A Response to the “Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History”

Peter Wood

On June 16, some 75 academic and professional associations issued a “joint statement,” under various titles, including “Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History.” We’ll call it RE-RAH for short. According to the New York Times, RE-RAH was “spearheaded by the free expression group PEN America,” but the dynamics by which it became a “joint statement” are not clear. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) rejects RE-RAH as a combination of truisms and excuse-making for the introduction of tendentious and destructive ideologies in the classroom.

RE-RAH objects to initiatives in approximately twenty states that aim to strengthen American civics and history education. They do this in some cases by barring “divisive concepts” based on race and sex stereotypes. These initiatives emulate directives already found in federal law, such as Titles VI and VII of the American Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as in former Executive Order 13950.

Americans have long since reached an agreement that schools and colleges should not promote divisive racial or ethnic stereotypes, the use of slurs or other demeaning language, or concepts aimed at stigmatizing social groups. This consensus, however, comes with a complication. It is important that students learn about various stereotypes, terms, and concepts even as educators make clear that these are illegitimate. Students studying American history, for example, need to understand concepts such as “manifest destiny” and “eugenics,” even as the concepts themselves are bracketed as errors once held to be true by significant numbers of Americans.

A challenge that now faces Americans is that a new wave of contentious ideology has found favor among many educators who seek to introduce it under the guise of established fact or well-established opinion. In some cases, this ideology is presented as part of American history, and in other cases, as part of civics instruction. The states that have enacted or are considering laws that RE-RAH objects to are attempting to hold the line against this diversion of American education from its proper purposes.

NAS supports these state initiatives as attempts to restore real civics education, based on the dates and documents of America’s founding. As important, they aim to remove these destructive ideologies from the classroom, now more prevalent than ever. Such ideologies reduce individuals to their skin color. They directly repudiate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of America expressed in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, where he longed for the day that his children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. These ideologies seek to return America to the moral regime of Jim Crow.

It is disingenuous of the RE-RAH signatories to assert that “The clear goal of these efforts [the state legislation] is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States.” No one opposes “learning about the role of racism.” Instead, what we critics of the new educational programs promoted by the academic left object to is a dogma that mischaracterizes the extent, origin, and influence of racism and its role in the past, in our founding, in our laws and our Constitution, and in society at present.

The essence of this dogma is that white racism is pervasive and accounts for all disparities and all problems faced by members of minority groups. Like all dogmas, this one aspires to exclusivity. It is not presented as one idea among many, but as the sole idea that enlightened and morally upright people should recognize as valid. To that end, it is the only one advanced and allowed, and dissenting voices are deliberately excluded. It comes with what has rightly been called a form of neo-racism, in which “whites” and “whiteness” are denigrated. This includes a radical de-valuing of our Founders and their culture. It also entails the suppression of ideas that run counter to neo-racism. For example, many argue that disparities and difficulties are often the result of cultural differences, behavioral choices, and bad ideas, and are not the inevitable outgrowth of our history of slavery or discrimination. But these arguments are deemed heretical.

RE-RAH, however, does make a number of sound points, albeit they are truisms. NAS agrees that “the ideal of an informed citizen necessitates an educated public,” and that “educators must provide an accurate view of the past,” and “help students address facts in an honest and open environment, capable of nourishing intellectual exploration.” NAS also agrees that students deserve “a clear-eyed, nuanced and frank delivery of history so that they can learn.”

NAS rejects, however, the Statement’s imposition on students of what they should do with their education, specifically “for community participation,” “robust civic engagement,” or “to foster solutions to social division and injustice.” These three nostrums incarnate the “vague and indefinite buzzwords and phrases” that the Statement itself criticizes. They are also codes for the divisive progressive political activism that policymakers in twenty states have rightly sought to bar. Only progressive activists presume a priori that “social division and injustice” exist, or that it is the role of schools to “foster solutions” to this confected problem. The forms of education promoted in the name of overcoming “social division,” are often themselves ways of creating social division where there was none or reinforcing social division where it is vestigial and rapidly fading.

RE-RAH objects to the “inappropriate attempt to transfer responsibility for the evaluation of a curriculum and subject matter from educator to elected officials.” To the contrary, state legislatures appropriately pass laws all the time that bear on what and how schools should teach. They do so in part because education is a public trust, and not the private preserve of designated “educators.” Our nation has seen enough of what happens from blind reliance on the “experts” who present their experience as superior to common sense and the insights of others who are outside the groupthink that now dominates in a closed circle of self-ratifying opinions.

