All over the United States, normally placid and poorly attended school board meetings have erupted into tense and crowded zones of contention. The COVID-19 pandemic has been responsible for much of this — directly, as parents have turned up at meetings to express their views about masking mandates — but also indirectly.
When students were schooled at home, more parents had a chance to observe for themselves the content of their child’s education and some were dismayed by it. Something new to most Americans called critical race theory has become the touchstone of the debate. Like all public policy questions, the debate about what to teach in history classes — and how, more broadly, the question of race should be handled in schools — is intensely polarized and the fundamental issues at stake are obfuscated by half-truths.
Some parents who object to the influence of critical race theory on school curricula don’t have a very good idea of what it is. And while critical race theory, strictly speaking, isn’t taught in local school districts, its basic concepts have influenced education beyond elite law schools. I would like to help people untangle this discussion a little bit in the hope that doing so might move us closer to a vision of education that encompasses teaching some of the hard historical truths about race in our country but rejects some of the excesses that have crept into current pedagogy (which is teacher-speak for the methods and practice of teaching).
I recently retired after teaching social studies for 33 years. I’m an old white guy now but once I was a first grade student in Mrs. Walker’s class in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I had escaped my initial first grade teacher when my dad came home from duty in Korea in the early 1960s and moved us there from Indiana. Mrs. Walker wasn’t anything like my very first teacher. She was warm and caring and Black. The next year I had another Black teacher, Miss Harris. I think that teaching that second grade class might have been her first job out of college. She was nice to me, too. Then my luck ran out. In third grade it was back to an old irascible white teacher again. Over the years, I think those early encounters with benevolent Black authority figures have stood me in good stead (so for instance, in 2008, I didn’t freak out because the United States elected a Black man as president).
Living on an Army base in the South at that time I had experiences that weren’t as pleasant as being in Mrs. Walker’s or Miss Harris’ classes. The U.S. armed forces had been desegregated by President Harry Truman’s executive order in 1948 and being a military brat I always had kids of every shade in my class. We lived near one another and played with one another. I was surprised to find out that these same kids and their parents — and my teachers — couldn’t go to some restaurants in the local community of Fayetteville and that the Black people who lived there were restricted to certain places. Looking back, seeing segregation close-up (but, of course, not experiencing it as my friends did) was one of the things that formed me as a person and shaped my approach to teaching.
Including the ‘hard parts’
One of the complaints put forward about these newly activated parents attending school board meetings is that they don’t want the real truth told about American history. I think that’s probably true to some extent. There always will be those who want our schools to teach a historical narrative that supports the idea of American exceptionalism and leaves the hard parts out.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was an increased interest in the history of race relations in America. This started in universities — I remember reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan’s influence in my home state of Indiana — and then spread through popular culture via popular books like Alex Haley’s “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” which became a television series. That change was reflected in history textbooks, which started to include more original sources incorporating new voices into the American narrative.
Possibly because of my early experiences, I always felt the need, as a teacher, to augment my lessons. All the textbooks had references to lynching but I thought it was important for my students to see the ugly reality of it so I showed them pictures. I selected photographs of lynchings that were made into postcards so they would know that these atrocities weren’t just the work of a few deranged people — they took place within a system in which no one feared being punished for these murders.
There are hard facts about our history that need to be taught — that really shouldn’t be a subject for debate. But ultimately that’s not what the conflict over critical race theory’s influence in our schools is about — it is about the context in which those facts are presented.
‘The 1619 Project’
The struggle of the American civil rights era should occupy a central place in any good history curriculum. The teacher will inevitably frame that struggle the same way its leaders did — as a battle to realize the promise contained in our founding documents. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his most famous speech, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”
Those influenced by critical race theory don’t see things this way. They question when the real founding of America was; they reject the idea of equality and embrace what they refer to as equity; and — at the extremes — question the notion of objectivity itself.
The civil rights movement largely tore down the edifice of legal segregation, but there remained the stubborn fact of inequality. What accounted for this? Harvard law professor Derrick Bell and others had an answer for this conundrum: The law systematically privileges people who are white. The law might be increasingly color-blind but its application is not. This idea of “white privilege,” which is now a commonplace term, is an example of how critical race theory influences education without actually being taught as a theory. Another is Bell’s view that the law was far from blind, that its application was based on power imbalances, which are part of the system — that there is “systemic racism.”
Perhaps the most discussed (and complained about) example of what critics view as critical race theory’s influence in history education is “The 1619 Project.” It’s named for the year Black slaves were first landed at the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Published by The New York Times and edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Its publication was followed by lesson plans and reading guides to make it easier to utilize its content in the classroom. Some of these lessons focused on Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay.
I approve of the overall aim of the project, which is to emphasize the importance of Black experiences in American life and to chronicle the lingering effects of not only slavery but the discrimination that followed. Like William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
If I were teaching history now, I might have my students read Hannah-Jones’ essay. However, as with any other class reading, I would encourage students to think critically about what they were reading. I would point out that it did not win the Pulitzer Prize for history but for commentary and explain the difference between the two. I would also point out that her essay contains an egregious factual error — the allegation that one of the main motivations for the American Revolution was the desire of colonists to protect their slaves from the British, who threatened to take them.
If I were still teaching, I would have students read an article in Politico titled “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me,” by Leslie M. Harris, a history professor at Northwestern University. Harris, who is Black, notes that she had “vigorously argued” with the Times’ fact-checker against the assertion that the American Revolution was fought in large part to preserve slavery in North America. Hannah-Jones’ work was deeply influenced by critical race theory’s focus on power imbalances and I’m not surprised by her assertion that all history is framed in certain ways, and there is no such thing as objective history.
I would agree that there are no completely objective historians and therefore no completely objective historical narratives. But that is not the same as saying there are no such things as historical facts.
Question of guilt
The belief that power differentials might be more important than objective facts manifests itself in schools in places other than in the social studies curriculum. In fact, I think most parental objections might be over how race is dealt with at the elementary level. Much of the concern is about the feelings of white children being made to feel as if they’re oppressors.
Commenting, on the website The Grio, on Condoleezza Rice’s recent criticisms of critical race theory, the writer and music journalist Touré asserted that “white children and adults should absolutely feel bad about the past atrocities committed by white Americans. They should feel guilty.”
The idea that guilt is somehow passed through someone’s genes is an abhorrent one to me. Slaveholders sometimes used this “reasoning” to justify their outrages by claiming that Black people were the sons of Ham who, according to the Bible, had seen his father Noah naked and neglected to cover him up. Collective blame, atonement and absolution are in the realm of religion, not of a humanistic education.
There is a world of difference between an education that fosters awareness and agency and one that fosters mutual resentment. No matter our personal political beliefs, we all should agree that schools should educate, not indoctrinate. And parents should and will demand some control over their children’s education. In fact, many articles in educational literature have found parental involvement to be important to student success.
I continue to believe education can help make people more aware of their country’s past with an eye toward creating a better future. I also believe that although some forces are served by exacerbating educational conflicts, there is a broad consensus among most parents about what that education would entail.
Jeffrey L. Hudson is a former social studies teacher at Lampeter-Strasburg High School and a member of Marietta Borough Council. He’s also co-producer of a podcast called “History, Politics and Beer.”