Should we Ban the Teaching of Critical Race Theory in Schools?
by Helen Pluckrose
Essay originally from Counterweight.
Policymakers in GOP-led states like Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma are currently proposing that Critical Race Theory (CRT) or any of the current more popular theories that draw on that school of thought and are probably best called ‘Critical Social Justice concepts of Anti-Racism’ (but that isn’t very catchy) should be banned or limited in schools. Counterweight exists to help people, including teachers, parents and children who are having authoritarian Critical Social Justice (CSJ) ideas imposed on them to resist. This leads some people to think we might support bans on teaching CRT in schools. Do we?
The simple answer to this question is “No.” We are a liberal humanist organisation that upholds freedom of belief, freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity. We consistently oppose people trying to ban ideas they don’t like and we do so for two reasons. Firstly, because freedom of conscience is an essential individual liberty and secondly because prohibition makes defeating the bad ideas much more difficult. There isn’t a simple answer because this isn’t a simple question and the public conversation around this issue is a mess. This mess is largely caused by people confusing and conflating two sets of distinctions that really cannot be confused or conflated if one wants to approach the issue from a liberal perspective. These two things are:
1) The difference between teaching about ideas and indoctrinating in ideas.
When we teach children about more than one set of ideas, including ideas that conflict with one another, we prepare them to be able to engage in the adult world where they will encounter many ideas, having already learned something of them as well as having been encouraged to evaluate and compare ideas and make arguments for and against them. When we indoctrinate children in one set of ideas, we put them at a disadvantage for engaging with the adult world of ideas and make them less able to comprehend or cope with ideas that differ from their own or make arguments about them.
2) The difference between disallowing coerced affirmation of ideas and banning expression.
When we prevent children from being forced to affirm any ideas, we allow them freedom of belief and encourage them to make up their own minds about whether the ideas are good or not. When we ban certain ideas from being taught to children in schools, they are denied the opportunity to think about them and evaluate them until they are forced to cope with diverse viewpoints in the adult world.
Teaching about ideas and disallowing coerced affirmation of ideas are thoroughly liberal and encourage informed critical thinking and tolerance of viewpoint diversity. Indoctrinating in ideas and banning expression of ideas is profoundly illiberal and discourages informed critical thinking and promotes intolerance of viewpoint diversity. This is very basic liberalism, in principle. In practice, things can become messy as individuals can claim to be upholding the liberal stance while actually enforcing the illiberal one, either deliberately, using a “motte and bailey” move, or due to a genuine misunderstanding of liberalism which is regrettably common.
The difficulty of threading this needle is exacerbated by the confused rhetoric around this issue which seems to be coming from everywhere. It comes from both Democrat and GOP policy makers themselves, mainstream media and political pundits from the left, right and centre, academics within the field of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and members of the general public engaged in the culture wars.
Jon Street and Audrey Conklin write for Fox News about Joe Biden’s Department of Education intention to set up grants for schools that:
take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history; incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives and perspectives on the experience of individuals with disabilities; Encourage students to critically analyze the diverse perspectives of historical and contemporary media and its impacts; Support the creation of learning environments that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, and experiences of all students; and contribute to inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.
The grounds for this grant are extremely vague and thus widely open to interpretation. It is impossible for any historically aware American not to know that racial inequality was enshrined in American law and culture for most of its history and impossible to teach history honestly without including this! The inclusion of diverse perspectives is good and so is critical analysis of them. However, validating the diversity, identity and experiences of all students is impossible as they are bound to disagree with each other even when they have the same identities, and so it is entirely unclear what an “identity-safe learning environment” would look like and how this is compatible with the critical analysis of diverse racial perspectives. This “identity-safe” condition would seem to exclude the teaching of texts like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which argues that at least one identity (white identity) is inherently negative. It is possible, but unlikely, that that is its intention.
Conservatives are convinced that the grant supports inclusion of such texts and they may well be right. However, the way some have responded is concerning. Street and Conklin report that Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) have sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging the Biden administration to reconsider the grant, arguing that it is “antithetical to the American Dream” and saying “It is therefore counterproductive and even dangerous to allow our vulnerable school children to be taught the falsehoods prevalent in the 1619 Project or in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist.” Similarly, Mark Moore writes that “Republicans in Texas are also moving ahead to forbid the teaching of ‘woke philosophies’ like critical race theory, arguing that ‘traditional history’ should be taught in classrooms.”
This response from Republicans quite clearly falls on the illiberal side of the two issues by assuming that any teaching about the 1619 Project, Dr Kendi’s work, power struggles, “woke philosophies” or critical race theory will be tantamount to indoctrinating in them and thus proposes banning expression of them to children. They also advocate alternative teachings about “the American dream” and “traditional history”. But whose dreams and which traditions, exactly? Americans have many but it seems likely they are referring to conservative ones. If so, it is not children being indoctrinated they are worried about per se but children being indoctrinated into the “wrong” ideas.
When Natalie Allison writes for The Tennessean, she says: “Critical race theory teaches that racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions and that people who are white benefit from it. The concept and whether schools, churches and other corporations should subscribe to it has been a source of controversy within institutions for several years but has received heightened attention in recent months.
