Surely Some Ideas Are Just Bad, No?

When I sat down to write about Critical Race Theory (CRT), it was tempting to write a hit piece. To spend a thousand or so words dunking on its most idiotic and racist arguments. But let’s face it, there are already thousands of those online.

So instead, I wrote, Do Critical Race Theorists Know What Racism Is?.

I asked how anybody who didn’t consider themselves a racist could object to bills that protected children from ideas such as:

  • One race is inherently superior to another.

  • An individual by virtue of their race is inherently racist or oppressive.

  • Individuals should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment on the basis of their race.

  • Individuals are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by members of the same race.

  • Members of one race cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race.

I hoped that some of CRT’s defenders might stop and think about what they’re defending. Or better yet, help me understand their objections. Sara gave it a try:


Sara:

Actually, I'm not in favor of banning teaching these things, especially at the state level (at the level of individual school districts where guardians, teachers students, and other community members can have a lot of input and discussion, I'm more open to putting in these kinds of restrictions, though I'd still proceed with caution).

First of all, these limits could be used to censor works of literature with educational value, for example Othello. (Othello can be interpreted many ways, and I can conceive of people interpreting in such a way that they would consider it to run afoul of these limits).

Second, I'm generally wary of politicians, especially at the state or national level, interfering with curricula (I'm not saying never, I just think that's not their job and they should delegate it as much as possible to people for whom it is their job, or at least to a more local government). I'm especially wary of bans, as opposed to additions to the curricula.

Third, because so many people understand these to be anti-CRT bills, and people have a variety of understandings what CRT is, this gives guardians and other community members license to harass teachers even when the teachers, by any reasonable standard, aren't doing the things in this list. This is already causing educators to quit: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/critical-race-theory-battles-are-driving-frustrated-exhausted-educators-out-n1273595

Fourth, I remember hearing the teacher of a college class about American Indians and U.S. History talk about how difficult it was to teach the class without white students feeling guilt/anguish/discomfort upon learning the history of what white people have done to indigenous people, and the teacher had to go out of her way to re-assure them that she did not blame them personally as individuals, that she was just trying to teach the history accurately. That stayed with me. Even when a teacher tries to stick to the facts with some of this history without applying personal judgment, some students will interpret it as the teacher making them uncomfortable/guilty/anguished on account of their race, and I can see that running afoul of some of these restrictions.

I have my concerns/critiques about woke education, but it's clear to me that these 'anti-CRT' bills are a major negative for education and not the way to deal with the problems of wokeness in education.


A clear, well-structured, rational reply. I couldn’t have hoped for more. Sadly, I don’t find her arguments very compelling. But at least it helps me understand why somebody who isn’t a card-carrying racist, would be opposed to a bill that prevents teachers from teaching kids that “one race is inherently superior to another”.

My position expresses my “worst case” fears about harm being done to children. Sara’s position express her “worst case” fears about restrictions being placed on teachers.

I’m willing to sacrifice the comfort of teachers to protect kids from racist ideas. Sara seems willing to sacrifice the comfort of kids to protect teachers from oversight.

I believe that children can learn about race without being made to feel bad about themselves. Sara believes that teachers can’t do their jobs without making students feel guilt or anguish or discomfort.

Let’s start with that last one:


Steve QJ:

the teacher had to go out of her way to re-assure them that she did not blame them personally as individuals, that she was just trying to teach the history accurately

I think this is the crux of the issue. The teacher made the effort to ensure that the kids didn't feel guilty or complicit in the actions of other people just because they shared the same skin colour. She went out of her way to reassure them that they weren’t to blame as individuals. This is the point. If a child feels uncomfortable or guilty because of something that another person of their race did, it's a golden opportunity to teach that child that the colour of their skin doesn't define who they are. To teach them that we aren't bound to each other by our skin colour, we're bound by our common humanity. The very idea of collective racial guilt is racist and supports racist thinking.

There's no way to control what a child will feel about something you say to them or teach them. You could have the purest of intentions and still end up triggering them over some idea they have in their heads that you couldn't possibly have predicted. The issue is, are you making an attempt not to do that? Are you being so negligent in your duty of moulding young minds that you don't think about how your words might promote guilt or anguish? Are you so insensitive that you don't help these young people to contextualise these complex issues and teach them in genuinely age appropriate ways?

The bills simply ratify these kinds of questions into law. I don't care what the topic is. If you can't teach Othello or slavery or the history of the Ku Klux Klan without making a clear distinction between the fact that these people wrongly thought that one race is inherently superior to another, and that one race is actually superior to another, you have no business whatsoever in a classroom or around young impressionble minds in general.

