Can't Duck Critical Race Theory
It looks like it is going to be a big issue for K-12 this fall, whether you like it or not
I gave a workshop yesterday for an audience of about 20 teachers, a subset of the attendees of this conference. One of them tweeted a diagram of how it went.
I was not the one who brought up CRT. But it is clearly an issue that is top of mind among educators. I will explain how it came up, and then I will speculate on how it might affect the upcoming school year.
The conference has been run by Cato the past few years, with a goal of talking to high school teachers about promoting civic culture, especially free speech and free inquiry. Although Cato is libertarian, the conference includes prominent speakers who would self-identify as left of center. Among them this year were Jonathan Rauch, Jonathan Haidt, and Yascha Mounk, who are all Democrats but who lean against the extreme forms of progressivism that prevail now in some quarters.
Rauch’s recent book, The Constitution of Knowledge, makes the case for free speech and free inquiry, which he sees as under attack from both the disinformation warfare of Donald Trump on the one hand and the “cancel culture” of the left on the other. I share Rauch’s concerns, but I have other concerns as well.
My workshop was on my own book, The Three Languages of Politics. I start with three terms that describe problems: oppression; barbarism; and coercion. Oppression is when one group exploits and discriminates against another. Barbarism is when civilization breaks down and people engage in violence and disorder. Coercion is when people are forced to do things against their will, especially by the government.
I claim that we can think of progressives as particularly attuned to the problem of oppression, conservatives as particularly attuned to the threat of barbarism, and libertarians as particularly attuned to the problem of coercion. The way this emerges, unfortunately, is in the way they demonize those with whom they disagree. Progressives describe their opponents as oppressors, conservatives describe their opponents as enemies of civilization, and libertarians describe their opponents as wanting to control other people’s lives.
I wanted the teachers to apply this model to a current issue. I asked them to name a current issue. A couple of them said, “Critical Race Theory.” That was not the topic I wanted to use, so I asked for another issue. After a moment, someone came up with the topic of getting out of Afghanistan.
For conservatives, the American mission in Afghanistan is to defend democracy and other civilized values. Conservatives are reluctant to abandon that mission. Progressives generally see America as a colonial power, and our military intervention as a form of oppression. In the case of Afghanistan, progressives are a bit more ambivalent, because the Taliban also are seen as oppressors. Libertarians are against foreign military intervention, because they see it as the government going out of its way to engage in coercion.
But then I opened up for discussion of Critical Race Theory, because CRT was clearly on the teachers’ minds. They expect it to be a big issue in the coming school year. The ones who were most outspoken argued that the parents and politicians who are opposed to teaching Critical Race Theory do not know what CRT is and do not realize that it is not being taught in K-12 schools. Interestingly, after the workshop, in informal conversation, I heard from teachers who are on the other side of the issue. They believe that some form of CRT has infiltrated K-12 education, and they are concerned about it. The fact that I heard this only in the hallway afterward illustrates the way that progressives intimidate people with whom they disagree.
I was sympathetic to the view that young children are not being taught the academic version of Critical Race Theory. I drew the analogy with Keynesian economics. Among economics professors, Keynesian economics is a complex subject, with many nuances and disagreements. But I argue that there is a simpler version, which I call “Folk Keynesianism,” that simply says that spending creates jobs and jobs create spending. Folk Keynesianism is what permeates economic journalism and discussions of public policy.
I don’t think that the parents who are complaining about CRT in schools are just making things up. I believe that K-12 educators would like to convey some version of Critical Race Theory, which I might call Folk Critical Race Theory. But at this point, it is hard to say what Folk Critical Race Theory consists of. To those who think that it is nothing more than acknowledging past American racism and its impact on the present, I suggested Googling Smithsonian whiteness poster.
In fact, the discussion among the teachers illustrated one of the concepts in my book, called asymmetric insight. When A disagrees with B, A will claim to understand B’s true hidden motives and to dismiss B on that basis. For example, a progressive teacher claimed that people who are opposed to CRT want to teach that the Ku Klux Klan was good. When you assume the worst about the other side’s motives, that spares you the effort of having to confront their actual arguments.
I predict that the issue of Critical Race Theory in schools will be explosive this semester, because
Many young teachers believe it is their mission to teach it.
Conservatives and many moderate liberals believe that CRT undermines what Jonathan Rauch and others see as essential features of a liberal society.
Conservative media can attract a lot of attention by pointing to alleged outrages perpetrated by K-12 educators.
Progressive media can attract a lot of attention by pointing to alleged outrages perpetrated by CRT opponents.
I do not think that CRT helps young people learn about race. Nobody should sugar-coat slavery or Jim Crow. But nobody should dismiss America’s democratic principles as if they are nothing but a lie to cover up a racist system. And I don’t believe that the way to improve life for Black America is to make White Americans feel that they are inherently guilty of racism.
Having said that, I don’t want to see politicians get involved in what should and should not be taught. I would like to see parents speak to teachers and administrators when CRT is creating a bad classroom atmosphere. I would like to see teachers and administrators resist the urge to be defensive and resentful toward criticism of CRT.
But I worry that civil discourse around CRT is not going to happen. Instead, parents who most believe in civil discourse will simply pull their children out of public schools, rather than wade into the controversy. Teachers who are not “woke” will be treated as pariahs by other teachers and administrators. Public schools will end up serving the children of parents who are either very progressive or apathetic. There will emerge another school system, a separate but equal school system if you will, for children of parents who are conservatives or old-fashioned liberals.