Let's start with this background from the Holocaust Encyclopedia:
“Schools played an important role in spreading Nazi ideas to German youth in the 1930s. While censors removed some books from the classroom, German educators introduced new textbooks that taught students love for Hitler, obedience to state authority, militarism, racism, and antisemitism. From their first days in school, German children were imbued with the cult of Adolf Hitler. His portrait was a standard fixture in classrooms. Textbooks frequently described the thrill of a child seeing the German leader for the first time.”
Indoctrinating German young people was so important to Hitler and the Nazis that they built an organization for just that purpose: the "Hitler Youth," or Hitlerjugend. As Wikipedia notes: "From 1936 until 1945, it was the sole official boys’ youth organization in Germany and it was partially a paramilitary organization. It was composed of the Hitler Youth proper for male youths aged 14 to 18, and the German Youngsters in the Hitler Youth (Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitler Jugend) for younger boys aged 10 to 14. Girls from 10 to 18 were given their own parallel organization, the League of German Girls.”
Okay, so that was the 1930’s in Hitler's Germany. Why bring it up in America in 2023?
Because in America in 2023, we are seeing this approach take hold in school district after school district, and in state after state. And nowhere is this practice more evident than in the policies of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who is on the forefront of transforming American education into a feral propaganda tool for producing and legitimizing what is euphemistically called “patriotic education.”
“Coercion, conformity, and toxic forms of religious, political, and economic fundamentalism now threaten to destroy education as a democratic public sphere. Institutions of learning at all levels in the red states are becoming laboratories for what I term the ‘Nazification of American education,’ replicating pedagogies of repression that were at work in Germany in the 1930s, “ warns Henry Giroux.
According to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who authored Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present: "He’s clearly readying himself for a national run. And he’s a very dangerous individual. He’s dangerous because he is equally repressive but doesn’t have the baggage of Trump.”
The Republican governor has backed some of the most controversial pieces of legislation, has attacked the rights of members of the LGBTQ community, and hs waged war on Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Azmi Haroun and Charles R. Davis write in Business Insider: “DeSantis has signed controversial bills like Florida’s ‘Don't Say Gay’ bill — which limits teachers’ curriculum around sexual orientation and gender identity in grades Kindergarten through third — and the ‘Stop WOKE Act,’ which restricts how race is discussed in workplaces, schools, and colleges.”
Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies have turned upside down educator John Dewey’s philosophy of education which recognized that citizens needed informed judgments, public dialogue, dissent, and critical exchange.
Instead of using Dewey’s democratic elements of education as central to creating citizens with an open mind and a willingness to engage, DeSantis and the GOP are doing everything they can to remove such practices.
“Not only are these [new] laws aimed at minorities of class and color, but this right-wing GOP attack on education is part of a larger war on the very ability to think, question, and engage in politics. More generally, it is part of a concerted effort not only to destroy public education, but the foundations of political agency,” continues Giroux.
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, said the purge of so-called woke educators, K-12 schools, and higher education, along with books and curriculum, has always been DeSantis’ plan: “This is exactly the chilling effect the Florida governor [is] pushing for.”
The GOP doesn’t want a critical thinking citizenry. If our country had that, they might not ever win a national election again.
By claiming that Florida schools have become a factory of indoctrination of socialism, DeSantis’s indoctrination of youth now has the official power of the state.
In other words, DeSantis is building his own version of the Hitler Youth: DeSantis Jugend.
In his article, Giroux notes that DeSantis and his allies are actively engaged in:
- Attacks on youth considered unworthy (LGBTQ youth),
- Lowering academic standards,
- Subjecting faculty to political litmus tests through “viewpoint diversity surveys” aimed to “gather evidence” on non-compliant faculty,
- Censoring books that do not follow his beliefs,
- Racializing the search for knowledge,
- Supporting certain textbooks as crucial tools for spreading propaganda to students, and
- Controlling teacher’s classroom actions.
These are closely related to the Nazi playbook for making education a tool for indoctrination. The GOP Koch-funded strategy is to accuse Democrats of indoctrination of Wokeness, then double down on their own fascist propaganda.
Here in Kentucky, GOP Rep. Josh Johnson and his gang are using school choice as a precursor to undermine public schools – to create a crisis such that parents either demand power over curriculum or flee their school district and take their dollars with them.
In Kentucky, there is a bill to make school board elections partisan. In the current climate in KY with a super majority of Republicans, there would be zero diversity of thought at the board level and the classroom level. Right-wing GOP schools and school districts would mirror the fascist model described above.
Do we want right wing parents/agents to control most of the operations, pay unqualified teachers to fill in for professionals who have left, pay a paltry sum to substitute teachers, and control the budgets?
If we go back to the Nazi propaganda model and replace Juden [Jew] with black, LBGTQ+, immigrant, Democrat, etc., that will allow GOPers to use these terms to anger their base. You know the rest of the story.
But in the midst of the rise of fascism in our schools, there may be some reason for hope.
Candace McDuffie of WBMA-TV in Alabama reported, “Students in Tuscaloosa, Alabama staged a walk-out earlier this week after allegedly being told that they couldn’t talk about slavery and civil rights during a Black History Month program. The program’s board member J’Niyah Suttles, who is a senior at Hillcrest High School, participated in the walkout and told WBMA-TV that they were instructed to leave out pivotal historical moments because 'one of our administrators felt uncomfortable.'"
Our young people may well indeed reject these attempts at propaganda and indoctrination. But all of us must stand against this attack on thinking critically and holistically. We must support teaching that creates informed citizens; this is the education that has made this country actually great.
Just as we shudder to think of a world of Hitlerjugend in Germany in 1933, we must say no to attempts to turn our current schools into fascist training centers. We must say no to DeSantis Jungen.
Written by John James Alexander, a pseudonym for a long-time Kentucky educator.