As I begin my 28th year in public education, and my colleagues and I return to work, we see the perennial onslaught of bad legislation and suffer the slings and arrows targeting teachers and schools. This year is a banner year for such efforts, the most insidious of which is House Bill 324 hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles, threatening to drop at any moment to sever academic discourse and freeze learning in place.
HB 324, which would outlaw the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in North Carolina public schools, is the latest red herring of a GOP legislature, buttressed by our lieutenant governor’s anti-educator rhetoric and seemingly obsessed with conspiracies of classroom indoctrination. It’s become their white whale, their windmill, their Trojan horse; but the bill is a solution without a problem, based on an entirely fabricated crisis.
In the subsequent clamor, certain parents are up in arms, some of whom ranted and jeered at the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education meeting on Aug. 24, operating under the ridiculous assumption that their children are somehow being taught to hate white people, hate America and hate themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth.
CRT is frankly a legitimate, but somewhat obscure, legal and literary analytical lens alongside myriad others (Marxist, Jungian, Keynesian, Freudian, Darwinian) utilized by institutions of higher learning. I can guarantee with reasonable certainty that 99% of those who are currently railing against it could not define CRT without having first typed it into Google, because they had never heard of it prior to this summer. As such, in almost three decades as an educator, I have not and do not “teach” critical race theory, and I know of no Tarheel teacher who does. It’s not part of the curriculum, old or new, formal or informal.
I do, however, teach “critical thinking” theory, which I hope every parent would wish for their children. I ask my students to examine history from multiple angles and through multiple lenses: political lenses, social lenses, economic lenses, religious lenses, and yes, racial lenses. In the examination of patterns in history, it’s imperative to hold it up to the most reflective mirror and shine on it the brightest light, revealing both its beauty and its blemishes.
Some of those blemishes are rather ugly, the ugliest of which are rarely even revealed. I strive to avoid the convenient national memory lapses my own education encountered. Whereas I never learned about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, or the Wilmington riot, or Henrietta Lacks, or the Tulsa Massacre, I want to make certain my students do. An increasing number of my pupils are students of color, and they deserve to hear their stories and see their faces in history’s telling.
With so much to teach and so little time, it’s often the Black and brown faces that are cropped from the portrait, and whether explicitly or implicitly, textbooks “whitewash” the past. Omission is the real indoctrination. The passage of this bill threatens to do the same.
Some critics admonish teachers to “stick to the facts.” However, despite our wishing it, history is, in fact, not fact! It is almost entirely interpretation, colored and discolored by time, memory, culture, perspective, beliefs, language and biases; therefore, arriving at a “truth” is inherently subjective, but its pursuit inherently rewarding. Our job is to develop the set of skills necessary for an honest historical examination. I can imagine teachers asking hard analytical questions or offering a glance through different colored eyes or eyes set in differently hued faces will be the first burned at the stake if this dangerous legislation passes.
Others claim that critiquing American history is unpatriotic and cultivates anarchy. Why are we too fragile to look at ourselves in the mirror? Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living” but Malcolm X later replied that “the examined life is painful.” And that’s how we grow.
Insisting on a flag-waving version of history ritually requires putting new magical glass slippers on our princess before she turns into a pumpkin — and she inevitably will. I believe that the U.S. was founded on fervent disagreement as well as a confrontation with its past, and to encourage divergent thought is innately patriotic.
Thankfully the youngest generation is more and more interested in knowing the truth about their past, and no political obsessions or attempts to draw the curtains of censorship to obscure the view will stop them. The genie is out of the bottle.