Ban Critical Race Theory from K–12 Classrooms: A Response to the New York Times

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There can be no credible objection to prohibiting the racially based shaming of children.

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There can be no credible objection to prohibiting the racially based shaming of children.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O ne of the interesting lexical shifts that took place during the Enlightenment had to do with the way in which we speak about civil magistrates. As the manifold forms of classical liberalism espoused by Locke, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau began to supplant throne-and-altar autocracies across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, political figures ceased to be called “rulers” and began to be called “leaders.”

This change was not a coincidence. Rule, as Harvey Mansfield helpfully pointed out during a recorded conversation with Bill Kristol a few years ago, is the means by which a society is given its particular character by its political institutions. Rulers indoctrinate, enforce, and set the boundaries for acceptable beliefs and behavior in a given polity. It’s always the attempt of the ruler to take his or her country or people in a given direction, and, for that reason, rule is always partisan.

The early classically liberal theorists believed that rule was not a necessary or inevitable feature of human relations. They believed that a primal state of natural freedom and equality among all people could be imagined which preceded the division of people into rulers and ruled, and they thought it possible to construct a political system that would safeguard this primordial condition by allowing each individual to exercise an attenuated form of the natural liberty which he had enjoyed in this “state of nature.”

For these liberals, then, the starting point for thinking about human action was apolitical. Furthermore, they argued that politics should only be introduced voluntarily and always with an eye towards protecting the pre-political freedoms of men and women. This view was in contrast to the older, ancient notion of Aristotle’s that “man is by nature a political animal.” From this Aristotelian perspective, human freedom and equality are thought to be political achievements rather than natural facts. No “state of nature” that pre-exists politics is admitted into this scheme of thought. Politics is inevitable, and so, as a result, is the fact of rule.

All of this might seem needlessly abstract and far removed from the debates roiling the United States today over the bans placed by several states on the teaching of critical race theory in K–12 classrooms, but an understanding of how the ancient and liberal understandings of rule differ is actually indispensable to understanding this conflict.

Earlier this week, the New York Times published a guest essay jointly authored by Kmele Foster, David French, Jason Stanley, and Thomas Chatterton Williams which argued against anti-critical-race-theory laws. The reasoning of the essay is fatally flawed. To understand why, it’s enough to understand the classically liberal conceptual framework within which its argument is made.

The authors begin the essay by asking the question, “What is the purpose of a liberal education?” The answer they give is revealing:

Schools, particularly at the kindergarten-to-12th-grade level, are responsible for helping turn students into well-informed and discerning citizens. At their best, our nation’s schools equip young minds to grapple with complexity and navigate our differences. At their worst, they resemble indoctrination factories.

This paragraph exposes the chief liberal assumption governing the entire essay: that rule is not inevitable. The authors condemn “indoctrination” as an example of what schools do “at their worst.” Instead, they argue, schools should help to “turn students into well-informed and discerning citizens.” The authors seem to believe that if the state can be kept from endorsing or prohibiting any given viewpoint, students will be freed from indoctrination. They will find themselves in a viewpoint-neutral environment that presents them with a menu of different ideas and worldviews à la carte, none of which are encouraged or discouraged and all of which are on the table for equal evaluation.

It hardly needs saying that this view is naïve, and this is simply because Aristotle and the ancients were right. Rule is inevitable. Every society and culture indoctrinates its children with certain values, enforces orthodoxies upon them, and censures them for violating these orthodoxies. This indoctrination, enforcement, and censure do not always involve state power; sometimes rule is enforced socially and culturally. But it is inevitable, nevertheless.

This reality is not difficult to establish. As noted above, the authors of the New York Times essay condemn “indoctrination” in schools. But this is an entirely untenable position. Indoctrination happens at every hour of every day in every school in the United States, by design.

