Critical Race Theory in K-12 education has probably been the most contentious political topic of the summer. These past weeks, several states — including Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Tennesse — banned or limited the teaching of CRT in schools and public universities.
As usual, conservatives are divided as to what to do with such laws. Most are for them, but a loud and influential minority is against them.
And, not surprisingly, among those is The Dispatch’s senior editor, David French, who recently co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times explaining his position against anti-CRT laws. As expected, the op-ed gets it all wrong. But let’s explain its main points first.
Why is David French against anti-Critical Race Theory laws?
French co-authored the article along with Kmele Foster, Jason Stanley, and Thomas Chatterton Williams. They begin by saying that the purpose of K-12 education in a liberal democracy is “helping turn students into well-informed and discerning citizens. At their best, our nation’s schools equip young minds to grapple with complexity and navigate our differences. At their worst, they resemble indoctrination factories.”
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Then, the authors criticize aspects of some of these laws. For example, the Tennessee law bans any teaching that “could lead an individual to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.” In addition to this vague prohibition, it restricts teaching that leads to “division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class or class of people.”
The Texas law prohibits “teaching that ‘slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.’ It also bars any classroom from requiring “an understanding of the 1619 Project” — The New York Times Magazine’s special issue devoted to a reframing of the nation’s founding — and hence prohibits assigning any part of it as required reading.”
Moreover, the authors argue that such broad-brush painting may bring unintended consequences: “These measures would, by way of comparison, make Germany’s uncompromising and successful approach to teaching about the Holocaust illegal, as part of its goal is to infuse them with some sense of the weight of the past and (famously) lead many German students to feel anguish about their ancestry.”
“Because these laws often aim to protect the feelings of hypothetical children, they are dangerously imprecise. State governments exercise a high degree of lawful control over the K-12 curriculum. But broad, vague laws violate due process and fundamental fairness because they don’t give the teachers fair warning of what’s prohibited,” they add.
Thus, the authors believe these laws are a threat to the very core of liberal democracy because “censorship is the wrong approach even to the concepts that are the intended targets of these laws.”
However, the authors do not limit themselves to criticize these laws but also propose their own solutions: “A wiser response to problematic elements of what is being labeled critical race theory would be twofold: propose better curriculums and enforce existing civil rights laws. Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, and they are rooted in a considerable body of case law that provides administrators with far more concrete guidance on how to proceed.”
And lastly, they say, “Let’s not mince words about these laws. They are speech codes. They seek to change public education by banning the expression of ideas. Even if this censorship is legal in the narrow context of public primary and secondary education, it is antithetical to educating students in the culture of American free expression.”
Now, what did David French et al. miss here?
K-12 education is not a marketplace of ideas
The first and most glaring mistake David French makes is one he does not state but is an underlying assumption of his claims. When he says that censoring certain views in K-12 education is “antithetical to educating students in the culture of American free expression,” he seems to say that K-12 students should be exposed to all kinds of ideas and that these laws are a sort of infringement on the First Amendment.
This is far from true. It reveals an underlying problem with most French’s views: that the liberal order can be a neutral square where ideas freely coexist. Mind you, this is a blatant lie in general (we’ll talk about that another day) but especially so when talking about children.
Every society chooses the kind of values it promotes to children, and education always compels a form of coercion over children. Liberals do not like to admit so generally, but we typically choose the values we want to instill in children. There lies the central question: do we want to teach them to hate themselves, the color of their skin, their ancestors, and their country? Hardly so. We want them to love all these while understanding its flaws, and that’s a far cry from what CRT teaches.
CRT proponents generally try to propose a false premise: you cannot have an honest discussion about racism in American history if you do not teach Critical Race Theory. This would mean that these anti-CRT laws try to recreate an American golden legend where racism does not exist. Far from true. In fact, the Texas anti-CRT law bans CRT but establishes a list of topics students are required to be taught, including:
(7) the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong;
(8) the history and importance of the civil rights movement, including the following documents:
(A) Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech;
(B) the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 USC. Section 2000a et seq.);
(C) the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education;
(D) the Emancipation Proclamation;
(E) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
(F) the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution
Teaching always means choosing some values over others. Children are not mini-Platos to be crafted through critical judgment while teachers play to be Socrates. Children take things at face value because they have under-developed minds, and part of the work of developing their minds generally implicates a mild form of coercion. We choose that children should learn math and a foreign language despite their resistance. Are we not to choose to ban the sort of ideas that would lead them to hate what they are? We have previously done this when we banned teaching them ideas that would lead them to hate those around them, such as Holocaust denial.
And CRT instills this sort of toxic, hateful, and frankly unscientific ideas on children, as Josh Hammer, Newsweek Opinion Editor, says, “CRT takes the form of crass racial indoctrination that ascribes collective and historical guilt to white Americans, urging white parents of schoolchildren to seek ‘white abolition’ and accusing schools of wantonly ‘spirit murdering’ black children.”
Parents have a legitimate interest in having their children protected from racial scapegoating. This is the least we can do as long as there is a state monopoly over education and non-wealthy parents can only send their children to a school based on their zip code. In the end, the solution is likely giving parents more choice over the kind of education they want for their children and toppling the state monopoly over education. Yet, in the meantime, protecting children from CRT through state legislatures is a good start.
A curriculum without CRT is a better curriculum
Varad Mehta says that “the fundamental incoherence of French’s argument, however, is truly revealed in this passage: “A wiser response to problematic elements of what is being labeled critical race theory would be twofold: propose better curriculums and enforce existing civil rights laws,” why? Because for proponents of these laws, a curriculum without CRT is a better curriculum. French disagrees with CRT but says it should stay on the curriculum, so what would a better curriculum look like to him?
I do agree with David French that some of these laws seem to be way too general and are painted with broad brushes. Of course, the goal of such generalities instead of just saying “critical race theory” is that it would be too easy to say that what CRT proponents are teaching in schools is not CRT, which would, of course, lead to a never-ending legal battle. Yet, it remains to be seen how these laws will be practically applied. Will they be used to stop teaching the Holocaust from a critical perspective? It is unlikely, especially when states like Florida already mandate doing this.
The laws might be flawed, but not because of their intention or the intended goal, but likely for the way they might hypothetically be eventually applied. But that is just the supposition of a supposition.
Filing a lawsuit puts the blame on the side of parents
David French’s second proposal is to “enforce existing civil rights laws. Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, and they are rooted in a considerable body of case law that provides administrators with far more concrete guidance on how to proceed.”
However, this would mean parents should file federal lawsuits which, might take years just to reach a decision. French here is conceding that teaching CRT in schools might be against civil rights laws, why should parents go through the arduous procedure of filing and waiting for a federal lawsuit to proceed when the same can be achieved through state legislatures which, in fact, are the ones that regulate state curriculums? Is it because David French knows that such a strategy is doomed to fail or will take years to bring results in a best-case scenario? It remains to be seen.
Thus, even if CRT is generally illegal in K-12 education under the Civil Rights Act, state legislatures have a legitimate interest in passing laws against it, as Josh Hammer explains: “many Republican-governed states have gone further, crafting and passing new legislation to specifically ban CRT pedagogy from corrupting their impressionable youth. While every piece of legislation or regulatory rule is distinct and must be legally assessed on its own merits, these states are absolutely correct to ban CRT indoctrination against the protestations of both left-liberal and right-liberal critics.”
A couple of years ago, David French and Sohrab Ahmari (the New York Post’s op-ed editor) went on a long discussion about the future of American conservatism. French defended a typical small-state conservatism viewpoint while Ahmari proposed a more aggressive approach against the left. Back then, they debated in public, and the general consensus was that “French mopped the floor with Ahmari,” according to the American Conservative. Now, I’m not sure Ahmari won, but seeing French defend teaching eight-year-olds that they are inescapably wicked because of their skin color as if it were the great struggle for free speech in the 21st Century certainly means French lost.