Laura K. Field is a writer and political theorist, Scholar in residence at American University, and Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center. She is a regular contributor to The Constitutionalist.
There were doubtless many causes for Glenn Youngkin’s success in Virginia’s gubernatorial race last week, but one theme that stood out in the country’s imagination was education. More specifically, the matter of “critical race theory” (or CRT) supposedly being taught in public schools.
Education was one of the focal points of Youngkin’s campaign. And he did not shy away from the anti-CRT hype, making repeated pledges to “ban” CRT from the classroom “on Day 1.” Which is to say that Youngkin owes his victory at least in part to the recent Republican campaign against CRT, which began under President Trump, has been spearheaded by Christopher Rufo, and sustained by conservative advocacy groups across the country.
As many commentators have observed, these dynamics have left Democrats scrambling. It feels like a lose-lose situation: admitting sympathy or support for anything related to CRT renders one subject to sweeping, unhinged attacks; denying such sympathies or critiquing anything “woke” feels like betrayal of one’s allies and capitulation to the worst forces of the right. Neither seems like a winning public strategy. Furthermore, to anyone who knows anything about actual Critical Race Theory, the whole thing feels like a macabre joke wherein whole swaths of society have banded together to demonstrate, unwittingly, the very thing that they claim to oppose and deny.
In what follows, I argue that the national debacle around race and education revolves around three fundamental confusions, drawing on several good discussions from this past summer to make my case. These confusions are related to questions about 1) the substantive sources of upset; 2) the question of appropriate educational standards/pedagogical principles; 3) the empirical facts concerning current pedagogical approaches.
Gaining clarity about these three confusions is crucial to countering the GOP campaign, and I conclude with some brief notes about what an appropriate counter-message might look like, on the part of anyone concerned with these questions.
Why are the curricular debates so upsetting?
Over the summer, Matthew Yglesias did a good job in this post at Slow Boring discussing what is at stake in these controversies. He takes up this column, where Ross Douthat also discusses the matter (the first of two Douthat columns on the subject). Douthat’s most serious charge is that progressives are working to cast a radical and suspicious eye on American history as a whole; according to his view, conservatives are upset because they see their national myths upset and exposed.
There is surely some truth to what Douthat says, but Yglesias offers a powerful rejoinder, arguing that the conservative uproar is, at bottom, about something quite different. According to Yglesias (and the article is worth reading in full), the real problem with the new left historiography is not that it is unpatriotic, but rather that it makes the conservative movement look very bad. Furthermore, he explains, this negative portrait is to a large degree plausible and grounded in truth. In other words, it’s not the most radical material of the project that is so upsetting to conservatives, though that is typically what they rail against. The deeper trouble lies with all that is more mundane and straightforwardly accurate. Here’s how Yglesias puts it at one point:
The  project as a whole ties together in popularized form a lot of strands of newer history that, broadly speaking, cast racial conflict as the central through-line of American history and does so in a way that’s devastating to conservatism.
Yglesias grounds his argument in a short discussion of the history of Progressivism, so it’s not like he’s trying to cover over the messy history of the left (he draws attention to progressivism’s early emphasis on class and inattention to race, to Woodrow Wilson’s racism, and so forth). But his basic argument is that it should come as no surprise that conservatives don’t want the 1619 Project essays to be taught in public schools. And he concludes that, given what the essays disclose about conservatism in this country, at least as it is manifest right now, it is probably too much of a heavy lift to incorporate it into curricula.
I do not agree with Yglesias’ conclusion about whether 1619 should be incorporated into curricula (more on that in a bit), but I am convinced by his argument that it is the straightforward truth that conservatives find so frightening.
An episode from the Youngkin-McCauliffe campaign bears this out. At one point during the campaign Youngkin released a video of a concerned parent – Laura Murphy – who was worried about explicit material being taught in her son’s Advanced Placement English course. It turns out, though, that the book Murphy had in mind, and was therefore seeking to ban, was Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Anyone who has read Beloved can tell you that it is indeed explicit and brutal, because it is about a mother who decides to kill her own children rather than see them re-captured into the slave system. But no one can honestly claim that the novel fails to convey something true and real about American history.