How students use their education is as varied as the students themselves and will depend on their individual talents and vocations. Real teachers focus on the intellectual growth of students, not on their political or social engagement. The character they should seek to foster in their students is that of disengaged love of learning married to affection for their country and their fellow Americans. At the very least, properly educated students will know how to question and effectively criticize teachers who thrust shallow buzzwords such as “robust civic engagement” upon them and pretend that it is education.

RE-RAH conveniently overlooks that these state legislative efforts are defensive in nature. They are belated and limited responses to the longstanding, ferocious, and anti-intellectual attacks on America and its ideals. These attacks have long been germinating in Colleges of Education and now are openly proclaimed in schools and universities throughout the country as doctrines that are not only unquestionable but must also be affirmed, often by coercion. These pseudo-pedagogies go by various names and euphemisms and have different points of emphasis: “Critical Race Theory,” “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” “action civics,” “civic engagement,” “performative learning,” “systemic racism,” “anti-racism,” “white privilege,” and “white fragility.”

All these pedagogies substitute indoctrination for education. All these pedagogies also share a fundamental hostility to America. They inevitably denigrate the United States and its founders as the foundation of racial bigotry and “oppression.” The Biden Administration’s “Proposed Priorities” for civics education exemplifies this pernicious mindset and the federal version of this pseudo-educational approach. The “Proposed Priorities” claimed that America “faces …. crises … such as the unbearable costs of systemic racism” and cited both Ibram X. Kendi and the debunked “1619 Project” as authorities. Kendi explicitly advocates discrimination based on race, both now and for the indefinite future. The 1619 Project, which purported to provide a new history of the United States, has been revealed as factually inaccurate and biased journalism, designed to foment racial discord in the present rather than to educate students about the past.

We cannot tell whether the signatories of RE-RAH are deliberately obscuring the true history of America, or whether they are themselves ignorant of it. Among the 75-some signatories, no doubt there are a range of motives from full-scale belief in the validity of the ideology that has seized much of the American educational establishment, to cold calculation of an organization’s political interests.

Whatever the motives of the signatories, we respond to their “joint statement” that America is an exceptional and wonderful nation, not least because it was founded in 1776 upon ideals of liberty rather than on group identity. The instinct of Americans is to live up to those ideals by easy camaraderie with their fellow citizens. The inability of these signatories to convey America’s past or present accurately, whether from ignorance or malice, more than justifies the unwillingness of American citizens and policymakers to defer any longer to “the considered judgment of professional educators.”

Nor have these “professional educators” proved capable of the basic ability to impart knowledge to students. Americans today lack basic knowledge about their own history and government and know even less about world affairs. Most cannot name the three branches of government, cannot identify foundational documents such as the Declaration of Independence, and cannot date the Revolutionary war, much less the Civil War. Some of the signatories to RE-RAH are largely responsible for this abysmal state of affairs. “Professional educators” have as little warrant to claim expertise in pedagogy as they do in the content of American history and civics. As a rule of thumb, American citizens and policymakers should prefer their own judgment to the “considered judgment of professional educators,” which has served consistently over the last generations to foster a stupidity that regards itself as intelligent and a hatred of America and Americans that regards itself as loving and tolerant.

The signatories of RE-RAH claim that they believe that history should not “hew to some state-ordered ideology.” The advocates of Critical Race Theory, action civics, and their kindred ideologies have long sought to impose their false, illiberal catechism on the nation’s schools. The Biden Administration has already begun the capstone effort to bring the weight of the federal government to bear in this campaign. The twenty states that have begun work to strengthen American civics and history education and ban “divisive concepts” based on race and sex stereotypes are preventing the imposition of “state-ordered ideology” on American schools. Only if this work succeeds can Americans preserve “A free and open society [that] depends on the unrestricted pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.

The National Association of Scholars proudly supports the American citizens and policymakers who seek to preserve a system of education that sustains Americans’ knowledge that their country is, as it always has been, the last, best hope of earth. These citizens are the true heirs of the Founders who, to defend their liberty, pledged to one another their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. We wish them all success in their campaign to strengthen American civics and history education and ban “divisive concepts” based on race and sex stereotypes.


Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

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