Many in Utah are deeply concerned about what is being taught in the classroom today – Critical Race Theory has become a priority focus. These justified concerns are driving calls for immediate legislative action this week in the form of a CRT ban.
Sutherland Institute recognizes the lasting impact of lessons taught – particularly in the most formative years – and shares the concern.
Response is appropriate – however – the way we respond will teach a lesson of its own.
Taking the time to make sure we are acting wisely is critical to good public policy. Among the needed steps we should take are these: Carefully consider what the desired outcomes are for our students; and develop a response based on principle, context, and long-term solutions.
But first – what is Critical Race Theory (CRT), and where did it come from?
In simplest terms, CRT is “an intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is used to oppress and exploit people of color.” Of concern, history – and many scholars – suggest it is an offshoot of Marxism and dismissive of objective truth.
These characteristics alone should prompt questions and deeper study. We should be very thoughtful as to if, how, and when such ideas are presented to students, especially on the younger end of the K-12 range.
But before action is taken against any idea, we must remember that America is a diverse nation. It always has been – and will be increasingly so in the future. Our form of government was built on the study and comparison of ideas – drawing upon those that expand freedom and abandoning those that limit freedom.
Americans view pluralism – especially of viewpoint – as one of our strengths, and the protection of pluralism as one of our virtues. We have never been a nation comfortable with the suppression of ideas. We defend freedom of thought, speech, and belief.
But what if the idea is bad – even dangerous?
One of the brilliant features of the American experiment is that ideas compete: Bad ideas fail, and sound ideas are proven over time.
If American freedom is to continue benefiting from this principle, then we must remain confident in it and consider some important questions before taking immediate legislative action.
First – given that it has been around for decades – why is CRT currently front and center in public education?
We might ascribe its ascent to a left-leaning agenda or to the current climate of race relations and be well within the sphere of strong possibility.
We may consider the sources of influence outside the state – a situation that rarely leads to acceptable Utah solutions.
The point here is that CRT is not new.
Second, we must weigh this theory and its momentum in proper context. Though Marxist-based theories have retained their adherents, it has in practical terms been repeatedly dismissed throughout modern history because the ideas do not stand.
This is an important lesson that should be taught.
Thus, maintaining the freedom to study, compare and criticize an idea that has flaws is to preserve and live out the miracle of the American marketplace of ideas.
However, if we seek to simply ban an idea – or words or phrases – from mention in the education process, we are setting a precarious precedent regarding freedom of thought and speech. After all, if circumstances or majority or public opinion succeed at banning any idea – which ideas may be next?
Now, let’s return to the “if” (does the theory belong in a defined curriculum?), “how” (is it presented as truth or theory – education vs. propaganda?) and “when” (what is the appropriate age and level of knowledge to enable critical thinking? presented earlier.
We need to pause and think carefully about how to appropriately address an issue that touches upon freedom of thought in public schools. A sound approach will protect the good ideas and, yes, the bad ones as well – but it will value context, open debate, and critical thinking.
Sound policy solutions call for a disciplined, longer-term approach that does not trade one problem for another or one division for another, but instead promises to resolve such issues at the local level.
It is a call for a STEM-level recommitment to a sequenced, age-appropriate study of civics, history, and government in our public education system. It is a confidence that with a grounding in fact and historical context, by the time students reach high school they will be equipped with the knowledge and critical thinking skills that will enable them to assess and judge this viewpoint – and every other theory and version of history that will certainly come their way.
This is a path that will create the citizens and leaders of the future – leaders who can solve and unite, rather than further divide.
CRT is thought, an idea, a theory – that should and will stand or fall on its own merits. Lacking context – or if presented as fact or implemented in classrooms as a tool of intimidation and coercion – CRT is a polarizing, divisive and dangerous concept.
Responding to the zeitgeist of the moment requires thought, time, and an examination of long-term priorities. But the reward for such a disciplined approach will be a future of educated Americans and the preservation of our cherished freedoms. Rick Larsen is President & CEO of Sutherland Institute