Back to Basics

Here in the Mitten State, our very good governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is running against a political novice whose qualifications seem to be that she resembles the current governor and that she used to host a right-wing TV show: GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon defended blackface, called hijabs oppressive garments, and amplified racist remarks and conspiracy theories during her two years hosting a daily TV show on the far-right media network Real America’s Voice.

Not a nice person, but she is attractive. Stephen Colbert called her ‘Kirkland Gretchen Whitmer’ and followed up with several substantively awful but amusing things she’s said and done. I have been intrigued by her rehearsed talking points (which you can practically see her mentally retrieving), especially the blah-blah she’s been spouting about public schools.

She’s gone full-tilt Youngkin, of course, with the ‘grooming’ and ‘pornography’ accusations, kindergartners being shown how to have sex and pumping up scary nonsense about transgender athletes (the MI HS Athletic Association says there have been 10 documented cases of transgender athletes in the past five years, hardly a trend, let alone a crisis of ‘unfairness’).

But she’s also been talking—repeatedly—about taking public school curriculum ‘back to basics.’  She is clear about what this involves: reading, writing and arithmetic. All the rest is, in her opinion, unimportant, and the reason that our test scores have gone down in Michigan.

Dixon’s four daughters attend private schools. Now, I am a great believer in parents’ rights—the kind that let well-heeled parents send their kids to any school they choose, because of their religious beliefs, the kind of programming they want, or because they think public schools are where the unwashed send their unfortunate children.

If you can afford private school, fine. You go. Just don’t use that as an excuse to cheese out on public education, using deceptive language and–let’s tell it like it is–big fat lies.

As it happens, I know exactly where Tudor Dixon lives—I grew up in that town, and remember factory after factory, places where our dads worked, shutting down in the 1970s and 80s. I know the schools there—I graduated from one of them. People I know and love teach there, and put their trust in public education. My social media stream is awash in photos of their children in those very schools: fall carnivals, Friday night games, and student-of-the-month certificates.

Those are the schools that Tudor Dixon wants to ‘go back to basics’—a term that seems to be evergreen.

“Frankly, our schools have lost their way,” Dixon said, announcing the first of her policies. “Somewhere along the way, radical political activists decided that our schools are laboratories for their social experiments, and our children are their lab rats. And we’re saying enough is enough.”

Well. Veteran political activists teachers may remember other back-to-basics agendas, through the years. Here’s one definition:

Back-to-Basics Movement– During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a perceived decline in the quality of education, as evidenced by declining scores on standardized tests and attributed to students’ choice of so many electives considered to be “soft” academically, led to a back-to-basics movement. Proponents urged more emphasis on basic subjects, particularly reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also science, history, geography, and grammar. They wanted schools not only to teach content but also to help children learn to work hard. They wanted the schools to demand more orderly and disciplined student behavior. They wanted the authority of the teacher to be reasserted, and they desired a more structured teaching style. Finally, back-to-basics advocates often wanted the schools to return to the teaching of basic morality and, in particular, the virtue of patriotism. In many ways, the back-to-basics movement was a reaction against the personal freedom movement of the 1970s, which emphasized drug use and sexual freedom, symbolized by the culture of the “hippies.”

I was there, in the classroom, when a recession in the early 80s triggered a slice-n-dice on the enriched curriculum we were building, in the name of going back to ‘essentials’ which didn’t include music or art. I remember waves of ‘back to basics’ under certain other—Republican—governors, including a proposal to create ‘value schools’ where public school kids would get a ‘basic’ education for less than $5000/per pupil.

Back to Basics has always been code language for ‘spend less money on public education and those kids.’ (Preferably, a lot less.) It’s always been Betsy DeVos’s core mission, and of course Dixon’s campaign is being largely financed by DeVos.

Back to Basics is also a vague and empty idea. Aside from literacy and numeracy, it’s hard to define just what is meant by a ‘basic’ education. The least children need? Foundational principles—and then you’re on your own?

We’ve already stripped comprehensive social studies education and—God help us—recess from the elementary curriculum. Now, apparently, we’re taking interesting books out of the library and relegating active classes to sit-and-get. What else can we yank, because it’s not basic?

Did you notice the definition of the movement in the late 70s was driven by ‘declining scores on standardized tests’? Michigan was the first state to introduce mandated, statewide assessments in the 1970s—the MEAP—so it’s worth asking how those new, baseline scores were declining.

There was a dip in SAT and ACT scores in the 1960s as the first baby-boomers went off to college, and established a new and much larger testing pool. But it’s taken decades and lots of laws to put every student under the testing microscope—is this all so we can take away things that make school fun and joyful?

Back to basics. See it for the propaganda it is.


  1. Thank you, Nancy.

    You are wise and so right to the core! Thank you.

    I love that you are running for office and in the process writing wisdom about politics. May you be elected!

    It seems to me the anti-war movement and rock&roll of the sixties may have been an additional part of “back to the basics” of the 70’s/80’s along with the yearning for what some experienced as “the down-home sameness, safety, order, and good children of the fifties.” I was despised by the Toledo draft board (“God, Guns, Guts)” for serving as an AFSC conscientious objector counselor. It was clear when my draft number, 100, arrived, they were going to send me to the front lines of Vietnam ASAP. And, it was equally clear I had no heart for the military. Life as a child in India nurtured a less violent heart.

    As the too-young father, 21, of two small children, I enrolled in seminary, with its deferment, instead.

    Thank you for stirring the pot of thinking about then and there.

    you are beloved, phil


    Liked by 1 person


    1. ‘Life as a child in India nurtured a less violent heart’– well said.
      It is our culture that inculcates violence, rugged individualism, snap judgment, tribalism, incessant competition. We weren’t born to those traits. And who shapes culture? Our political leaders, our media– families, too, although it’s difficult to counter the tide of anger on screens.

      I didn’t know how or why you chose seminary, but I’m glad you did.



  2. Thank you Nancy for this post! I wish I had come across this prior to the election date, but I still found the content very valuable to reflect on.
    I especially appreciated how you mentioned the underlying message of what “back to basics” is, and this made me think about how making the school more structured/disciplined seems to overlook the individual student’s educational journey. For instance, although giving more authority to teachers could potentially make sure all students are “on the same page,” this also may increase the power dynamic between the teacher and student. I personally think educators can teach better when they learn alongside their students in the ever-changing communities, so if we were to take away their agency and exploration in the classroom, how would teachers be able to best serve them?



    1. Thanks for commenting. Lots of ‘reforms’ we’ve undertaken in the past 20 years are designed to get away from whole-child thinking. You can see this trend in the use of words like ‘efficient’ and ‘data-driven’ in educational research. The underlying question is ‘how can we pack more kids into a single classroom, feed them the same discrete bits of knowledge, resulting in successful metrics?’ Teachers quickly discover that this is neither possible nor satisfying.



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