Ron DeSantis is a darling of the conservative world — except perhaps for Donald Trump — after his smashing reelection victory on a night when Democrats otherwise did fairly well. Conservatives were already favorably inclined toward DeSantis because he has leaned into the culture wars, especially in education. While some of his efforts have generated major headlines, one has flown below the radar. On Nov. 7, public school students in Florida joined students in four other states — Utah, Texas, Alabama and Virginia — in memorializing “the 100 million people who have fallen victim to communist regimes across the world.”
This state-mandated mourning came in recognition of Victims of Communism Memorial Day timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Trump administration created the holiday in 2017 at the request of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC), a right-wing nonprofit organization.
The effort spotlights how an argument used by advocates of public schooling to build support for universal public education has become a potent weapon for conservatives to push their cultural agenda on American children.
In the early 19th century, advocates of public education, like Horace Mann, argued that schools would be a setting to cultivate a shared national identity. Mann and other common-school reformers who promoted universal childhood education argued that schools were essential for democracy because they could instill a shared “Americanism” in the hearts and minds of the country’s next generations. Beyond teaching literacy and math, they would socialize children and prepare them to be productive members of their communities. In this way, schools would develop citizens who could find common ground in a diversifying — but still prominently White, Christian and patriarchal — society. This potential meant that schools promised to be the cure for a long list of social ills including poverty, alcoholism, joblessness and other “vices” stereotypically ascribed to Catholic, Jewish and non-White immigrants.
Nationalism was reformers’ foremost argument for institutionalizing public education, as historian Cody Dodge Ewert has written. Public education was (and is still) under the purview of the states, but framing public schools as a nationalist cause made the idea popular at a time when the rapidly developing country was searching to stake out its own identity.
However, in “making schools American,” advocates of public schooling politicized them in such a way that it benefited cultural and social conservatives who wanted to ensure that the national identity remained rooted in White Protestant patriarchy. Right-wing opponents of liberal democracy thus pounced on the idea of compulsory education to promote their preferred visions of patriotism and nation-building.