Such truths are, of course, very hard to bear. Douthat is right, then, to say that conservative national myths are being exposed; what he fails to note — and which Yglesias sees — is that for the most part they are being exposed by the truth, not by radical fantasies.
What Should Be Taught?
The Beloved example is useful because it confronts us with the basic question of what is actually pedagogically appropriate for students in public schools. I am not going to pretend to know what is appropriate across the board, but instead just want to offer a few basic thoughts.
The first concerns the obvious complexity of this question. Beloved may be entirely appropriate for AP English students, while at the same time being obviously inappropriate for most junior high students. Similarly, serious discussions about race in this country are difficult for anyone, but that doesn’t mean that no part of the 1619 Project should be taught in public schools; it means that it depends on context. Furthermore, these are precisely the kind of questions that education experts and school boards presumably take quite seriously.
For whatever reason, though, in the commotion surrounding the 1619 Project, many people presume that such pedagogical questions are not taken seriously, and that the essays are being embraced by teachers and taught wholesale and everywhere as a set of unquestionable doctrines.
Before we get to the empirical question of what is actually going on, let me note that I see zero evidence that the 1619 Project was ever intended as a wholesale curricular replacement, either of the historical narratives surrounding 1776, or of the standard public school curriculum. Granting that the 1619 Project has a provocative edge, read in good faith, it was clearly meant to be a historical intervention and corrective, not a sweeping new indoctrination doctrine. In other words, the arguments of 1619 (as well as of many contemporary antiracist writers) are meant as standard-fare contributions to civil society. The authors here are seeking to broaden the audiences’ perspective in particular ways, in light of particular historical realities, and are supposed to be taken up by schools in that same spirit.
The documents surrounding the project support this view. From early on, the creators of the project have described it as offering “supplementary educational materials” (scroll to the bottom), and not a replacement for traditional textbooks and resources. They continue to make this explicit. If you click on the Pulitzer lesson plans for Nikole Hannah-Jones’ opening essay (“Full lesson for students [PDF]”), the first exercise requires students to re-read the Declaration of Independence. The more you click around in the Pulitzer material, the more obvious it becomes that these lessons are meant to fuel “reevaluations” of American history, against a presumptive standard curricula that ascribe to the traditional 1776 Founding date.
The difference between mere exposure to an alternative understanding and its wholesale embrace comes up again in the discussion surrounding the Youngkin-McAuliffe contest. Here, the presumption on the right is that mere inclusion of, or exposure to, ideas from Critical Race Theory on the part of educators signals wholesale indoctrination in the classroom. On October 30, Christopher Rufo was on Twitter extrapolating from a variety of sources connected to the school board, including the inclusion of a CRT textbook on a list of recommended resources in a memo having to do with conversations about race, that Virginia’s schools had embraced CRT in their classrooms. Rufo is probably right to point out that McAuliffe overstated his claims that CRT has “never been taught in Virginia,” but the fact remains that there is no proof of the widespread teaching of – let alone doctrination into – Critical Race Theory in Virginia public schools. It should go without saying: the fact that teachers are encouraged to explore a subject, or even adopt “best practices” that are informed by a certain theory, does not mean that they will be expected or encouraged to transfer that same understanding to their students.
These sorts of distinctions may not matter to Rufo, but they should matter to the rest of us.
The positive upshot here, in terms of simple pedagogical principles, is twofold:
- We should want a diversity of reasonable perspectives presented to students in age-appropriate ways. Reasonable perspectives do not include holocaust denial.
- We should be comfortable with the notion that what teachers study and learn about, as professionals and as adults, will be different (and often much more complicated and critical) than the material they use in the classroom.
Granting these two very general principles, there will still of course be plenty of room for debate between interested parties (which include teachers, and administrators, and parents) about what does and does not count as a reasonable perspective, and about what does and does not translate well into a given classroom.
But the clear articulation and embrace of these principles would go a long way to counteract GOP attacks on CRT, since those efforts 1) are anti-pluralist, and seek to use the force of the law to limit and control what is taught in classrooms in perverse ways, and 2) are anti-intellectual: they presume that mere exposure to CRT ideas ought to be avoided, on the part of both teachers and students.