If your concerns/critiques of woke education don't extend to protecting children from indisputably racist ideas, I honestly have no idea what your critiques can possibly be.


Sara:

The problem is that the bills aren't simply ratifying these kinds of questions into law. They are opening the possibility that a guardian could sue a teacher because the teacher said something about race which made a student uncomfortable.

"But the mere specter of legal battles is already causing teachers to worry about conversations about race that come up in classrooms — even outside of social studies classes. Tania Tasneem, a science teacher at Kealing Middle School in Austin, said the law will influence teachers’ focus during such discussions.

“It’s not having a conversation with the kids, it’s ‘what is that going to translate to when a parent comes at me with legal stuff I won’t be able to afford?’” she said. “That’s the scariest part.”

https://www.texastribune.org/2021/08/03/texas-critical-race-theory-social-studies-teachers/

Let's say a teacher did their best to teach an American Indians & U.S. history class as accurately as possible, without passing judgment on any living people, yet made no attempt to manage students feelings/reactions. Should that teacher be fired? Should that teacher pay a financial penalty? Should that teacher face a lawsuit? Because that's what these bills might do, depending on how they are implemented.

What if someone thinks that requiring students to read Othello is a violation of these laws, regardless of how the teacher handles it, because Othello has lines which can be interpreted as saying that one race is superior to another, and that person has standing to sue?

These laws make teachers legally responsible for students' feelings. And as you yourself admit, teachers don't have 100% control over students reactions and interpretations. The safest thing teachers can do (to protect themselves from lawsuits and losing their jobs) is avoid discussion of race as much as possible. Is that the result you want? Because that's what's happening, especially among teachers without tenure who have fewer job protections.

More articles:

https://www.idahostatesman.com/news/local/education/article253040668.html

https://newhampshirebulletin.com/2021/07/12/as-they-await-state-guidance-teachers-consider-how-divisive-concepts-law-will-affect-lesson-plans/


There’s a lot of disagreement about what a teacher’s role is. Some parents practically expect teachers to raise their children for them. Others want teachers to stuff their child’s head full of facts and dates and nothing more.

Most want something in between.

But I think it’s safe to say that no parent wants a teacher who gives zero consideration to how their words might impact their students’ feelings. Surely this consideration is a basic expectation in absolutely any adult/child interaction.


Steve QJ:

They are opening the possibility that a guardian could sue a teacher because the teacher said something about race which made a student uncomfortable.

What do you mean?! That possibilty has always existed. Parents can sue teachers if they think they're harming the mentality of their child. To pretend that it's only now possible because of these bills is alarmist at best.

Just for example, this case where a black mother sued her bi-racial child's school for trying to force him to confess the privilege bestowed upon him by his deceased white father, predates any of these bills.

Again, if teachers don't know how to talk about race without creating anguish and guilt in their students, then they shouldn't be teachers. So to answer your question, yes, if a teacher makes no attempt to manage student’s feelings/reactions, they should face penalties of some description and if it’s a consistent pattern of behaviour they should be fired. Isn’t that obvious?? Part of the job of a teacher, arguably the most important part, is to consider the impact of the things they say to their students, and present information in an appropriate way.

The bills don't in any way limit the first amendment right of the teachers. Nor do they in any way suggest that teachers can't teach children that some people believed/believe that one race is superior to another. What they're being required to do is not teach children that that belief is the truth.

It's horrifying to me that we're even debating this. If Democrats were passing this language into law and the Republicans were opposing it, we'd all be talking about how this is proof that they're all Neo-Nazis. Yet here we are, seriously talking about teachers' right to teach race essentialism to children. Surely there have to be some ideas so universally bad that we're willing to oppose them regardless of which "side" suggests them. No?


Before this conversation, I would have sworn that any objection to these bills was pure partisanship. I assumed that people hadn’t read the bills, didn’t realise why they did and didn’t prohibit, heard “the wrong people” were pushing/opposing them, and took it from there.

It never crossed my mind that anyone had actually read the bills and still objected. Turns out I was wrong.


Sara:

If Democrats were passing this language into law and the Republicans were opposing it, we'd all be talking about how this is proof that they're all Neo-Nazis. Yet here we are, seriously talking about teachers' right to teach race essentialism to children. Surely there have to be some ideas so universally bad that we're willing to oppose them regardless of which "side" suggests them. No?

