On his Substack last week, Matt Yglesias tried to throw woke piranhas a bone by supporting the idea of picking what kids read in school according to the tired identity categories of race, sex, yadda yadda. The discussion resurfaced with a Wall Street Journal article noting teachers — like librarians, publishing houses, corporate news media, and the rest — banning books based on authors’ skin color and sexual preferences, now in the name of “antiracism.”
This isn’t new. “Hey ho, hey ho, Western civ has got to go” was the chant Jesse Jackson led at Stanford University back in the 1980s, and it succeeded marvelously. Nowadays, classic literature is as hard to find in schools as a public prayer. At this point, it’s a miracle there are any classics left in schools for wokesters to ceremonially burn. Probably they have to smuggle them in first.
Still, people mentally born yesterday somehow pretend this is a new and exciting idea. What it really is is ignorant, narrow-minded, and racist. Yglesias writes (the content is subscription-only, so I’m only excerpting a fair-use amount):
I am often anti-woke.
But I have to say that the handful of people I know who are educators all believe firmly that ‘culturally relevant pedagogy’ works and that their students are more likely to read and learn when they are given authors and characters who look and sound like them. The people I know who tell me this use restrained, normal language like ‘Hispanic kids don’t see a lot of representation of themselves in pop culture so they think it’s really compelling when we give them books that do that.’ They are also addressing a very practical problem, which is that it’s really bad for your outcomes in life if you don’t learn to read and write well, but a lot of kids don’t.
Anecdotes, of course, are not data. And the whole evidence base on this topic is a little bit disappointingly thin. But what’s out there seems to me to clearly support the woke position: on the whole, incorporating culturally relevant pedagogy and ethnic studies material into the curriculum helps kids learn.
This is just completely false. Now, I share Yglesias’s concern about the illiteracy of an astonishing number of Americans, including a sickening number of poor children. We cannot have self-government when one-fifth of American adults cannot read simple directions, two-thirds of U.S. high school seniors are not really “literate,” half of Americans never or rarely read a book, and even the college-educated do not know how our constitutional system of government works while all showing up to vote in November.
In fact, using identity politics categories to guide curriculum choices is one of the major factors that has caused this widespread public illiteracy. A new wave will only make the problem worse. Here is only a quick dip into why.
1. Education ‘Research’ Is Bunk, Including This Stuff
Yglesias parrots what lefty people say about all their terrible education ideas: A “growing body of evidence” supports whatever crackpot failure they have decided to rebrand and sell to gullible corporations, politicians, and school districts. The “evidence” is usually of the same quality that undergirds the replication crisis that is particularly endemic in the social sciences, education in particular.
Yglesias even admits to a “disappointingly thin” “evidence base” supporting the idea that children should read books based on characters and authors’ skin color. He cites two lower-quality studies and one randomized, controlled trial, from 2012, on approximately 700 Alaskan students who received “culturally sensitive” math materials and subsequently posted higher math performance.
That study, however, does not support the conclusion Yglesias tries to use it to make. For one thing, it is not about literature, but using locally common objects to convey core mathematical principles. That is obvious, non-objectionable, and not the same as picking literature based on race. The study itself also says it cannot tell whether children’s improved math scores were a result of the “culturally sensitive” materials provided, or other factors:
The experimental evaluation was not designed to test the effects of individual components of the Math in a Cultural Context intervention. It is not possible to disentangle the effects of the professional development from the effects of the curriculum, nor is it possible to disentangle the effects of the challenging and problem-oriented mathematics from the effects of the pedagogical and cultural components.
The study also did not follow children long-term to see if the increases lasted. Almost always in education interventions, they do not. If we are going to talk about education interventions heavily supported by quality research and decades of experience, I await the enthusiastic support from leftist education reformers — which is almost all of them — for the traditional-style instruction a peer-reviewed meta-analysis of 328 studies across 50 years finds is highly effective yet rare.
I won’t hold my breath. “Education” “researchers” and “policy wonks” have ignored for 60 years the true “preponderance of evidence” about what is best for children because it conflicts with their political ideology. They don’t care about “evidence,” they just manipulate it to serve their parochial prejudices, and that’s what’s happening here.
2. High-Quality Research and Experience Says the Opposite
Against low-quality, inapplicable, and scant evidence, we have several decades of experimentation with racializing education, under different labels. It was known as “multiculturalism” in the 1980s and ’90s. “Student-driven” or “cafeteria-style” fragmented instruction from teachers picking trendy books according to transient political preferences has dominated U.S. education for decades, to significant and lasting drops in student achievement.
As Yglesias notes, there has been no common American curriculum for more than half a century. What he does not admit is that leftists and their false ideas are the reason why.
France recently fragmented its formerly excellent national curriculum along ethnic lines in response to an influx of African and Middle Eastern immigrants. It has seen a corresponding drop in student achievement.
Lower U.S. student achievement as a result of fragmented, anti-American curricula is documented by a huge pile of neuroscience-heavy research on language development and instruction. The key compiler of this scholarship has been E.D. Hirsch, a now-retired University of Virginia professor. His work has been well-known beginning with his 1987 bestseller “Cultural Literacy” and it has never been disproven in academic combat, only demonized and ignored. The multiculturalists have been one of his most ardent foes.
Children become strong readers and thinkers when they are deliberately exposed to the “core knowledge” Hirsch describes, which means a careful, cohesive, and broad curriculum focused on the traditional domains of academic knowledge: classic literature, discipline-focused math and science (not “rainforest math”), concentrated exposure to key historical figures and events, and traditional instruction in the arts.
