The Right's Ugly War On Woke Schooling
There is a better way to defeat left indoctrination than banning books.
One of the more familiar experiences on Twitter is being called a grifter, a person who issues takes entirely geared toward more clicks, readers, dollars or followers. It’s an exhausted slur, but, to be honest, there are weeks when I kind of wish I were one. No conflicts. No agonizing. No need to reconcile your priors with reality.
This week is one of them. I’ve spent a lot of time these past few years concerned with left illiberalism, especially the replacement of liberalism with critical theory as the guiding principle of our republic. But at the same time, of course, right illiberalism has gone into overdrive, in a polarizing vortex. Being a conservative liberal, or a liberal conservative, is becoming close to impossible. And this week, as I pored over a mass of bills to ban the praxis, pedagogy and content of critical theory in public high schools, I felt as if I were being tossed between the blue devil to my left and the deep red sea to my right.
One core point: the illiberalism is real on both sides. Not always in equal measure, now or in the past, but definitely on both, feeding off each other. And in public education, once again a battleground in the culture war, it seems quite obvious to me that the left bears the burden of responsibility for the conflict.
Critical theory’s long march through the institutions reached its peak some time ago in higher education — and has gone on to capture media, corporate America, medicine, the federal government, tech, science, and every cultural institution. Over $14 billion have been spent on philanthropic “equity” initiatives since the summer of 2020 alone. Of course children’s education would be affected. What hasn’t been? And of course critical theorists aim directly at children. The woke, like the Jesuits, understand the value of instilling certain concepts at a very young age. How else to transform the world?
That’s why Ibram Kendi has bequeathed the world not just one but two books on how to rear “antiracist babies.” The publisher says the new one, Goodnight Racism, “gives children the language to dream of a better world and is the perfect book to add to their social justice toolkit.” My italics. Another recent book, Woke Baby, instructs toddlers to be “a good revolutionary,” and another one explains how “activism begins in the cradle.”
You truly think that in school districts where teachers are saturated in equity training, whose unions invite Kendi to be their keynote speaker, that this is all being made up? Just peruse through all the “equity” conferences, courses, syllabi, lesson plans and curricula that now dominate public ed. Many parents found out only because they overheard what their kids were being taught online during the pandemic. Or you can just surf the web as the woke dismantle schools for the gifted, abolish SATs, describe merit as racist, and lay waste to excellent schools merely because too many Asian-American kids are succeeding in them.
What we’re seeing now is the reaction to this left-wing power grab. And — guess what? — it’s a right-wing power grab. If the left has stealthily changed public education from above, the right has now used the only power they have to fight back — political clout in state legislatures. 122 separate bills have been introduced since January 2021, 71 in the last three weeks alone. They all regulate speech by teachers in public schools, but many are now also reaching into higher education — a much more fraught area — and outright book banning. The bills are rushed; some appear well-intentioned; others are nuts; many are very vague, inviting lawsuits to clarify what they can mean in practice. In most cases, if passed, they will surely chill debate of race and sex and history — and increasingly of gender, sex and homosexuality — in high schools. And that’s a bad thing for liberal education.
The best summary has been compiled by Jeffrey Sachs for PEN America: check out this spreadsheet of legislation across 33 states, and Sachs’ latest piece on the matter. (I think Sachs has downplayed wokeness, but his work here is solid and impressive.) I urge caution when you read mainstream media coverage because it is so often wrong. Jesse Singal exposes some of the bad MSM coverage here — most notably at Slate, Esquire, The Hill, and, of course, Scientific American. The bulk of the laws seems to oppose enforced indoctrination of children, rather than banning teaching about difficult topics, but, to be honest, it’s a hot mess.
One important point, often elided in the press: This is not about free speech as such. Regulating curricula and teaching methods in public schools is unavoidable. No one argues that K-12 teachers can teach anything: the content is always subject to political consensus and democratic input. And it could be argued that the overhauled curricula and teaching methods in recent years were imposed without democratic input, and that this is a healthy, democratic correction.
