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John Whitehead's Commentary

Teaching Totalitarianism in the Public Schools

John Whitehead
"Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime."--U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart

Why are Americans so willing to hand over their rights at the first sign of unrest or disturbance? The reason is simple yet troubling: Americans have come to view freedom as expedient and expendable because that's what they've been taught.

Over the past several decades, America's public schools have increasingly adopted the mindset that students have no rights, and school officials have not been reticent about communicating this message to young people. Indeed, this totalitarian outlook has been reinforced by an educational curriculum so focused on preparing students to enter the machinery of the corporate state that there is little time left over for the things they really need to learn such as what their rights are, how to exercise them, and the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. As a result, the majority of students today have little knowledge of the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and, specifically, in the Bill of Rights.

For example, a national survey of high school students reveals that only 2% can identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; 35% know that "we the people" are the first three words of the U.S. Constitution; 1.8% know that James Madison is considered the father of the U.S. Constitution; and 25% know that the Fifth Amendment protects against double jeopardy and self incrimination, among other legal rights.

Public educators do not fare much better in understanding and implementing the Constitution in the classroom. A study conducted by the University of Connecticut found that while public educators seem to support First Amendment rights in principle, they are reluctant to apply such rights in the schools. Consequently, the few students who do know and exercise their rights are forced to deal with school officials who, more often than not, refuse to respect those rights.

Two recent incidents illustrate how bad things have gotten in the schools:

School officials at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Va.--ironically enough, the much-vaunted home of Thomas Jefferson--ordered the destruction of an eight-page edition of their student newspaper which had already been printed and was awaiting distribution. Why? Because school officials feared that an editorial questioning whether student-athletes need gym class might upset PE teachers. The newspaper, dubiously named The Revolution, was subsequently reprinted minus the editorial.

In Norfolk, Va., two teachers at Norview High School were placed on administrative leave for distributing "unauthorized" materials to their 12th grade government students. The materials, a one-page handout and a video, advised the students about how to deal with police if stopped. Specifically, the materials explain how legal rights apply to police searches of vehicles, homes or individuals and how people can cite those rights during encounters with police.

These two situations barely scratch the surface regarding the hostile nature of today's public school environment, at least in terms of individuality and freedom. For the nearly 50 million students who are attending elementary and secondary public schools, their time in school will be marked by overreaching zero tolerance policies, heightened security and surveillance and a greater emphasis on conformity and behavior-controlling drugs--all either aimed at or resulting in the destruction of privacy and freedom. In fact, as director Cevin Soling documents in his insightful, award-winning documentary The War on Kids (2009), available at, the moment young people walk into school, they find themselves under constant surveillance: they are photographed, fingerprinted, scanned, x-rayed, sniffed and snooped on. Between metal detectors at the entrances, drug-sniffing dogs in the hallways and surveillance cameras in the classrooms and elsewhere, America's schools have come to resemble prison-like complexes. Add to this the fact that young people today are immersed in a drug culture--one manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry--almost from the moment they are born, and you have the makings of a perfect citizenry for the Orwellian society in which we now live: one that can be easily cowed, controlled, and directed.

In this way, with the government's power rapidly increasing while that of the individual is subject to all manner of restrictions, the public schools are a perfect microcosm of what is happening across the nation. And while the notion of free speech remains enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution, censorship--once considered taboo in our freedom-loving culture--is no longer a dirty word. Instead, it is what responsible adults must now do in order to ensure that no one is offended or made to feel inferior.

Yet not too long ago, no one would have thought twice about teachers actually teaching the Bill of Rights or students exercising their free speech rights in a written editorial. Today, such acts are looked upon as radical--even revolutionary. Unfortunately, by teaching such a sinister conformity, school officials are raising up a generation of compliant, unquestioning citizens who will march in lockstep with whatever their government dictates.

If we allow the First Amendment to be unmade by the forces of political correctness or whatever it is that is causing the public schools to be so hostile to freedom, we might as well say goodbye to the Constitution as a whole, for it will count for less than nothing. Civil libertarians have long held that the First Amendment right to free speech applies to everyone, whatever their beliefs. This includes what many people consider offensive or deplorable speech. Unless we want free speech to end up in a totalitarian graveyard, no one, no matter their viewpoint or ideology, should be censored in any state institution--even if some students, teachers and the school bureaucracy might become upset at free speech utterances. When we deny free speech, we cease to be a free society.

What can be done? To start with, we need to make sure that our young people are learning what freedom is really all about. And if that is not happening in the schools, then we need to teach them about freedom at home. More importantly, we need to show our young people in word and deed, i.e. by example, what it means to truly exercise and defend one's freedoms.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

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