It was leftists who ended America’s common curriculum by making war on the American identity it derived from, and this is a major reason America’s poor suffer in illiteracy now. Now they want to double down under new marketing terms to hide public recognition of the suffering their ideology causes.
One’s ability to understand and communicate language is the basis of all learning. Interaction with language is tantamount to interacting with reality, as words describe things. Therefore all learning is an encounter with reality described in language, either verbal (humanities) or symbolic (sciences). So learning ability is directly related to one’s shared background knowledge.
If you instead isolate children’s minds through an idiosyncratic curriculum based on an artificial and narrow identity, you imprison them — often literally. What children need is not authors who “look like them” but authors who expand their horizons ever outward, not randomly selected but through carefully constructed core curricula that systematically gifts them the best their civilization has to offer, from the core of its knowledge base.
Failing to pass on young citizens’ unified cultural heritage is a dominant cause of illiteracy, Hirsch documented, and it is the fault of our anti-American schools. Picking materials based on identity politics like skin color, rather than their centrality to a common culture and common base of core human knowledge, will only narrow young citizens’ minds and thus narrow their life possibilities — all while cruelly claiming to do exactly the opposite.
3. Great Literature Offers Beautiful Difference, Not Creepy Sameness
Assigning authors or characters who “look like the students” also assumes that sameness drives interest and curiosity, and that what makes us similar or different is the shape of our eyes rather than the dimensions of our souls. It seeks the exact opposite of the purpose and effect of great literature, which is to expand the world inside our heads, to expose it to more and greater ideas, and give us empathy with other perspectives.
Research aplenty has found that these are beneficial aspects to wide and deep reading of the kind discouraged by using ethnicity as the selection criteria. But we’ve already established that research is not really what these people care about.
4. These Critiques of the Western Heritage Are Ignorant and Racist
One of the weirdest “criticisms” of a core curriculum and a unified American culture that undergirds it, also represented by classic literature or what is known as the Western canon, is that many significant Western authors are “white.” First, that doesn’t matter. Second, it’s not true.
For one example, the authors of the 66 books of the Bible were probably pretty brown. So has Jesus Christ Himself. The hugely influential Saint Augustine was probably a black dude. The ancient Greeks like Plato and Aristotle and all the rest were probably pretty brown also.
Cervantes doesn’t even sound like a “white name.” Do you think all the African slaves whose blood cried out for vengeance on American shores had no influence on this country’s literature, culture, and politics? Are there no differences between Viking raiders and Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther? And so on. If you want “multiculturalism,” Western civilization has already got it. In fact, one of the West’s hallmarks is its integration of ideas without regard for the persons who offer them.
I am of the opinion that one’s skin color is of precisely zero importance in making value judgments about one’s ideas, and that making it a deciding factor of value is racist. We’re not talking about the importance of and differences between cultures and civilizations. Those obviously exist and are interesting. We’re talking about making a judgment of value solely based on some sort of modern “brown bag test” that artificially groups all people with somewhat similarly colored skin into artificial categories.
For example, putting Senegalis and Jamaicans in the category “black” and assuming that the term “black” has some sort of categorial meaning such that you can say “black people do X or are X” or whatever is ridiculous. It’s useless overgeneralization to the point of falsehood. Putting Norweigans, Germans, and Russians in the category “white” is also ridiculous. But this is what today’s racists do. I can’t tell if it’s because they are stupid or hateful or both.
It’s disgusting that this is even a topic of conversation right now. However, for people who claim that skin color is of any importance, the criticism that the Great Books are “white” is one of the stupidest. Western culture is not a skin color or ethnicity. Anyone who knows anything knows that.
The currently ascendant racists who view one drop of “white” blood as some sort of inherent indictment know nothing — besides being, you know, rabid racists of the John Calhoun variety — and therefore shouldn’t be listened to on these grounds alone.
5. Say It Together Now: Racism Doesn’t Solve Racism
It is simply morally wrong to choose authors (or anyone) based on the color of their skin. What you are born into is not merit. It may form material for but does not in itself prove the worthiness of one’s intellectual work. Worse, acting otherwise teaches children to be racists, to accept or discount ideas and experiences based on the identity of those purveying them. This is an injustice to the children and very dangerous.
Now, let’s be clear: I’d love to discover more great authors we may have lost to history. The Western canon is permeable, and every author argues for his or her inclusion with the work he or she submits to the world’s judgment. I am completely open to expanding the canon. But you must know the canon to engage and enlarge it.
The West’s centuries-long “great conversation” is exactly that process. The conversation is the canon. Just like with reading, you cannot enter the great conversation if you cannot understand the language. That in fact seems to be the end of this deeply foolish idea: Keeping children from great and beautiful conversations on the basis of their skin color. Educators who do this should be run out of town. They are an embarrassment to the profession and a danger to the community.
Our postmodern, post-rational, post-Christian, nihilist, anti-truth culture uses identity to judge value now because we have no transcendent values. We have only the nihilist will to power that is a rejection of the West’s search for truth.
Our leaders and many of their subjects have rejected the search for truth, goodness, and beauty that defines and produces Western thought. So they know nothing of cultural criticism and have no decently formed moral judgment. Their empty-headed wickedness is a worrisome sign of our culture’s decay. It is indeed a retreat to pagan tribalism, to the confusion and ignorance of Babel, to the opposite of the West and all it symbolizes.
These people may wear Western clothes and have Western iPhones gifted to them by a civilization that once sought — and found — truth, but they have hollow minds and hearts of darkness that will take our civilization back to the Stone Ages, one child at a time. I say, with the rest of our great cultural inheritance: Let all the children come, take, and read.