We need an honest conversation about teaching social justice in public schools



Another day, another controversy over the supposed “leftist indoctrination” in public schools and its rightist backlash.

New Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order last week banning “divisive concepts,” including “critical race theory,” from public schools in the state. Mississippi also joined the growing list of states passing de facto anti-CRT legislation, following a walkout by black members of the state Senate. And there have been reports of moves in at least a dozen states to require schools to post all teaching materials online, sometimes with the ability for parents to remove children from certain classes.

These GOP-led efforts, which include moves to ban unwanted books on race and sex from school libraries and reading lists, are widely decried as an attack on intellectual freedom and a thinly veiled racist backlash. Left-wing critics say the anti-CRT panic is nonsense – critical race theory, which analyzes how racism is embedded in social structures, is taught mostly in higher education, particularly in colleges of right – and also a cynical strategy to target any discussion of racism in K-12 education.

Leading Progressives urged liberal writers and scholars who signed the 2020 “Harper’s Letter” – which criticized left-wing intellectual intolerance – to engage in “public reflection” on their supposed role in fueling anti-CRT measures . (Many signatories have, in fact, pronounced against these laws, but their detractors want more self-criticism.)

Meanwhile, any suggestion that the anti-CRT revolt might reflect legitimate concerns about how anti-racism is taught in public schools is likely to land you accused of right-wing bluster — or, at best, fake centrist. “Both sides”. ”

But what if this is a case where each side has both valid gripes and deliberate blind spots?

There is no doubt that the anti-CRT backlash has been crude, filled with hyperbole – such as claims by anti-revival activists that racial equity initiatives in schools are a cover for “Marxist ideology.” atheist” or “communist values” – and often carried out in bad faith. The most prominent figure in this crusade is Manhattan Institute colleague Christopher Rufo, who freely admitted to a strategy of tying various “cultural follies” to the CRT “brand” and even attempted to blame the revival for the disastrous withdrawal. of the United States of Afghanistan.

Although some anti-CRT legislation has been distorted in the news, there is little doubt that most of these bills, which include bans on teaching The New York Times‘ 1619 Project – are either aggressively illiberal or dangerously vague.

Even the ostensibly simple “transparency” bills backed by the anti-CRT movement are a tough call, as they could lock teachers into endless online publication of classroom readings, subject to a rowdy veto by a large minority of parents. (At the same time, there is a certain irony that the American Civil Liberties Union, which previously supported the public availability of educational materials as a means of unearthing socially conservative or religious influences in public schools, denounces such measures as “thinly veiled attempts to prevent teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender”.)

And, quite often, anti-CRT activism resembles a right-wing version of the “safe space” mentality that conservatives have long derided among the “snowflake” left.

For example, anti-CRT parents in a school district in Tennessee opposed the book. Ruby Bridges goes to school, written by famed activist Ruby Bridges about her experience as the first black child in a previously all-white New Orleans school in 1960 — apparently because a reference to a “large crowd of angry white people who didn’t didn’t want black kids in a white school” was deemed too harsh.

It’s almost as if some conservatives intend to live up to the “white fragility” stereotype of white people who feel threatened by any discussion of racism in America.

And yet, it’s no less true that the anti-CRT backlash has revealed some pretty toxic elements – at least if you think awareness of racism, historical or current, shouldn’t include the essentialization of individuals. on the basis of race.

The motivations and methods of right-wing culture warriors like Rufo undoubtedly warrant skepticism. Nevertheless, Rufo’s reports – usually informed by leaks of legitimate and verifiable documents, and even without considering his uncharitable spin on those documents – also revealed real and troubling practices.

At an elementary school in Cupertino, California, a 2020 classroom exercise asked third graders to read about identity and power, map their various “social identities” and write short essays about two of their identities that “hold power and privilege” and two that don’t. While the school principal told the Washington Post that the exercise was canceled before it started, due to complaints from mostly Asian American parents who saw the slides, the superintendent later confirmed that it had been conducted once before the rebellion parenting takes place.

Or take the picture book It’s not my idea: a book on whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham, which has reportedly been used in K-5 reading in over 30 school districts. This book not only tells children that loved ones who claim they “can’t see color” are the bad guys, but portrays “whiteness” as a literal devil who offers you “stolen riches” and “special favors.” but can claim “your soul” and “to endlessly waste the lives of…our colored fellows.” (Although the book notes that “whiteness” is not the same as being white, this fine distinction is often quite difficult for adults to parse, let alone 7-year-olds.)

There are many other examples of anti-racist school lessons that veer into blame and shame. Last year, a high school assignment on “white privilege and whiteness” in Mancelona, ​​a lower-middle-class community in Michigan, asked students to think about “anything you could do to promote/ maintain” white privilege and informed them that “the world is made for [white people’s] convenience.” Those on the left who think such lessons are appropriate should openly explain their position instead of retreating into denial and viewing any dissent as bad faith.

Whether or not this type of anti-racist education can be equated with “critical race theory,” it is indisputable that public schools have been heavily influenced by teacher training programs that see “social justice” as a mission. key. And it’s fitting that the nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, passed a “trade article” last summer to oppose CRT bans that explicitly endorsed the critical theory of race as one of the necessary “tools” for “racial honesty in education”. (Later, apparently fearing negative attention, the NEA deleted all of its “commercial articles” from its site.)

Many progressives would undoubtedly argue that a teaching rooted in such activism simply conveys the truth about privilege and “systemic racism.” But despite the lingering reality of racism and race-based disadvantage, America in 2021 is far more diverse and complex than this perspective allows.

In not my idea, for example, blacks exist only as victims of oppression and whites as privileged perpetrators or enablers. (Only anti-racism activists of any race are allowed to exist outside of this crude dichotomy.)

So yes, there are at least two sides to this question.

Older children should certainly be expected to discuss current issues and controversies as part of their schooling. But those discussions should include a variety of perspectives on issues such as racism, oppression and privilege, rather than a single anti-racist orthodoxy that tolerates no dissent.

Similarly, the teaching of American history should allow for multiple perspectives as long as they are supported by respected scholarship (meaning both the 1619 Project and its critiques left and right).

If we hope to make progress, we need a more honest dialogue that honestly explores “divisive concepts” – such as the tragic history of slavery and institutionalized racism in the United States – without devoting a single point of view and impose activism or penance.

And mainstream journalists could help bridge the gap by reporting disputes over schools more accurately, instead of leaving it up to Rufo or Fox News to cover up progressive excesses and turn them into rampant Marxism.

There’s a conversation to be had here, but that can’t happen with speech bans or a rigidly orthodox upbringing.

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