Jun 22, 2021 • 42M

Podcast: Rick Perlstein on Moral Panic and Public Education

The historian of the American right discusses organized conservative discontent.

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An artifact from an earlier wave of cultural strife: E. Merrill Root’s Brain Washing in the High Schools (1958).

The current wave of agitation and law-making against (so-called) Critical Race Theory is just the most recent example of public education becoming a site for cultural strife. It echoes many earlier battles over teaching evolution, prayer in the class room, sex education, and the rights of LGBTQ teachers and students. 

In particular, the anti-CRT movement – which is being orchestrated by think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute – is following almost exactly the same script developed by the American right in the culture wars of the 1980s.

In his latest book, Reaganland, the historian Rick Perlstein chronicles a blood struggle over school text books that broke out in 1974 in Kanawha County, West Virginia. New textbooks inculcating comparative religion drew parallels between ancient myths and the stories in the Bible. This upset some fundamentalist parents, a group of whom went so far as to dynamite a school building. The Heritage Foundation sent lawyers to West Virginia to defend the alleged bombers. Perlstein quotes a Heritage Foundation leader explaining that by forming an “alliance on family issues” they could hope to teach the West Virginia insurgents to support other concerns like “the unjust power that has been legislated for union bosses.” As another right-wing activist put it, “We organize discontent.” 

The same story is now playing out over teaching anti-racism, with some of the same institutions. To understand the parallels and what they suggest for current political strategy, I talked with Rick Perlstein, who brought his encyclopedic knowledge of the American right to bear.

(Text edited by Emily M. Keeler. Podcast edited by Julia Elinore Peterson)

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