And in some ways, it is. It’s a good thing that parents are more engaged with their kids’ education, running for school boards, examining curricula, exposing extremist teachers and administrators. And I absolutely get where the parents are coming from. What else are they supposed to do, confronted with a woke educational establishment that lies to them, and brooks no compromise?
The trouble is that banning courses restricts discourse, and does not expand it. It gives woke racialist theories the sheen of “forbidden knowledge.” It removes the moral high-ground from those seeking to defend liberal learning from ideologues of any variety. And it sets an early lesson for kids that the right response to bad arguments is to get authorities to suppress them — exactly what the woke believe — and not to marshal arguments that refute them. Greg Lukianoff calls this “unlearning liberty.”
And these kinds of laws have to be vague and thereby overreach, or be very specific and permit clever ways to get around them. The woke love manipulating language to deconstruct society. Look how they took the word “racist” and redefined it. Look at how they’ve deployed a word like “equity.” Ban words? They redefine them. Ban courses? They’ll call them something else. If a social justice warrior teacher is teaching genetics, they can always stealthily introduce trans ideology — and only the kids would know.
A better way is to insist that any course or lesson that involves critical theory must include an alternative counterpoint. If you have to teach Nikole Hannah-Jones, add a section on Zora Neale Hurston; for every Kendi tract, add McWhorter; for every Michael Eric Dyson screed, offer a Glenn Loury lecture. Same elsewhere. No gender studies course without a course on biological sex and gender-critical viewpoints. No “queer theory” class without texts from non-leftists, who are not falsifying history or asserting that homosexuality is socially constructed all the way down. This strategy doesn’t ban anything; it adds something. It demands that schools make sure they’re helping kids think for themselves.
If your kid, black or white, is treated differently by a school or a teacher in class because of his or her race, there is already a remedy: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If your child is forced to sit in a section designated for one oppressive or oppressed race, sue. If your son is told he is inherently toxic because he is a boy, or straight, sue. If an Asian or white kid is told she bears responsibility for the long effects of slavery because of her race, sue. This way, we are not banning anything, and we are defending civil rights.
Then we need transparency. Public schools should have their curricula and lesson plans posted online. And no state public school funds should be spent on the equity industrial complex: defund equity consultants, DEI conferences and struggle sessions for either teachers or students. If teachers want to bone up on Judith Butler or Robin DiAngelo, they can do it on their own dime. If this sounds harsh, so be it. Critical theory should be treated more like creationism in public schools than scholarship: an unfalsifiable form of religion, preferably banned outright, but if not, always accompanied by Darwin.
When I wrote back in early 2016 that Trump’s election would be an extinction-level event for liberal democracy, this is what I meant: the illiberal left and illiberal right constantly upping the ante in a cold civil war of raw strength and power, culminating in various varieties of performative or real violence, and constitutional crises. The war is particularly acute when the elites have replaced liberalism with the successor ideology, and the populist right wants to go full post-liberal as well, with all the ugly and authoritarian excesses that will entail. The temptation to pick a side is overwhelming, hence the agony and conflict I feel. Between Sohrab Ahmari and Ibram Kendi is a pretty miserable place to be.
But if we are ever to get to the other side of this horror show, some of us are going to have to stick to our liberal principles. Because if they are completely snuffed out, there will be no light for us to find our way back to the kind of democracy we are now busy destroying.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my case that the conservative party in the UK is better on diversity than the liberal party in the US; my conservation with John Mearsheimer on how we should deal with Russia and China from a realist perspective; dissents from readers defending President Biden and the Dems in their first year; some tough love from James Carville on the Dems’ election strategy; five notable quotes for the week; 18 new articles and posts we recommend on Substack; a Mental Health Break of cleverly stitched-together cartoons; window views of high-rises in Buenos Aires and Memphis; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge and funny-looking trees. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a re-subscriber:
Ok. You brought me back in with your latest Dish. I had subscribed at the beginning of your startup, but I stopped last year when I tried to pare down my subscriptions. I’ve still been reading your non-subscription content. But after today, I decided I really need to stop mooching and pay for what I read.
