Politicians, libraries, schools, and the power of knowledge

A Liberal Dose


 I am starting off this week with another academic deep dive, but - as you will see - it has direct relevance to what is going on right now politically.

For the past several decades, people attending grad school programs in the humanities - in any field - have been heavily exposed to the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (pronounced foo-ko), one of the most influential thinkers of the late 20th century. Foucault wrote about the connections between knowledge and power and about the role control plays in those connections. Control, he argued, comes from surveillance and discipline. In other words, people in power (in the modern world) keep close watch on everyone else, control what they know and what they think, and punish them if they get out of line by thinking/saying something that is not the official doctrine. Control the narrative and you control knowledge. Control knowledge and you maintain power. This process, Foucault said, comes through modern institutions like prisons, factories, and schools, the goal being to produce people who are easily controlled.

And that brings us to Florida and Ron DeSantis and all the red-state politicians who are following his lead.

They want to control what you read in the library. They want nothing there that does not conform to their specific political ideology. They want nothing there that could lead anyone to even question their specific political ideology.

They want to control what your kids are taught about in school - even in college, where those “kids” are legal adults with minds of their own. They especially want to control what students are taught about in history classes and how it is presented to them. A couple of good examples came to light last month in new Florida guidelines for middle school history.

One of the new guidelines states that students must be taught that slavery benefited some black people because it taught them useful skills. Not only is this stupid - how do “useful skills” benefit you if you are a slave, if you are still a slave no matter how “useful” you are? - it is patently offensive. The same guidelines stated that, essentially, “both sides” must be represented when teaching about the massacres of black people by white mobs in 1910s/1920s Florida. Because a handful of black people tried to defend themselves, the lessons must stress that there was violence “by and against” black people. Well, gee, that makes it sound like there was fault on both sides, and, if there even was racism it must’ve been both ways… which sounds a lot like absolving the white rioters for their hateful actions. And that “useful skills” business… gee, that sounds like slavery wasn’t really all bad and even had some benefits.

As a historian, I am compelled to point out (whether politicians want me to or not) that these are the same kinds of things used to defend slavery before the Civil War.

Those are just a couple of recent, egregious examples. I could go on and on. But what is the end game?

The end game is to make those historical facts - if they in any way inconvenience or embarrass contemporary white conservatives -disappear as if they never happened. A couple of generations of this kind of education and that is exactly what will happen. And if no one can point out the mistakes of the past because no one has been taught about them… no one can challenge the actions of politicians in the present or be socially aware enough to try to stop them from doing whatever they want to.

Every week, my friend, John, admonishes all of you to “think for yourselves.” Yet, it is conservative politicians who are working overtime to deny you the tools to do that, thereby manipulating you into accepting their ideology (or else) because it is the only one presented to you.

Academics have a word for that. Foucauldian.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here