Is Critical Race Theory Dividing the Country?

When people start referring to a cultural phenomenon with initials—CRT for ‘critical race theory,’ say—you know that whatever that thing once was, it’s now morphed into something completely unrecognizable. Made less complex. Reduced to stereotype. And in the case of CRT, politicized.  

In my long years of classroom practice, pedagogical strategies and hot topics went in and out of fashion. Back in the 70s, values clarification was all the rage. Parents were a little iffy on having students discuss their values, however—probably because they assumed those values were not securely embedded in their sixth graders. And God forbid a teacher should attempt to inculcate values. Or even discuss them.

After values clarification, there was lots of talk about character education. My school had a multi-year project on Reason, Respect and Responsibility. Our project was home-grown, but you could buy pre-packaged character, it seemed—complete with manuals, posters, workshops and student day planners. Every package seemed to come with a testimonial—57% reduction in suspensions!

Today, I see lots of teacher-chat about mindfulness and trauma-informed education. If you think I’m skeptical about the efficacy of these programs—I’m not. I am strongly in favor of whatever it is schools are doing to encourage students to consider their thoughts and behaviors, to elevate the community over impulsive personal actions, to dig deeper into things that are, well, wrong in our society.

I am especially impressed by school leaders who decide to offer their students a chance to consider multiple perspectives and the meaning of justice in a representative democracy. It takes genuine courage to step up, especially when the country seems to be cracking apart and quasi-intellectuals are using big vocabularies and academic terrorism to spook parents over discussing race in America.  

I write all this to point out that teachers incorporate lessons about fairness, caring, harm, self-control, diversity and authority in their classrooms all the time, whether it’s part of an organized program or just daily practice in teaching disciplinary content.

There is no subject or developmental level where values and character aren’t a part of the curriculum, whether intentional or accidental. You couldn’t strip values and character out of teaching and learning if you tried. But try they will.

As Clarence Page noted, those afraid of critical race theory don’t know what it is:        

[CRT] is an evolving practice that questions how race, as a social construct, perpetuates a caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. I agree with critics who say that CRT often elevates storytelling over evidence and reason and devalues the racial progress that Americans have made, despite the challenges that remain. Real critical race theory is better suited to graduate students than kids. But we don’t do ourselves any favors by hiding good information about this nation’s diversity that can help all of us to better appreciate the “united” in the United States.

So how is that scary? And how is it not relevant to every American citizen? An evolving practice indeed, tangled up in all the things schools are supposed to do: Build American citizenship. Establish workforce skills. Encourage curiosity. Learn how to get along.

If the argument, in all the states now writing anti-CRT laws, was that some troubling but essential questions around CRT—reparations, long-term economic damage, health care disparities, how our racist history in America informs the present day—were best tackled by scholars and adults, well OK.

That still leaves a boatload of foundational work to be done, by people of all ages, and lots of that work falls into the character and values bucket. Simple concepts like: Don’t pre-judge people by external characteristics. Race is a social construct. We have a history of injustice. We all do better when we all do better.   

Also: Go ahead and pass anti-CRT laws. You might scare a few teachers. You might reassure white parents that their children won’t have to hear anything ‘unpleasant’ about our history, laws and subtle forms of discrimination. You might score a few seedy political points.

You might also have to set up a whole new and thoroughly unpleasant teacher policing system to make sure liberal Ms. Flanagan isn’t talking to her students about the roots of the music they listen to, 24/7, and cultural misappropriation. Is that CRT? Who gets to say?

You cannot keep the issues of race and racism out of schools. Schools are a stage where social values play out every day. It isn’t critical race theory that’s dividing the country. It’s fear.

10 Comments

  1. Nancy, I continue to appreciate your views on our current state of education and what it provides or doesn’t provide for our children, especially children of color. My prayer is for God to continue to bless you. Thank you!

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  2. I have to look at the whole issue as an attempt to distract from Biden’s recovery agenda, which is very popular to a wide range of both Republicans and Democrats. If the reactionary forces can whip up divisions between people, who should be natural allies for many socio-economic reasons, on the basis of skin color, then they open a path for oligarchy and/or fascism to corrupt any claim we have to democratic ideals.

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  3. Teaching “character” is akin to teaching tennis sitting in a classroom, teachers “teach” character and values by embedding in day-to-day practice, by those one on one discussions with students, by thoughtful questioning, … yes, face, gender and class are the subtext of every conversation… “teaching” CRT is problematic

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    1. Clarence Page–hardly a liberal–made a good point in noting that CRT, as originally defined (a scholarly investigation of the dynamics that racist behaviors and policies have had, over time) might be best studied by older students. If there’s anybody who’s misconstrued ‘teaching’ CRT, it’s the folks who are adamantly opposed to it. And that’s the kind of teaching–simple equitable practices–that we need.

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    2. Is not all education a part of living?

      Yes, all things can be discussed in a classroom, including the basics of plumbing, electrical work, justice concerns, prejudices, etc. . . . The beginning key is how it is addressed in the classroom. The real key is how students put that learning into play in their lives. Teaching CRT is not problematic, it is each student’s mindset and desire to learn and overcome their own prejudices into which they have been indoctrinated by society, religions and parents that CRT is attempting to address.

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      1. Yup. All formal education and informal education is about making your way in the world. Skills and content can be lost or forgotten, but how to treat other human beings isn’t.

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  4. Today, I am reminded of why I so enjoyed reading your postings. You give voice to the same concerns and values that occur to me when the discussion of “critical race theory” comes up. And you are far more articulate than I. I am also concerned that the radical and implacable manner in which arguments for reform based upon critical race theory may worsen the relationships between those who wish to espouse CRT and those who wish to oppose it. It was certainly a failing for this wild eyed Irishman during his greener years. Too often, how I presented my concerns interfered with what message I was trying to send. At some point, about the time of Christine McAuliffe’s death, I began to mellow and perceive my presentation through the eyes and ears of my audience. Thank you for illuminating that scenario again.

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    1. Thank you. I spent many years working in a rural-turned suburban district outside Detroit, the far edge of white flight. I got very used to ‘middle of the road.’ I also learned that once you were trusted by a community, gently easing them toward the right thing to do got easier.

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