Egregiously underfunded social studies and civics teachers across the United States have discovered an exciting, shiny new resource that conveniently provides lesson plans, study materials, and even educational seminars geared towards elementary, middle, and high school students.
The lessons are comprehensively detailed and include suggestions for activities, multimedia, and additional reading. More importantly, unlike many educational tools, most of these materials are provided free of cost. There’s only one catch:
It’s stealthy right-wing brainwashing.
These free educational resources are part of an effort by the innocuously named Bill of Rights Institute (BRI) to indoctrinate unsuspecting, impressionable students with a far-right narrative on history, politics, and laissez-faire economics. The charitable organization describes itself as “a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization that works to engage, educate and empower individuals with a passion for the freedom and opportunity that exist in a free society.”
In actuality, it is an education sector within a network of right-wing charities funded by the ultraconservative billionaire Koch brothers in conjunction with a coterie of other rich conservatives and philanthropic organizations. It takes in millions of dollars in donations and claims to have taught the Bill of Rights to more than 5 million students and 50,000 teachers, including directly training 22,000 educators through its constitutional seminars.
The lessons are steeped with a strong emphasis on limited government, religious freedom, free-market economics, and — worst of all — revisionist distortions of the civil rights movement and the history of slavery that paints it as a necessary evil to further freedom and democracy.
Charles and David Koch (pictured right) are the multibillionaire owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States. Tied at No. 8 on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, the brothers are worth an estimated $60 billion apiece and utilize their fortune to aggressively propagate their ultraconservative free-market agenda.
The Kochs’ right-hand man for decades, Richard Fink, laid out their “Structure of Social Change,” the plan they devised in the late 1970’s to shape society with their libertarian ideology. The plan begins with funding academic programs that favor laissez-faire economics, resulting in academic papers promoting the free market and chastising regulation and taxation. Next is establishing and funding ultraconservative right-wing think tanks to repackage the academic work into more easily digestible policy proposals used by “citizen activists” (in reality Koch-funded astroturf and “social welfare” groups like Americans for Prosperity) to pressure lawmakers.
From 2005 to 2014, the Charles Koch Foundation doled out nearly $108 million to colleges and universities. The second greatest recipient of these funds during the ten-year period is Florida State University, whose economics department entered into a 2008 agreement granting input from the foundation regarding its curriculum and hiring decisions, as Dave Levinthal of the Center for Public Integrity reported. One part of the 2008 agreement, which proposed a $6.6 million budget to be financed by the Charles Koch Foundation and unnamed “Donor Partners,” established a “Program for Excellence in Economic Education” within the Gus A. Stavros Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Economic Education, part of FSU’s economics department.
The Stavros Center promotes “Common Sense Economics,” a free-market-focused book coauthored by the director of the Stavros Center, James Gwartney, and accompanying course materials for economics teachers all the way down to the kindergarten level. The center, along with programs at other colleges and universities, hosts training workshops for teachers seeking to offer Common Sense Economics courses at their schools; one such workshop occurred on February 4-5 of this year, hosted by the Excellence in Economic Education program.
Under “Readings Reflective of Common Sense” on the “Fun Readings” page of the Common Sense Economics website, one probably not-so-fun selection sticks out. “Sacrificing Lives for Profits,” written by Common Sense Economics coauthor Dwight Lee, actually argues that we would all be better off if companies cut corners, even risking customers’ lives, in the name of profit:
“The charge that sways juries and offends public sensitivities … is that greedy corporations sacrifice human lives to increase their profits. Is this charge true? Of course it is. But this isn’t a criticism of corporations; rather it is a reflection of the proper functioning of a market economy. Corporations routinely sacrifice the lives of some of their customers to increase profits, and we are all better off because they do. That’s right, we are lucky to live in an economy that allows corporations to increase profits by intentionally selling products less safe than could be produced. The desirability of sacrificing lives for profits may not be as comforting as milk, cookies and a bedtime story, but it follows directly from a reality we cannot wish away.”
The Stavros Center and other similar centers are part of a national movement to push free-market principles on kids all the way down to kindergarten, headed by the national Council for Economic Education, which has more than 200 state and university affiliates, including FSU and many other universities that also receive funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. Many of these affiliates host Common Sense Economics courses and workshops.
Across the country, Koch-funded academic centers and professors are training teachers of all grade levels to propagate the same extreme ideology, even promoting lives lost in the name of profit. Charles Koch’s Youth Entrepreneurs program to indoctrinate grade-school kids with free-market gospel is well-established, with the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies’ The EDvantage program acting as a “curriculum hub” for K-12 educators.
“Corporations like Koch Industries need this generation to make the lives for profit trade-off in order to justify their continued existence, and so they are trying to influence younger and younger students,” writes Ralph Wilson, a doctoral candidate at FSU who has led efforts to expose the university’s Koch ties. “Charles Koch is quoted in Jane Mayer’s recently published book, Dark Money, as saying that youths were crucial to his quest to alter society because ‘this is the only group that is open to a radically different social philosophy.’”
According to the New York Times, the Kochs planned to spend nearly a billion dollars on the 2016 election cycle alone, more than the entire Republican National Committee. Their substantial investment yielded hyper-partisan gerrymandered legislative districts tilted heavily toward Republicans in 2010, which in 2016 facilitated GOP majorities in the House and Senate, their hand-picked Secretary of State, former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, and the unlikely ascension to the presidency of a reality TV star and mendacious con artist named Donald J. Trump.
But it is the Koch brothers’ quiet philanthropic efforts that garner them the biggest bang for their buck. They utilize non-profit foundations and shell corporations to covertly funnel millions of dollars to organizations from behind the shield of anonymity, enabled by the Supreme Court‘s 2010 landmark Citizen United decision.