Very grateful for your support. From a regular fan of the View From Your Window Contest that we do every week for subscribers:
I’ve just read the latest VFYW with my morning coffee, and wow. So many emotions: (1) “Are you serious? It was as easy as typing in ‘mountains rusty tanks’? Omg it really was that easy! Wtf!” (2) “What is this place? I’ve literally never heard of it.” (3) “Shackleton was such a badass.” (4) “Okay but this place looks miserable.” (5) “Wait never mind, some of those photos of the hike and the penguins look awesome! Now I kinda want to go.”
So this contest was particularly fun to read, thanks!
Diversity Without “Equity” Is Possible
British politics is in a bit of a haze right now, with Boris Johnson adrift in “Partygate” — at the very time he was imposing a brutal lockdown on all socializing in Britain, it appears he was partying like it was 2019 in Downing Street. Who knows how the wind will blow in the next week or so. But it strikes me as interesting that the two candidates in the Conservative Party leadership most tipped to succeed him if he falls are nonwhite and female, respectively.
(To read the rest of the 700-word piece, click here)
New On The Dishcast: John Mearsheimer
The question of how to deal with a resurgent Russia and a new super-power in China is now an urgent one to think through. At the Dishcast, we’re going to air various views over the coming months. But I couldn’t think of a better person to kick off this debate than John Mearsheimer, a titan in the field of international relations, and the most eloquent defender of realism in foreign policy I know. We talked yesterday about Putin, Xi, the errors of the post-Cold War triumphalists, and what the hell we should do now. I was riveted. John is never boring, and always clear.
For those of you new to him: Prof. Mearsheimer has taught political science at the University of Chicago since 1982, and before that he served five years in the Air Force as a West Point grad. His latest book is The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities.
For two clips of our conversation — on what the US should do about Putin’s pressure over Ukraine, and how the US accidentally created its greatest rival, China — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also delivers some smart tough dissents from readers defending Biden and the Democrats, along with an assortment of other commentary on CRT and our recent episodes with Chris Rufo and Roosevelt Montás. Here’s a taste of the latter:
From a reader who really enjoyed the episode:
Thank you for your conversation with Roosevelt Montás. As someone who is not only a trained Classicist, but also (presently) a Germanist pursuing a PhD, the Humanities are not only dear to my heart, but also my future. I won’t speak too much about my experience except to say that I have had positive engagement with many students on topics such as the ones Prof. Montás touched on
I, for one, do not mind reading postmodern thinkers. I genuinely admire the works of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, even as I find reasons to critique them. The problem, however, is that there’s a considerable number of people, including faculty, who seem to have rather ironically taken the words of these thinkers as Gospel. They have come to believe that the pursuit of knowledge itself is to be mistrusted as a bourgeois sentiment, and that all knowledge ought to be applied to the furtherance of a political and/or moral imperative. It is odd to hear the same people who critiques capitalism for its instrumentalization of knowledge in the building of careers insist the life of the mind is nothing more than a privileged undertaking.
I understand the value of knowledge and its pursuit need not be confined to an ivory tower (I simply love and adore Dr. Cornel West who is, indeed, very active), but I cannot stand the way in which many activist scholars crowd out anyone not actively engaged in some grand moral battle. In my view, they fail to understand the true value of these books. In any case, I thank you and Prof. Montás for your highly engaging discussion.
For another amazing guest on this topic, don’t miss Cornel West. Here we are discussing critical race theory:
Dissents Of The Week: The Obstructionist GOP
A reader writes:
The simple reason that Democrats did not split Build Back Better into smaller, more sale-able increments — as you sensibly urged — is that each increment would have perished at the feet of McConnell’s implacable filibuster. Dems needed to sweep everything into a reconciliation package that was not subject to the filibuster.
To read my response to that dissent, along with three others, click here. If you have a dissent over this week’s Dish, or another kind of commentary, please email it here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of our newsletter spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as Ukraine, cryptocurrency, and the sad state of the ACLU. A few other examples:
A conservative comedy show is finally crushing the others.
You can also browse all the substacks that Chris Bodenner and I follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.