Erasing Culture: The Attack on Critical Education

Today, culture and identity play a significant role in how we define ourselves politically, and the ‘culture wars’ have become entrenched in a left–right polarity. Governments, in limiting resource allocation to spaces of critical education as they are in Australia and the United States, are blocking citizens from participating in meaningful educational programs that, among other things, promote conversations about social values. As others have commented, it appears that we have entered a phase beyond the culture wars: the attempted erasure of culture.

Last month, a new memorandum from the Executive Office of the President of the United States was released to the public. The memo, signed by the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, makes the claim that ‘Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date “training” government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda’. A presidential memorandum is a legal document. This one is a directive, meaning that a specific government agency has now been delegated with the task of bringing the order into effect.

This presidential directive is aimed against the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public institutions. As Vought writes in the memo:

 The President has directed me to ensure that Federal agencies cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions. (…) all agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.

Coded in the phrase ‘divisive and un-American propaganda’ is that a right-wing, white, privileged America is making this claim. Vought has a track record of being anti-Islamic, and throughout his previous role as director of the Republican Study Committee (a caucus that bands together to push a conservative agenda) he made it clear that he felt the economy should be prioritised over such public social provisions as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

‘Prioritising the economy’ is a sentiment ever present in neoliberal Australian politics, with profound implications for public services and critical education, especially at tertiary level. In Australia, the recent announcement by the federal government that fees for many humanities and social sciences (HASS) degrees will be doubled has been met with (valid) alarm. The focus in the media has been on the way these degrees are said to be irrelevant for employment, one irony being, as many have pointed out, that many members of parliament have HASS degrees. HASS degrees are also widely recognised as providing basic intellectual training that supports people in other specialisations and broadly in their work. Crucially, one likely consequence of this fee hike will be to limit socio-economic diversity in the student cohorts taking arts and humanities courses. Prioritising discussion around the flawed argument that HASS disciplines ‘don’t produce jobs’ detracts from understanding the insidious influence underpinning this policy. This policy will see access to subjects based on race, history, sociology and identity greatly diminished and with it the opportunity for students to develop as critical and reflexive citizens. 

Continuing education and suitable funding for educational initiatives are crucial because racism is not only historical—it is both contemporary and dynamic. Pushback against the term ‘postcolonialism’ by scholars and activists highlights how the prefix ‘post’ suggests a fixed chronology that we can ‘look back on’ to form a field of study. Rather, to understand and challenge institutionalised racism requires that we see racism and colonialism as present today and that ongoing commitment is required to combat them. If the insights of CRT are not incorporated into university degrees and public discussion, and incorporated in workplace situations, racism will go unchecked. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), one in five Australians have experienced race-hate talk, while one in twenty have been physically attacked because of their race. The AHRC made clear that three of the priority areas where racism should be addressed are education, workplaces and services provided by government.

As a museum-studies scholar, I can see these three priority areas merging within the museum. It is partly why the US presidential directive first caught my eye: it singles out institutions in the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, art galleries and museums) as key sites of opposition and supposed ‘divisiveness’. The Executive Order, posted to the White House website on 22 September, highlights the Smithsonian Institution as a target. The Smithsonian had somewhere stated that ‘facing your whiteness is hard and can result in feelings of guilt, sadness, confusion, defensiveness, or fear’. The presidential directive claims that ‘Such ideas may be fashionable in the academy, but they have no place in programs and activities supported by Federal taxpayer dollars’.  

Connecting institutionalised racism with political beliefs isn’t new. The point is that it hasn’t, and doesn’t, serve the culturally pluralistic societies we live in. Some European museums and universities have made headway in exploring these complexities, raising for discussion how the culture wars play out in public institutions and how these institutions can be mobilised as a platform for productive exchange. The current work of the Albertinum Museum in Dresden, under the directorship of Hilke Wagner, is one great example, as is the CARMAH institute in Berlin with its new project on challenging populist truth-making in Europe. We can learn a lot in relation to inclusion and critical dialogue from these examples.

Many of us may see the U S presidential directive that forbids taxpayer dollars to be used for CRT education as an extraordinary intervention. I’d argue that, here in Australia we’re closer to this state of affairs than we might think. With HASS fee hikes in our tertiary-education sector and a relatively paltry and delayed $250-million COVID relief-funding package for the arts sector, key areas for CRT awareness in Australia are very much under threat. Independent curator Tian Zhang put it succinctly when she noted that the fight for racial justice is profoundly important for the arts sector and made the point: ‘we hold that responsibility more so because we are the champions of national identity and our individual identity’.

No doubt institutions will continue to find ways to promote and run programs that combat racism. However, the likelihood is that they will have to procure private funding for such initiatives, causing, among other tensions, additional financial burdens. Institutions such as museums need a strong awareness of CRT. What occurs within these spaces is all the more important in the context of the public’s declining trust in government, business, media and NGOs: museums have maintained a strong perception of ‘trustworthiness’. However, their colonial histories, lack of diversity in key decision-makers—boards, committees, directors and department heads—and sometimes problematic attempts at communication are often at odds with their desire to connect meaningfully with, and be inclusive of, diverse constituencies within the communities they serve. To rectify this, some serious strategising is needed.

Three vital strategies are integrated into the training programs that the US administration is seeking to eradicate from public institutions: learning terminology to develop a shared language of communication, establishing protocols for conversations around race, and identifying and analysing everyday racism. While CRT rightly makes the claim that white people benefit from racism, it does not make the claim that any country, race or ethnicity is ‘inherently evil or racist’. For something to be ‘inherent’ it has to be a permanent, essential characteristic. The very purpose of these initiatives is to showcase how institutionalised and structural racism is neither permanent nor essential—a little something I learnt through my HASS degree.

Towards Inanition: Diminishing the Humanities, Communications and Arts at Our Peril

Baden Offord, 23rd June, 2020

Reason, rationality, calculation and measurement need to be transformed by empathy, compassion, imagination, dialogue, creativity and importantly the questioning of authority and power.

About the author

Jasmin Pfefferkorn

Jasmin Pfefferkorn is a researcher, writer and occasional freelance curator living and working on unceded Wurundjeri land. She is a member of the University of Melbourne’s (UoM) Research Unit in Public Cultures and holds a PhD from UoM on emergent museum practice.

More articles by Jasmin Pfefferkorn

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