The Use and Disadvantage of Doctrine in the Classroom

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The Use and Disadvantage of Doctrine in the Classroom

The BLM at School Movement seems to have been the first name it gave itself, but its enemies stole a march on the popular mind and rechristened it “the CRT curriculum.” The left-wing dodge was to say that conservative critics were simply confused, since critical race theory is an intricate program, excogitated by a few legal academics in the 1980s and ’90s, which could not possibly be conveyed to children still learning their ABCs. The deflection deserved to fail, and it did fail. No matter what you call it, something new is plainly happening to the way history and social studies are taught in grades K-12.

“Systemic racism” is the new doctrine. The adjective magnifies the force of the noun. Systemic, when you think about it, means that racism pervades every moment and every inch of American society, from the political institutions to the schools to the sports teams; all the elements, too, of corporate life and popular culture, down to the most casual encounter in a street or cafe. Peel back one layer, and you find a lower layer. The new curriculum had been filtering into the elite prep schools for a decade or more. It seems to have migrated to public schools with The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the George Floyd protests of 2020.

Patricia J. Williams, in her recent Nation article “How Not to Talk About Race,” gently ridiculed the problem of the mixed-race child who wonders if one parent is an oppressor and the other is oppressed. “Honestly,” wrote Williams, “it takes something less than a law to untangle that one.” Fair enough—but a cool dismissal of the parent suddenly faced with an anxious child. Things can get tangled in the mind of a kid who has been spoon-fed a lot of sentences that begin “White people…” or “Black people…” (where the sense implies “All white people” and “All black people”). This may not have been what the original Harvard CRT had in mind, but it is an inference lately spelled out by Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, the best-selling anti-racist authors who are a bigger influence on school boards than all their predecessors combined.

The bans on CRT teaching, by at least nine states, including Florida and Texas, are wrong for the libertarian reasons that Williams gave. But I don’t see how one can deny that anti-racism is a doctrine; and its prominence brings up a question about the place of doctrine in education. The Florida ban outlaws teaching that suggests “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” As Williams rightly says, such feelings cannot be prevented. They are part of growing up and learning to think.

Yet the commonsense rebuttal may easily become one more deflection. We can’t prohibit, of course, but neither do we want the schools to inculcate a sense of guilt in young children. They do this, however, when they divide students, or for that matter teachers, into racialized affinity groups, and they do it when they seek to elicit confessions of privilege and testimonies of suffering. The new methods are marked by a certain severity, a pressure to cleanse or catechize.

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