Now that we’ve looked at what Critical Race Theory is and why many people resist it, it’s time to tackle a question my lawyers have advised me not to answer.
Part III: Should Critical Race Theory be taught in school?
The debate over whether to teach CRT in the classroom represented a titanic political collision. Taking place at a busy intersection, two heated battles have converged to create a sizable war.
One battle is over history. We often think of history as a series of facts written down in dusty nonfiction books that teach us who did what when and how. Yet, that’s not all history is. (Granted, that’s what it is in some classrooms, which is why I meet many adults who tell me how much they hated their history classes.) The field of history should instead be our best effort to create meaning out of prior events. Knowing who did what when and how are critical steps toward historical understanding, but they’re just the first steps. These steps should guide us on a path toward answering the greatest question of all: Why? Why did historical events unfold the way they did, and Why should we care?
Of course, the Why question is toughest to answer. Yes, it entails a longer answer than a name or date, but Why is also often a question open to interpretation. The Why question not only deals with the motivations of historical actors, but also why certain events or people are considered sufficiently important to learn.
These are frustratingly subjective questions. Ask a historian to identify history’s most important events, artistic creations, inventions, or people, then ask them Why. Their responses will vary and likely give you just as much insight into the historian as the history they choose to tell you. In my book, for example, you would have learned that I think scientists are more influential than artists, or that the printing press is literally more influential than Jesus, but I’m sure there are art historians and Christians who would disagree with me and perhaps even pray for my eternal damnation.
History is essentially the biased distilling of history’s countless events into something more palatable by filtering out “what’s important” from “what isn’t.” Whoever controls these interpretations determines what’s important about the past.
Importantly, whatever a society finds important about its past will guide the priorities of its present — which in turn directs its future. Imagine there’s a liberal historian and a conservative historian at State University, and you’re enrolled in their American history classes. You ask them the same question: “Why did the American Revolution happen?” State U’s liberal historian might lean into the idea of a young and spirited colonial population looking to upend traditional power dynamics to redistribute power from a monarchy to a citizenry. They’d be right. Alternatively, the conservative historian might frame it as Enlightened men fighting for economic freedom through securing natural rights denied to them by Britain. They’d also be right. These historians could craft an entire curriculum around their preferred central theme, and they’d leave their students thinking that’s the only way to see it. These students may even interpret more recent history, including current events, through the prism constructed by their professor. (“What should the government do?” “Democratize our political system! This is America!” “No, no, just cut taxes and regulation! This is America!”)
Since how we view history determines how we view our society today, whoever gets to identify and frame history’s important events has a lot of soft power over citizens and leaders. Every generation fights over the past, which is a way of fighting over the future. Good historians, therefore, are critically important to a successful society (and dramatically underpaid, if I do say so myself).
And yet, bad historians abound. Even more complicated: good historians can have good-faith disagreements about historical interpretations. Part of the process of codifying and studying history is the debate about what should be included and how it should be portrayed. It happened during the Middle Ages, during the Renaissance, during the Enlightenment, during the American Revolution, during westward expansion, during the Civil War, during the Great Depression, during the Civil Rights Movement, and it’s still happening today.
The fight over Critical Race Theory is but the latest clash over how we interpret history and apply its lessons. This debate frequently occurs in education, where teachers, schools, and elected boards of education have to draft and implement curricula.
This reality sets up the second road at our busy intersection: what role do schools have in teaching our children about sensitive, moral topics? This debate is as old as formal education, but it has turned hyperpartisan in recent years. Covid not only killed a million Americans and disrupted the lives of millions more, but it also helped fester another disease: distrust toward our public education system.
In 2020 and 2021, distance learning gave parents a peak at Zooming and Meeting teachers of varying competence delivering lessons on varying topics in varying ways. I’m sure most of us did our best, but I’m also sure none of us were at our best. In some cases, looming parents were able to pull out damning pieces of evidence against teachers’ instruction or choice of content.
Concurrent to distance learning, meanwhile, was the fallout from George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020. Our society was rocked by the incident and the social movements that followed in response, from peaceful protests to damaging riots. Many teachers felt compelled to pivot from their normal curriculum to addressing a delicate issue, and they had to attempt these untested lessons about a sensitive topic during the most visible moment of their careers. Some of these lessons veered into CRT territory, whether the legitimate kind of CRT from Part I or the mangled version from Part II. Some used the controversial 1619 Project (discussed in Part II), which offered supplements to a history curriculum. Many parents were not happy.
Years of conservatives complaining about left-leaning public schools and universities had already well cleared partisans’ throats, but the 2020 to 2021 pivot unleashed a new level of fury. The George Floyd incident was rough. So were the subsequent riots. So were two suspiciously senile septuagenarians demanding our votes. So were Covid and two-week isolations lurking behind every cough. These were monstrous backdrops that strained our society, and the education system was no exception. Months of arguments about school closures, mask mandates, and vaccination rules reached a crescendo in the debate over how to teach about race and discrimination to our children.
History and our kids: two highways of partisan hostility converging during what felt like the most acrimonious political discourse in generations.
All right, enough ignoring the question. Should CRT be taught in our schools?
My answer is as complicated as the topic, which is why I needed over seven thousand words just to get to an answer that could make some sense.
