There is a lot of talk in some circles today about Critical Race Theory (CRT), mostly that it’s a dangerous idea, which should be banned.
Whenever I hear someone say “we should/should not teach X!” I wonder what they mean by “X” but even more, what they mean by “teach.” Most people have no idea what the CRT controversy is about or even what CRT is. I suspect that many of the opponents and even proponents don’t either.
What do we mean by “teach”?
But beyond the important question of what it is are we actually talking about is the one about teaching. There are many things that should be taught, but none in a doctrinaire fashion. Should we teach the life cycle of butterflies? Definitely, yes. It’s fascinating; it can be investigated in a hands-on way as well as through texts; it has important implications for agriculture; it can open up inquiry into nature more broadly; and much more. But I would hate to see it taught as evidence for a “proof” or “dis-proof” of evolution.
The same is true for CRT. If teaching it meant only forcing students to think one way about race (I don’t know of any proponent who thinks that), then I’d join the critics. But it could be terrific if it means opening up avenues of inquiry for students.
To be more specific, for most people who know something about the theory, it means asking how ideas about race have shaped our history and who we are today. The focus is usually on how specific laws and policies have dealt with race––constructing its meaning, delimiting rights and responsibilities, allocating resources, and so on. It can open up into questions of scientific racism, the intersections with class, gender, religion, nationality, and other dimensions.
How, for example, did Federal programs, banking regulations, and Jim Crow laws affect the ability of Blacks to get federal mortgage assistance after World War II? There are many things to say about that question, contrasting opinions, and things to discover. There is no single idea to learn and scholars are studying it further.
What should we teach?
Should we teach that the US is racist to it core? No, not if that means an unexamined mantra to be memorized. But historical scholarship tells us that there is a lot of evidence of racism in our founding documents, in the ideas and arguments of founders. There’s certainly enough to support asking questions in a sustained, critical fashion.
Should we teach that the US is founded on freedom? Again, not if that means indoctrinating one unexamined claim. It’s true that in the late 1700s free, white, males with property achieved hard-fought success in determining their own political destiny. And it’s true that some of our founding documents have ringing calls for freedom for all. But the exciting story about the US can be uncovered only by examining how freedom and civil rights have been expanded (with some setbacks) throughout our history, even though they remain unfulfilled to this day.
The ongoing story has no single, simple “truth,” either in CRT or in easily falsifiable claims that masquerade as “patriotism.” We should not pretend otherwise.
One problem with teaching unexamined doctrines is that it can lead to later disillusionment and a complex unlearning project. But maybe that’s a good thing. Should I be taught to revere our Constitution as it stands, then learn later that it was shaped in part by racists and the desire to perpetuate slavery? Would that make me feel betrayed and question everything I had been taught?
That’s a harsh approach, akin to throwing the toddler in the deep end. Perhaps that’s what critics of CRT are after: a bracing, subversive repudiation of patriotic pabulum, which would generate unbridled critique?
You’ve got to be taught
South Pacific‘s “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” tells us
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught
Let’s try to move beyond teaching hate. Does CRT mean learning to hate all the people your relatives loved? I don’t think so. If it were a new kind of hate, I’d be strongly opposed to it.
CRT does want us to move beyond the kind of hate that South Pacific exposes But if it means helping students ask questions about their history and to be carefully taught falsehoods.
If we can show students life in its fullness, their own inquiry can lead them to discover all we know and more.