Herein lies the problem. Churches may subscribe to whatever ideas they like, and corporations have a certain amount of freedom to set their own values, but schools should not subscribe to any ideology at all. They should however educate children about a variety of them, when they reach an age where learning about more complex topics like politics and philosophy are appropriate, in order to prepare them to enter universities or simply the adult world.
Allison says, “The rest of the amendment, filed as an amendment in the House earlier this week by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, prohibits public or charter schools from teaching that:
- One race or sex is superior;
- Any individuals are ‘inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive’ because of their race or sex;
- A person should receive adverse treatment due to their race or sex;
- Their moral character is determined by race or sex;
- A person bears responsibility for past actions by other members of their race or sex;
- A person should feel discomfort or other psychological distress because of their race or sex;
- A meritocracy is racist or sexist or designed to oppress members of another race or sex;
- The United States is fundamentally racist or sexist;
- Promoting the violent overthrow of the U.S. government;
- Promoting division or resentment between race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation or class;
- Ascribing character traits, values, moral codes, privileges or beliefs to a race;
- The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups;
- Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or
- Governments should deny to any person within the government’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”
But what does “teaching that” mean? Does it mean children shouldn’t be taught that these ideas are true without being given any counterviews? If so, this is a legitimate protection of children from indoctrination. Or does this mean that children shouldn’t be taught that these ideas exist and encouraged to critically analyse them alongside others? If the latter, then children will enter the world unprepared to encounter these ideas and completely inexperienced in evaluating them or arguing for or against them.
As Adam Harris wrote for The Atlantic:
The language of these bills is anodyne and fuzzy—compel, for instance, is never defined in the Idaho legislation—and that ambiguity appears to be deliberate….“The vagueness of the language is really the point,” Leah Cohen, an organizer with Granite State Progress, a liberal nonprofit based in Concord, told me. “With this really broad brushstroke, we anticipate that that will be used more to censor conversations about race and equity.”
The effects of this vagueness of both Democratic and Republican policymakers and their failure to spell out what they wish to promote or ban or limit does not help the general public to make informed and thoughtful evaluations of the issues.
As Conor Friedersdorf wrote:
In a recent Atlantic/Leger poll, 52 percent of respondents who identified as Republicans said that states should pass laws banning schools from teaching critical race theory, but just 30 percent of self-identified independents were willing to say the same. Meanwhile, a strong majority of Americans, 78 percent, either had not heard of critical race theory or were unsure whether they had.
Nevertheless, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared:
Texans reject critical race theory and other so-called ‘woke’ philosophies that maintain that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex or that any individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive. These divisive concepts have been inserted into curriculums around the state, but they have no place in Texas schools.
If it were true that Texans reject CRT it would be unlikely that they’d be being taught in Texas schools. Clearly some Texans don’t reject CRT ideas and very likely most of them don’t know what they are. Does it not seem that a solution to this would be to teach Texan children about them and present counter arguments, thus preparing them for encountering them and being able to engage with them in the world at large? This idea seems unpalatable to many conservative commentators, as I have found repeatedly when addressing the issue on social media. I have been told very forcefully by many conservatives that children do not need to be taught about Critical Race Theory at all.
This seems very short-sighted and alarming, not least because my own book on the subject, Cynical Theories, which includes both a chapter on Critical Race Theory and a chapter on Critical Social Justice approaches to anti-racism, has just been adapted for young adult readers and we hope to persuade schools to include it in curricula. It suggests a distinct lack of confidence in either the persuasiveness of one’s own political views or the critical thinking skills of young people. I feel confident that when presented with liberal approaches to anti-racism vs CSJ ones, the superiority of the liberal approach will be quite apparent. Surely conservatives, if they believe strongly enough in the validity of their own political arguments, should want them to be compared to those of CSJ? The conservative activist, Christopher Rufo, seemed to see no worth in teaching about CRT at all:
To be fair, many conservatives who have insisted that CRT should not be taught seem to doubt not so much their own ideas or the minds of young people, but that schools or teachers can be trusted to teach political and philosophical views in a neutral and balanced manner. As Rufo then confirmed, it is coercion and indoctrination into a “Neo-Marxist ideology” that concerned him more than teaching about. However, I’m not sure “shaping the speech of the state in pursuit of common values” is compatible with the liberal aim for freedom of belief and viewpoint diversity:
Other Twitter users were sceptical that teaching about CRT could or would ever be done alongside other ideas and with the children being encouraged to critique it. CRT, I was told repeatedly, does not allow criticism of itself and instead insists that everyone must simply affirm its tenets. This is true, but that means that diverse political worldviews should not be taught by Critical Race Theorists who hold their own views to be unquestionable. Or by liberals, Marxists, libertarians or conservatives who are unable to accept and encourage dissent. In fact, if the students cannot tell which of the political ideologies their teacher herself subscribes to, that teacher has done her job well:
I am sympathetic to scepticism that political ideas can ever be taught or received in an objective fashion but maintain that this should always be the aim rather than banning teaching about them. Some people seem to believe that this is a hopeless pipe dream, or that I am simply naively unaware that there is an educational imbalance where CSJ ideas are concerned, even though Counterweight has already very publicly addressed this as a problem and supported many parents in addressing it:
So, I am not arguing that conservatives are wrong to believe that authoritarian CSJ ideas are being taught as true in schools. At Counterweight, we have seen more evidence of this than most people ever will. We have also helped, supported and connected concerned parents and teachers who have come to us for help in addressing it. I am also not unaware that advocates of CRT and CSJ approaches to racism genuinely are trying to get schools to teach it as true and claiming racism and preservation of white privilege as the only reason anyone would object to this (conveniently ignoring all the black people who object to it for a variety of reasons).
