Here’s a tip for Marxist revolutionaries determined to bring a worker’s paradise to America by means of a long march through our institutions: Choose your targets carefully. Colleges and universities are obviously fertile hunting grounds. So is Hollywood. Even Fortune 500 companies can be pressured to do your bidding. The capitalists really would sell you the rope with which you might hang them. But, comrades, don’t waste your time with America’s public schools. There will be no end to your frustration.

This is not intended as praise of our public schools. No one will mistake our contemporary K–12 system for a bulwark of anti-Communist, patriotic sentiment. It’s simply that American education lacks the rigor, focus, and self-discipline to march in lockstep on anything, let alone the commitment and perseverance required to whip schoolchildren into tiny Red Brigades, an American Komsomol. We can’t even agree on the rock-bottom basics: how to teach kids to read, or whether a student who assaults a teacher should be suspended or just needs a hug. Turn America’s 3.7 million teachers into ideologues committed to revolution? It would be easier to turn house cats into a synchronized-swimming team.

The fragmented structure of American public education—14,000 school districts; 100,000 schools; and a professional culture that empowers even unproven and inexperienced teachers to decide what to teach—is not accounted for in James Lindsay’s latest book, The Marxification of Education. Instead, Lindsay describes a top-down education system that is “unambiguously Marxist” and that long ago “abandoned the idea of educating American children…because they want to undermine, destroy, and replace American society.”

Those decades of mediocrity that no amount of spending or accountability has seemed able to dent, much less fix? They were strategic, according to Lindsay. The goal of American public education is not reading, writing, and arithmetic, but for our children to be “groomed into political literacy.” In Lindsay’s telling, you can become convention-ally literate only by accepting the terms laid out by the powerful and privileged about what it means to be educated, and therefore you submit to oppression. Skills valuable to the existing social, political, and economic order are avoided or disrupted: “Teaching people to read (or do math, etc.) is of low priority, as that is bourgeois knowledge not oriented toward political change.”

Lindsay was co-author with Helen Pluckrose of the splendid 2020 book Cynical Theories, which was warmly reviewed in these pages by Tal Fortgang; that tome deftly dismantled critical theory and the intellectual underpinnings of social-justice thought and practice. Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian had made names for themselves as a band of academic merry pranksters, sneaking a series of bogus papers into peer-reviewed academic journals, among them a credulous discussion of “rape culture” among canines at Portland dog parks, and an essay that rewrote sections of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in postmodern jargon, which was accepted for publication by a feminist journal. These stunts exposed the ideological corruption and sheer vacuousness of politically oriented academic fields that end in the word “studies.”

The puckish humor of the hoax papers is not present here. Unless Lindsay is now putting one over on conservatives, he has not come to warn us of ideological threats sneaking into American K–12 education under the cover of social and emotional learning, “culturally responsive” pedagogy, restorative justice, or critical race theory. It’s too late for that. The ship has sailed. The “theft of education” is complete. Schools have been transformed utterly and with a single focus: Marxist indoctrination and brainwashing of our children. According to Lindsay, the architect of this transformation is Paulo Freire, an obscure Brazilian figure almost entirely unheard-of outside colleges of education. Indeed, most of The Marxification of Education is devoted to a detailed analysis of Freire’s life and work. “It exaggerates none at all to state that Paulo Freire is at the theoretical center of everything happening in colleges of education today, and from there our nation’s schools,” Lindsay writes. “A succinct way to phrase the consequences of his influence on education is that our kids go to Paulo Freire’s schools.

Though Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a hardy perennial on the syllabi of colleges of education, Lindsay’s description exaggerates quite a lot. The defining characteristic of America’s K–12 public education is not that Marxists are in control of it, but that no one is. The quality of education a child receives can vary wildly not just from state to state, or from one district or school to another, but across the hallway of the very same school.

The greatest misconception among those who have never taught (Lindsay gives no indication of having set foot as an adult inside a school) is the assumption that states, districts, or school administrators approve curricula and that teachers mechanically implement them. In many schools and districts, curriculum “adoption” is barely a suggestion. Nearly every teacher in America creates, adapts, or “differentiates” lessons, often scouring the Internet for teaching materials on the widely accepted idea that they are uniquely positioned to “meet the children where they are” and determine how best to engage bored, struggling, or uninspired students.