What Is Actually Happening?
If I thought the anti-CRT attacks were true — and that radical (or “neoracist”) approaches were being promoted in public schools across the country as the only reasonable way to understand American history — then I would probably be in favor of some kind of legislative action. In the end, the question of the appropriateness of these laws, and of current outrage, rides on the empirical question of what is actually happening on the ground.
For anyone working to sort through these issues, I would recommend a second pair of articles from the summer, these by Damon Linker and Michelle Goldberg.
I’ve disagreed with Damon before about pretty much this same question, and I disagree, in some ways, with his take on the current debate. This stems, I think, from a disagreement with a few of his presumptions. Linker cautions the following:
The phenomenon [CRT] is invoked to describe is real, it is pernicious, and the parents and politicians rallying against it are not simply cynical pawns in a nefarious right-wing “astroturfing” operation. They are reacting to something real, they aren’t wrong to do so, and the left would be well advised to combine their justified criticism of Republican overreach with full-throated criticism of the excesses of their allies on the left. The failure to do so will simply recapitulate the myriad mistakes of the past.
In other words, Damon thinks that a failure to call-out the “excesses of the left” on the part of liberals and centrists is dangerous. It is tantamount to “an act of intellectual cowardice and political malfeasance” and renders such commentators complicit in vamping-up right-wing ire. And he may be right that “CRT” now describes a real phenomenon, and even that left-wing refusal to condemn it spurs some conservatives to fear it even more. The problem is that such “full-throated criticism” would feel disingenuous to many liberals and progressives, since they on balance agree with much of what counts as “woke,” or at least are on the fence. In other words, and speaking for myself, we do not agree that “the great awokening” is pernicious; we are still in the process of trying to understand it.
But more importantly, it is a mistake to assume that a more robust critique of the “woke” phenomenon would somehow appease or quell right-wing ire.
After all, liberals and leftists — including very mainstream liberals and leftist, and in addition to many centrists and conservatives — have offered highly publicized critiques of the 1619 Project, and regularly do speak out against “woke excesses” already. Thoughtful people very regularly critique Robin DiAngelo, and Ibram Kendi, too; thinkers from across the spectrum joined forces in 2020 to sign onto the well-known “Harper’s Letter” denouncing the “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides”; several new substack publications have been born in recent years that are devoted to anti-left counter-messaging (think Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Persuasion — and now the University of Austin). None of this, so far as I can tell, has made an ounce of difference to the anti-CRT crowd, whose attacks just get more brazen, and who in 2021 have turned to the law to get their way.
Even so, the primary question here is still the empirical one about what is being taught and how, and that is the question that Michelle Goldberg took up in her column responding to Linker.
(There is a good parallel set of recent articles out there discussing the empirical evidence for so-called “cancel culture”).
Linker suggests that parents are upset because they don’t want “highly polemical, contestable, and potentially incendiary assertions about the place of race in American history” to be taught to American children “as the simple, unadulterated, unambiguous truth” and they don’t want public schools are “propagandizing their children into becoming left-wing radicals.” The question Goldberg takes up is whether the presumption that this is happening has any merit.
It is difficult to know. I am convinced that there are some wonderful teachers out there being persecuted for trying to expand their students’ horizons just ever-so-slightly. I also have no doubt that there are some bad HR trainings out there, as well as some well-meaning teachers out there who do not have the training they need and so are not doing a great job contending with difficult questions. It makes sense that parents would be angry about this, and they have every right to respond. The question concerns the scope of the issue. As Goldberg discusses, the problem of “unbalanced” curricula may be spreading, but for now it seems to exist, as the expert she spoke with put it, “in elite, affluent private schools and then also in so-called public-private high schools in affluent areas.” Without having looked at the elite curricula in question, I’m not personally sure that it’s a problem (and note: there are all kinds of conservative private schools with “unbalanced” curricula). But as Goldberg observes, “it’s hard to see how something happening mostly in rarefied liberal milieus explains the fights over C.R.T. breaking out all over the country.”
