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The other problem with Critical Race “Theory”

The other problem with Critical Race “Theory”

An earlier version of this essay first appeared in the June 24, 2021 Epoch Times.

Educational fads such as critical race “theory” (CRT) teach messages that are wrong or distorted. But this essay focuses on another concern: They also waste class time and scarce resources that should be used to cover more important subjects. They induce teachers to take their eyes off the ball.

Properly speaking, CRT is not a “theory” at all. Theories are based on controlled experiments and testing, or, in the social sciences, on empirical research. CRT is at most a tentative hypothesis. It relies unduly on anecdotes, and its “conclusions” seem dictated by its proponents’ political biases.

Moreover, like some other fads, it’s a product of cultural ignorance. This is not surprising, when you learn that CRT originated in law schools, where cultural ignorance is common.

A recent article in Education Week argues for injecting CRT into school curricula. The author, who tells us she learned about the subject in law school, appears well meaning. Nevertheless, her article illustrates the confusion and ignorance behind CRT.

For example, she claims that humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic material—apparently unaware that the figure is under challenge as too high. From that she jumps to the conclusion that race is merely a “social construct”—thereby ignoring the effects of the remaining genetic differences.

Later in her article, she seems to assume that there are racial differences after all. She condemns bans on students wearing “locs,” because those wearing them are almost exclusively African Americans. This is so, however, because most African-Americans’ hair differs in composition from that of, say, whites or Asians. That’s the effect of genetic differences that certainly do not comprise a mere “social construct.”

The author also tells us that CRT is not about substance; it’s merely a “practice”—a procedure. But practices have substantive results. She even lets some slip out. She tells us that CRT enables students to learn about race-related events of which they might otherwise be ignorant, such as the Tulsa Massacre and how “Native American children were forcibly removed from their families.”

The author seems unaware that any class time you spend on “ain’t it awful’ events is time not spent on subjects that are far more important to the life success of students of all races. After all, good pedagogy is only partly about how to teach the material. It’s also about knowing what material to teach. A good teacher knows he or she doesn’t have time to waste.

Understanding English words often begins with knowing their German or Latin roots, and so it is with education. “To educate” comes from educere, the Latin word meaning “to lead out.” In Latin usage, it may be the most common term for “to rear” or “to bring up.” (Merely formal education is represented by another verb, erudire.) Parents and other educators lead students out of ignorance and savagery—by the substance of what they communicate, the skills they teach, and the role models they provide. Through education, we create responsible, mature, and knowledgeable adults.

Education is, therefore, more than a job. It’s a sacred trust we owe both to our young people and to the society they will impact. Our educational system has abused that trust. A few years ago, for example, an Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey found that few colleges significantly increased students’ civic knowledge and many—particularly elite universities—actually reduced it.

The situation isn’t much better at the K-12 level. Nearly 40 years and billions of dollars after the famous “Nation at Risk” report (pdf) sounded the alarm about the quality of American K-12 education, our international standing on tests of reading, math, and science remains notably mediocre.

I can confirm these generalizations from my personal experience. I taught in law schools for a quarter of a century. My students were smart. They had high school and college diplomas. Most had won high grades. Yet the overwhelming majority knew relatively little about our heritage and institutions. Very few had been well schooled in the contributions of classical antiquity, Western history, high culture, or even the American constitutional system. Some were mathematically challenged as well.

One reason for these deficiencies was that their schools wasted time on educational fads. They neglected to teach what’s important.

The author of the Education Week article celebrates CRT in part because it teaches students about the Tulsa Massacre. Objectively, though, is it more important for American students to know about the Tulsa Massacre or the Boston Massacre? Remember that time is limited, and that if you teach both, you may shortchange both or shortchange some other subject.

To be sure, the Tulsa Massacre cost many lives and the Boston Massacre cost “only” five. (One of these five was a patriot who was half Indian and half African-American.) Still, for American students, the Boston Massacre is objectively more important because it played a central role in triggering a pivotal event in U.S. history: the American Revolution. If schools spend less time, or no time, on the massacre in Boston because they are covering the one in Tulsa, then they’re doing their students a disservice.

Similarly, for students who will live within Western civilization, learning how the Judeo-Christian and European heritage fashioned that civilization is likely to prove far more useful than learning about kingdoms in Mali, Peru, or China. Rigorous training in a foreign language is likely to bring far more insight into other cultures than the “diversity” sidebars that litter modern text books.

The traditional school curriculum is traditional for a reason: It has stood the test of time. School resources are too precious to divert elsewhere.

Rob Natelson