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Voices: Guess why Lauren Boebert really doesn’t like ‘lesbian dance theory’ degrees

The Independent logo The Independent 30/08/2022 Skylar Baker-Jordan
Lauren Boebert at TPUSA 2022 © Joe Raedle/Getty Images Lauren Boebert at TPUSA 2022

Last week was my first week of graduate school. At 36, I decided to get a Masters in Appalachian Studies because I believe it will enrich my writing on the region I call home and better enable me to advocate for my neighbors and friends.

I think this is a worthwhile and noble endeavor. Lauren Boebert does not. A clip of the high school dropout and Republican Congresswoman complaining that student loan forgiveness will fund “Karen’s daughter’s degree in lesbian dance theory” went viral over the weekend. “Lesbian dance theory” is not, as far as I’m aware, an actual program (though if it were, that would be cool as heck), but it is a popular right-wing talking point; Ben Shapiro was complaining about it as early as 2016.

That it doesn’t exist, though, is not the point. “Lesbian dance theory” is the perfect conservative dog-whistle for everything they loathe about education: it is inclusive and promotes understanding of marginalized groups; it involves complex and nuanced bodies of knowledge known as “theory,” which is a word they usually misunderstand (sometimes intentionally) to mean “guess”; and it sometimes involves a discipline – like dance – which is not immediately understood as useful to capitalism.

That is, of course, what Boebert’s comments are really about. She isn’t upset that student loan forgiveness will benefit the wealthy because it won’t; the White House estimates that 90 percent of those benefiting earn less than $75,000 a year, and no individual making more than $125,000 a year ($250,000 per household) will benefit. Student loan debt relief will help working- and middle-class Americans, most of whom are not the graduates of elite institutions but of regional universities and community colleges.

When understood then as an attack on education rather than reckless spending, what Boebert, Shapiro, and others on the right really mean becomes much clearer. Conservatives around the world are attacking education. In the UK, the Tories want to strip funding from “low-value” degrees which they don’t feel contribute to the economy. Here in the United States, Republicans have opposed expanding Pell Grants, which help low-income students afford a college education.

I myself was the recipient of Pell Grants, and it is the only reason I was able to afford to attend university. Without them, I would not have had the educational and career opportunities I’ve had. I used my Pell Grants to get a degree in history with a minor in women’s studies – “Mickey Mouse degrees” according to conservatives, but programs which helped me make sense of our world and my place in it and which in turn helped me to become a successful freelance journalist. If that is not good return on investment, I don’t know what is.

There is more to a degree’s value than how much money it produces for capitalism. Theater majors, music majors, creative writing majors – these are the people who make life worth living by producing art we all enjoy. How boring our world would be without people who know how to direct a musical, or produce an album, or edit the next big fantasy epic. I don’t want to live in a world devoid of art – and I certainly do not want to live in a world where art is the sole purview of the wealthy, as acting has become in the UK.

These degrees in arts, humanities, and the social sciences also open our eyes, wherein lies the crux of the issue. Conservatives are attacking education at all levels because they see it as a threat to their hegemony. Even attending a regional university in Kentucky opened my eyes to injustices I’d never seen before and introduced me to people from all walks of life.

I made my first Muslim friend, my first immigrant friend, and my first transgender friend all in college. I learned about the deep roots of systemic racism in our nation by studying the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I learned how to advocate for myself as a gay man by becoming president of our college’s gay-straight alliance and, eventually, student body vice president. College took a sheltered and naïve boy from eastern Kentucky and turned him into a worldly, open-minded man.

Conservatives can’t have that. This is why they set up segregation academies after Brown v Board of Education. It’s why they’re currently banning books about and by LGBT people, Black people, and Jewish people in public schools and libraries. It is why states like Florida have passed odious and homophobic “Don’t Say Gay” laws. It’s why the right has been busy attacking teachers and pushing for charter schools to privatize K-12 education. And it is now why they are attacking student loan forgiveness.

The right does not want you or your children to learn. They want you and your children to be indoctrinated. They are seeking to control curricula and vilify anyone who teaches anything which falls afoul of the Republican party line. In vilifying majors such as the nonexistent “lesbian dance theory,” they are telling us that they know best what we should study, whose stories are worth telling and learning, and what every individual should and should not know.

You don’t need to think for yourself. Lauren Boebert will do your thinking for you.

That isn’t surprising when you consider that education tends to make people more progressive. This isn’t a conspiracy on the part of the left. It’s just that public schools are already indoctrinating kids with false information and incorrect or incomplete histories. Texas, by dint of being such a large market for K-12 textbooks, has long controlled the national curriculum – and that has always skewed rightwing. College presents the first correcting of that narrative most of us have ever encountered, and it can be revelatory.

To borrow a phrase from the alt-right, learning the true history of this country – and even holding it in my hands, as I did in archives in Kentucky, Washington, DC, and Mississippi – is like being red-pilled. Nothing ever looks the same again. The same is true for meeting people from diverse walks of life. It’s harder to demonize a group your friend or classmate belongs to, more difficult still to square away the bigoted caricature of that group in your mind with the flesh-and-blood human in front of you. Education gets us out of our bubbles, and in doing so, expands our worldview, our hearts, and our minds.

Therefore, when you hear Lauren Boebert or Ben Shapiro complain about “lesbian dance theory,” know that it isn’t actually about lesbian dance theory. It isn’t even about college. After all, some of the most intelligent and compassionate people I know never set foot on a college campus.

What this is about is access to information. Boebert’s brand of bigotry can only survive if people remain ignorant. Arts, humanities, and social science degrees are her natural foe, because they shed light on the realities of the human condition and historic and social injustice.

Conservatives can’t have that, because if they did, their entire hateful and nefarious project would fall apart. They know it. I know it. They just don’t want you to know it.

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