In the battle over critical race theory (CRT) in K-12 public education, numerous states have passed “anti-CRT” bills, attempting to prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts.” These bills vary in their language and ideological intentions, and have attracted criticism from both the left and the right.
One prominent critique alleges these bills restrict the free speech of both teacher and student. While teachers’ desire to speak freely should be accounted for, first priority must be given to students and their agency to resist indoctrination and forced confirmation of ideas that violate their consciences.
Any educational program that works against the landmark ruling of Tinker v. Des Moines, which recognizes the free speech rights of K-12 students, should be rejected. As strong advocates of free speech, free inquiry, and cognitive liberty, we agree that any policy or law denying these principles is a non-starter.
A bright spot in the myriad of legislation being proposed and adopted is a bill recently introduced in North Carolina: H.B. 324. It is brief and can be read in its entirety here, along with an accompanying speech by state Sen. Phil Berger. While the bill is not exactly how we would have written it, we believe it can serve as a guide for future legislation for several reasons.
Pointed and Precise
First, the bill does not explicitly name “critical race theory.” This approach is wise. Many of the most pernicious ideas affecting our schools and society, such as “all whites are complicit in racism,” “law is primarily a mechanism to justify the dominance of the ruling class,” or “heteronormativity is oppressive and needs to be dismantled” are most accurately domiciled to critical social justice (CSJ) or antiracism discourse.
While CRT is a fluid, evolving, and growing discipline that certainly informs aspects of CSJ and antiracism ideology, the bill is smart to be conscientiously precise. Not only is that the right thing to do, it will also offer the bill some protection against accusations that it misunderstands CRT or is not representing CRT fairly.
Since it is not reasonable for a school district to name every possible field of study that is problematic, it is prudent to target the state-sanctioned indoctrination of particular ideas, rather than particular disciplines.
Second, North Carolina’s H.B. 324 does not prohibit teaching about certain ideas, but merely prohibits teachers from promoting certain ideas. To our reading, by prohibiting promotion, the bill doesn’t mean that a teacher cannot share her opinion regarding the specific ideas addressed in the bill, but it does mean she cannot “compel” students “to affirm or profess belief” in those ideas. This distinction is important and the careful definition of the word “promote” is key to the soundness of the bill.
For example, students should certainly be taught that Nazis viewed Jews as subhuman. However, no teacher should be permitted to promote the idea that Jews are subhuman, that is, compel (either actively or passively) his or her students to affirm such a heinous concept. Given the current zeitgeist, this law gives much-needed reinforcement to the “freedom of conscience” provisions for students already established under existing law.
Third, the particular ideas the bill targets will not affect the honest teaching of history. Students should absolutely be exposed to both the triumphant and the shameful events of our nation’s history, a point explicitly made in the bill when it states it may not be used to prohibit the “impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history” or “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region.”
There is a difference between teaching historical facts and forcing a particular interpretation of those facts on students. For instance, teachers do not need to teach that our nation is inherently oppressive any more than they need to teach that our nation is inherently righteous. Both views obscure, rather than illuminate, the messy realities of history.
While “anti-CRT” bills have largely been written and passed by Republican-controlled legislatures, some effort should be made to garner bipartisan support. For this reason, we’ll offer three suggestions for lawmakers and their constituents seeking to build a movement to resist these ideas.
Three Ways to Win Support
First, support for these bills should not be framed as a left-versus-right issue, but as a (classical) liberalism-versus-illiberalism issue. It is the values of classical liberalism (freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, equal rights discourse, etc.) that are explicitly challenged by the critical social theories so prevalent in our culture. We believe both Republicans and Democrats can reject the spurious idea that these liberal values are merely or primarily tools of oppression.
Second, we should show that the ideas targeted by these bills are undeniably present in higher education, our broader culture, and our K-12 schools. When questioned, legislators should be able to give examples of scholars like Sandra Bartky saying things like, “I am guilty by virtue of simply being who and what I am: a white woman, born into an aspiring middle-class family in a racist and class-ridden society.” Or cite authors Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic claiming “for the critical race theorist, objective truth, like merit, does not exist, at least in social science and politics. In these realms, truth is a social construct created to suit the purposes of the dominant group.”
While we do not embrace CRT whistleblower and journalist Christopher Rufo’s entire approach to these concerns, he nevertheless has done important work showing examples of how these ideas have found their way into K-12 education.
Education scholar and practitioner Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder has done significant research in this area too. Snyder’s forthcoming book (with a foreword by John McWhorter), “Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids and Ruin our Schools – And What We Can Do About It,” should bury once and for all the deceit that such concerns about K-12 education are a myth or merely a “conservative bogeyman.”
Third, we should press critics of these bills for specifics. When opponents make vague accusations about how these bills are reactionary or unjust or racist, ask which provisions they specifically fault. Do they want public schools to promote the idea that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex”? Do they believe “an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex”?
There may be room for negotiation and nuance with aspects of any bill. Critics may have legitimate worries about particular provisions or wording which should be discussed in good faith. But critics shouldn’t be allowed to dismiss the bills wholesale without specifying exactly which statements they reject.
Verbose, imprecise, or overly broad legislation may be rightly dismissed, but concise, precise, and carefully worded legislation has the potential to garner widespread support. After all, how many parents are going to appreciate their lawmakers defending a school’s ability to teach that their children are oppressors, or oppressed, solely because of their race or sex?