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New College of Florida's attack on gender studies gets 'classical liberal arts' all wrong

This is part of a bigger plan to instantiate the education of ignorance at an institutional level.

Earlier this month, the New College of Florida board of trustees — six of whom were appointed this year by Gov. Ron DeSantis — voted to abolish its gender studies major as their latest effort in “reforming” the college. Earlier this year, the board successfully ousted the school’s leadership, including its president and provost, and abolished its diversity, equity and inclusion office and programming.

Noted critical race theory crusader and New College of Florida trustee Chris Rufo boasted of these developments in a recent Substack blog, which he described as part of the college’s mission “to restore classical liberal education and to revive the pursuit of transcendent truth — a mission ultimately incompatible with the disciplines of gender studies and queer theory, which are explicitly opposed to the classical conceptions of the true, the good, and the beautiful.”

I believe the language of restoring a “classical liberal arts” education will quickly become the centerpiece of conservatives’ strategy to instantiate their education of ignorance at an institutional level.

Cleverly seizing upon the cultural vibe of the word “renaissance,” which is a sexy way of saying “rebirth,” the notion of returning to a classical liberal arts education evokes romantic nostalgia for tradition, the life of the mind and the pursuit of learning. But the renaissance education that Rufo speaks of is not that of a return to ancient Greece or even of the "Dead Poets Society.” Nor is it a return to the trivium (rhetoric, logic, grammar) or the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music), or the homoerotic fraternity of the schools of Socrates or Plato or Robin Williams. Rather, as Rufo tells us, this particular classical liberal arts education is the Neoplatonic pursuit of the “transcendent truth[s]” of “the true, the good, and the beautiful.” Values that are objective and therefore irrefutable. For Neoplatonists who interpret the works of Plato through a Christian lens, “God is truth, goodness, and beauty.” This is doctrinal Christianity, explicit in the catechism of the Catholic Church. This call for a renaissance is, literally, a call for the Renaissance — the historical era in part defined by the synthesis of Platonic ideas and Christianity. 

But Rufo is smart enough to abstain from mentioning religion, and specifically Christianity, in his Substack manifesto about liberal arts education. This omission is presumably an attempt to avoid criticism concerning the foundational American, First Amendment principle of the separation of church and state.

This questioning threatens the very integrity of the societal status quo that conservatives seek to reinforce through their education-of-ignorance model.

Yet, the direct allusion to Catholicism and to Christianity, especially in terms of “morality,” is clear. And it is clearly the reason why Rufo claims that gender studies — which, as someone who has studied and taught this discipline, is simply the rigorous examination of how arguably the human dynamic and social and political roles of gender have acquired meaning and shaped humanity and our institutions for centuries and across cultures — is antithetical to his notion of a classical liberal arts education.

Surely, the study of gender and especially the language and sociology of gender is part of the trivium. But the study of gender — the critical examination of gendered language, gendered roles and gendered relations — fundamentally questions religious “truths” about gender. And this questioning threatens the very integrity of the societal status quo that conservatives seek to reinforce through their education-of-ignorance model.

“Does the educational system exist in order to promulgate knowledge, or is its main function rather to universalize a society’s tacit agreement about what it has decided it does not and cannot know?” This question, posed by the late Harvard professor Barbara Johnson more than 35 years ago, lies at the heart of this culture war raging over the purpose and objective of education in America. 

Conservative culture warriors and so-called education reformers want to transform the American education system away from knowledge acquisition, critical analysis, critical thinking and critical writing skills to a system that does nothing less than inculcate an ideology of ignorance. Indeed, the word critical itself is the opposite of ignorance, which is why conservatives began their full-throttled and malicious attack on education by focusing on CRT. 

Why this strategy? Conservatives need Americans to be unquestionably loyal to their ideology to maintain the societal status quo and traditional values that reinforce and maintain their political, economic and social power. 

Rufo himself has plainly admitted to this strategy: “I’ve unlocked a new terrain in the culture war,” he told Michelle Goldberg at The New York Times in 2021 about his weaponization of critical race theory to foment public outrage. In a separate discussion that year with Benjamin Wallace-Wells at The New Yorker, Rufo claimed “‘Critical Race Theory’ is the perfect villain.” 

On Substack, Rufo has referred to this strategy as creating a “linguistic shift” by first misinterpreting and then attacking scholarly disciplines and modes of learning — from critical race theory to diversity, equity and inclusion to gender studies — to undermine the existing education system. Replacement, or in conservative parlance, “reform,” constitutes the next step in their strategy to create a society of complacent, unthinking and faithful citizens.  

For many of us, to interrogate so-called transcendental truths — to ask questions, to examine, to be critical and to think critically — is the epitome of learning. It is, to quote Johnson once more, being unfaithful — to one teacher, to one belief system, to one way of thinking. And it is, frankly, by definition the polar opposite of the ideological indoctrination that conservatives seek in their religious reformation of our education system.