To Tackle Critical Theory in the K–12 Classroom, Start with Colleges of Education

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Critical Theory amounts to an unremitting attack on all of America’s norms and traditions.

When President Trump said there is a determined band of hard leftists indoctrinating American children into believing their country is racist and evil, “fact-checkers” in the media jumped on it. Completely inaccurate, they claimed.

Really? Anyone who bothers to fact-check the fact-checkers can tell you the opposite: Such a campaign of disinformation is indeed underway.

Its tool is Critical Theory. You may have heard the term “Critical Race Theory” a lot recently. The president mentioned it in his speech, and the Office of Management and Budget used it, too, when it banned so-called anti-racism trainings from the federal workforce.

Critical Race Theory is an offshoot of Critical Theory, as is its brethren in Law School, Critical Legal Theory. Other offshoots are all types of ethnic and gender studies. The ensemble has been dubbed the “grievance industry.”

If you or your son or daughter is in a university, studying some form of this will be unavoidable. In fact, even children in K–12 schools cannot escape being force-fed these theories.

Simply put, Critical Theory amounts to an unremitting attack on all of America’s norms and traditions. The goal is to replace them with a “counter-narrative” that will introduce a more leftist model of governing. Critical Theory is the main philosophical school in the identity politics of today.

The concept goes back to 1937, when the second director of Germany’s Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, published the school’s manifesto, “Traditional and Critical Theory.” This group of Marxist academics had started out in Frankfurt, but by 1937, they were safely ensconced at Columbia University, having fled the Third Reich.

Traditional theory, Horkheimer claimed, fetishized knowledge and objectivity. Critical theory, its opposite, held that there were no universal truths and man could not be objective. Instead of truths, there were competing narratives, and it was the job of the Left to impose its own. This relativism in itself was nothing less than an assault on Western civilization.

We see this dynamic in its starkest form in the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which attempts to replace 1776 and the “All Men Are Created Equal” ethos of America with 1619, the year slaves were first brought to what is today the United States. It puts slavery, not the ideal of equality, at the center of our nation’s storyline.

The project began as a series of articles in the New York Times Magazine but is now also a curriculum being used in some 4,500 classrooms across the country.

Our children’s schools are especially vulnerable because that is where the campaign to rewrite the past has been the fiercest. And the tenets of that campaign are being refined in schools of education, training future teachers in the use of critical frameworks.

Jay Schalin at the James G. Martin Center analyzed nearly 300 syllabi used at three prominent colleges of education. As Schalin notes, the results were “unequivocal.” The “most influential thinkers in our education schools are radicals who adhere to a collectivist, utopian vision.”

An outgrowth of critical theory known as critical pedagogy elevates group membership defined in terms of race, class, and sexual orientation over individual ability.

Critical pedagogy is grounded in the teachings of Antonio Gramsci, the founder of Italy’s Communist Party in the 1920s. He wanted to use education to advance socialism by imposing a “counter-narrative” that would produce students who were ready to install the socialist revolution. That was Gramsci’s theory of “Cultural Hegemony,” and Horkheimer’s Critical Theory was merely the tool.

This work is advanced in schools of education through the works of Paulo Freire — namely his foundational book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), which, like other forms of Critical Theory, divides individuals into groups of either “oppressors” or “oppressed.”

Friere was the third-most-assigned author at colleges of education among the three universities in Schalin’s analysis. These works are complemented in equal measure by more recent leftist theorists such as Howard Zinn, Henry Giroux, and Richard Rorty.

Why does this matter? The colleges of education are the training grounds for translating this leftist academic theory into K–12 pedagogy and practice. Future teachers learn their craft in university-based schools of education.

About one in ten college students were majoring in education in 2018, and approximately 90 percent of public-school teachers held a standard state teaching certificate that year, many of whom acquired certification through a college of education. An estimated 600,000 would-be teachers were enrolled in teacher preparation programs in 2018, over 70 percent of whom were in a traditional college-based preparation program.

Colleges of education have cornered the market on teacher training, even though they’ve seen enrollment declines in recent years. But it is in the colleges of education that prospective elementary and secondary teachers are steeped in the philosophy of Critical Theory, which manifests itself in K–12 schools through lessons on “Confronting Whiteness in Our Classrooms” and the 1619 Project.

To correct course and restore sanity to the classroom, states should take two immediate steps. First, they should end state requirements that teachers be certified. This would dramatically reduce enrollment in schools of education and enable public schools to hire teachers based on expertise in content matter rather than useless paper credentials. Research has long demonstrated no connection between teacher certification and a teacher’s impact on student academic achievement. Likewise, there is no difference in ability between teachers who are traditionally certified, alternatively certified, and uncertified.

Second, states should ensure that parents get the transparency they deserve about what their children are being taught in public schools across the country. It’s essential that we require school districts to make public the textbooks and curricula being used in their schools. Parents, equipped with this knowledge, should then be allowed to vote with their feet and enroll their child in a school of choice.

Unlike critical theorists, parents are not ready to dispense with their children being taught objective truth. Schools of education deserve their scrutiny.

We’re glad President Trump is drawing attention to what, for far too long, has been a problem in American education. States and parents need to take up the challenge and demand change.

Lindsey Burke is the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy. Mike Gonzalez, the author of The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics Is Dividing the Land of the Free, is Heritage’s Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow.


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