Goldberg offers a few examples of the kinds of controversies that she sees erupting in actual public schools, and it turns out that these have pretty much nothing to do with CRT, or even with questions about American history, and everything to do with everyday racism and ordinary civic questions about identity and difference. A school board tried to deal with an overtly racist incident, and the community revolted. A community in Missouri is in an uproar over basic efforts to diversify education: in one instance a parent was upset that her child was asked to think about “assumptions that people make about people in the different groups you belong to.” And the more the anti-CRT phenomenon persists, the more anecdotes like this accumulate: the infamous book list put together in Texas, which includes a number of classics; the bizarre complaint filed under the new Tennessee law by the Tennessee Moms for Liberty, which argues that educating students about Ruby Bridges amounts to “indoctrination–the relentless teachings of whites versus people of color under the dichotomy of oppressor versus oppressed and that our country is fundamentally racist.”
The anti-CRT laws invite precisely this sort of thing because their ridiculous presumption is that using racial categories and language like “oppressor versus oppressed” amounts to an endorsement of racism and oppression. This theory runs all the way through the conservative movement today, from the upside-down notions about progressivism and Calhoun that we saw in President Trump’s 1776 Project, to cries about “neoracist ideology” in the pages of National Review. People like Rod Dreher worry about how all this talk about race and racism will lead to the reification of racial categories, but they never explain how to talk about history and oppression without them. As John Ganz writes in a very thoughtful discussion of the CRT debacle, “The fact of the matter is that society is divided by race, gender, and class in a lot of complicated ways and it requires concerted thought and effort to untangle them.”
Goldberg concludes her column with a great line: “The sort of antiracist education that’s sparked a nationwide backlash isn’t radically leftist. It’s elementary.” That’s exactly right (and in keeping with Yglesias’ read, too). There just isn’t good evidence that American public school children are being taught radical, incendiary viewpoints as dogmatic truths. The core problem here is not critical race theory or a radical issue of the New York Times Magazine. It’s that Americans have never really learned to talk out in the open about the racial dynamics of this country, and there was never going to be a straightforward way to begin.
It is of course fine to critique specifics and to engage in local discussions as they arise without joining in the broader anti-woke, anti-CRT crusades. Contra some “anti-woke” commentators (and “popularist” strategizers), no one needs to disavow “wokeness” or stop talking about race altogether. In this I agree with John Ganz, Greg Sargent, and Brian Beutler. This analysis of David Shor-style “popularism,” by Ian Haney Lopez, was also very good on the question. As Lopez puts it:
The fundamental challenge for Democrats is to develop a unified, effective response to the intense polarization around race intentionally driven by Trump and boosted by the interlocking elements of the rightwing propaganda machine.
Instead of caving to the anti-CRT campaign, it would be better to call their bluff: to explain that these bad laws prey on Americans’ worst instincts and seek to address problems that do not exist at any scale in our public schools. And then to “own” some of this content, while at the same time affirming liberal norms. It is not good to defensively argue that CRT has no influence in schools, let alone to say that parents just need to trust the experts. Better to note that 1619 and CRT are compatible with free speech and liberal democracy: Because in a free society we really do welcome a diversity of perspectives and approaches, even ones that challenge existing values and norms, because we are a plural people.
Better to acknowledge that, since some forms of oppression are grounded in identity, the language we use to describe it will be too, but that doesn’t make it divisive or harmful.
Better to point out that, contrary to Republican talking-points, American public schools do not teach — and nor does Critical Race Theory suggest — that some people are inherently better or worse because of their race, gender, or sexuality (on this point we might keep a quote from Nikole Hannah-Jones handy: “Our founding ideals were great and powerful. Had we in fact built a country based on those founding ideals, then we would have the most amazing country the earth has ever seen”).
It shouldn’t be hard to admit that, for obvious reasons, studying American history is fraught and hard — and that honest discussions about race are not easy or comfortable, and no one should expect them to be — while also affirming that this kind of study is invaluable because it deepens our understanding of human life, and of one another.
This CRT culture war is going to be with us for the foreseeable future. But curricular battles and culture wars are nothing new, and they have been won before. The best way to safeguard liberal democracy and liberal norms is to use them.