A Third Way on the Place of Critical Race Theory in the Classroom
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently banned Critical Race Theory (CRT) from being taught in Florida's public schools. He stated that "Florida's civics curriculum will incorporate foundational concepts with the best materials, and it will expressly exclude unsanctioned narratives like Critical Race Theory and other unsubstantiated theories...we will invest in actual, solid, true curriculum, and we will be a leader in the development and implementation of a world-class civics curriculum."
CRT, a school of thought that focuses on the effects of race on one's social standing, is a distinct lens that sees racial disparities embedded in power structures and perpetuated by the people who benefit from them. Drawing on postmodern ideas that humans perceive reality through an array of power structures, animating how we think about race and other social issues, it upholds systemic deconstruction as the only way to progress. To start, marginalized people have special insight into their own plight and should define race and racism for the rest of society. Emotion and lived experience matter as much, or more than, rational discourse.
That said, both the common use of CRT, which is to teach it as established dogma, and the governor's exclusion of it, strike us as highly illiberal. Perhaps we can draw on Martin Luther King's wisdom: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that." Like DeSantis, we decry the dogmatic application of CRT as the only way forward, but unlike the Florida Governor, we also see value in CRT as one way to explore social power dynamics. And so we encourage a third way: a pluralistic civics education that teaches Critical Race Theory alongside numerous other approaches to social science and social justice.
DeSantis's move comes in the wake of President Donald Trump's ban of CRT in September 2020 in Federal agencies. The Biden Administration rescinded the Executive Order in the President's first week in office. Still, it remains a hot topic, with many Republicans favoring the ban and many Democrats supporting CRT education. Numerous states, especially those with Republican-dominated legislators and governors, are trying to ban CRT altogether.
There is good reason for people to be concerned about the promulgation of CRT, which is almost invariably taught as accepted truth rather than as a theoretical framework. It has become the new American civics. Many rightly worry that it will define a generation's view of the American story, especially since it's not taught alongside other theoretical frameworks and approaches. It imposes a single theory of racial disparity and power dynamics and closes the discussion to alternative perspectives. The application of CRT has even expanded beyond civics to question how we teach both math and science, making the spread of CRT particularly troublesome. Some worry that this highly disparaging view of American history, expressed in the CRT-inspired 1619 Project, will not only leave us bereft of a unifying national narrative, but will also dismantle the values of Liberalism throughout Western society and the world.
We are well aware of the dangers of teaching Critical Race Theory as established dogma in the classroom (not to mention boardroom) and think it should stop. But we are also wary of the wholesale banning of CRT, which can be a useful theoretical lens for discussing complicated issues. Biases that hurt minorities are sometimes embedded in social structures. Minority groups affected by certain policies sometimes do have insight into social conditions that outsiders don't perceive. CRT is a framework of analysis that students should have access to, among others, for a complete examination of social injustices. The religious fervor of CRT proponents in insisting on it as the only path forward is what leads CRT astray, not the theoretical lens itself.
The current wave of state-level legislation banning CRT is not the right approach. As with other ideologies, the role of educators is not to stamp out or promote them. Instead, educators should be teaching students ways of understanding the historical and social conditions that gave birth to different ideologies and how they relate to each other. We should study how ideologies play out in certain societies and allow students to compare different theoretical approaches to come to their own conclusions. Indeed, CRT should be "one view at the table." Exposing people to different ways of thinking is at the very heart of education and the essence of critical thinking.
Moreover, banning CRT will appear politically if not racially motivated and probably have the exact opposite of the intended effect, only bidding up the value of CRT's theoretical framework in the eyes of the people who promote it.
Ultimately, the antidote to speech stifling dogmas, such as the imposition of CRT, is open discussion and education, not government action that prevents people from talking about them. The problem isn't CRT. It's censorship. And it comes in different ideological shades. We would do well to heed Benjamin Franklin's words, "Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty without the freedom of speech."
In a well-functioning democracy, educators should neither champion nor ban Critical Race Theory. They should teach it as one lens among many for studying social inequities.