New rulers often find themselves imitating the habits of the old. Part of this is the necessities of leadership, how those on the outside have grand ideas that, when finally applied to reality, are inadequate and quietly withdrawn.
Witness, for example, the change from decrying “kids in cages” under President Donald Trump to the “migrant children in overflow facilities” under President Joe Biden. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss; the only difference is the gloss applied by a politicized press.
In broader societal shifts, we see the same replication of old policies under new names. What we used to call mainstream culture is on the decline — the loser in the culture wars. The counterculture that began to infect the United States in the 1960s has become the dominant culture, at least across the elite institutions to which Americans once looked for guidance and formation, as postmodern ideas like critical race theory replace classical American ideas about ordered liberty.
America’s obsession with the Ivy League is generally overblown, but students credentialed from those eight schools do play a disproportionately large role in our national government and institutions. So when, as announced last week, Harvard’s Kennedy School imposes a new critical race theory course requirement on its incoming master of public policy students, it’s a matter of national concern even though it will only apply to 241 people this year.
Unsurprisingly, the school announced its change in typically dogmatic fashion. “Harvard Kennedy School offers new race and policy course for incoming students,” the headline reads, which sounds inoffensive. The first sentence of Harvard’s article tells the real story, however: the “offering” is mandatory.
“The intensive two-week course,” we’re told, was developed “with the stated goal of ensuring that students learn how and why race and racism are not just aberrational artifacts of the past but lie ‘at the heart of the American project.’” It is a two-week crash course in why the United States — the country our rising elites hope to lead — is awful, and always has been.
Most of what we are taught in school is factual, not dogmatic. In the sciences, things that can be proved are proved — yet, there always remains the possibility of being disproved. One may dissent from scientific consensus, but evidence is required if you mean to convince anyone. Other things like art, music, and philosophy, cannot be proved in this fashion, so multiple opinions on a subject are welcomed, and debate encouraged.
Critical race theory fits neither of these molds. Instead, its inclusion in a university curriculum is a throwback to the days when colleges were founded and operated by people who believed in God. But while it has become common to compare critical theory to a religion (or a cult), there are important differences.
An unfalsifiable belief about something unknowable is a religion. But an unfalsifiable belief about something that is knowable is not — it’s a conspiracy theory. Mandatory critical race theory is not a religious establishment; in truth, it’s closer to being the left’s QAnon. Whatever it is, it is not an art, a science, or any other form of education as we know it.
Requiring a critical race theory course is not education but indoctrination. In the old days, a school might require that its students attend chapel — indeed, many private high schools still do this. Now, colleges are far less likely to impose religious dogma, trusting the young adults there to sort out such matters for themselves, in accordance with the pluralism in other sectors of the country. But, increasingly, they are re-embracing dogma as a concept, with the false idol of critical race theory in the place of God.
The theory, as the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden explained for City Journal earlier this year, is “unfalsifiable because any argument against it can be dismissed as an expression of ‘white fragility’” and “demands that whites relinquish their unearned societal privilege and work to uproot racism from their own minds and from society at large.” Indeed, one is not meant to discuss such issues; one is expected to assent and obey.
Harvard and schools like it use old tactics for their new mission and go about it with missionary zeal, but the results may be even less effective than old colleges’ attempts to Christianize their students. Students, now and in ages past, are skeptical of authority. Radical skepticism — excessive skepticism — is what led to postmodern ideas like critical race theory in the first place.
As attacks on the governing rules of man, government, society, and nature, they have a certain appeal to young people who are ill at ease in the world. Attacking existing power structures is at the heart of postmodernism and critical race theory; it is also something that speaks to college kids trying to figure out the adult world.
But what happens when the anti-powerful become the powerful? We have all seen rapid flip-flops in ideas when the shoe is on the other foot. The majority in the Senate hates the filibuster, but when they are in the minority again, it becomes essential to American democracy; the presidency is imperial and overpowered — until your party retakes the White House; those who would have hated religious indoctrination when Christians ran colleges love it when critical theorists run them. It may be hypocritical, but unfortunately, it might still be successful.
Another wrinkle in all of this, however, is the nature of counterculture itself. Americans have always valued rebellion in its proper place, but the formerly mainstream culture never tried to make a habit of it. Americans rebelled against Britain to win independence, but only as a last resort and not to destroy all of society’s institutions.
Countercultural sentiment, on the other hand, favors revolution as a virtue in itself. Constant change and radical liberation are hallmarks of critical theory and its progeny. Can a system built on destroying power systems and questioning everything be transformed into a rigid dogma to be imposed on the masses?
Forcing people to go to church will not make them Christians, and forcing them to endure a two-week lesson on the latest conspiracy theory will not turn them into critical race theorists. There will be a “chilling effect” — no one will speak aloud against the dogma — but no one’s mind is changed that way. Telling people that something is true can never compete with actually convincing them.
The left’s triumph in the culture wars does not enshrine a new orthodoxy so much as it smashes the old one and ensures that no ideas at all unite society. Those who would indoctrinate a people with the new dogma will find that, by its very terms, it will fail. We should be opposed to the rise of critical theory because it is wrong, but we shouldn’t lose hope. Americans have never taken to being told what to think.