‘I can get through graduate school without ever discussing racism. . . . I can get through a teacher-education program without ever discussing racism,” wokeness guru Robin DiAngelo asserts in chapter 1 of her 2018 bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.
Is this true? Do the institutions charged with preparing teachers and researching education really turn a blind eye to issues of race and diversity?
In a new study, we aimed to find out. We scrutinized the research areas of faculty in colleges of education across the country. We combed the faculty pages of the 20 top-ranked schools of education and the 20 that produce the most teachers each year. We documented the research areas of interest for all 3,190 core faculty and a sampling of adjunct faculty.
We were also curious to find out what share of those faculty who do study race and diversity do so using the lens of “critical theory” — the ideological framework holding that race permeates and defines every aspect of life, including schooling. To distinguish between those professors examining race-related questions and those invested in the politicized mantras of critical theory, we distinguished between scholars who signaled a general research focus on race-related phenomena and those who explicitly described their work using terms such as “intersectionality,” “postcolonial theory,” and “Queer theory.”
What did we find? Are schools of education, in fact, turning a blind eye to issues of race and diversity? In a word: No. At the top-ranked education schools, 48 percent of faculty characterize diversity and race as a research interest or area of study, and 25 percent characterize it as their primary area of study. At the colleges of education that produce the most teachers each year, those numbers fall to 40 percent and 17 percent, respectively — a smidge lower, but still plenty high enough to render DiAngelo’s contention laughable.
Indeed, at the nation’s most influential schools of education, scholarship on race, diversity, and equity is a significant focus for nearly half of all faculty training teachers and conducting education research, and it is the primary interest for perhaps one out of every five professors.
In other words, issues of race, diversity, and equity tend to be at the center of what most schools of education do today. The larger issue, we found, is not a failure to discuss race but that between one-quarter and one-third of professors who focus on race and diversity describe their work as steeped in the troubling tenets of critical theory.
Critical theory is a politicized doctrine that rejects the notion of objective truth; approaches knowledge as a question of oppression; and emphasizes the importance of ascriptive characteristics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Indeed, a simple survey of public documentation suggests that many college-of-education faculty may be inclined to approach their role as one more anchored in proselytizing than in pedagogy.
At the University of Oregon, one professor brags of approaching teacher training as a matter of “preparing teachers to challenge colonialism in curriculum, policy, and practice.” At Vanderbilt, another studies “forms of algorithmic violence associated with data-driven planning.” At the University of California, Berkeley, a professor works to “resist neoliberal logics that render math learning a stratifying project of race, class, and gender in schools.” At Stanford, another “critically examines the ways students are criminalized and resist that criminalization through the mutually constitutive nature of racism and ableism” and “how they interlock with other marginalizing oppressions.”
What does this mean for teachers entering our nation’s schools?
Well, we can see critical theory’s influence in California’s new ethnic-studies curriculum, through which students will be taught to “critique empire-building in history and its relationship to white supremacy, racism and other forms of power and oppression,” and in the “equitable math” initiative designed in collaboration with Los Angeles Unified School District officials, which holds that “the concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false.”
So the evidence starkly contradicts those who would parrot DiAngelo’s claim: The real concern is not that aspiring teachers aren’t exposed to issues of race; it’s that such issues are too often taught as a means of political proselytizing and ideological indoctrination, rather than as a subject for serious study.
Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Lindsey M. Burke is the Mark A. Kolokotrones Fellow and the director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation.