Education Reform

Who Has Been AWOL in Defending the Schools Against the Attacks on CRT?

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This day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an appropriate time to consider the widespread efforts to restrict the teaching of racism in America’s schools. In Tennessee, the notorious “Moms for Liberty” declared that a second-grade book called Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington was inappropriate, as was Ruby Bridges Goes to School, about the six-year-old who was the first African-American child to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. The Central York School District in Pennsylvania banned books about Dr. King and Rosa Parks (parents, students, and teachers fought back against the ban in Central York); a Twitter account called Central York Banned Book Club (CYBannedBooks) reports on censorship in their own district and elsewhere. Young people today are not so easily bullied.

During the past couple of years, the nation’s public schools have been the object of savage attacks by politicians and ideologues who claim that the schools are teaching “critical race theory” and indoctrinating (white) children. CRT emphasizes the tenacity of systemic racism, and legislators in red states have passed laws mandating that teachers are not allowed to teach about systemic racism or to teach anything that might make some students (white) feel “uncomfortable.” At least 10 states have passed such laws, including Florida, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and North Dakota. Sometimes such laws are called “divisive concepts” laws, because they forbid the teaching of anything that is “divisive.” Teaching about racism is apparently divisive, as is any implication that the nation is or has been sexist or unwelcoming to specific racial or ethnic groups. So, no more teaching in history about race riots and massacres and lynching; no teaching in history about hostility to Irish immigrants; no teaching in history about anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism.

Much of the uproar was provoked by the publication of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” originally published as an issue of The New York Times Magazine and bearing the imprimatur of America’s most respected newspaper. In September 2020, Trump spoke at the National Archives Museum, standing before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, where he said that radicals and Marxists were responsible for “decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” He singled out critical race theory and The 1619 Project as examples of left-wing indoctrination. He called for “patriotic education” He announced his intention to create the “1776 Commission,” which would “promote a ‘patriotic education’ and ‘encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our founding.’”

The furor over critical race theory during 2021 has not subsided. Teachers in red states that have passed laws against CRT and divisive concepts are wary about teaching about racism. Is teaching about slavery, Jim Crow, and the persistence of segregation a violation of the law? Should teachers avoid any mention of the Ku Klux Klan or modern-day white supremacists?

In June 2021, more than 150 organizations–historians, educators, authors– signed a “Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism in American History.” The joint statement forcefully criticized the laws that aimed to ban teaching about racism in a way that made “some” students uncomfortable. It said “these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn…Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an informed public…Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced, and frank delivery of history, so that they can learn, grow, and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology.”

The most puzzling aspect of this coordinated effort to suppress the teaching of accurate history is the silence of people who should have spoken up to defend the schools and their teachers.

The most prominent no-show on the ramparts is Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Last June, he testified before a Congressional committee and was asked about critical race theory. He responded that his department would leave curriculum decisions to states and local districts. He reiterated that the “the federal government doesn’t get involved in curriculum.” According to Chalkbeat, Cardona “said he trusts educators to do their jobs, including teaching about the progress this country has made combatting racism. ‘But I think we can do that while also being honest about some of the things we’re not proud of.” Those comments might be called “leading from behind.” Other than a comment here or there, Cardona did not make a major effort of combatting the attacks on schools and teacher over teaching about racism. He did not give a major speech, as he should have to defend teaching truth.

Other prominent absentees from the CRT-censorship-book banning controversy were the billionaires who usually are verbose about what schools and teachers should be doing.

Where was Bill Gates? Although rightwing wing-nuts attacked Bill Gates for spreading CRT, Gates said nothing to defend schools and teachers against the attacks on them. He is not known for shyness. He uses his platform to declaim his views on every manner of subject. Why the silence about teaching the nation’s history with adherence to the truth? Why no support for courageous teachers who stand up for honesty in the curriculum?

One could list the many other philanthropists who remained silent as the critics were beating up on schools for teaching honest history to their students. None of them was heard from.

Who else failed to show up and be counted on behalf of academic integrity?

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