The 2021 concern over critical race theory (CRT) wasn’t the first time Americans fought their cultural wars in the classroom, and it certainly wasn’t the first time greater conflicts concerning racism were enacted in the classroom. The CRT scare was in reaction to two upheavals: the murder of George Floyd had started another national conversation about racism, and parents were already frustrated with the school system because of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this session of the 2022 Aspen Ideas Festival, a panel of parents and educators discuss the most recent incarnation of culture wars in the classroom.
- In the fall of 2021, critical race theory (CRT) became the newest hot topic in the US culture wars.
- Modern culture wars stir up contention through stereotypes, caricatures and oversimplifications repeated in online echo chambers.
- Classroom culture wars function as a way to mobilize parents to fight for political causes.
- Schools teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but perhaps the focus should be reading, writing, arithmetic and pluralism.
In the fall of 2021, critical race theory (CRT) became the newest hot topic in the US culture wars.
Google trends show that before 2020, the number of searches for “critical race theory” was negligible. The numbers show a slight rise in interest in the summer of 2020, and then an explosion in the fall of 2021, when CRT became the new hot topic of the culture wars in the United States. Eventually, searches for the term reached 14 million in April 2021. Some media outlets were putting forward an idea that some parents found concerning: CRT – which no one had heard of before, hence the Google searches – was apparently a pervasive and unrelenting component of the US public education system, and all children from age 8-18, in every school in the United States, were being indoctrinated by CRT. But what exactly was CRT?
“It was a right-wing media-generated drive for outrage, to mobilize parents and families around the idea that this concept called ‘critical race theory’ was being taught to everyone from your second-grader to your 12th grader and beyond.”
According to panelist and former lawyer, David French, conservative activist Chris Rufo roughly defined CRT as “basically anything you hear about race you don’t like.” Scattered reports of CRT-style teaching emerged around the country. Some reports were deeply troubling to people on both sides of the political spectrum, but the reports were sporadic and anecdotal, which suggests that they weren’t indicative of a far-reaching conspiracy to teach CRT to all schoolchildren. One report might show a troubling PowerPoint slide from a corporation populated by adult employees; another might pop up about something said in a school 500 miles away. Regardless of the source, anti-CRT activists suggested that these troubling incidents were indicative of CRT instruction, and held them up as proof that CRT was ubiquitous in schools throughout the United States.
Anti-CRT bills popped up around the nation. In Tennessee, a group called Moms for Liberty searched for evidence of CRT, and began fighting to ban a book called Ruby Bridges Goes to School, because they felt that the book made white people look bad. Unfortunately for them, a Supreme Court case in 1982 called Island Trees School District v. Pico protected books from being removed from the library. In the past, Common Core teaching, the No Child Left Behind Act, LGBTQIA+, and other gender and sexual identity issues have sparked similar controversy and outrage in parents. The CRT controversy came at a time when parents were already primed for outrage by how the school system handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
Modern culture wars stir up contention through stereotypes, caricatures and oversimplifications repeated in online echo chambers.
Parents develop extreme views the same way any modern person does: They spend time in homogenous social media echo chambers, where people with the same opinions whip each other into a frenzy, and then those extreme views spill over into real life. In recent cases, this debate is framed as either 100% for parents’ rights, or 100% for the total authority of the professional school administration, or as parents versus teachers.
“One of the problems with Google is it can only return results that it has. So there’s this area where if right-wing media, or any incentivized group, really chooses to produce the content that fills in the void, that’s what people see, and then that in turn is what they share.” (panelist and internet researcher, Renee DiResta)
Conservative activists and politicians have successfully positioned themselves as the arbiters of “what parents want,” but the truth is that parents’ rights aren’t a right-wing construct. Parents reside at every point on the political spectrum, and some parents are also teachers, so the “parents versus school professionals” narrative is simplistic and misleading.
Classroom cultural wars function as a way to mobilize parents to fight for political causes.
The concept of CRT was a convenient way to galvanize parents already angry about the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and to shift them away from a deeper conversation about race in the United States. This isn’t the first time concerns about children and the school system have been employed as a foil to distract Americans from a deeper issue. A brief look at modern Christian schools will reveal that many were founded in or around 1956. Why? Because an earlier conversation about race in the United States had turned into a battle over classrooms in the 1950s, and founding private schools sidestepped integration after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education.
In times of national reckoning, people have avoided confronting deeper societal issues by turning their attention to how things will be addressed in schools. As novelist Tony Morrison suggested, the function of racism is distraction. Likewise, people often use their worries over children to obscure their personal discomfort with difficult societal issues.
“Most transformative educational experiences have been through teachers who went above and beyond what was in the textbook.” (panelist and educator, Esau McCaulley)
The current movement to hyper-police these overworked, underpaid teachers who choose to go the extra mile will also end up crippling the students who might otherwise become inspired to go off and change the world for the better.
Schools teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but perhaps the focus should be reading, writing, arithmetic and pluralism.
The topics covered in schools are supposedly limited to reading, writing and arithmetic, but, in reality, schools also teach kids how to function in society. At different points in US history, it’s been “reading, writing, arithmetic and Protestantism,” or reading, writing and politics, ideology, nationalism, and so on. The subjects taught in US schools have never been straightforward.
“There’s always been an “and” behind reading, writing, arithmetic.” (former attorney, David French)
Generally, when parents fight over what’s taught in school, it’s because they want teaching that replicates their own beliefs, so it’s “reading, writing and more of me.” But America is a pluralistic society, so according to panelist, editor and former lawyer David French, the most vital course of study would be one designed “to prepare citizens for participation in our pluralistic, often contentious society. And when you think about reading, writing and pluralism, that’s a very different construct than reading, writing and reproducing me.”
About the Speaker
This session of the 2022 Aspen Ideas Festival includes host Jane Coaston, of The Argument podcast, and panelists Renee DiResta, the technical research manager of the Stanford Internet Observatory and mother of three; David French, senior editor of The Dispatch, former attorney arguing religious liberty cases in schools and father of three; and Esau McCaulley, professor of religion at Wheaton College, contributing writer for The New York Times and father of four.