For instance, take the DonorsTrust Foundation and the Donors Capital Fund. Conservative Transparency reports: It is widely noted that the “Koch Network” has provided DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund with most of its funding. In 2014 (the latest year available), all but one of the contributions to the Bill of Rights Institute came from either the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, DonorsTrust, or the Donors Capital Fund.
The Bill of Rights Institute is funded by the Koch brothers … tax-free.
So what does the BRI teach?
Almost every lesson plan stresses the conservative idea of “limited government” (i.e. minimal taxes and deregulation), best exemplified in this quote from the lesson on “The Limited Role of Government”:
Perhaps the most definitive limitations on government are found in the Bill of Rights. A firewall protects a computer from outside attempts to harm it, so too does the Bill of Rights guard fundamental rights, natural and civil. In fact, far from most Americans’ popular understanding of the Bill of Rights as a “giver” of rights (ask most Americans where they get their right to free speech and the answer will almost always cite the First Amendment), it is actually the “limiter” of government authority.
According to the lesson plan titled “Health Care and the Bill of Rights,” it “focuses on the health care law from multiple constitutional perspectives.” Here are the “multiple constitutional perspectives”:
- Religion: The lesson includes two articles examining cases where the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is said to violate religious freedom.
- Expression: Questions whether or not it is a violation of the First Amendment to require restaurants to include calorie counts?
- Personal Liberty: Students get to read about the ACA’s abortion coverage.
- Criminal Procedure: Focuses on the individual mandate, how one might be criminalized for neglecting or refusing to purchase health insurance.
- Federalism: How Obamacare is indicative of overreaching “Big Government”.
In the lesson on Roe v. Wade, the only quote from the Supreme Court decision included in the material is from the dissenting opinion about the value of life. BRI has produced videos instructing teachers on how to teach the Second Amendment. Lessons selectively apply handpicked excerpts from the Constitution to espouse their right-wing positions on the Defense of Marriage Act and Affirmative Action; there is even a very special lesson dedicated to the exalted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
But it is BRI’s warped notions of slavery and racial discrimination that are especially troubling in particular. A homework help video titled “Slavery and the Road to the Civil War” was so inaccurate, it was removed from the organization’s website. To be fair, not all of the lessons are as blatantly biased as the one that reimagines the raid on Harpers Ferry as: “John Brown deceived himself through self-righteousness, thinking he could end slavery in the United States by freeing and arming slaves to launch a racial war in the South.”
An extended tutorial on “Slavery and the Constitution” devotes significant time arguing why the Founding Fathers shouldn’t be considered racists, insisting that the Founders were aware that slavery was wrong, but they just weren’t “active enough.”
The document even contends that Thomas Jefferson included blacks in the Constitution, and cherry-picks parts of historical documents to argue that the Founders “consistently worked to build a constitutional republic of liberty that equally protected the rights of all Americans.”
When students are finished with the lesson, they will have learned absolutely nothing about slavery’s cruel torture, abuse, and dehumanization of black people. The chapter neglects to offer any details about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the abolitionist movement, or the plantation system. The economic impact of slavery and its significant role in developing the U.S. into an economic superpower is completely ignored by BRI’s instruction.
In the 3,000-plus words on the civil rights movement, there are only four notable black figures mentioned in the chapter: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Thurgood Marshall. BRI mostly explains how freedom-loving Caucasians valiantly fought for equality for all by bravely putting their lives and careers on the line:
As a result of the Brown decision, many white politicians and ordinary citizens engaged in what they called “massive resistance” to oppose desegregation. In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to use the state National Guard to protect black children at Little Rock High School. President Dwight Eisenhower sent in troops from the 101st Airborne Division to compel local desegregation and protect the nine black students while federalizing the Arkansas National Guard to block Faubus. The Little Rock Nine attended school under the watchful eye of federal troops. The principles of equality and constitutional federalism came into conflict during this incident because the national government used the military to impose integration at the local level.
Nothing about fire hoses. Nothing about Freedom Riders. Nothing about lynchings. Nothing about bombings, beatings, murders, and church burnings. Nothing about red-lining. But observe the nod to small-government principles fundamentally at odds with the liberation of black people.
These lessons are cultivating millions of children across America. Most schools and teachers are eager to accept any free educational resource that allows them to stretch their meager budgets. Furthermore, most school districts don’t have the time or the manpower to meticulously examine and evaluate every single teacher’s lesson plans.
BRI also hosts educational seminars for teachers all over the country, instructing them on how to teach history and civics. The informational seminars can even be applied towards continuing education credits required in some states. Furthermore, the online lesson plans are especially tailored to meet the specific education standards for each state.
Combine those factors with two billionaire brothers, an extreme right-wing “free market” ideology, and virtually unlimited resources, and you get a secret brainwashing program infecting the public education system. BRI funding is steadily growing, its reach is widening, and American public schools are systematically starved of resources as public funds are increasingly diverted to charter and private schools — a dangerous mix that ends up in the Koch brothers’ favor.
Particularly disturbing in its underhanded deception is the fact that even if parents examine their children’s lessons, they might not realize the pernicious source of the information because the institute is geared toward teachers, not students. Even educators whose lessons are compiled by a conservative principal or a right-leaning department head might not be aware of the content or the origin of the lessons.
To be fair, it is important for students to learn about the free market. How else would they discover that money actually can buy everything …
* Expanded from original sources:
- “Millions of Students Are Quietly Being Taught the Koch Brothers’ Whitewashed Version of Black History” by Michael Harriot originally published March 15, 2018 at The Root. © 2018 The Root. All rights reserved.
- “The Kochs are brainwashing us: Inside the billionaire industrialists’ chilling economics curriculum” by Alex Kotch originally published May 17, 2016 at Alternet. © 2018 Alex Kotch. All rights reserved.