WSJ: Teach ‘1619’ and ‘1776’ U.S. History
The answer to ideological education isn’t to ban the ideology but to make room for alternative views.
David L Bernstein
Jewish Institute for Liberal Values
Conventional wisdom has it that there are only two sides in the culture war over kids’ instruction on race and racism in America. Those on the right want to impose state-level bans on teaching critical race theory in public schools. Some also want to remove particular books from libraries and curriculums. On the left, people want to teach about America’s history of racism and contemporary systemic racism but from only one perspective, with little if any room for debate. They deny CRT is being taught. I don’t believe these are really the only options. Schools can and should teach about race and racism while upholding this nation’s liberal values of free inquiry.
I know firsthand that American public schools are suffering from highly ideological instruction. I recently received an email from Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, where I have two children enrolled in 11th grade, updating parents on an “Antiracist Audit” the school system is undertaking. The report describes a new proposed social-studies curriculum, which “strengthens students’ sense of racial, ethnic, and tribal identities, helps students understand and resist systems of oppression, and empowers students to see themselves as change agents.”
I don’t know if this technically constitutes CRT, and I don’t care. What I do know is that this sort of teaching is highly prescriptive. It doesn’t sound open in the least to alternative interpretation or debate. It doesn’t invite inquiry or encourage critical thinking. It imparts opinion—that the American system currently oppresses specific people in specific ways—as fact. While there is certainly racism in America, how much of it, where it exists and doesn’t exist, and what it explains and doesn’t explain about the lives of black Americans and other people of color aren’t settled questions and should be open to discussion and debate.
I wish I could say I was shocked by the audit report’s announcement. But the sort of opinion-laden pedagogy it proposed adding to the social-studies curriculum is already a big part of my kids’ education. My 16-year-old son has complained bitterly about the discussion of racism at his high school. It’s not that he doesn’t want to discuss race or racism—he does—but that he doesn’t want to be told precisely what to think about every social issue. So saturated has the discussion become about race in school, he told me, that his physics class devoted time to it.
In my son’s weekly current-events class, which discusses contemporary social issues, something he normally loves to do, every single issue—from sexuality to crime to immigration—is discussed through “a racial equity lens,” with no room for alternative interpretations.
At least in college he should get some reprieve. He’s ruled out going to a small liberal-arts school, so he won’t be stuck in a hermetically sealed ideological bubble forever.
My son’s experience is far from unique. There is a reason significant numbers of Virginians who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 went on in 2021 to vote in a Republican governor who pledged to push back on CRT instruction. They saw the assignments their children brought home and overheard the Zoom classroom discussions and were rightly horrified.
Unfortunately, the new governor, in response to these encroachments on American liberal values, signed an executive order aimed at ending the use of “divisive concepts” in Virginia schools. While some of the examples the order uses to define these concepts are truly violative of existing civil-rights law, it is not always so narrowly tailored. It also seeks to stop curriculum or other education-related policy from including the idea that “members of one race, ethnicity, sex or faith cannot and should not attempt to treat others as individuals without respect to race, sex or faith.”
That example is so vaguely worded that it could conceivably be interpreted as a prohibition against teaching various sides of the affirmative-action debate or even about Supreme Court decisions on racial preferences, which would normally be part of a social-studies curriculum. It could certainly make teachers more reluctant to hold discussions on such matters. The executive order’s ban is also “not limited” to the specific examples it raises and could theoretically deter other important classroom conversations.
I want my high-school-age children to learn about the history of this country, including the “1619” version. I want them to understand America’s legacy of race and racism, chattel slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and red lining. I want them to know that there is still racism in this nation today and about the troubling disparities in various institutions, especially the criminal-justice system.
But students like my son should also be exposed to more than one opinion on why there are still racial disparities in America. There’s no shortage of rigorous scholarship on the matter. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has written several books about the complex role of both systemic and cultural factors in inner-city communities. Columbia linguist John McWhorter, while acknowledging the continuing role of systemic racism, similarly sees other variables at work, including family structure. Brown University economist Glenn Loury has questioned many of the left’s pieties on systemic oppression.
Teaching multiple perspectives and the “1619” and “1776” versions of American history would be the best way to encourage open inquiry. Students could read Ibram X. Kendi’s bestseller “How to Be an Antiracist” alongside one of the many articles or books by writers like Messrs. Loury, McWhorter and Patterson. Kids would hear theories about “systems of oppression,” but they would also hear about the role that class and cultural differences play in disparity. In short, they would receive multiple narratives and explanations about why America is the way it is today and decide for themselves what to think and do about it.
I want my kids to get a good education. That means exposing them to ideas that some on the right want banned and other ideas that some on the left actively demonize. That’s a true American education.
Mr. Bernstein is founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values.
This column was published in the April 11, 2022 edition of the WSJ. It is republished here by permission.