Our friend David French and his New York Times co-authors complain that rules that would constrain certain kinds of classroom indoctrination amount to “speech codes.” Of course, we already have speech codes, formally and informally, in public-school classrooms: Try hitting the students with some young-Earth creationism or nonconforming views about the transgender controversy if you doubt that. More to the point, everything said by a government employee in a government classroom is speech by the government, and much of it is already dictated by a thicket of local, state, and government directives. The right question is not whether government has any business in government schools, but what government should be compelling children to learn — and what it should leave them to figure out on their own.
What is at issue is an approach to American history that is sometimes referred to under the heading “critical race theory” (CRT). (As we have previously written, it is really a dumbed-down popularization with roots in critical theory.) A bevy of Republican-backed bills in various states would place limits on CRT-inspired instruction. Much of the criticism of these bills has been inaccurate and dishonest — for example, claiming that these bills would prevent teaching about slavery or Jim Crow. The truth is something closer to the opposite: The Texas bill, for example, mandates that students be taught “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.” It forbids the questionable practice of giving students academic credit for participating in political protests, forbids teachers from being subjected to certain kinds of compelled speech and demands that in discussions of current events they “strive to explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective,” and mandates that students read certain historical documents (the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville, the Civil Rights Act of 1964), etc.
What many of the bills attempt to address is using the class to inculcate students in a crude theory of collective racial guilt — the idea that contemporary whites bear some kind of effectively hereditary guilt for the actions of slavers and segregationists. Some take a similar attitude toward the rhetoric of “white privilege.” While the language and the rationale is sometimes unfortunately therapeutic — presented as protecting students from enduring emotional stress — keeping that sort of thing out of public-school classroom discussions is eminently reasonable. Most of the bills properly focus on instructing teachers not to tell children what they should feel, rather than empowering students to complain about their feelings. At its best, CRT represents a discussion appropriate to a different time and place, and at its worst — which is where it is usually at — it is poisonous nonsense.
These bills do not represent unprovoked Republican cultural aggression ex nihilo. The left-wing indoctrination and politicization that Americans associate with higher education has long worked its way down into K–12 teaching. The goal of the bills is not political indoctrination but its opposite: classrooms that equip children with the facts to form their own ideas without an authority figure preaching leftist ideology. Legislators who provide funding for schools and develop state standards have a positive responsibility to address this. Some of the bills are flawed and need some reworking. And in the long run, control over curricula and classroom instruction will require conservatives to get more involved at the local level and in the structure of school systems as well.
On this issue, push has long ago come to shove, and Republicans are right and overdue to push back.