The common practice of choose-your-own-adventure teaching blends with the fad-happy nature of education more broadly to create ideal conditions for ideologues, opportunists, and grifters of every imaginable stripe to peddle curricula, programs, and professional development for teachers. Committed progressives from John Dewey to the present day have viewed schools and children as irresistible targets of opportunity to remake American society to their liking. But no reliable mechanism exists for the imposition at scale of their various projects. 

The Marxification of Education makes no attempt to persuade the reader. Lindsay takes it as obvious and beyond dispute; he is merely offering a postmortem: “The mechanism for this theft of education was straightforward and generational: capture and transform the colleges of education; mold a generation of teachers; program every generation of students thereafter….Kids still go to school, but school isn’t school anymore. The teachers have been replaced with activists, and education has been turned into ‘conscientization,’ the process of seeing the world from the so-called standpoint of the oppressed.”

His primary error is to conflate a single strain of thought in teacher training, however prominent it might be, with the entire enterprise of American public education. Where the rest of us see decades of failure, indifference (if not hostility) to public accountability, and an obdurate refusal to train teachers for classroom success, Lindsay sees cunningly competent ideologues taking over education at warp speed. Colleges of education were “captured almost entirely” by disciples of Freire “by no later than 1995 and the intervening quarter century has seen enough turnover of the teachers to have fundamentally remade our schools and thus education itself,” he explains. Without question, Freire looms large—too large—on the syllabi of too many American colleges of education. He is afforded a place of privilege in teacher-preparation programs his work doesn’t merit. But to Lindsay’s conspiratorial mind, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not a book at all, but something like a pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, claiming the souls and agency of all who come in contact with it.

I learned more about Paulo Freire from his book than in ed school, where it quickly became clear to me and nearly everyone in my cohort of new teachers that he would be of no use whatsoever to me or my South Bronx fifth-graders. The notion that schools of education might be places where things go in one ear and out the other seems not to have occurred to Lindsay.

Without question, the threats that Lindsay identifies and enumerates are serious and legitimate cause for concern. Parents are right to be alarmed over the rising prominence of “social and emotional learning” and mental-health mission creep in public education, schools’ enthusiastic usurping of parental authority, and teachers’ unabashed activism on behalf of social-justice causes. You can even trace some of that back to Freire. But raising the aimless drift of public education and decades of poor performance to the level of a Q-Anon conspiracy undermines the seriousness of the critique.

Lindsay is not a fool, and someone with a history of spoofing editors cannot be trusted entirely. Thus it seems nearly inconceivable that he earnestly believes that American primary and secondary education is now wholly under Marxist control, or that every child in America attends “Paulo Freire’s school.” His own long march appears to be building a case that wokeism is a religion and that it’s therefore a violation of the Constitution’s establishment clause for it to be preached in schools. He hints as much when he writes that reading, writing, and math have been replaced with “a form of religious instruction that our state fully endorses, funds, supports, promotes, and demands.”

Lindsay has lately confused many of his fans on social media by attacking school choice—which would seem an obvious exit strategy to escape Marxist education—as “a con” and “a trap,” just another vector for government mind control. Lindsay has attracted a significant following among angry parents and seems eager to play Svengali to the rapidly emerging parental-rights movement. The Marxification of Education is dedicated to the two founders of Moms for Liberty, which has emerged in the post-Covid era as among the most potent education-advocacy movements of the last several decades, attracting more than 100,000 members and running up an impressive string of victories in state legislatures and on local school boards. They have galvanized parent discontent with Covid-related school closures and masking rules, and discomfort with gender ideology and critical race theory, into a potent political force in dozens of states. Alas, Moms for Liberty seems recently to be drifting into Lindsay’s orbit, lending credibility to his histrionic theories in its videos and podcasts and hosting him at public events. This can only end badly for a movement that has already been unjustly maligned as a hotbed of paranoid right-wing extremism. The fastest way to lose credibility, political momentum, and moral authority is to become exactly what your critics say you are.

Photo: Jan Maximilian Gerlach

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