We should first identify what level of school we’re talking about. At universities, particularly at the graduate level, Critical Race Theory is absolutely appropriate. Taken after introductory survey classes, most college history courses focus on a specific place and time, and many of those have a theme through which to shed new light on perhaps stale eras. When getting my Masters in American Studies, for example, I took a rewarding course called “Sports and American Society,” and I retained more about American history in that class than I did in nearly every other American history class I had taken from high school to that point, simply by re-analyzing American society through the sports lens, a process that cross-examined and therefore bolstered my knowledge. (Shout out to Trinity College Professor William Goldstein!)
A course on Critical Race Theory would absolutely fit as a college social sciences course, and it should be permitted and encouraged. Crucially important, of course, would be a professor open to alternative points of view that might challenge CRT. In fact, if the course isn’t willing to be critical of CRT, then I’d suggest an entirely separate course exist as a rebuttal.
The younger the clientele, the trickier CRT in the classroom gets. I don’t think our K-8 students are ready for a full-blown CRT lesson. I’m no expert at those grade levels, however, and would defer to those who are. I would think that basic, universal lessons that can soften the ground for later CRT discussions are appropriate. Themes of inclusion, heterogeneity, and empathy for those less fortunate are lovely and applicable in the younger grades, and they’re foundational to future, more grueling lessons on racism.
My experiences are at the high school level, where I think many students are ready for the real kind of CRT discussed in Part I. I’ve seen students who are able and eager to talk about race in America, and they would be open to CRT discussions, both in support of and opposition to it. Indeed, in my Government class, students have often shown appreciation of finally hearing the reasonable-sounding “other side” of issues that young people from liberal Connecticut households rarely hear.
We also consider uncomfortable examples of de facto segregation in modern American society, including how our mostly white town funnels students to our mostly white high school, while a bordering urban town has a mostly black high school despite being a five-minute drive away. We look at various Supreme Court cases that dealt with affirmative action in college, a topic my juniors and seniors can understand as well as any adult, great fodder for healthy discussions about the policy’s merits. We also read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which calls out mushy moderates like me for preferring slow-moving, pragmatic consensus-building over more aggressive approaches to fighting injustice. And yet in addition to all that we’re also reading the Declaration and the Constitution and some Federalist Papers and we’re breaking down the Bill of Rights across weeks of lessons and we consider all the other stuff that helped create an often great country. It’s possible for a teacher and their students to recognize the value in being tethered to Enlightenment principles while also entertaining a critical theory that questions them. It’s possible.
And if it’s possible for students to keep two competing ideas in their head at the same time, it’s possible for American voters to do the same, all evidence to the contrary. Fair enough, CRT and racial discrimination are delicate topics. But so are abortion, gun control, and war. High school students, on the verge of becoming voters, should be taught about these important issues, their relationship to ideology and partisanship, and the pros and cons to laws and other initiatives that address these issues. These aren’t topics that should be limited to esoteric graduate classes. All our votes count the same.
That said, from abortion to CRT, there’s a high degree of difficulty for the teacher. The deftness required to fairly address these topics, while allowing students space to share their viewpoints while also not permitting so much space that discussion turns acrimonious, is not inconsiderable. A teacher’s Critical Race Theory lesson might stray from legitimate CRT to something a bit closer to the negative stereotype some people imagine CRT to be. Lessons that make white kids feel guilty for being born white are obviously wrong. Teachers shouldn’t make students feel ashamed because of the color of their skin. Any lesson that does so is a bad lesson, and, further, it’s not even CRT. In addition to bad-faith CRT opponents, some people picture the wrong stereotypes of CRT because there actually have been teachers who tried to implement the stereotype, which understandably led to problems and angry parents.
At times, it seems like the debate over whether to teach Critical Race Theory is merely one of semantics. For the third consecutive post, I’d like to emphasize the value of “defining our terms.” Teaching about the history and impact of race in America has broad support, whereas dividing us by our race and describing one race as evil as our evil country has little support. Some people think the former is CRT. Some people think it’s the latter. The former can work in high schools. The latter should stay far away from them.
That being so, the decision of whether to teach CRT should be made by people on the ground who can better hash out semantical disagreements. Whether to allow a teacher to teach CRT is a good conversation to have between a teacher and a department head or school administrator, vetting the specifics along the way.
However, the recent CRT battle goes much further than this reasonable conversation between qualified professionals. Instead, some state legislatures are banning CRT and CRT-adjacent instruction.
There is some irony here. Conservatives these days generally have the upper hand when it comes to issues of speech. Anti-speech progressives — I really can’t call them “liberals” — much more frequently advocate for things like safe spaces, censoring misinformation, and deplatforming misinformants, as we saw with Joe Rogan. However, just as trying to silence Rogan led to more Spotify subscribers and Rogan listeners, or progressives’ control of Twitter led to rival platforms and a potential Elon Musk takeover, the attempts to silence the principles of CRT will be as ineffective as they are misguided. Teachers should be allowed to challenge students’ comfort levels, particularly in high school and college, yet here the nominally anti-safe-space conservative movement has tried to legislate safe spaces.
In fact, passing laws to discourage discussion of ongoing racial discrimination fits snuggly in Critical Race Theory, the central tenet of which, remember, is that supposedly color-blind policies actually help sustain the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. Proponents of government-enforced CRT bans are living proof of the theory they don’t believe.
Wow, that was a good line. I think I’ll stop there. Thanks for reading.