Teaching Critical Race Theory…Uncritically

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer

6/6/2021

How Critical Race Theory is being taught at schools

Lately, the US has been roiled by a debate about the teaching of Critical Race Theory – the racial justice ideology touted by the radical left – in schools, with its proponents teaching it even to primary school students, and its opponents introducing legislation to block this.

 

Whilst I find Critical Race Theory rather nonsensical, it would be a mistake to treat any idea as “dangerous.” First of all, doing so only makes the “dangerous” idea seem more attractive, especially to young people, who will always gravitate toward the edgy and forbidden. Second, designating certain ideas as “dangerous” runs counter to the principles of a free society, which must be tolerant of all kinds of ideas. Third, learning about different ideas, and the people who hold them, can only enrich your understanding of the world.

 

At university, I learned about the intellectual precursors to Critical Race Theory. Today, Herbert Marcuse is often viewed by conservatives as the Devil, as the progenitor of leftist intolerance, but his ideas are fascinating, as are the ideas of his fellow Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, with their critiques of modern society. I disagreed with most of radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon’s ideas, but she’s a brilliant thinker and writer, and she made me reconsider many things I took for granted. Postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon’s writings on the caged fury at the heart of the colonized man are powerful and unforgettable, and raise disturbing questions on imperialism and political violence. Learning about these thinkers and their ideas helped expand my perspective, even if, at times, they seemed radical, and maybe a little crazy.

 

What matters, therefore, is not so much whether you teach particular ideas, but how you teach them. For example, Plato is the father of Western philosophy, and the study of the subject naturally begins with him. But if a school were to treat his ideas as gospel, if it were to designate his totalitarian vision of the Republic as the only way for a society to be just, and accordingly banish poetry from campus, and teach students that they had either gold, silver, or brass running through their veins and would be treated differently on this basis, they’d be doing them a tremendous disservice. Likewise, Karl Marx is a hugely important thinker, and his ideas are worthy of study. But if a school were to treat Marxism as gospel, if it were to abolish grades because they were elitist and make its students pledge themselves to Communism and class struggle, they’d be doing them a tremendous disservice, too.

What matters is not so much whether you teach particular ideas, but how you teach them.

Unfortunately, this is a distinction that many proponents of Critical Race Theory have collapsed. They don’t teach students about Critical Race Theory and then let them make up their own minds on it, they teach Critical Race Theory as gospel, as the only legitimate way of thinking. Students are taught to divide themselves into “oppressors” and “oppressed” based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation, and told that all people with lighter skin mistreat those with darker skin. White kids are taught that they’re inherently racist because of their race, and that they should yield opportunities to people from more marginalized groups. To make up for historical inequities, students are told that if they’re white and male, they should be second in line to speak. Worst of all, school administrations are explicitly pledging allegiance to the ideology of Critical Race Theory, issuing insipid statements in support of it, adopting “antiracist” curricula, and removing classic books that offend against it from English syllabi. Brentwood School in Los Angeles has even begun segregating faculty and families by race at school meetings. And, instead of being confined to, say, social studies class, Critical Race Theory is bleeding into subjects it has no business being in. An open letter, ostensibly written by parents at the exclusive Dalton School in New York, complained that “Every class this year has had an obsessive focus on race and identity, ‘racist cop’ reenactments in science, ‘de-centering whiteness’ in art class, learning about white supremacy and sexuality in health class.” Critical Race Theory is being treated not just as a topic, nor even as a subject, but as the dominant ideology at the heart of everything at a school.

They don’t teach students about Critical Race Theory and then let them make up their own minds on it, they teach Critical Race Theory as gospel, as the only legitimate way of thinking.

And, instead of treating Critical Race Theory as a set of ideas that can be questioned and debated like everything else, schools treat it as a holy writ, whose tenets must be mindlessly accepted and repeated. According to Paul Rossi, a former teacher at the Grace Church High School in New York, students there report that “they must never challenge any of the premises of our ‘antiracist’ teachings, which are deeply informed by Critical Race Theory.” Rossi wrote of “student after student sticking to a narrow script of acceptable responses,” and “Teachers prais[ing] insights when they articulate the existing framework or expand it to apply to novel domains.” Those who fail to conform to this orthodoxy are quickly bullied and accused of being racist – by administrators and teachers if not by peers, such that many students (and even parents) are afraid to say what they really think, and feel pressured to parrot things they don’t believe in, which is the very antithesis of an education. This is why John McWhorter, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and a columnist at The Atlantic, calls this ideology a secular religion, why parents from the former Soviet Union have compared it to Communist propaganda, and those from China have compared the fanaticism around it to the Cultural Revolution. Proponents of Critical Race Theory tell students to apply a searing critical gaze to society – but not, it appears, to Critical Race Theory itself. The great irony is that Critical Race Theory is being taught completely uncritically.

People hold aloft Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in a Cultural Revolution poster

The old saying tells us to beware the person of only one book, that is, the person who only knows one set of ideas and is ignorant or intolerant of all others. Without a sense of perspective, such a person easily falls into the worse excesses of dogmatism, which is why religious extremists, who often take pride in knowing only one book, and their secular equivalents, like Nazis and Communists, have been responsible for so much suffering throughout history. Should Critical Race Theory be taught at schools? In principle, I see no reason why not, so long as it’s taught critically, so long as it’s taught as one theory in the marketplace of ideas, as one star in the sky, not the sun everything has to revolve around.[1] How you teach something makes all the difference between opening someone’s mind and closing it, between teaching and preaching, between education and indoctrination.

[1] To their credit, some, at least of those bills opposing the teaching of Critical Race Theory seem to recognize this distinction. One bill currently before the House Committee on Education and Labor aims to prohibit the promotion of Critical Race Theory, not teaching it per se. A bill currently before the Arizona State Senate merely “Requires a teacher to present controversial issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective, if the teacher chooses to discuss controversial issues.”

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