Actually, I would oppose these bills even if Democrats were pushing them, for the same reasons. I'm no more in favor of Democrats inducing fear in teachers such that they quit and avoid important topics than Republicans are doing it. I can imagine Robin DiAngelo fans finding a way to use these very same bills, with the same language, to push their own agenda (and if these bills stay in effect, I predict that is exactly what will happen in some locations). I don't think Republicans are the ones who are most likely to object to Othello, for example.

The thing is, these bills are not effectively targeting race essentialism. The target is way to broad and poorly-defined. If these were guidelines for developing new curricula in the context of a workshop where the power of the law isn't going to descend on people who step out of line, even unintentionally, then I'd have no problem for them since in that context broad guidelines can be good, especially if they are easily open to revision.

These laws aren't even reducing the long-term power of the woke version of race essentialism. Instead, they are giving woke race essentialists a good talking point that the system is suppressing their speech (and as Robert Cialdini's book Persuasion explains, people are more inclined to believe speech which they believe is censored, so this is actually increasing people's willingness to accept woke people's arguments).

In order to change my position, you need to show evidence on the ground from educators and/or students who are impacted (as I have done in the articles I linked). Theoretical argument alone isn't going to cut it. If you can show evidence from educators and/or students that these bills have improved education, I'm open to changing my mind.


In addition to the fact that Sara seems a little obsessed with Othello (she mentions it in every single one of her replies), it strikes me that she never once uses the words “children” or “kids”.

Using those words wasn’t a deliberate choice on my part, I wasn’t trying to manipulate her emotions. It’s just that to me, that’s what we’re talking about here. Kids.

I don’t object to the teaching of CRT in general, because I believe that bad ideas should be exposed rather than suppressed (as Sara points out, some people will believe an idea precisely because it’s censored). But I do object to bad ideas being pushed into the minds of children who lack the critical thinking skills and confidence to appraise them.

“Teachers and children” frames the dynamic between the two in a way that “teachers and students” doesn’t. Perhaps this small semantic difference is the reason we see this issue so differently.


Steve QJ:

where the power of the law isn't going to descend on people who step out of line

You keep saying this, but I still have no idea what your actual concern is. As I said, parents can sue teachers and school districts already. These bills don't change that. They just give guidelines, that I still can't believe you object to, about ideas that shouldn't be taught.

You ask for evidence on the ground that these bills have improved education which is a little silly because you know that they've only been in effect for a very short time. But I linked to numerous examples of the real problems they're designed to prevent in the original article.

That fourteen-year-old boy who, in his words, was made to feel like "like worthless scum, undeserving of living", along with his white classmates? I bet he'd appreciate a bill that prevents teachers from teaching that "an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of their race."

The bi-racial boy who's school tried to force him to confess his status as an oppressor because he has a white father (even though he also has a black mother)? I bet he'd prefer it if his teacher couldn't insist that "an individual by virtue of their race is inherently racist or oppressive."

Maybe you see these as theoretical arguments and so will dismiss them. But it's so staggeringly obvious to me that preventing teachers from teaching these ideas is a good thing that I don't know how to even begin convincing you. Many of these ideas are already strongly implied by the Civil Rights Act. Would you also have been concerned about the limitations on teachers when that was being passed?

If you want teachers to have the freedom to turn their children into racists or make them feel terrible about themselves, because you're worried about parents gaining the power to do something they can already do (and even then, only if the teacher is demonstrably terrible at teaching), I'd suggest that your priorities are badly out of whack. Shouldn't the concern be more with the wellbeing of the students than the freedom of the teachers to suck at their jobs?


That was it from Sara, and I honestly wish this conversation had ended more productively. By which I mean, I wish I’d at least managed to understand Sara’s objections better. She seems like a smart, reasonable person, she has clearly done some research on the issue, yet we’ve managed to come to completely different conclusions about something that should be easy for everybody to agree on; let’s not teach children transparently racist ideas, and let’s not make them feel terrible about themselves.

Perhaps it’s a matter of principle. Maybe, despite the fact that parents can already sue teachers, she believes that any restrictions in education are dangerous? Maybe, as I suggested, her priorities unwaveringly favour teacher’s freedoms over students’ well-being? Maybe she used to be a teacher and was fired over an unfortunate misunderstanding about Othello.

But whatever the case, our conversation left me unsatisfied.

There’s clearly a balance to be found between empowering teachers and protecting children. I’m not certain where exactly that line should be drawn. But if banning Othello in schools would guarantee children an education free from racism, I’d take as much criticism as necessary to make it happen. Or to put it another way, “let heaven and men and devils, let them all, all, all, cry shame against me, yet I'll speak."