of life. It’s harder to demonize a group that your friend or classmate belongs to, even harder to square the bigoted caricature of that group in your mind with the real human in front of you. Education takes us out of our bubbles and, in doing so, expands our worldview, our hearts and our minds.
Therefore, when you hear Lauren Boebert or Ben Shapiro complaining about “lesbian dance theory”, know that it is not really about lesbian dance theory. It’s not even about college. After all, some of the smartest and most compassionate people I know have never set foot on a college campus.
What it is about is access to information. Boebert’s kind of bigotry can only survive if people remain ignorant. Bachelors in literature, humanities and social sciences are his natural enemy, because they shed light on the realities of the human condition and of historical and social injustice.
Conservatives can’t have it, because if they did, their whole hateful and nefarious project would fall apart. They know it. I know it. They just don’t want you to know.