My dissertation looked at how far-right narratives circulate through the ensemble of alternatives to public schools that conservative and far-right groups use to educate— homeschools, far-right online courses, social media and femininity guidebooks. It asks how female submission and white male heroism are transformed into facts, and how they are taught through creative and supposedly natural pedagogy.
My Page 99 discusses how the far-right take up left-wing critiques of public schools and alternative pedagogical practices, investing them with ideologies of a putative natural order which sustains inequality. It begins like this:
The far-right shares with the left an opposition to standardized testing, which it uses to characterize equality as dull bureaucracy, corporate cultural marxism, or trans-totalitarianism. It also borrows from many progressive alternatives to standardized testing; the white nationalist Ayla Stewart advocates nature and arts centered methods of teaching we commonly associate with the left and celebrates Waldorf schools for love of culture (no prizes for guessing whose). Waldorf schools are valued for their German origins and embrace of theories of a spiritual Rassenkampf or an inner racial evolution (Staudemeier 1998). However, the far right also embrace nature based learning, celebrating sending their little boys out for sticks and exploring bugs and leaves – this is the kind of active, discovery based, real life curriculum father of democratic education Dewey or my hippie brother would love. In natural pedagogy, playful childhood is deeply entangled with beliefs about human nature and the natural world in a deep pedagogy of inequality. For White nationalists parents, nature is a celebration of the natural order, including differences of age, but also race and gender, while Christians call for nature as god’s ordered liberty — both frame nature as building hierarchy and masculinity. Outdoor education has long been a pedagogy of desirable forms of white manhood, originating out of anxieties of middle class white weakness in the face of industrialization and the increased swarthiness of immigrants (Bederman 1998). Early school reformers thought young affluent boys needed a period of “wild” education to give them a virility that could withstand the decadence and effeminacy of civilization, something echoed in current discussion of “the war on boys” in public schools, which are dumbing down, demasculinizing, eating away at boys’ virility in ways Victorians would understand.
This comes from my second findings chapter, where the right transforms the ideal woman I analyze in chapter one into nature’s teacher, a sacred loving mother who is threatened by – or who battles- bureaucratic, egalitarian public schools. It looks at how femininity and family shape anti-school discourses that animate right-wing anti-state politics and far-right conspiracies as they teach their children to be “nature’s aristocracy.” In some ways I don’t think it is representative of my dissertation; there are no bad sex jokes or semiotics. Also, the focus is more on the pedagogies and ideologies of home education rather than on homeschool media as the public, politicized performance of national motherhood.
While it has less of my angry (auto)ethnographic writing, finally, it reflects how my work draws on my own experience — a seemingly left-wing family moving rightward– and with the broader question of how porous the borders between left and right can be. How do these movements and overlaps happen? Is it a question of shared practices, tastes? of shared critiques? Or, more troublingly, of shared ideals of gender and tradition?
Where I find similarities with both my dissertation and my current research interest is in the interrogations of nature and naturalization, as sites for positive experiences of terrible ideas—here how inequality is re-semiotized as individualism, as desirable forms of masculinity, pleasant childhoods or iconoclastic knowledge. My current project, granola nazis and neoliberal mystics, looks at this re-semiotization of hierarchy in the world of spiritual and natural wellness, sites where fascist forms of personhood are shaped, circulated, and sold in online courses like the vibe mindset where you “manifest your desired reality”. This is what really matters to me in research on right wing semiotics, how it makes inequality into meaning, desire, fun.
Also, I really hated arcadia nature camp and that year everyone was a lumbersexual.
Catherine Tebaldi. 2022. “Alt-Education: Gender, language, and education across the right.” University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Phd dissertation.