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The New Know-Nothings

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dunce cap (photo: Thiophene_Guy)

Texas, the extreme right’s political mushroom factory, is at it again. (See photo, right: a mushroom called a “dunce cap.”) Americans had better look out, especially if they still care about knowledge, truth, curiosity, the exploration of new frontiers, the power of literature, art, and, especially, real science.

Gov. Rick Perry’s allies are now attacking state-supported colleges and universities, insisting that research is a waste of time. They want to tie professor compensation to some kind of “how-much-money-do-you-make-us” evaluation. And on and on.

This new Know-Nothing movement is born of the unholy coupling of a home-schooling mentality with the ethics of a pyramid schemer. At bottom most of the recommendations are simply stupid. How stupid?

Consider that one of the reforms would remove the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and other state-supported schools from the national accreditation process. Well guess what? Withdraw from that process and you can’t play NCAA sports. Period. It’s in the rules.

Perry’s cronies might get away with abolishing learning in Texas. But now they are screwing with football, and that just might cost them their hides.

Perry, once an A&M cheerleader, has recently backed slowly away from this particular reform. His spokesman says he thinks the current system of accreditation is now okay. I bet he does.

The attack on higher education is spearheaded by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Much of the TPPF work is predictable:  taxes bad, government bad, education good if secured with a voucher at an exclusive private club, er, I mean school.

Paul Burka gave a very thorough account of the controversy in Texas Monthly:

Some of the reforms that Perry is pushing date back to a May 2008 higher education summit hosted by the TPPF. The governor was in attendance, as were 45 regents from various state colleges and universities. What emerged from this conference were seven proposals—“breakthrough solutions,” as the TPPF put it—to change the way the state’s colleges and universities are governed. At issue is the old bogeyman of fiscal conservatism: inefficient public employees wasting the taxpayers’ money. As Jeff Sandefer, a TPPF board member who advises Perry on education policy, wrote in a paper published two years ago on the TPPF’s website, “It’s time for the Texas Legislature to stop writing ‘blank checks’ to our state colleges and universities for tenured faculty members to spend as they please.” His evaluation of the work faculty members do is “writing academic articles that few people read.

Reeve Hamilton of the Texas Tribune, Ralph K.M. Haurwitz of the Austin American-Statesman and Patricia Kilday Hart of the Houston Chronicle have all done great work exposing these issues. As the Know-Nothing Movement continues to spread across the country, these will be valuable resources.

Anyway, it’s a dangerous game these hucksters are playing, casually sacrificing the human pursuit of knowledge to the gods of a craven capitalism.

Most of these right-wing fanatics suspect that universities are full of liberals. The attacks on university faculty are of a piece with attacks on labor, attacks on lawyers, attacks on Planned Parenthood, attacks on environmentalists, attacks on political organizers. They originate in the very same place as the assault on voting rights.

But I am almost reluctant to point to the obvious political implications of this controversy because it somehow misses it. What does it miss? Threatened is the grandness of the human spirit in unfettered pursuit of knowledge, of discovery. At risk is the wonder a student experiences when reading Shakespeare for the first time, for finally cracking calculus, for unexpectedly helping discover a new miracle drug while doing post-graduate work.

It is the “unfettered” part that the Right Wing cannot stand. It wants control. Absolute control.  That is the really dangerous part. Their new assault on higher education is not about education at all. It is about controlling what people think, what they do, and whom they must obey.

It is an attack on the traditions of free thinking. And it must be stopped.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith