Comment Of The Day: “PEN America’s Ignorant And Sinister Support For School Indoctrination”

Pen

I have a lot to say in response to Curmie’s excellent comment regarding the large writers association somehow deciding the the government threatens free speech by regulating itself. For once, however, I think I’ll take my issues up in a separate post, and perhaps in the comments.

Meanwhile, here is Curmie’s Comment of the Day on the post, “PEN America’s Ignorant And Sinister Support For School Indoctrination…”

***

None of the following should be interpreted as dissent regarding your take on PEN’s First Amendment argument.

That said, I think it’s important to note the phrase “free speech and the First Amendment.” This construction accurately describes the fact that the two concepts, though related, are not identical. Telling a teacher what must or must not be said in the classroom does indeed inhibit free speech; this is, of course, not inherently a problem, which is why such restrictions remain constitutional. But the fact remains that even at the university level I can say things in my private capacity that would rightfully warrant censure (at least) were I to do so while functioning as a state employee.

It’s also worth mentioning that being “constitutional” does not necessarily imply that something is a good idea. Constitutionality means simply that the Supreme Court, configured as it happened to be when the case came before them, determined something to be constitutional, and that no subsequent SCOTUS has overturned that ruling. Thus, for example, abortion and ownership of certain kinds of weaponry are both constitutionally protected (within some limits), although I suspect that a majority of citizens think one or the other ought not to be… it’s just that we can’t agree on which one.

Further, we should understand that both Critical Race Theory and your description of it as “anti-white, anti-American propaganda” are subjective analyses which attempt to clarify or interpret objective evidence. Sometimes the connections are obvious; sometimes they’re more complex, nuanced… or strained. That doesn’t make subjectivity bad or wrong (indeed, it’s necessary more often than not), provided we recognize it for what it is.

In terms of Critical Race Theory in particular, much of the tension comes from an inability (unwillingness?) to agree on a definition of what we’re talking about. Saying that the US was founded “as a racist country” is certainly contentious; saying that some racial inequities were intentionally built into the nation’s founding documents by white men is simply a fact.

We might be able to increase the light to heat ratio of the discussion by turning from our own country to ancient Athens, regarded as the birthplace of democracy. And it was. Sort of. Far more average people than ever before were granted access to the privileges of citizenship: voting, holding office, serving on juries, etc. But citizenship was reserved for freeborn males, both of whose parents were also born in Athens. Thus, far less than half of the total population were even potential citizens. Nor was there was much opportunity for upward mobility in socio-economic terms… none of which suggests that the steps towards what we now call democracy were anything but profoundly significant.

The problem that I see with many of the attacks on Critical Race Theory, especially those emanating from state legislatures in red states, is that too often the definition of what constitutes CRT is so broad that teaching even objective facts that reference race would be prohibited.

I recently wrote on my own blog that whereas you, Jack, didn’t learn about Kristallnacht in high school, I did. What I didn’t learn about were the massacres at Wounded Knee or Tulsa, the exclusion of most black veterans from the benefits of the GI Bill in its first permutation, or the wartime internment of US citizens who happened to be of Japanese descent. Those are facts, not theories, and there are those who would forbid mentioning, much less discussing, those realities, just as there are those who continue to write textbooks saying that slaves “immigrated” from West Africa, or that First Nations people “agreed” to turn their land over to white folks and live on reservations.

By the time students reach high school, they’re old enough and sophisticated enough to learn that young George Washington did not, in fact, confess to chopping down that cherry tree with his little hatchet. They’re also old enough to hear the truth about this nation’s troubled relationship with race. That doesn’t mean they need to hear harangues about their evil (or victimized) ancestors. It does mean that objective facts should be fair game, and that historically contextualized discussion would also be appropriate, providing that opinions are identified as such rather than as inherent truth.

8 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “PEN America’s Ignorant And Sinister Support For School Indoctrination”

  1. “The problem that I see with many of the attacks on Critical Race Theory, especially those emanating from state legislatures in red states, is that too often the definition of what constitutes CRT is so broad that teaching even objective facts that reference race would be prohibited.”

    Can you share some examples of such legislation?

    “In terms of Critical Race Theory in particular, much of the tension comes from an inability (unwillingness?) to agree on a definition of what we’re talking about. Saying that the US was founded “as a racist country” is certainly contentious; saying that some racial inequities were intentionally built into the nation’s founding documents by white men is simply a fact.”

    This is just the Motte & Bailey that proponents are using to mute any criticism of their very controversial aims. Of course, arguing about what CRT is and who’s pushing it is rather pointless, as every teacher in America will sit on a unique place on a sliding scale from abhorring it to thinking it might be useful to help kids understand subconscious racism to seeing it as a useful tool to turn kids into far left revolutionaries.

    However, I don’t see how anyone can honestly arrive at the conclusion that it’s helpful, since its entire shtick, as far as I understand it, is that racism impacts many, many things, and the evidence of this claim is the disparate results between racial groups. Correlations, even very strong correlations, can be found in the most curious of places, and only a fool or a liar would claim that as proof of causation. Teaching a whole generation of children that the fact that black people are poorer than white people is proof of racism is objectively bad.

    I’m open to hearing alternative ideas of how crt might be useful to elementary students (or frankly, even these law students everyone keeps talking about) aside from giving them all a race hammer and pointing out how everything looks like a nail if you squint.

    • Re the first question: first off, sloppy writing on my part. Should be “could” instead of “would.” Apologies for overstating the case.

      Beyond that: most legislative versions include language about making students uncomfortable, or being “divisive.” Many teachers (rightfully, I think) worry that raising any issues regarding racism, even in a balanced, nuanced and contextualized manner, could land them in hot water. One version of this would be a teacher suggesting that the secession of the Confederacy was based on issues of slavery. The fact that the statements of the secessionists themselves say precisely that is ignored by some ideologues (including, for example, the majority of my state’s Board of Education), who insist that the primary issue was not slavery, but “states’ rights.” Erm… states’ rights to do what?

      There are three issues with respect to CRT: how much is the *theory* (as apart from the objective foundations of the theory) being “taught” in public schools, to kids of what age, and is it presented as fact or something approaching fact? My guesses: ululation of right-wing pols to the contrary notwithstanding, 1).not much, 2). when it occurs, it’s almost universally to high school kids, not kindergartners, 3). probably in some cases (there are zealots on all sides), but ultimately very few. I see CRT as this year’s variation on the Sharia law nonsense of a few years back.

      How can it be helpful? Teaching the existence of the theory is different than promoting the theory. We can reasonably ask students to understand the basic principles of religions other than their own, of economic theories other than that of the US, and so on. I don’t see that this ought inherently be different.

      I do think there’s some utility in the old “walking a mile in the other person’s shoes” idea. It is absolutely true that some of the more sordidly racist events of American history have been covered up by the educational system. Perhaps pulling the scabs off those gangrenous wounds is the best way to disinfect them… we just need to be extremely careful that the cure isn’t worse than the disease.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful response. I haven’t seen any proposed or passed legislation that might make school teachers hesitate in teaching about how slavery played a major role in initiating the civil war, but of course some could, rightly or not, be worried that it might get them in trouble.

        In regards to your second paragraph, here is where confirmation bias rears its ugly head. I hear some of the strange things my oldest (9 year old) says offhandedly about racial topics (we do not teach our kids anything about racial politics, other than answer questions and reiterate that we treat people kindly no matter how they look) and wonder what nonsense she’s learning in school, even in a red state. When a good third of the population seems to regard CRT or its fellow travelers (white privilege, white guilt, racism is an every day occurrence for black people, etc.) as obviously true, and when school teachers tend to veer pretty hard left compared to the general population, my confirmation bias tells me that the ridiculous things I hear out of otherwise normal Gen Z and millennials, like that my daughter shouldn’t dress as Moana for Halloween, must be coming from the school. Even 20 years ago, I had some teachers (again in a very red state) who were very liberal and made no effort to hide their contempt for the rest of the state.

        Sorry, those sentences were not very well structured!

        I have no doubt that if I knew what my children are taught in school, I’d be pulling them out of public school in a heartbeat. Sadly, home schooling isn’t possible for us right now, so all I can do is hope that my children’s teachers’ influence isn’t enough to counteract their parents’. If that seems overly pessimistic, I hope I don’t insult you here, but it’s probably because you align more with what the average public school teaches than the average conservative/libertarian.

  2. What I didn’t learn about were the massacres at Wounded Knee or Tulsa, the exclusion of most black veterans from the benefits of the GI Bill in its first permutation, or the wartime internment of US citizens who happened to be of Japanese descent.

    I learned about the internment by high school.

    The Tulsa massacre and ” the exclusion of most black veterans from the benefits of the GI Bill in its first permutation” would not merit their own chapters in a high school history textbook.

    Most people are also unaware of the Depression of 1920-1921.

    I suspect that this Depression aggravated racial tensions.

  3. All I know is they are teaching this content too young. 5-8 years is not an appropriate timeframe to discuss the civil rights movement, slavery, the civil war, and the politics of it. It’s not something most kids can grasp. And yet… my kid “felt sorry” for them. How is that anything but horrifying? To have little 6 year olds decide they’re oppressed or oppressors? No. Just no. It’s the timing of it all I have a bigger problem with. They’re also trying to teach LGBTQ to 6-9 year olds. No. Let them be kids and innocent for a while longer. They just need to know to be nice to people not like them and people like them. That’s all you need to teach. Variety (diversity) is a good thing and makes life interesting. They do not need to know about sexual acts normal or perverse adults partake in. They don’t need to understand and can not at that age (5-7 years) what happened politically and in cities during the civil rights movement and before. Half the time they don’t understand that it’s not happening NOW, it was a long, long time ago (for a 5 year old). Most can’t grasp it.

  4. One day, not long ago, my sister on a Zoom call exclaimed about the importance of learning about the past, “I didn’t know George Washington’s teeth had belonged to his slaves!”

    I wanted to reply, “So what? Why is it important to know that?”

    Then, not long after, an article on Facebook about the school board controversies had a comment beneath from someone who mentioned how the new teachings on racism taught him that George Washington had false teeth that had been taken from some of his slaves.

    Like any reasonable person these days should be asking, I wondered, “What is going on here?”

    The truth is that any decent book on Washington will have this information. It’s not suppressed. It’s just not taught in schools. Why would it be? Do we spend time breaking down the details of every facet of our Founding Fathers’ lives? Are students taught that Thomas Jefferson took down minutiae every day about the weather? That information isn’t suppressed either, but you can find it in most biographies of Jefferson.

    Schools can only provide an historical overview. They can’t stop and delve into obscure details about the people contained in the lessons. They can only create a narrative and follow that narrative with the salient points. This is why I got the First Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims in the first grade, Indiana history in 4th grade, US History in 8th Grade and a required semester of U.S. Government before graduation. If we got past the Industrial Revolution in any Social Studies class before my World History elective in 12th grade, it was a miracle.

    That’s why it’s important for students to consider what they get in schools an introduction to these topics, not the be all and end all of them. Read more books about what interests you. I just finished a book about Bonnie & Clyde. When I was in school, they may have gotten mentioned in one sentence in one chapter of a history book about the 1930s and the affects of the Depression. Not suppressed, not just important.

    But the narrative is changing and, now, the narrative appears to be that we have to diminish the Founding Fathers and early U.S. history in order to convince people that the whole thing needs to be chucked out. Why else would it be so important to know esoterica, such as where Washington’s false teeth came from?

    I don’t know a single opponent of the so-called CRT or anti-racism curricula who thinks that students shouldn’t be taught about slavery, the Civil Rights movement or the treatment of the Indians. I do know a great many who debate the notion that the U.S. was built as a racist country from the beginning, that the deck is stacked against all minorities on a systematic basis and that, because of it, a widespread program of special treatment, lower standards and guilt-based shaming of white students is required.

    • The point is not that Washington’s dentures were made from the teeth of slaves. The point is that I was told in school that they were made of wood. I was lied to, in other words, apparently to cover up what might be a little awkward piece of trivia. Knowing that deception happened makes me, and I suspect a great many other people, wonder what else about the nation’s slave-owning forefathers has been similarly sanitized.

      • Well, it was really deceit: he had dentures mad of wood, and dentures made of teeth. And telling about te latter without also explaining that George had a complete transformation in his position on slavery by the end of his life (and he was still in his 60s when he died, because he was thoughtful, analytical and ultimately ethical. In fact, the slave’s teeth story is a great example of something that I don’t trust public school teachers to teach to grade-schoolers, because without context it is misleading information about a great man and an essential figure.

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