Let’s take the example of Nazi history, which the authors cite in their piece. Does any one of us believe that American children are not habitually instructed by their history teachers to believe that the Nazi Party was a force for unspeakable evil in the world? Of course they are, and they are the better for it. I have yet to come across an example in all my research into K–12 teaching practices of a viewpoint-neutral history teacher who refuses to evaluate or pass judgment on the Third Reich when teaching about Nazi atrocities. In fact, we all know that a good history teacher in such a context would take pains to underscore the moral gravity of what happened in Germany during the ’30s and ’40s and to make clear to every student in the room that National Socialism belongs in the dustbin of history. The idea that any history teacher would give her students Richard Evans’s Third Reich trilogy on the one hand, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion on the other, and allow them to simply judge for themselves which of the two has greater merit is facially absurd.

This is because the rulers of our society have decided, over a period of 70 years, to indoctrinate American children with implacably anti-Nazi ideas. And who could object? It has given birth to sound moral and political intuitions among the population. We have not needed laws to enforce this aspect of American rule because a widespread cultural consensus obtains that makes such legislation unnecessary. But if a fifth column of Holocaust-denying history teachers were to hypothetically infiltrate American schools, it would be perfectly legitimate for parents to demand that laws be passed banning these teachers from teaching their viewpoint to children in taxpayer-funded schools.

The essential point is not about Nazism or critical race theory per se (and, for the avoidance of confusion, there is nothing approaching moral equivalence between these two value systems). The question facing Americans is not whether or not there will be ruling values in the United States. The question is, which values will rule? Irreducibly political questions of this kind cannot be avoided, and a conceptual retreat from them into an imagined viewpoint-neutral regime is a retreat into a fictional world. To take the path suggested by Foster, French, Stanley, and Williams would not save the United States from the fact of rule; it would only give those on the progressive left who intend to rule an unopposed path of their own to uncontested hegemony.

When we examine the anti-CRT laws in question with this distinction between liberal and ancient understandings of rule in mind, the merit of the bills becomes obvious. The purpose of introducing critical race theory into K–12 classrooms in the United States is to racialize the fact of rule. Proponents of CRT in the classroom want to indoctrinate children with certain attitudes towards race and history, enforce an orthodox understanding of the role race plays in American society today, and censure unapproved viewpoints as relics of white supremacy. The verbs that I’ve used here — “indoctrinate,” “enforce,” and “censure” — should not be taken as derogatory. I view these actions as more or less inevitable parts of a teacher’s profession. But for this very reason, it’s inappropriate to take an agnostic position on what goes on in K–12 classrooms, or to assume that children will always reject bad ideas if those ideas are rubber-stamped by the teachers and schools that hold the academic destiny of these children in their hands.

Legislators in Tennessee, Texas, Florida, and Idaho have accepted the fact that rule is inevitable. When a great deal of consensus existed among Americans of all stripes concerning what was being taught in K–12 classrooms, it was unnecessary to underwrite America’s ruling values with political power. But the country’s ruling consensus is coming undone. This consensus was established and articulated at great cost by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement and is defined by the conviction that individuals should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. This is the racial orthodoxy that enlightened Americans have sought justly to impose and enforce on American society for the past half-century. Up until recently, it has not needed to be codified in law, but critical race theory would supplant this orthodoxy with another that rejects the legitimacy of attempting to evaluate individuals independently of their race. To get a flavor of how these two approaches to race differ, one only needs to examine the critical race theorists’ redefinition of racism itself. As I wrote back in May:

Critical race theory (CRT) takes the social constructivism that critical theorists applied to class and applies it to race. Not to all races, however. One of the tenets of CRT is that the universalizing abstractions of European liberalism — “race,” “mankind,” “truth,” “justice,” etc. — disguise the particular provenance of these terms as products of imperialist European thought. They are thought to veil the particular injustices perpetrated by white European peoples against non-white non-European peoples. “Racism,” then, ends up meaning not “discrimination on the basis of race” but “the discrimination perpetrated by whites against non-whites.” The abstract, universal formulation of the former definition is condemned as an example of colonial, imperial, white European, hegemonic thought.

