Most adults realize that decisions are rarely simple either/or choices. The best list of “pro’s and con’s always includes some little element that doesn’t fit neatly on either side. For example, you might like one specific brand of automobile, but your favorite brand doesn’t come in the model you want. You love your fiancé but his family drives you crazy. Do you want to marry into this family? Life is not simple. Some decisions matter more than others.
Teachers are constantly making choices about what to teach, how many details to include, what information is reliable and valid, and what they think their community wants its children to learn. Community opinions often complicates decisions about what to include and what to exclude. What if an English teacher decides to teach by an African American author and has to remove another author from the curriculum to make time for the new book? What if a social studies teacher decides to tell students about the Black regiment (93d division, 369th regiment) in WWI that was assigned to fight with French troops because the white American soldiers wouldn’t’ serve with them or permit Black officers to command white troops? New information can be upsetting.
Historically the purpose of requiring children to attend school is to help them learn to think effectively about the complex problems we face as citizens in a democracy. After the original colonists arrived, the United States expanded westward. More men began to own land and thus acquired the franchise or right to vote as stipulated in the Constitution. With the expansion of the franchise came the need for a literate citizen population. A functioning democracy requires an educated populace. Theoretically, citizens must be able to balance “either/or” choices and ask themselves what information they need to make good decisions. Children are expected to learn these skills in school so that they can use them as voters later in life. They also need to understand that whatever facts they learn are presented from a specific perspective, typically the writers of their textbooks. The dominant perspective in most of our schools is framed by the American Narrative. The American Narrative is the story we tell ourselves through our textbooks, our media, our culture and our folklore, about what the United States is and how we came to be the nation that we are today. The American Narrative changes over time but today it is something like this:
America is the best country in the world. Everybody here is treated equally. Success only requires that you work hard, and you will achieve your goals. America was “discovered” by white Europeans who created the United States of America. The indigenous people who already occupied this space welcomed us on Thanksgiving but then became dangerous so we had to kill a lot of them to keep the new settlers safe. Initially we had slaves but we freed them after the civil war and now everybody has a fair chance to succeed. We believe that we are loyal, patriotic and hard-working. We tend to define success by the amount of wealth a person accumulates.
There is a lot more to this narrative, but these basic ideas shape the American self-image. Events and ideas that don’t fit into this narrative tend to be ignored in public school curricula. Teachers are rarely expected to describe the framework used to organize the facts that are learned in our schools. Students are generally told that, “This is what happened.” Or “This is what this story means.” The notion of describing the author’s perspective or frame of reference is rarely included. High stakes “objective” testing has exacerbated this problem. In these tests there is one right answer to each question without reference to the people who decided which answers were correct. Information about the authors’ location in the intersectional matrix of time, geography, gender, race, socioeconomic status, ethnic background, faith tradition or sexual orientation affected is rarely available. Students do not learn to assess the impact of these factors on the perspective presented in the text.
Critical Race Theory and Critical Thinking
What is Critical Race Theory and why is it so distressing to so many people right now? CRT identifies alternative narratives that do not exclude the perspective of the people who write curricula, laws, policies and text books. CRT is an analytic tool that is taught in law school to help identify sources of discrimination in law and policy. It is typically not taught as a theory. It is used as a framework for inquiry. It is definitely not something 5th graders are expected to learn. Children can understand factual information and learn about contradictory information. They can understand that different people may interpret the same set of facts differently. Developmentally they are not ready to use theories to interpret this information. CRT has become a political football tossed around by people who don’t stop to define the term. It has nothing to do with teaching children to hate themselves or each other. These misunderstandings have generated numerous school board conflicts and fights among various public officials and governing groups.
What parents and school boards are fighting about right now is the willingness to help students learn more information about the history of the United States and to identify the many ways in which viewpoints shape the way facts are organized and presented. The recent push to include a broader scope of information about United States history is not CRT. It is an attempt to expand our students’ awareness of the complexity of our country’s story. Including non-white groups tends to disrupt the American narrative because people from these groups often have not been able to succeed in the ways that the narrative describes. When we tell our children that Mexicans have been living on our southern border for at least 350 years and that they became aliens, not because they arrived illegally, but because the US government moved the border, the students are inevitably surprised and confused. When students learn that Black people were excluded from buying houses in many neighborhoods after WWII because of Federal mortgage policies, they often become confused and angry. The list of confusing and complicating facts is very long. Critical thinking skills and respectful dialogue are required to understand this type of information and start to think about why it happened or what it means to all Americans.
Americans are not really fighting about CRT. We are arguing about the right and/or responsibility of public officials to teach a wider view of history. Some would say we are asking them to teach the truth. I would say we are asking them to teach in a way that more accurately reflects events from several perspectives. Expanding our students’ understanding of our complex history is going to make many people uncomfortable, particularly the people who have historically dominated our governmental systems, religious institutions, business institutions and public schools.
The group that has controlled the narrative since the British arrived are not going to give up control willingly. However, the USA has changed dramatically since its early days. Our demographics no longer resemble the population that originally arrived from Europe. Today’s children live in a very complicated world, and they need to understand how perspective shapes interpretation. They also need to know how to share perspectives, take responsibility for their personal viewpoint and find common ground with those who disagree. What we teach in our schools must reflect an accurate view of our world so our children can live in it with competence and compassion. We are not fighting about CRT. We are creating competent citizens who can guide our country into a very complex world. We need to know how to choose a good car for our family. We also need to deconstruct the political rhetoric that assaults our ear drums every day and decide what opinions are based on accurate ideas and data as well as values we support. This is a difficult, disruptive and disconcerting process, but we don’t really have a choice. Chocolate or Vanilla is a fantasy in a rainbow ice cream, sprinkle and syrup covered world.