Marcus Johnson, writing about the Idaho bill, amply demonstrates this:
At its core, the argument about critical race theory is a debate about power, part of a much larger debate about who has power in American society and which voices deserve to be heard. America has for nearly all of its history been politically dominated by white men… But in an increasingly diverse society with a rising multicultural class, there are more and more voices who are challenging existing power structures. And that is ultimately what this debate over critical race theory is: It’s about who gets to define what it means to be American, who gets to define how U.S. institutions work. And that’s what the discomfort with the theory amounts to: It is a threat to those who have always had the power to define us as a country. They are now losing the power to shape that narrative, and the people gaining it—finally—are people of color.
Here we see, yet again, the standpoint epistemology that ties knowledge to racial identity with the clear implication that white men will tell one story and “people of color” another. In reality, many adherents to Critical Race Theory are white while many opponents of it are not. We certainly should not want children taught that their race determines what their politics should be and that any disagreement with CRT can only indicate a wish to preserve the power of white people. With this claim, Mr. Johnson provides justification of the fears many people have that the teaching of Critical Race Theory will not be done in an objective way and that disagreement with it or inclusion of counterviews will not be considered legitimate or even allowed.
State Senator Carl Crabtree, one of the lawmakers behind the proposed legislation in Idaho, has spoken to this fear:
There are concerns that, in isolated instances, students have felt intimidated or coerced into certain ideologies. Every student deserves a learning environment where they can think freely and learn without prejudice. We want our students to learn about race in America without being led to predetermined conclusions. HB 377 does not prohibit the teaching or learning of any subject, it protects a student’s right to formulate their own opinions and ideas.
Here, Senator Crabtree expresses the liberal standpoint on both of the important distinctions by opposing indoctrination in in favour of teaching about and asserting the difference between banning belief in things and coercing belief in things. There is no talk of replacing one form of indoctrination with another such as the “American Dream” or “traditional history” or “shaping speech to common values” and he explicitly rules out the prohibition of any ideas which includes CRT. It is to be hoped that the senator consistently makes such distinctions with such clarity and that other Republicans and Democrats do so too.
But Amnar Akbar, associate professor of law, seems to dismiss concerns about coercion when, speaking about Tennessee, she asserted to The Hill:
The term critical race theory is being used by Republicans in a loose way to capture all sorts of critical thought about the histories and legacies of racism in this country. It’s a bogeyman that they’re constructing around critical attention to the history of the country.
Antonio Parkinson too was both dismissive and accusatory when he said, in the same piece:
Race is a very, very uncomfortable subject here in the Tennessee legislature, and especially having those conversations in truth. There’s a lot of fragility and defensiveness when we try to have these conversations. This goes back to the question of, is America racist? These conversations are uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially people that benefit from the institutional and structural racism that exists in America.
Meanwhile, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the professor of law who is credited for the concept of intersectionality and the naming of Critical Race Theory claimed that “attacks on critical race theory are grounded in reactionary concern about racial progress” and said:
The attacks on critical race theory in Idaho and across the country are evidence of a frightening truth: Republican legislators are using a phantom threat to justify jaw-dropping attacks on racial justice, freedom of speech and a society’s understanding of its history.
So conservatives are not wrong to fear that CSJ approaches to anti-racism include some very racist ideas or to point out that they consistently reject criticisms or counterviews as an attempt to preserve racial inequality or that CSJ ideas have been taught as established fact in schools. They do and they have and children must be protected against this indoctrination. They do go wrong when they try to ban these ideas or replace them with other (conservative) ideas rather than insisting on clearer legislation that sets out a practical plan for teaching about a range of views in as objective a way as possible and prevents indoctrination in any one set of ideas.
It is particularly strange that the difference between banning certain ideologies and not coercing children into affirming certain ideologies seems to be unclear to many Americans. It is precisely the same difference between banning Christianity and not forcing people to go to church. Citizens of liberal democracies generally don’t have much difficulty with understanding this distinction and easily understand that freedom of religion includes both the right to practice any religion and the right not to be forced to practice any religion. America is the liberal democracy that was founded on this principle which was then enshrined in its constitution. American conservatives who take great pride in their nation as the “Land of the Free” should understand it best of all. Many of them clearly do and yet it seems many do not. This is alarming. An education that teaches children the basic tenets of various worldviews and arguments for and against each one and encourages them to think critically for themselves about which, if any, they find most convincing and ethical is something that is sorely needed in the current dangerously polarised political landscape of the United States.
Helen Pluckrose is the Founder of Counterweight and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.