It’s clear that critical race theory is not simply an academic tool that helps students understand the history of race relations in America. It is an entirely different way of conceiving race itself — a maximalist way that places race at the center of every historical and political conversation. The anti-CRT laws being discussed are attempts to enshrine the traditional individualist understanding of race that came to rule in the United States in the wake of the civil-rights movement. Trying to protect the transmission of this understanding to the next generation of Americans is nothing more than a concession to the fact that some understanding of race will predominate in the United States and that Dr. King’s is better than Ibram Kendi’s. At this point, there is no escaping the political conflict between the two. The Texas anti-CRT law makes this explicit, stating openly and unapologetically the state’s intention to catechize children in the virtues of Dr. King’s vision. The list of what students are required to be taught under the law includes:

(7) the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong;

(8) the history and importance of the civil rights movement, including the following documents:

(A) Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech;

(B) the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. Section 2000a et seq.);

(C) the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education;

(D) the Emancipation Proclamation;

(E) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

(F) the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution

The New York Times authors’ central criticism of these laws is based on a straightforward misreading of the statutes. They write that:

The laws differ in some respects but generally agree on blocking any teaching that would lead students to feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish” because of one’s race or ancestry, as well as restricting teaching that subsequent generations have any kind of historical responsibility for actions of previous generations. They attempt various carve outs for the “impartial teaching” of the history of oppression of groups. But it’s hard to see how these attempts are at all consistent with demands to avoid discomfort.

If the description by Foster, French, Stanley, and Williams of the laws in question were accurate in this respect, this line of argumentation would be unanswerable. It’s impossible to legislate for the avoidance of discomfort in the classroom because that would give each student an inscrutable veto power over every lesson. But the language in the anti-CRT laws prohibits the prescription of “discomfort, guilt or anguish” on the part of the teacher to any race or ethnic group. Discomfort is not banned. Rather, telling students of a certain race that they should feel discomfort or guilt on account of their race is. The language in question from the Texas law prohibits teachers from instructing that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex” [my emphasis]. There can be no credible objection to prohibiting the racially based shaming of children.

The authors of the piece have a remedy on hand for this kind of bullying, however:

A wiser response to problematic elements of what is being labeled critical race theory would be twofold: propose better curriculums and enforce existing civil rights laws. Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act both prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, and they are rooted in a considerable body of case law that provides administrators with far more concrete guidance on how to proceed. In fact, there is already an Education Department Office of Civil Rights complaint and federal lawsuit aimed at programs that allegedly attempt to place students or teachers into racial “affinity groups.”

There’s nothing wrong with these suggestions, but the question remains as to why parents concerned about the presence of CRT in the classroom should limit themselves to these two avenues. Getting involved in the process of curriculum formation and endorsement is a fantastic thing to do, and, in cases of discrimination, the law should be availed by parents and students who think they have a case. But both of these processes are arduous, and the latter can be both expensive and drawn-out. Moreover, to suggest that state legislatures don’t have an interest in public-school curricula is an indefensible proposition, and one that would never be endorsed by those who are enthusiastic about the teaching of CRT in K–12 schools. The social engineers promoting the introduction of critical race theory into the elementary classroom have no qualms about the notion of ruling values. They simply intend for theirs to be the values that rule. It’s not unreasonable for parents who disagree with them to defend their own vision of civic rule using the means they have at their disposal.

It’s true that the laws in question could have been drafted better, but it is better to have them on the statute book than to have none whatsoever. It’s also worth noting that the authors of the New York Times essay do not limit their criticisms to these specific laws. At no point do they suggest that they would be comfortable with any kind of anti-CRT law. They couch their argument in a broader question about the nature of liberal education and seek to persuade the reader that “banning the expression of ideas” in K–12 schools “is antithetical to educating students in the culture of American free expression,” as if second-graders’ being taught to regard themselves as immutably depraved is something akin to an undergraduate seminar or to the scene depicted in Raphael’s “School of Athens.”

The authors of this essay misread the nature of political power, of education, and even of childhood, and their proposed course of action would only clear the way for a new and radical elite to reify its own right to rule in the minds of America’s rising generations. We need more, better versions of these bans, not fewer.